Saturday, 21 January 2017

Movie Review: Turner And Hooch (1989)


A police comedy with a massive dog as the real star, Turner And Hooch finds plenty of funny moments thanks to the antics of a perpetually frothing canine, but suffers from a pretty flimsy plot.

In the fictional Sacramento suburb of Cypress Beach, young, single and extremely tidy police Detective Scott Turner (Tom Hanks) generally has nothing to do. He is getting ready to take a higher profile job in the big city, and is showing his replacement Detective David Sutton (Reginald VelJohnson) the ropes. The peace and quiet is suddenly shattered when old geezer Amos Reed (John McIntire) is killed after witnessing suspicious activity at the local fish processing plant. Amos' dog Hooch, a massive slobbering French Mastiff, is the only witness to the murder.

Scott reluctantly takes Hooch in as his new roommate, and the dog promptly proceeds to make a gargantuan mess out of Scott's house while chewing out his car. Scott starts a relationship with local veterinarian Dr. Emily Carson (Mare Winningham), while Hooch proves his worth by identifying a prime suspect in the murder case. With the dog's help, Scott, Sutton and their boss Chief Howard Hyde (Crag T. Nelson) close in on a conspiracy centred at the fish processing plant.

Directed by Roger Spottiswoode, Turner And Hootch proves the old W.C. Fields adage about never working with children or animals. There is a film here about some sort of crime, and Tom Hanks is as likeable as ever, but the only thing that matters is the big, uncoordinated, lovingly ugly Hooch (played by Beasley the Dog). The film is a showcase for the beast, and large chunks of running time are dedicated to Hooch being Hooch.

The best comic moments are fuelled by Turner's tidiness being an irresistible target for Hooch's antics. The dog methodically destroys anything that resembles neat, clean and orderly in Turner's life, and what he does not damage, he eats. The appeal of the film is in making Hooch lovable despite his unattractive drool and bulky clumsiness, and Spottiswoode succeeds in turning the dog into a sympathetic and loyal best friend.

As for the plot, it takes a back seat way at the far end of the bus. Both the nefarious activity at the fish processing plant and the romance between Turner and Emily are sketched in with thick lines, barely developed, and mainly serve to interrupt the fun with the dog.

Turner And Hooch is amiable entertainment, a woofing good time without much of a memorable bite.






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Friday, 20 January 2017

Movie Review: Last Love (2013)


A slow-paced study of relationships among the lonely, Last Love (also known as Mr. Morgan's Last Love) meanders through Paris on a quest to try and make a point, but generally gets lost within the scenery.

In Paris, Matthew Morgan (Michael Caine) is an elderly retired professor, still grieving the passing of his wife Joan (Jane Alexander). Matthew has a strained relationship with his US-based son Miles (Justin Kirk), who appears to be going through marital problems of his own.

On a transit bus Matthew meets local dance instructor Pauline (Clémence Poésy). She is also lonely, and despite a tremendous age difference she takes a liking to the retired professor. They start spending time together, and he comes out of his shell and starts to attend her dance classes. But there are emotional, health and financial complications ahead, with both Miles and his sister Karen (Gillian Anderson) arriving in Paris and questioning Pauline's motives.

An independent production written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck, Last Love is a soft spoken, slow moving adaptation of a French novel. While primarily a study of two lonely souls forging a connection while drifting in the ocean of life, the film rambles from one narrative stream to another.

Starting with a tender winter/spring relationship, themes of grieving, death with dignity, father/son resentment, family legacies and finally an entire other romance creep into the film, and often inelegantly. With story lines melding and the focus shifting lazily, Nettelbeck can't hold Last Love together, and the drama unravels as it arrives at an obvious ending brimming with self-congratulatory symmetry.

With Paris as the setting the film does look elegant, with plenty of outdoor scenes capturing the graceful city. Michael Caine and Clémence Poésy are adequate, but for both the displays of sad loneliness occasionally enlivened by the potential promise of a unique friendship are almost too easy.

Last Love aims for wistful, but achieves wayward.






