Monday, November 18, 2013

ABOUT TIME -- my review

Richard Curtiss writes and directs lovely little romcoms. LOVE ACTUALLY is maybe the best example. They’re filled with amusing somewhat quirky characters, Bill Nighy to steal every scene he’s in, some good laughs, and enough sentimentality to bring a tear to a glass eye. His characters are all so lovable. If one has a hard edge then he’s only likeable. Wringing comedy out of loveable characters is not easy but Curtiss manages to do so with regularity.

He also has a knack for casting spectacular fantasy girls. From Keira Knightley in LOVE ACTUALLY to Rachel McAdams and Margot Robbie (pictured: left) in his latest effort, ABOUT TIME, the man has a keen eye for adorable.

His male leads are usually a little gawky. Hugh Grant was Curtiss’ go-to goofball in the past, and now he’s elevated character-actor Domhnall Gleeson to leading-nerd status. And he’s fine. Sweet. Loveable. Hey, it's just refreshing to see a romcom that doesn't star Paul Rudd.

I was very much looking forward to this movie. I’m a fan of Curtiss’ work and call me shallow but I’d rather see fantasy girls than tortured slaves. His pictures always have an appealing glossy look and he shows off London the way Woody Allen shows off New York. (My big problem with London is the food, but Curtiss gets around that by establishing a restaurant where everyone eats in pitch-black darkness. I can only assume the food is better when you don’t know what it is.)

So it should be a lovely frothy movies. And it is. For maybe the first half hour. And then the fatal flaw becomes apparent.

The conceit of the movie is what brings it down. That conceit is that when Gleeson turns 21 he learns that men in his family can time travel to the past. It’s not explained why but some things defy explanation like time travel and Skyline Chili. Setting aside all of the paradoxes of time travel, it’s a fun convention for awhile.

But here’s the problem: it eliminates any suspense in the movie. Any obstacle Gleeson faces, any mistakes he makes – he just goes back and fixes them. You NEED obstacles in storytelling. You need problems, and complications, and messy situations, and decisions that carry consequences. Otherwise you run out of steam. And that was the case here. Watching Gleeson use time travel to turn things to his advantage was a hoot for a half hour. But after that it got tedious. It’s like a Superman movie where for two hours all he does is thwart evil and no one has the power to even slow him down. Watching him fly and kill terrorists would be fun at first but after awhile you’re saying “Would anyone mind if I texed  General Zod?”

Once Rachel McAdams becomes the time traveler’s wife – as opposed to the movie she starred in called THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE (this may be the weirdest bit of typecasting ever), the film wanders looking for things to do. Thank God for Bill Nighy. I don’t know how he does it. He somehow manages to play the same character and always makes him fresh. And he can play ping pong!
ABOUT TIME is also ABOUT a half hour too much TIME.  Too bad because the good stuff in it is really good.   If only there was a way Richard Curtiss could go back and fix it.

21 comments:

Carol said...

I adore Richard Curtis and everything he's written, so I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy this movie despite it's flaws. (Although I'll probably wait and rent it on Netflix or something, but that's just because movies are so expensive.)

I wonder if his experience writing the tear-jerker Vincent and the Doctor for Doctor Who(which, BTW, had Bill Nighy in it) made him want to write a time-traveller movie.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken, you really need to update your notions of London food, which are *40 years* out of date. Even in the late 1970s it was possible to get good Chinese (and Indian) food here; now London is awash in good and great restaurants, some still moderately priced. Come over here; I will personally give you a list of places to go.

wg

Hamid said...

Wendy's right, Ken, London has lots of great places to eat. You can get amazing Chinese and Indian food. That said, I do miss Johnny Rockets from when I was on holiday in LA.

I'm not a fan of Richard Curtis. Apart from the Blackadder series, which were brilliant, I generally find his films very twee and anodyne. And from your review, it sounds like he came up with a neat idea but forgot to actually have a plot around it. The genius of Groundhog Day wasn't in the conceit of Bill Murray's character reliving the same day over and over, it was in him growing as a character and recognizing things about himself. The Curtis version, which About Time appears to be, would've been Murray simply spending each day goofing around, punching his old school buddy over and over, winning the lottery etc.

