Archive for November, 2013

About Time

Monday, November 11th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

On his 21st birthday, slightly awkward wallflower Tim (Domnhall Gleeson) receives the unlikely news that he has the ability to travel backward in time. Dad (Bill Nighy) explains the miraculous capability to his son, noting that the trait is enjoyed exclusively by the male offspring in the family line. Like most time jumping narratives, “About Time” exercises the science-fiction device to coincide with some kind of moral affirmation, even if filmmaker Richard Curtis normally makes his bones with material decidedly less bleak than Star Trek’s “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Richard Kelly’s “Donnie Darko,” or Rian Johnson’s “Looper.”

Arguably the most common theme explored in time travel fiction is the idea that going back to “fix” – or, such as Ray Bradbury’s legendary 1952 story “A Sound of Thunder,” even just observe – something in the past will establish an alternate history/future. “About Time” is not at all interested in or concerned with the Butterfly Effect, and Tim opts to use his power to woo the woman of his dreams, the charming Mary (Rachel McAdams) – even if he has to repeat situations until he gets them just right. “About Time” does not invest in its premise with the kind of care taken by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis in the exceptional “Groundhog Day,” still the summit of time-fracturing romantic comedies.

The rules of the temporal paradox are conveniently obliterated to suit the heartwarming, completely predictable outcomes for which Curtis is known, and the writer-director busies himself with familiar tasks, especially in a plot trajectory where Tim labors to undo the misery of his sister Kit Kat’s (Lydia Wilson) bad luck and poor choices. Another thread involving grouchy playwright Harry (Tom Hollander) provides the initial complication to Tim’s conquest of Mary, leading to the movie’s most sustained consideration of time travel’s amorous benefits via the potentially endless variations of Tim and Mary getting it on for the “first” time.

A.O. Scott, Andrew O’Hehir, and Gabe Toro are just three of the critics who recognized the problematic male fantasy creep factor in Tim’s seduction of Mary. Unfortunately, Mary remains duped by Tim’s time manipulations for the film’s duration, and Curtis misses what might have been an important opportunity to engage with ideas surrounding the ethics of Tim’s superhuman ability. McAdams does the very best she can, but her character is never Tim’s equal, and their partnership is founded at least in part on a deception, no matter how much Curtis insists that time travel cannot guarantee love.

The irritating voiceover narration seems engineered to make certain the audience knows that the power to travel in time means nothing next to an appreciation of a life well-lived. Dad admits that he used his time travel powers to read every book that caught his interest, Dickens twice (the pursuit of riches is quickly dismissed as an option by both Dad and Curtis). As “About Time” wears on, Tim’s relationship with Dad supersedes the comfortable, content existence Tim shares with his wife, and the father-son spotlight contains strong echoes of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance,” which featured a powerful expression of paternal love and a more poignant argument that in the end, we really only get one chance.

A Band Called Death

Monday, November 4th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Like fellow Detroiter Sixto Rodriguez, Bobby, Dannis, and David Hackney’s trio Death recorded stunning music embraced and appreciated by its largest audience decades following the original production. A little Motor City magic connects “Searching for Sugar Man” to “A Band Called Death,” another compelling movie version of an almost too-weird-to-be-true tale of unrecognized brilliance and second chances. Made by first-time feature documentarians Jeff Howlett and Mark Christopher Covino, “A Band Called Death” is a great underdog story backed by giddy bursts of rock and roll firepower. It’s also a moving portrait of looking back, moving forward, and family love.

Hard-liners will say it’s a stretch to claim that Death was, as the New York Times headline of Mike Rubin’s profile claimed, “punk before punk was punk,” but only the worst kind of snobs would dismiss the strange beauty and punchy immediacy of garage tracks like “Politicians in My Eyes,” “Freakin Out,” and “Keep on Knocking.” Rubin appears in the film, and his terrific 2009 feature article established the blueprint used by the filmmakers: a tapestry of blood brothers, crate-diggers, and resurrections, the latter partially embodied by Bobby’s children in Rough Francis, a group formed in tribute to Death.

When the movie gets to the details of the 1975 United Sound Systems studio recording session and the subsequent major label flirtation, Howlett and Covino really find their stride, collecting interviews from Groovesville director of publishing Brian Spears – who recognized immediately that Death was something special – and producer/mogul/Groovesville CEO Don Davis, who initially thought his colleague had lost his mind. Following multiple rejections by label after label, Death catches the ear of Clive Davis, who offers a deal contingent on a name change.

Then, in a pure expression of the “corporate rock sucks” mentality championed by punk heroes large and small, David more or less tells Davis to go to hell and the brothers walk away, managing to take the master recordings of their work with them. Pressing 500 45s independently on their own Tryangle imprint, Death further embodies the fierce DIY credo of self-sufficiency, but neither the single nor its B-side get enough airplay to make a difference. The tapes would collect dust in an attic for years, until the inclusion of Death tracks on rarities compilations and interest from record collectors like Robert Manis, Ben Blackwell, and Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra eventually closed a circuit through Bobby’s son Julian.

The movie constantly reminds us that David Hackney was the soul of the group. Some delightful prank phone calls hint at David’s frequency on an unexpected wavelength, and the movie makes clear that the young musician took inspiration from sources like the Who and Alice Cooper. In part because David died of lung cancer in 2000, the visionary bandleader’s absence weighs mightily on the emotional scales of the movie. David, whose conceptual acumen guided the entirety of the Death endeavor, assumes a kind of mythical prominence as an ahead-of-his-time prophet. Howlett and Covino surely play up this status, but both Bobby and Dannis take seriously the spirit of their brother forecasting that eventually, the rest of the world would catch up to Death.