by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Nicholas Meyer
CAST: Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen

PLOT: Before he wrote any of his famous novels, H.G. Wells pursues Jack the Ripper to the 20th Century when the serial murderer uses the future writer’s time machine to escape his time period.

There are two scenes in Time After Time that are genuinely shocking from a story perspective.  One involves a newspaper headline.  The other involves a bloody crime scene.  The first I should have seen coming, but the second I never would have guessed in a million years, and I literally yelled at the TV when it happened.  That’s good plotting.

Those two scenes are the only things that prevent me from giving Time After Time a lower score.  That, and the fantastical, thought-provoking nature of the story itself.  Too bad both those scenes and the plot are buried under layers and layers of hackneyed dialogue and the kind of forced situational comedy that would be more at home in Three’s Company than in a sci-fi adventure.

First, the good stuff.  After a credits sequence that looks inspired by countless grade-Z movies before it, the story starts back in London, 1893, two years before H.G. Wells would write his first novel, The Time Machine.  A prostitute is murdered in a dark alley, victim of the infamous Jack the Ripper.  Later that night, Wells hosts a dinner party at his house for some friends and shows them something he’s been building in his basement: a fully functional time machine.  It doesn’t quite resemble the famous machine from the 1960 classic The Time Machine – it looks more like a ride vehicle from an amusement park than a chair with attachments – but the Victorian details are all there.  There’s some talk about a vital key needed to return to their present and a VERY important device that is discussed without being precisely explained, at least not to my satisfaction.  When it makes a reappearance late in the film, I was still mystified as to its actual purpose other than a convenient deus ex machina.

Suddenly, Scotland Yard appears.  Turns out they tracked Jack the Ripper to Wells’ doorstep.  Tricky Jack awaits his chance and uses the time machine to escape…though, without that handy key mentioned earlier, the machine returns to its point of origin on its own, leaving Jack stranded in a world 86 years in the future.  Wells feels duty-bound to bring Jack to justice, so he follows Jack, setting up the meat of the next few reels: a man from 1893 London struggling to adjust to daily life in 1979 San Francisco.

(It must be noted that the bulk of this film’s budget was clearly NOT devoted to the visual effects department.  The effects on display as Wells travels through time are cheesy at best.  I’d try to describe them here, but my words cannot possibly do them justice.  I couldn’t even find a decent still shot to embed here that would accurately convey just how low-rent they are.  I recently watched 1974’s execrable Zardoz, and I’m here to tell you, from a VFX perspective, Time After Time makes Zardoz look like Interstellar.)

H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper through time?  This is a great plot from a sci-fi perspective, a thrilling “what-if” tale.  I had heard about this film for years but was never able to find a copy until recently.  The scores on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes are decent.  Not stellar, but decent enough that I was pretty sure I would enjoy it.  The movie was directed and co-written by Nicholas Meyer, the mind behind The Day After, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  That’s not a bad track record.

But, man oh man…for most of the film’s middle section after Wells arrives in 1979, the movie’s brain goes on sabbatical.  Example: he walks into a McDonald’s, takes careful note of how the customer in front of him orders a meal, then does his best to literally impersonate the customer.  He doesn’t just order what he orders…he gives an impersonation of the customer’s voice and accent.  Why?  He doesn’t do that at a pawn shop or a bank.  No, it’s just there because someone thought it would be a laugh to see Malcolm McDowell do a broad American accent.

I can’t deny that the potential is there for real humor.  I couldn’t find it.  I thought these scenes were completely at odds with the tone of the first third of the film.  Wells meets a bank teller, Amy, (a very young Mary Steenburgen) who inexplicably falls in love with him at first sight.  She’s so taken with him she impulsively asks him to lunch, an act that, in 1979, was directly at odds with 99.99% of all other screen romances, so kudos to that, I guess.  But why?  I’m not saying Malcolm McDowell is an affront to the concept of human beauty, but…really?  As Wells, he’s the 19th-century version of a science nerd.  Amy is not a character so much as a cardboard placeholder to be moved and manipulated according to the whims of the plot.

The dialogue is clunky, to say the least.  There is a foot-chase between Wells and Jack that is devoid of suspense.  The score by Hollywood legend Miklós Rózsa feels utterly out of place, as if someone simply lifted Rózsa’s score from some other film and plugged it in where necessary.  There is simply no romantic chemistry between McDowell and Steenburgen, as evidenced in a painfully unfunny scene when they sit on a couch and she declares: “Herbert, if you don’t take me into your arms, I’m going to scream.”

