Shuffle: A life out of order

10-Oct-12 4:05 PM by
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What do you get when you cross Quantum Leap, The Time Traveler's Wife, and "All Good Things…"?

The answer is Shuffle, a 2011 film from writer and director Kurt Kuenne, creator of the Showbits Summer Shorts pieces Rent-a-Person and Validation. Kuenne reunites with Validation star T.J. Thyne for Shuffle, a mystery about a man living his life out of order for a reason he has to decipher — before it's too late. Here's the trailer for the film that production studio Theatre Junkies describes as "Twilight Zone meets Frank Capra":

Kuenne's previous shorts were so sincere and touching that I'm eager to see how he manifests the human condition in Shuffle. The film was released this past August to home video, streaming via Netflix, and rental from iTunes and other services.

Surprises Found in Hot Tub Time Machine

15-Jul-10 2:00 PM by
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I don't go to the movies very often these days, and I certainly wasn't going to make an exception for something called Hot Tub Time Machine. Science-fiction fan that I am, I thought this film looked more like the generic "aging hipsters acting like college brats" film that you'd more often find starring Will Ferrell. Imagine my surprise when the film actually got good reviews — including from Roger Ebert, who suggested it succeeds beyond any expectations suggested by the title. With its recent release on DVD, I decided to give it a shot.

After some introductions, the film sends four friends back to a ski valley they last visited as high school seniors. The nostalgic quartet is composed of John Cusack as down-on-his-luck (is there any other kind of John Cusack?) Adam, Craig Robinson (The Office's Darryl Philbin) as discouraged and whipped Nick Webber, Rob Corddry as alcoholic, sexaholic Lou, and Clark Duke as the sheltered Jacob. The four are an eclectic mix with different responses to and advice for every situation, ensuring each encounter they have is a lively one.

There is some genuine camaraderie among the four, as this film is more than a sexual romp (though it's certainly that as well). Each time traveller suffers from regret not only how things turned out twenty years ago, but also the pattern of life choices that have led them to be miserable in the present. Rather than have company for their misery, the former best friends have drifted apart, losing the support and dreams they had for themselves and each other as kids. Returned to 1986, they hope they can recapture that passion and bring it back with them, at the same time that they are forced to face the beginning of their downfall.

The option of avoidance is withdrawn by Chevy Chase, who plays a mysterious repairman who encourages the travellers to not change the timeline. Unlike Don Knotts in Pleasantville, Chase's purpose and motivations are unknown. The four men nonetheless vacillate between sticking to history and avoiding unpleasant situations, even though there is no motivation to listen to Chase or consequence for not doing so. The struggle between doing what they want versus what they're "supposed" to do gives the film some tension, even if it is superficial.

HTTM's temporal mechanics are also paper-thin, with an ending that wouldn't hold up to any fan versed in science fiction. Yet the film does not exist in a vacuum, with several devices that work quite well. For example, the paradox of the four running into their younger selves is eliminated when they discover that they have effectively "quantum leaped" into their 18-year-old bodies, appearing as adults to each other (and the audience) but as kids to the residents of 1986. At times the film reminded me of nothing of much as Back to the Future — a parallel made intentional through several references, not the least of which is a recurring character played by Crispin Glover, aka George McFly. Plus, any movie with an Apple II is okay by me.

HTTM is a film that I can recommend without reservation, but with caveats: some of the humor is very base and even disgusting, and you have to be in the right mood (or have sufficiently low standards) to enjoy or even tolerate it. The movie's actors and director obviously did not take themselves very seriously, and it's important that the audience do the same to maximize their enjoyment. I watched the unrated DVD version of the film; without having seen the theatrical release, I would guess the differences are in the quantity of female nudity.

A Glimpse of Life on Mars

20-May-08 4:33 PM by
Filed under Television; 3 comments.

I've been eager for developing news on the American TV series Life on Mars ever since it was first announced more than a year ago. Based on the British series of the same name, this local adaptation similarly tells the tale of a modern-day detective involved in a car accident who wakes up to find himself 30 years in the past. He must acclimate to the technology and procedures of that era's police force, all while questioning his sanity and the reality of his circumstances.

Finally, a trailer for this ABC series has surfaced, along with confirmation of it airing Thursdays at 10 PM this fall:

I'm a bit surprised by the casting — I'd been led to believe that Colm Meaney would have the lead role, which the Trekkie in me was eager to see. But I find the casting of Jason O'Mara (also an Irish actor) more believable, though that's based only on this brief preview, as I've not seen any of his other work.

It also seems odd that this trailer suggests an almost comedic element. A time-travelling cop hunting down a serial killer sounds like the Dennis Quaid movie Frequency, which had a certain element of incredulity and wonder to it, but humor was not its overarching theme.