A far superior film to About Time is Enough Said, which features a beautiful penultimate performance from James Gandolfini and a brilliant performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Scott H said...

I liked this movie better than Ken did. In a way, the time travel WAS the problem, the messy situation that pushed the plot forward, for a while. And after that, you had the situation around Bill Nighy's character to deal with.

What I enjoyed about the film was its ability to genre-hop. It wasn't "just" a rom-com, any more than it was a sci-fi picture, or a dramatic love story, or even an ode to how beautiful London and Cornwall are. It bounced around between all of those, and never stayed in one long enough to get tedious. It also treated the viewer with some respect, letting us figure some things out rather than spell it all out for us like we were idiots.

So: great characters, even the minor ones, an excellent lead performance (all of Grant's charm minus many of his tics), a storyline that respected the viewer and kept us guessing, beautiful cinematography, some genuinely romantic scenes where you're pulling for the protagonist, lots of great laughs, and some truly moving scenes at the end. Plus a great message about understanding how to really live your life and appreciate what you have, and understand what's important. And not a single gunshot, car chase, bloody wound close-up, or murder. That's a great film to me.

Hamid said...

Scott H - "And not a single gunshot, car chase, bloody wound close-up, or murder. That's a great film to me.

I understand violent films are not everyone's cup of tea, but I've noticed this tendency with some people to define their appreciation of a film in terms of what it wasn't, i.e. violent or sexually explicit. I'm not picking specifically on you, Scott, it's just that I've noticed this happening more and more and it strikes me as strange for two reasons. One is that, given it's completely unnecessary to even mention in the first place, it suggests that the person WANTS everyone to know they dislike violent films. Second is that it seems to be based on the false premise that every film out there is violent, which is obviously not true.

When people casually dismiss any film that contains violence or car chases, it means they're dismissing everything from Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Full Metal Jacket and Psycho to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner and James Bond. Cinema would be incredibly tedious if everything was sweet rom-coms, just as it would be boring if everything was action films.

My point is that there's plenty of every genre to go around so that no one needs to watch anything they don't like, so I find this trend of praising particular films as NOT being something rather wearisome.

Rob said...

I too saw the movie over the weekend and rather liked it. It wasn't a great movie by any movies, but it was highly enjoyable and entertaining.

I think despite the ability to go back in time, there were still conflicts that were tricky to resolve. For example, the problem with his sister, which took quite a bit of effort to correct.

And as you said, all his characters are likeable. So nice to see a movie where you can say that.

I believe Scott H is a lot closer to the mark than Ken is.

That said, Ken, great closing line on your review!

Aaron Sheckley said...

@Hamid:

It's not a question of a violent film being someone's cup of tea or not. Violence has a place in cinema, and yes, there would be no Full Metal Jacket without it. I'm not speaking for Scott H but for myself when I say that the ritualized, cartoonish, no consequence violence and mayhem in movies is what I have grown totally bored with. Endless explosions and buildings collapsing yet no one is ever hurt (Avengers, Superman), endless car chases through crowded city streets where no one is ever collateral damage, endless bullets flying all over the place that never result in anyone but the bad guys getting hit, endless fight scenes where Jason Statham beats up 10 guys and never suffers more than a carefully placed (and oh so sexy) trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth, and on and on. I don't object to violence in movies; I do object to violence in place of plot, character development, and logic. I get that there is a huge market for mindless action movies (if there wasn't, Michael Bay would be a barista at Starbucks), but there are a lot of us that just got flat-out bored with the "OMG, I haven't shown an explosion for 8 full minutes" school of film making. And what's even more frustrating is those sorts of movies fill every cinema when they come out, and it makes it that much harder to even find a movie like Enough Said, which I never even heard of but now would like to see.

Anonymous said...

If you like Indian food, London is a paradise!

If you want to eat British food...well, there's your problem right there.

Hamid said...

@Aaron

I appreciate your response. I totally get what you're saying and I actually agree with you re. the Avengers/Michael Bay school of action.