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Movie Review: Lovelace (2013)


The sad story of the porn industry's first celebrity, Lovelace is cautionary tale of exploitation and abuse. The film is cleverly constructed but lacks any emotional breakthroughs.

It's 1970 in Florida, and 20 year old Linda Boreman (Amanda Seyfried) is living with her oppressive parents Dorothy and John (Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick). Her rebellion is enabled by the sleazy and much older Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), who claims to maybe own a strip joint. Soon they get married, Chuck teaches Linda all about oral sex, and she is remarkably good at it. Claiming money pressure, Chuck pressures Linda into the pornography industry and Lovelace is created.

They connect with producers Anthony Romano (Chris Noth) and "Butchie" Peraino (Bobby Canavale), director Gerard Damiano (Hank Azaria) and co-star Harry Reems (Adam Brody). Over a matter of six days in 1972, Damiano films Deep Throat, a relatively artistic porn film capitalizing on Linda's abilities. The film becomes an unexpected breakout hit among mainstream audiences and helps to kick-off the porno chic trend. Linda becomes a household name and travels in celebrity circles, including a meeting with Playboy's Hugh Hefner (James Franco). But behind the surface glamour there is a very dark side to Linda's life involving rampant abuse by the domineering Chuck.

Co-directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Lovelace is a worthwhile companion piece to Boogie Nights. While the Paul Thomas Anderson film rides the breezy waves of pornography's golden era, Lovelace dives beneath the surface to poke at the visible bruises. Lovelace is too emotionally detached and conflicted in its messaging to be the better film, but it nevertheless places on record the horrific price paid by the performers exploited to serve a sordid industry.

As for the film, Epstein and Friedman do try something different. The first half breezes through Lovelace's rapid transition from rebellious young woman to porn celebrity. There are hints suggesting the hell created by Traynor, but without details. The second half retraces some of the same steps and fills in the blanks, exposing the oppressive brutality of his treatment and the degradation she faced. It's a thought provoking structure forcing a comparison between public image and private agony, but Lovelace also emerges as an unbalanced film, hitting discordant notes and mainly moving sideways.

The denouement shifts focus to Linda years after her brief foray into the industry, fighting to reclaim her dignity and identity by publishing a book. It's another shift in cinematic gears, and while the loop is closed, the film is tonally fragmented.

Lovelace delivers one devastating scene, in the least expected context. At her lowest point Linda flees back to her childhood home, and her encounter with her mother is a study of the void exposed by mutually unmet expectations.

Amanda Seyfried displays excellent breadth to convey first adventurous naiveté and then a gradual awakening to abuse. Peter Sarsgaard is fully committed to the role of Chuck Traynor, and sustains the required menace.

Lovelace tells an important story with competence but at the expense of dramatic flair.






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Thursday, 19 January 2017

Movie Review: Empire (2002)


A routine crime drama, Empire tramples on exceedingly familiar gangster land territory and offers little in the way of originality.

In New York City, Vic Rosa (John Leguizamo) is a young and charismatic drug lord, leading a gang with control over a patch of the South Bronx. Vic and his lieutenants get involved in turf skirmishes with rival gangs from adjacent districts, although all the local dealers are supplied by the same drug import queen, known only as La Colombiana (Isabella Rossellini). Vic is dedicated to his girlfriend Carmen (Delilah Cotto) but also desperate to move up in the world.

He spots an opportunity to build a more legitimate fortune when he meets slick Manhattan investment banker Jack Wimmer (Peter Sarsgaard), who is living the rich life with glamorous girlfriend Trish (Denise Richards). Jack offers to cut Vic in on mysterious investments with promises of quick returns, and soon the money is rolling in. Vic and Carmen move into a swanky Manhattan apartment, but with the stakes getting higher, Vic discovers that leaving his old life behind isn't as easy as he thought.

Empire was an initially modest sub-studio effort aimed at Hispanic audiences. But gradually the profile of the cast expanded and the film, directed by Franc Reyes, saw a wider release. No one really needed to bother. While the movie carries some style and is competently assembled, this is a rehash of all the well-known gangster film themes, familiar since the early 1930s.