Another actual line of dialogue: “My mother was rather an atrocious woman in her own way, but her many failings did not include raising mentally deficient sons.”  That’s not a real person talking, that’s a writer trying to imitate George Bernard Shaw.

No doubt someone out there will tell me I missed the boat with this movie somehow.  Perhaps Rózsa’s score is intentionally “retro” to make the whole movie feel as temporally displaced as its characters.  Perhaps the intention was the same with the hopelessly amateurish visual effects.  Who knows.  It’s possible.  Maybe there’s a better movie here somewhere and I’m not equipped to find it.  I doubt it, but it’s a possibility.  In the meantime, I’m going to keep this movie in my collection as an example of how a great story can be derailed by poor execution.

And maybe I’ll bring it out if my fellow Cinemaniacs are in the mood for a “So-Bad-It’s-Good” movie day.

[P.S. Keep your eyes open for the screen debut of an 8-year-old Corey Feldman.]

THE ARTIST (2011, France)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Malcolm McDowell
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A hugely popular silent film idol must adjust to culture shock when “talkies” suddenly invade the movie business.

Is there a movie more in love with the First Golden Age of Hollywood than The Artist?  I can’t think of one.  Sunset Blvd. comes close, but that was a caustic commentary on the heartless tendencies of studio executives to reject the Old and embrace the New.  The Artist covers the same ground, but in a much more comic fashion.

Not to say The Artist pulls its punches.  Not at all.  It tells the story of a silent film idol, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who has a meet-cute with a fan, Peppy (the stunning Bérénice Bejo), outside of a movie theatre.  Long story short, she becomes a bit player in numerous silent films and eventually becomes a superstar when the talkies take over Hollywood.  And George?  He struggles, as so many other silent actors did, to acclimate himself to a brave new world where faces and title cards aren’t enough anymore for an audience who is always looking for something new.

And, oh, yeah, did I mention The Artist is itself a silent film?  Shot in black and white?  Filmed in the old 1:33 aspect ratio?  Yeah.  It’s actually pretty cool.  It takes a little while to get used to seeing modern actors moving their mouths and not hearing their voices, but after a while, my brain acclimated itself to this “new” way of watching a movie.

As I was saying, The Artist doesn’t pull its punches in exposing Hollywood’s appetite for the New (in ways I don’t want to give away here), but it is still far more whimsical and audience-friendly than Sunset Blvd.  I’d compare it more to Singin’ in the Rain, if I had to compare it to anything at all.  But The Artist is a singular achievement, and well worth the Best Picture Academy Award for 2011.

There are two scenes in particular that elevate The Artist. In one, Peppy, who has always adored George from afar, finds herself alone in his dressing room.  She spots one of his jackets hanging on a coat rack and embraces it, imagining his arms inside it.  She then slips one of her own arms into the jacket, and voila!  She has a brief love scene where it really feels like she’s interacting with another person’s arm.  It’s a little hard to describe, but the effect is magical.

The second scene is one of my favorite scenes of all time.  George has just gone to see one of Peppy’s new films, a talkie.  The audience loves it, but he is still resistant to the idea.  He retreats to his dressing room, but something bizarre happens.  Remember, up until now, the movie has been completely silent (except for a musical score).  But this time, when he puts a glass down on a table…it clinks.  He stares.  What the heck was that???  He does it again.  Clink!  What’s going on???  He picks up a comb and drops it.  Thunk!  What the hey?!!  He opens his mouth to yell…but nothing comes out!

It’s a wonderfully comic moment, and a perfect way to demonstrate George’s anxiety at what this new technology will mean for him.

The more I think about The Artist, the more I’m realizing that the only way to properly discuss it is to go almost scene by scene, and I certainly don’t want to go down that road, especially for anyone who may not have seen it.  I mean, there’s the dog, George’s butler, the release date for one of his movies (October 24th, 1929, oh dear), the auction, the fire, and the deliriously happy ending, the kind of ending that tends to only exist in movies.

That’s really all The Artist is.  It’s an efficient engine designed to pull at our heartstrings and deliver a feel-good ending after teasing us with darker possibilities here and there.  The fact that it’s black-and-white and silent is a bonus, especially for film buffs.  It may not be realistic, but when it comes to Hollywood’s Golden Age…I mean, who really cared about realism back then?  (Back then, they didn’t need words, they had faces.)