I would make a distinction between a genuine action film that has violence, like Die Hard, Raiders or Terminator 2, and the modern crop, like the Bay/Snyder films, which are purely empty monotonous spectacle. Die Hard had well delineated characters, a clever premise and a compelling story, and the action was the icing on the cake. In Man of Steel or Transformers, you're just seeing an endless parade of destruction. That's one of the reasons I found Man of Steel's third act a bloated and boring ordeal, because it was just endless crashing and smashing and exploding. When compared to the chase sequence in Raiders where Indy is hanging off the front of the truck, it throws into sharp relief how action cinema has gone from being about action rooted in character and situation to action as just a series of explosions.

You should definitely check out Enough Said. It's an incredibly sweet comedy with a very intelligent and mature script. The only downside while watching it is the sadness at losing such a great talent in James Gandolfini.

G H Wells said...

I feel pretty certain that Ken wasn't referring to the availability of Indian and/or Chinese food...he's making fun of British food cuz, when speaking of the UK, one is required to make fun of the British cuisine. And dental work, but he let that one go, today!

The movie doesn't sound like my cup of tea, tho I do in general, like time travel flicks and specifically, Rachel McAdams. Throw in a DeLorean, perhaps, or a murder plot with Mary Steenburgen and I'm in.

Johnny Walker said...

I'm pretty sure Ken was just going for a cheap gag. London's food has improved dramatically in just the past 10 years that I've been here... but there's still plenty of terrible places waiting to snag unaware tourists/Londoners who let their guard down.

Here's some tips for those looking for good food here in London:

HACHE - Brilliant burgers. Don't listen to anyone who tells you that you need to go to ED'S.

BUMPKIN - Seasonal British food (shock!) that's actually some of the best food anywhere.

THE JAPAN CENTRE - Recently re-opened, so I'm not sure if it's as good as it once was, but used to be the best Japanese I could find. Don't listen to anyone who tells you to go to YO SUSHI.

CAFE DE HONG KONG - Despite the terrible name, and budget decor, this place offers fantastic Chinese food right next to Leicester Square.

THE GATE - In Islington, this restaurant is worth going to just to prove that vegetarian food can be every bit as delicious as meaty food. Truly, truly fantastic.

CAFE PACIFICO - Near Covent Garden, this had the best Mexican food I've had outside of LA. (I hope it's still the same -- it was a while since I've been there.)

For good old fashioned American pizza, go for PAPA JOHN'S (and even DOMINO'S seems to be better than it once was, and closer to normal US pizza).

If you can't find any of the above, the following chains can offer some good food:

WAHACA, GIRAFFE, WAGAMAMA, GBK, PIZZA EXPRESS -- all depending on what you order.

And that's just what I've discovered. Plus there's new places cropping up all the time!

RCP said...

There is good to great food to be found in London (one of my favorite cities) despite the horror stories about British cooking ("Another slice of eel pie, Luv?") I even liked the junk food e.g., Mr. Bakewell's Cherry Tarts (the U.K version of Little Debbie).

Gabby Gruen said...

This will be two Richard Curtis movies in a row where nothing happens.

Scott H said...

Responding to Aaron and Hamid:
I was exaggerating a bit in that sentence--I've seen plenty of bad movies that didn't have that much violence. As Aaron wrote, I'm just experiencing a point of feeling overwhelmed that the majority of American entertainment culture seems to be based on murder or violence plots. If you took shows about investigating murders or with violent fight scenes away from TV, you'd be left with reality competitions and maybe a single handful of shows. The same seems to hold true for films--the only categories left seem to be children's movies, dumb comedies (which may have their share of violence), big or small movies involving superheroes or people investigating or perpetrating violent crimes, and a teeny tiny sliver of movies actually aimed at adults but about something other than crime, violence, or murder. "Enough Said" was one of those--I liked it, especially James Gandolfini's performance, but I wasn't particularly impressed by it. It left my brain a few seconds after I left the theater. "About Time" I'm still thinking about.