Every character is a cliché, every line of dialogue predictable, and the narration by Vic is oh-so- bland. Empire is not violent enough to cause a stir, nor groundbreaking in its portrayal of how gangsters, criminals and their molls think, act and react. It's a mercifully compact 90 minutes of lined up and knocked down platitudes.

Reyes does achieve some good aesthetic contrasts between the ramshackle street gang existence of the South Bronx and the glistening allure of Manhattan's high life, so at least Vic's quest to buy himself an upgrade is coherent. But the ease with which the supposedly whip-smart Vic gets seduced by Jack's ill-defined investment schemes introduces a severe central character contradiction.

John Leguizamo gives it his all in the central role, but often seems to be trying too hard. Peter Sarsgaard glides through the film with a glazed look of disinterest. The rest of the cast earnestly labour against the tight confines of characters who live and die within strict definitions.

Empire in not inherently deficient; just entirely derivative and utterly unnecessary.






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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Movie Review: Passengers (2016)


A touching science fiction romance grappling with human-scaled dilemmas, Passengers is both visually gorgeous and deeply satisfying.

In the distant future, the massive spaceship Avalon is traveling in deep space to the Homestead II planet, carrying 5,000 colonists. The journey is supposed to take 120 years with the passengers asleep in hibernation pods. A mishap occurs when the spacecraft strikes an asteroid, and passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer, is awakened 90 years early. Unable to reenter hibernation, Jim has the massive craft to himself as he faces the reality of a lonely existence and a lonelier death to come. With the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) as his only companion, he drops into a severe depression.

Jim becomes infatuated with young writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), another passenger in deep sleep. Desperate for companionship, he finally makes the difficult decision to wake her up, pretending that it's another mishap. Once she gets over the shock, Aurora and Jim do fall in love, but there is plenty of trouble ahead for the couple and all the passengers on board.

Directed by Morten Tyldum, Passengers is a deep space science fiction adventure focussed on down-to-earth issues. The film soars with a rare beauty, but never loses sight of it central premise, and explores themes of loneliness, depression, and stalking. The script by Jon Spaihts ventures into the fundamental territory of the true purpose of life in the face of death, and what it means to aspire towards lofty goals only to be forced by external factors into essential, wrenching re-orientations.

The film's pervasive theme is about reacting to dreams rudely knocked out of orbit. Jim's planned life is eternally altered by a technical glitch; he can only rage against the machine, an ultimately unsatisfying pursuit. Aurora is awakened by Jim, and will have to first get over the shock of a future death in space; and then confront the truth that another human had intervened in her trajectory and condemned her to a life and death she never imagined. She can rage against another human, but in the abject loneliness of space, to what end?

The film looks magnificent. Rarely has space or a human-imagined space craft looked more beautiful, and the 3D imagery of the Avalon streaking through the void is awe inspiring. The vessel is cavernous, allowing Tyldum to set the action in a variety of internal locations as the universe passes by outside, and a few space walk excursions add to the diverse visual buffet on display.

Passengers does hurtle into a bit of a technical muddle towards its climax. While the emotional build-up is superb and Tyldum hits all the high notes required for the human drama, the scientific parts of the story are jettisoned into deep space. There is a frantic rush to bang things into shape, and it's all a blur of running around, opening hatches, pointing at random items, pulling levers and putting out fires with condescendingly minimalistic explanations.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence competently bring the two central characters to life without necessarily setting the planets on fire. They hold their own amidst all the sleek hardware, and Lawrence handles the emotional ups and down forced on Aurora with a growing maturity. Michael Sheen is ridiculously appropriate as an android bartender, while in a late and relatively brief appearance, Laurence Fishburne adds heft as a crew officer.

The story of Jim and Aurora carries echoes of everyday life, where some some events appear bigger than what an individual can comprehend, while others are clearly the work of a human hand but no less impactful. Finding meaning in the here and now is never easy, and Passengers is a lyrical exploration about dealing with what is, despite what may have been.






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Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Movie Review: Far From The Madding Crowd (2015)


A luscious adaptation of the Thomas Hardy romantic classic, Far From The Madding Crowd looks dreamy but is constrained by the frustrations inherent in the story.

