A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Two Pretty Good Movies

But they might be hard to find. 

The Grand Tour

The first has been marketed under various titles, and is based on the story "Vintage Season" by C.L.Moore.  It has been called Timescape, The Grand Tour, and Disaster in Time.  Originally planned for theaters, it came out instead on TV - HBO iirc - and then video.  I think this was because the low budget made certain effects less than spectacular; but -- call me a cynic -- also because the story line did not have the action-packed good-guys-and-villains space battles that Hollywood had come to demand of "sci-fi."  I think they shelved it because they could not come up with a breathless PR campaign.  The trailer certainly made a game attempt. 

That's because this is a movie that is based on an actual SF story by a master story-teller and it involves -- get ready for it -- actual people.  Gasps of astonishment.  That is, the story is about what happens to the people in it, not what happens to the special effects.

Jeff Daniels does a creditable performance as Ben Wilson, a widower with a young girl, Hillary (Ariana Richards, later in Jurassic Park).  His wife was killed before the movie in a freak accident that is the subject of occasional flashbacks.  His father-in-law, the judge, blames him for running from the scene of the accident.  (He says he was running for help.).  Now he is renovating an old house outside of town - he used to be a contractor - planning to run a B&B.  Some strange tourists come by and wave lots of cash to rent rooms, even though they place is still undergoing work.  He asks why they don't stay at the hotel in the town, which is run by some friends of his; but they recoil at the suggestion and  insist. 

Now, anyone who looks the movie up on the internet, or who even finds the DVD to rent, will learn that the tourists are from the future.  This is learned early in the movie.  But one of the charms of the film is the progressively layered revelations that take place - about the tourists, about their purpose, about the accident in which Ben's wife was killed, and so on.  So, no spoilers, just in case. 

Another charm is the way the film gives a sense of the town.  The secondary characters are nicely portrayed.  None of them are buffoons or stereotypes.  Oscar the bus driver, for example, is well-done; as are those who make short appearances.  The new minister in town; the family that runs the other hotel.  The policeman and his assistant.  The maintenance workers at the school.  One gets the sense that each of them has a story independent of the movie and they just happen to intersect the movie plot-line. 

There are soft spots.  I do not know that it is possible to make a time-travel story in which all paradoxes and logical knots are avoided.  But this movie is such that the contradictions are muted. 

Excellent scene: a single stationary camera shot shows Oscar the bus driver walking past a door that had been destroyed in an earlier scene, walking off to the right, then Ben walking into the scene from the left and the door is pristine.  A nicely done shot that says we are now in the past before the door was destroyed - and it was seamlessly done. 

+ + +


The other nice movie is another time travel movie -- sort of -- titled Frequency.  It stars Jim Caviezel as John Sullivan, a NYC cop in 1999 [the present].  He has a 'tude.  His wife is leaving him, and he drinks a lot.  He has never gotten over his father's death.  Discovering his dad's old ham radio he discovers (what the viewer learns immediately) that due to freak solar conditions he is talking to his own father, Frank [Dennis Quaid], a NYC firefighter in 1969.  That was the year his father died in a warehouse fire.  He warns his father, the past changes; so does the present.  The logical difficulty is that John now remembers both sets of history - the one in which his father died in the fire and the "new" reality in which he died years later of lung cancer.  No one else remembers the dual history.  And let's leave it at that.  One problem.  "Now" his mother is dead.  Something happened as a result of his father's survival that led to his mother being dying at the hands of "The Nightingale Killer," so-called because he targeted nurses.  So Jim and Frank work together 30 years apart to solve the serial killings.  So what we have is a combination father-son drama+time paradox+cop thriller.  The 1969 Mets figure into things, too. 

Excellent scene: There are two struggles with the Nightingale killer, 30 years apart, yet weirdly "simultaneous." 

Aside from the inevitable causality-paradox issues, which are suitably swept under the narrative rug, this is another SF movie that focuses on people issues rather than on fleet actions and monsters.  There is a nice scene in the middle act in which John encounters his wife; but she "now" has no recollection of ever having met him, except briefly at a party once.  An indicator of the interconnectedness of things. 

Again, the supporting cast does a good job -- the next door neighbor, the chief of detectives, and so on. 

There are a few things in Frequency that are overplayed; but basically a good flick. 
+ + +

One of the things about both pictures was the essential decency of most of the people in them -- except the serial killer in Frequency, of course, and depending on how you count the time travelers in Grand Tour.  We find a front drama and a back drama here.  In the front is the problem of the time tourists and what they have come to witness and what happens as a consequence (or in Frequency, the problem of the warehouse fire and the Nightingale murders) but the back is Ben Wilson coming to grips with the accident that killed his wife (or John Sullivan reconnecting with his lost father).  

1 comment:

  1. I saw Disaster in Time shortly after it came out on DVD back in the 90s. I agree with all your points -- it was a very pleasant surprise and is definitely worth seeking out.


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