Anyone else interested in the kind of movie I'm describing should hunt down "All Is Lost" with Robert Redford, which has a small amount of bodily injury, but otherwise fits the category. Surprisingly, "Gravity" does, as well. It's the time of year--for a month or two in what's typically called "awards season", there are a few more of these films in the U.S. than during the rest of the year.

Still, as a 45-year-old, I'm finding fewer and fewer films and TV shows aimed at adults. I wish there were any shows of the caliber of "Frasier" or "Cheers" on the air today.

D. McEwan said...

Eating in London is fine as long as you don't eat English "cuisine." There's a lovely McDonald's on Baker Street where Sherlock Holmes used to go for a Big Mac and Fries.

Doctor Who has to invent lots of bull about "Once I've stepped into the time line, I'm part of events," and "a fixed point in time" to get around the screenwriting problem of being able just pop into the Tardis, go back one day, and not-do or undo whatever needs not-doing or undoing. They do however, overuse the horrible cop-out ending of Superman: The Movie where time gets reversed and everything horrible that happened never happened.

Lost took the anti-paradox approach: Whatever happened, happened. Whatever you go back and do in the past, you had ALWAYS done in the past, no paradoxes allowed.

Movies with no violence are nice, I suppose, but I can nap more comfortably at home.

"Scott H said...
Still, as a 45-year-old, I'm finding fewer and fewer films and TV shows aimed at adults."


Speaking as someone who's 63, I can tell you that "I'm finding fewer and fewer films and TV shows aimed at adults" was already a cliche 45 years ago. It was already a cliche 85 years ago, albeit minus "TV." It's an endless complaint. It balances the equally-ubiquitous and cliched complaint: "Movies are so violent/dirty/depressing/ that there's nothing I can take/send my kids to anymore."

Cincinnati Mike said...

Besmirch Skyline Chili? How dare you, sir!?!

I said good day...

Storm said...

I lived in London as a kid in '78, and I loved (and STILL love) quite a bit of British cuisine from my time there. Bangers... best sausages on EARTH, and their bacon is aMAZing. I can eat my metric weight in Cornish Pasties. And McVitie's Homewheat Biscuits with Milk Chocolate are straight up AMBROSIA, especially with gorgeous English milk, as are all English chocolate bars. Just stay away from Wimpy Burger; are they still around? My mother was a huge fan of the Cooke & Moore film "Bedazzled" (Yes, Douglas, especially Barry as Envy! ;), and was all excited to try them when we got there. Sweet Mother of Bowie, I thought the grillcook had fried up the washing-up sponge and put it on a bun. BLARGH. We discovered the Burger King in Leicester Square and never looked back. First place I'd ever seen or had pineapple on pizza was the Pizza Hut there.

Richard Curtis will always have a bit of slack and a soft spot in my heart/head, just for the scene in "Vincent and the Doctor" where he perfectly portrayed the frustrating, seemingly inescapable pit of blackness that is a depressive fit (which I know all too well), and the futility of trying to get someone you love who's in that state to "just cheer up, everything will be fine", only to have them scream and chuck things at you (which is my poor husband's lot). The first time I saw it, I had tears in my eyes, and told him "THAT. That is what it's like". And he just sighed and said "Yeah... I know".

Even as a fan of both Curtis and Who, I can see where the main character re-booting his life over and over without consequence would get tedious. But I'll still catch it on video, eventually.

Cheers, thanks a lot,

Storm

Hamid said...

@Storm

"McVitie's Homewheat Biscuits with Milk Chocolate are straight up AMBROSIA"

Right on the money!!

Just stay away from Wimpy Burger; are they still around?

Ha ha! There's about 3 or 4 of them left in the entire country! Both the Burger King and Pizza Hut in Leicester Square are still there.

Ken, my copy of MUST KILL TV arrived in the mail yesterday! Will start it tonight.

Mel Ryane said...

Okay, you're shallow.

droszel said...

I enjoyed this move tremendously. And, it didn't run out of steam for me after the first 30 minutes. I thought the experiments with what worked and didn't work with time travel were, for Domhnall Gleeson's caracter, quite entertaining. And, you are dead wrong about food in London.

Dale said...

" not a single gunshot, car chase, bloody wound close-up, or murder."
So, not an American film then?