In rural Britain of the 1870s, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is a humble, strong-willed and unmarried young woman. Next-door sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) sets his eyes on Bathsheba and eventually proposes, but she turns him down, unwilling to become a man's property. Gabriel hits hard times and loses everything; Bathsheba unexpectedly inherits an estate and becomes a respected land owner. She hires Gabriel to tend to her sheep, he continues to care deeply for her from afar, but their relationship remains tense.

Two more suitors come forward to try and win Bathsheba's heart. William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) is a very wealthy but aging and lonely estate owner. Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) is a dashing soldier who lost his true love Fanny (Juno Temple) due to a wedding-day misunderstanding. Bathsheba finally makes her choice and marries a man, setting off a series of unexpected events.

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, Far From The Madding Crowd is a pleasure for the eye. Plenty of outdoor scenes bring the British countryside to life, and Vinterberg and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen use the magic hour to capture an idyllic landscape filled with lush greens and yellows, long shadows and beautiful skies. The music score by Craig Armstrong adds to the pensive mood.

The artistry is appreciated, because the story belongs in another century and carries suspect appeal. While Bathsheba is a fictional heroine ahead of her time, Hardy's story is bogged down in her love life, and for two hours the story starts and stops with Bathsheba agonizing over men. This smart and independent woman also suddenly displays atrocious instincts to pick the very worst of three possible choices, pushing deep into incredulous melodrama territory and prolonging the resolution.

The sturdy performances help to maintain interest. Carey Mulligan does the best she can with the central role, not necessarily giving Bathsheba new depth but displaying a convincing version of early prototype feminism. Matthias Schoenaerts looks as good as the scenery, although he does slip into mopey mode. Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge stick closely to their characters' basic definitions of the lonely love struck rich man and conniving soldier respectively.

In Far From The Madding Crowd Bathsheba's judgment may be patchy, but at least the visuals are consistently absorbing.






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Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Movie Review: The Sessions (2012)


A drama about overcoming physical disability to satisfy a basic human need, The Sessions cannot move much beyond its basic premise.

Berkeley, California, in 1988. Aspiring poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) lives most of his life in an iron lung, his muscles rendered fairly useless due to complications from polio. Mark functions in society thanks to the help of full time caretakers, but grows increasingly desperate to have sex. He consults with his priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy), before connecting with professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt).

Cheryl commits to working with Mark over six sessions. He gradually gets used to being touched and controlling his arousal, and works his way towards an ability to have intercourse. But there are emotional complications ahead, both between Mark and Cheryl and between Cheryl and her husband.

Directed and written by Ben Lewin based on the article by O'Brien, The Sessions is a small intimate story, and that is both its charm and its limitation. The desires of one man to experience the joy of sex and his subsequent encounters with a sex surrogate are intriguing, but provide constrained scope for a cinematic experience. Apart from featuring frank depictions of sexual mechanics, the story of The Sessions could have been told in a 15 minute television segment with no loss of impact.

The padding is apparent, and extends to quite useless side-stories involving Mark's caretakers, a predictable but nevertheless prolonged journey to the land where sex and love become confused dance partners, and some unconvincing attempts to capture the impact of the relationship on Cheryl's already unusual family life. The scenes featuring Mark providing a startled Father Brendan with a play-by-play describing the quest to lose his virginity inject some humour but also become repetitive.

The two leads almost salvage the film. John Hawkes delivers a physically punishing performance, mainly prostrate with his body painfully deformed. Helen Hunt was nominated for an Academy Award, seemingly as a reward for embracing nudity as a matter-of-fact business requirement.

The courage on show in The Sessions is mildly uplifting, but the film otherwise carries next to no lasting resonance.






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Monday, 9 January 2017

Movie Review: La La Land (2016)


An original modern musical, La La Land is an instant masterpiece. Director and writer Damien Chazelle crafts a loving homage to the classic Hollywood musicals and the town that created them, and modernizes the genre by combining pragmatic sensibilities with an enthralling infusion of magic.