As I don't have TV service, I missed the similar show Journeyman and will have to catch it upon its eventual DVD release. Life on Mars will probably come to me via a similar route, a year after everyone else has enjoyed its premiere. If my hopes prove true, it will be worth the wait.

(Hat tips to TrekToday and Den of Geek)

Carry On Wayward Man

27-Dec-07 7:00 PM by
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My siblings and I don't have many television viewing habits in common — and not only because I cancelled my service eight years ago. So I was surprised recently to receive this email from my oldest brother:

I know you don't watch TV per se, but you might find this past Monday night's NBC show Journeyman quite interesting. You can log onto NBC.com and watch previous episodes, commercial free

I don't know if perhaps he was familiar with my taste for Quantum Leap, but I agreed that Journeyman, along with Pushing Daisies and Reaper, would be shows I'd be watching this season, if I were able. (NBC.com's quality doesn't compare to a 36" TV with 5.1 surround sound!) But since I get all my shows, like Heroes (another interest we discovered we share), on DVD, it'll be awhile yet before I can watch this variation on The Time Traveler's Wife (coming soon to a theater near you).

Unfortunately, I was the one to break the bad news when I quoted to him from Wikipedia:

The initial order from the network was for 13 episodes, all of which were produced prior to the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike by screenwriters. However, the series suffered from low ratings, and NBC allowed its option for a full season order to lapse by the 2007-12-11 deadline for renewal. According to trade reports, such an action effectively means a series has been cancelled. The final episode of Journeyman aired on Wednesday, 2007-12-19.

But I was quick to point out the variety of precedents that suggest no show's death is final. Family Guy was cancelled twice but came back based on strong DVD sales. Sliders and Buffy switched networks, with the latter written to a series conclusion, should the show not survive the transition to a new network. Firefly came back as the feature-length Serenity, while Futurama and ReBoot both received direct-to-DVD movies.

So though Journeyman's travels appear over for now, there's always hope for the future… but should this truly be the end, at least picking up the complete series on DVD ought to be a cheap affair. In the meantime, we have the time-travel series Life on Mars to look forward to, along with news that Early Edition is finally coming to DVD. Good things come to those who wait!

Up the Slipstream Without a Paddle

02-Oct-07 11:25 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 1 comment.

When a student of mine wrote an essay on why the little-known sci-fi film Slipstream was one of the best films of 2005, my interest was piqued. I was already a sucker for any movie featuring time travel, so mix in a glowing review and a famous hobbit, and I was sold. Too bad I ended up wanting a refund.

Sean Astin plays a government physicist with a handheld, software-based temporal translocation unit. By using nearby cell phone towers, he can send himself and anyone in contact with him back in time up to ten minutes, displacing their selves of that previous moment. But the movie applies this concept unevenly. Are their bodies affected, or just their mind? Are objects affected, or are they duplicated? Frequency could be criticized for having an illogical temporal mechanic, but that film was both creative and internally consistent. Slipstream fails in this regard, as we see no truly clever applications of the device other than for do-overs.

It's typical for a movie to introduce the main character and show us his invention in action as buildup for when things go awry. Slipstream rushes this important getting-to-know-you stage by immediately putting Astin in a bank that gets robbed. And not just by any thugs; no, these are British mods and rockers who kept their outfits, hairdos, and tattoos when they turned 40. Despite the heist going off with a hitch and losing several of his comrades, the gang leader has time to stop and steal what he assumes is an expensive cell phone — but is, in fact, the titularly codenamed time machine.

It is the first of the story's many weak points. Already we have stereotypical villains, a loser scientist protagonist, and unrealistic behavior from both. Such examples continue: when the bank robbers get into a car accident, the first squad on the site are… the FBI? They should've gone with the local police, as maybe they've seen Quick Change and then that old "terrorist disguised as a hostage" trick wouldn't've worked again. The masquerade continues moments later as we see the evil mastermind demonstrate that anyone wearing a captain's uniform can get on a plane, without ID.

Worse than any plot holes is the film's ego. It draws out scenes for seemingly no reason than to revel in its own creativity. Other scenes alternate between speeding up and slowing down, as if to hammer into the audience's thick skulls, "Hey, time is fluid in THIS film!" A couple scenes feature the background slowly revolving around the actors, or vice versa. It's like bullet time with one camera and a green screen. But Slipstream is just a shadow of the many films it wishes it was. Just as Overdrawn at the Memory Bank channeled Casablanca, Slipstream imitates Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Now that's what I call cinematic hubris.