In Los Angeles, Mia (Emma Stone) is a fledgling actress still waiting for her big break. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist dreaming of opening his own jazz bar. Mia is getting disillusioned, working at a coffee shop on a studio lot, attending countless auditions and getting no callbacks. Sebastian is also getting despondent, playing bland tunes in featureless lounges to an uncaring audience.

Mia and Sebastian meet at a party and their relationship gets off to a rocky start, but gradually they fall in love and enter into a deep relationship. Their courtship includes a visit to the Griffith Observatory, inspired by the scene from Rebel Without A Cause. Sebastian's career seems to catch a break when band leader Keith (John Legend) invites him to be part of his emerging ensemble, combining jazz with a more modern pop and synthesizer sound. Meanwhile Mia attempts to write and perform a one-woman play. Sebastian's touring obligations take him further away from both Mia and his dream, while Mia has to decide if she will ever make it as an actress.

With an evocative music score by Justin Hurwitz, La La Land is a daring gem. A modern-day romance, grounded in the reality of careerism and a city that promises much only to deceive, set to original music and featuring song and dance numbers by actors not known for their singing and dancing, La La Land sounds like the farthest thing from an interesting film. Out of that premise Chazelle creates a magical experience, capturing the flighty charisma of the best Hollywood musicals but modernized for a world firmly rooted in pragmatism born out of disillusionment.

Mia and Sebastian have their limits, and have been kicked around enough. Having tasted too many false dawns both are now just as likely to pursue their dream as abandon it, Sebastian ready to sell out in pop land and Mia one bad audition away from retreating to her family home. Somewhere within the increasingly pessimistic milieu of dream chasing they have to maybe fit in a romance, love as another ethereal pursuit, either helping or hindering lifelong ambitions. The film's dogged tenacity in holding on to what defines success in a city that manufactures fantasies sets a unique platform for Mia and Sebastian, and from that skewed starting point Chazelle can and does take their couplehood in unexpected directions.

To set this story to music, Hurwitz fills the film with a catchy, show-stopping piano tuned for poignancy and playfulness. City of Stars is the signature tune, its title already hinting at the potential for competing objectives. Mia and Sebastian's Theme makes regular appearances and is an old fashioned tune dripping with irresistible melancholia, while Mia finds her voice, her purpose and salutes the people of her adopted city with the tender yet unforgettably resilient The Fools Who Dream.

Stylistically Chazelle insists on fluid, long and continuous takes, and old fashioned musical framing with Gosling and Stone always filmed full length when dancing. The film is saturated in colour, dark blues punctuated by yellows featuring prominently as La La Land celebrates a Los Angeles that lives by night and loves its stars.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone reunite for the third time after Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, and they enjoy an easy chemistry allowing them to mix squabbling with honesty in romance. Stone does the heavier lifting when it comes to acting, while Gosling gets away with just being himself but does throw in some well-timed comic mannerisms.

Chazelle bookends La La Land with two sequences of breathtaking majesty, both destined to be remembered for generations. The opening song and dance extravaganza on the freeway to the tune of Another Day In The Sun is 4 minutes of single-take wizardry, a celebratory number that sets the stage, introducing the city, the stars, the colour and the attitude.

Not satisfied with one scene for the history books, Chazelle just goes ahead and ends the film with a stupendous knock-out punch, an eight minute epilogue of heartbreaking imagined happiness holding hands with giddy sorrow, dreams fulfilled and lost, connections made only across the room, definitely within hearts, and in time eternal for two people. The audacity of the epilogue in echoing a re-imagined past, refusing to surrender to the obvious, and yet finding a uniquely satisfying conclusion within the context of a romance set in the land of fantasy elevates La La Land from a simply brilliant movie to a remarkable artistic achievement for the ages.






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Sunday, 8 January 2017

Movie Review: Blood Ties (2013)


A good brother - bad brother cop drama, Blood Ties features a superlative cast but is undermined by an overwhelming lack of originality and chemistry.

It's the 1970s in New York City, and police officer Frank Pierzynski (Billy Crudup) arrests criminal Anthony Scarfo (Matthias Schoenaerts) and reignites a romantic relationship with Scarfo's wife Vanessa (Zoe Saldana). Meanwhile Frank's brother Chris (Clive Owen) is released from prison and despite an uneasy brotherly dynamic, Frank tries to help Chris go straight. Chris accepts a job at an auto garage, reconnects with his wife Monica (Marion Cotillard), and establishes a new relationship with Natalie (Mila Kunis).

Frank and Chris were brought up by their father Leon (James Caan) after their mother abandoned the family. Leon is now physically ailing and just wants the brothers to get along. But Chris is soon sucked back into a life of crime and gets involved in gangland murders and armed heists, placing Frank in the awkward position of having to pursue his brother. Meanwhile Scarfo is stewing in jail, plotting revenge against Frank.

Directed by Guillaume Canet as a remake of French film in turn adapted from a French novel, Blood Ties labours its way towards offering nothing new. All the ingredients are there, from the gritty 1970s New York setting to the conflicted characters living in the shadows of emotional damage built up over a lifetime of disappointments and betrayals. But the film lands with a dull thud of inertness, the performers almost seeming disinterested, the script never building a head of steam, and a general sense of ennui suffocates the movie.

Which is unfortunate, since the cast is full of talent. Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Zoe Saldana, Marion Cotillard, Mila Kunis, James Caan and Matthias Schoenaerts should enliven any film. But the screenplay, co-written by Canet and James Gray, is unable to locate an adequate spark. The interactions remain dull and subdued, Frank and Chris too often squabbling, sulking and wrestling like children. Scarfo hisses stereotypical evil and the women suffer most in being unable to justify why they are hanging around this assortment of losers. James Caan tries his best to inject some dynamism but errs on the side of overcooking the father trying too hard to make up for the flaws of the past.

The few action scenes are well executed, and Canet does succeed in capturing the spirit of a grainy, crime-infested New York filled with over-sized cars transporting villains from one sleaze-infested neighbourhood to another. Blood Ties has the look, but it only serves as reminder that almost everything else is missing.






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Saturday, 7 January 2017

Movie Review: About Time (2013)


A fantasy romantic comedy and drama, About Time holds promise but eventually gets itself into a hopeless multi-tonal mess.

In Cornwall, England, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) turns 21 and is informed by his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in the family have the special ability to change their fortune by traveling back in time to any event they previously were part of. Tim has never been lucky in love, and so uses his newly found gift to try and improve his success rate with women. He is nevertheless unsuccessful in his attempts to woo Charlotte (Margot Robbie), the best friend of his free-spirited sister Kathy, better known as "Kit Kat" (Lydia Wilson).

After moving to London, Tim uses his time travel skills to help his father's friend and abrasive fledgling playwright Harry (Tom Hollander) have a more successful opening night. In the process he almost derails a promising relationship with Mary (Rachel McAdams), but then rescues his chances with her by doing more time traveling. Eventually Tim learns that there are limits to what he can and cannot change, and understands the true value of his special gift.

Directed and written by Richard Curtis, About Time starts with possibilities and an amusing attitude, mixing playful British eccentricity with droll fantasy elements. The early stages of Tim's experimentation with time travel are engaging, his clumsy but dogged pursuits of first Charlotte and then Mary full of understated charm and soft humour.

But unfortunately, About Time effectively unravels in its second half. New restrictions and rules on what is and is not possible with the time travel trick are introduced seemingly at random. Tim zips backwards and forwards in time at dizzying speed, and the film's emotional focus is hopelessly lost.

Curtis seems to have partial material for three different short stories, and he bolts them together inelegantly. After barely featuring as a character, Tim's sister Kit Kat suddenly becomes the new focus of attention, before a second jerky gear shift resets the emphasis on the relationship between Tim and his father. The narrative transitions are mishandled and in the process much of the initial charm evaporates, replaced by clumsy attempts at pathos. The film eventually settles for a couple of bland conclusions contradicting much of what Tim achieved with his hopping across time.

Domhnall Gleeson is passable as the slightly gawkish youth making his way in the world. Rachel McAdams, about 35 at the time of filming, mails in yet another perky but relatively trivial performance.

Well-intentioned but overambitious, About Time gets distracted in too many time zones.






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