Slipstream's first five minutes — filled with cheesy narration, slow-motion sequences, and screen savers — immediately suggested, "Oh, it's going to be one of THOSE films": not a bad one, but one that sets its sights low. Proper expectations can make or break a film, but even given the proper mindset, I still enjoyed Adam Sandler's Click (and Sean Astin's performance in same) more than this. Slipstream's goofy characters and illogical science make me think it was made for a younger audience, but language and violence have rated it 'R' — yet another inconsistency. Whatever target this film was aiming for, it slipped and slid right off the map.

TNG at 20: The Voyage Continues

26-Sep-07 6:00 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; 1 comment.

Twenty years ago this autumn, I was a sophomore in college. I remember watching the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation (or TNG) with friends. While most of us were fans of speculative fiction, we had little idea of how entertaining and influential TNG would become.

I had grown up on the writings of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, but I had watched the original 1960s Star Trek only in reruns. During freshman year, I had fought for the dorm lounge television with people who preferred The Late Show With David Letterman over some old show with people wearing colorful pajamas, odd makeup, or both. But we were a small but dedicated band, and we made it to the stars. Among the friends I met then was my future wife.

Over the course of many late nights and foosball games, I learned about the United Federation of Planets, its Starfleet, and the Prime Directive that forbade its explorers from interfering in the internal affairs or development of alien worlds. The so-called "Wagon Train to the stars" combined Westerns with ray guns, and mythology with scientific speculation.

By the time TNG began, I was indeed a Trekkie — or "Trekker," as some prefer — having learned the cant among the franchise's fans: phasers, warp speed, and the Vulcan nerve pinch and salute. Of the eventual six movies with the space opera's original cast, the best two — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and IV: The Voyage Home — had already been released. Thanks to magazines such as Starlog and various "technical manuals," I learned about transporters and Jeffries tubes (the access tunnels throughout starships, named after an original series art director). Around Thanksgiving of 1987, I would attend my first science fiction convention, one run by Creation Entertainment in New York.

It's also worth remembering the context into which this Enterprise was launched — that, despite the success of multimedia franchises such as Planet of the Apes and Star Wars, there was little genre entertainment on television at that time. As we look forward to 2007's premieres of Heroes, Lost, or Battlestar Galactica: Razor, among others, note that 20 years ago, there was only Stephen Spielberg's anthology Amazing Stories, horror drama Friday the 13th: the Series, and another Earth-based movie spin-off, Starman. Weak visual effects, even weaker writing, and a lack of interest among mainstream viewers and networks had doomed all but the U.K.'s Doctor Who to short lifespans or syndication.

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TNG at 20: To Everything, There Is a Season

23-Sep-07 11:41 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; 1 comment.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was the first Star Trek to enjoy a full, cancellation-free run. This October 2nd, its 176 episodes will be available in a new box set (watch the trailer, read the press release). Though $40/season is a fair deal, $278.89, after shipping, is still no small amount of change. And, as Trek Nation has been recently reminding us with their retro reviews, some entire seasons of TNG have not aged well.

There are many ways to separate the wheat from the chaff. Various fan collectives offer thematically-related content, so if you like time travel or Q, you're bound to be satisfied — unless you dwell on what these packages miss, such as "Future's End". For my money, The Jean-Luc Picard Collection is the best value, as I prefer episodes that offer not an anomaly of the week, but significant, focused character development. "Tapestry", "Darmok", and "The Inner Light" are worth their weight in latinum, and with the former two both coming from season five, perhaps that is the series' best season. Other fifth-season episodes "I, Borg", "The Perfect Mate" (another Picard episode, and one which first unites Patrick Stewart with Famke Janssen, prior to their X-Men team-up), Spock's return in the two-part "Unification", and the first half of "Time's Arrow" supports this theory.

But only with the new, complete DVD collection can you get all the above along with gems like "The Best of Both Worlds", "Yesterday's Enterprise", and "Relics" — so if you have money to burn, take the good with the bad and splurge on all seven seasons (plus exclusive features and documentaries). But if you don't, then what season (or fan collective) do you recommend, and for what episodes?


Also in the TNG at 20 series:

Is There a Temporal Mechanic in the House?

22-Aug-07 12:37 PM by
Filed under Films, Television; 6 comments.

Time travel is a fascinating concept that is bafflingly unpopular at the box office. With the exception of Back to the Future, few films that dabble in this science fiction staple have become household names — and those that do, such as The Lakehouse and Click, owe their recognition more to the stars than the plots.

Yet even Sean "Hobbit" Astin couldn't elevate Slipstream out of obscurity. But before I review this film, I'd like to rewind the clock and examine its ancestry of other little-known time travel films: Time After Time, Time Changer, Timestalkers, Out of Time, and Happy Accidents.

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