The time-travelling hijinks of Safety Not Guaranteed and Timetrap

safety2Time-travel movies, eh? I’m always a sucker for this mini-genre of films but you’d think I’d know better: two time-travel movies in one night makes for a rather dizzying double-bill. First up, Safety Not Guaranteed, starring  Mark Duplass (of the great Paddleton) as Kenneth, a grocery worker whose classified ad looking for an assistant for time traveling into the past gets the attention of Jeff (Jake Johnson) a staff-writer of a magazine who sees the proposterous story as opportunity to look up an old high-school romance and takes two interns along for the scoop. This film is as light-hearted and quirky as its plot suggests, and while it perhaps doesn’t really work its nonetheless got a certain charm. Its success comes from the characters and performances- Mark Duplass is no surprise, but Jake Johnson certainly won me over as a brash sleazy-journo who doesn’t realise he’s having his own midlife crisis. As the film progresses, one begins to wonder if there might be some truth to Kenneth’s time-travelling claims and his fledgling relationship with intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza) has a certain chemistry that adds a romcom appeal. Throw in a coming-of-age subplot for the second intern, Arnau (Karan Soni) and a few suspicious FBI agents who are more Men in Beige than MIB and yeah, its rather fun in a daft, easy-going sort of way.

timetrapLess fun is the far more seriously-intentioned (ironically, considering its strictly b-movie/exploitation title) Timetrap, in which a bunch of teens investigating the disappearance of their professor get lost in caves that are, er, unstuck in time. Its one of those movies whose high-concept intentions really isn’t helped by its strictly tv-movie cast playing beautiful young things who are too thick to see the blindingly obvious. I have to wonder what the casting-sessions were like: Andrew Wilson as Professor Hopper is a poor-man’s Aaron Eckhart and Brianne Howey as Jackie is obviously a young Anne Hathaway sub. To be fair, maybe it wasn’t intended but it looked so obvious to me that I was continuously distracted by musings of how casting is such a lost art.

Timetrap is one of those… well, lets be charitable, lets refer to it as a film-  Timetrap is one of those films that has a premise that is initially intiguing but which becomes increasingly preposterous as it goes on, and unfortunately the film just takes itself increasingly seriously as it does so, stumbling into farce before the end. Whilst avoiding spoilers, I would just like to point out how much I hate films depicting ‘average joes’ being totally nonplussed by events that would have everybody losing their minds, and this thing has people being cured of, er, certain death and then flying off to far-future Mars at the end. Its actually quite frustrating, because some sequences are done quite well, its just that as it goes on, the whole film just seems to absolutely lose its shit. I remember stifling at titter at the caveman sequence in Altered States back in the day, but there’s moments in this that are like, that sequence times ten. By the time Timetrap ends, you’re just thankful its over, whereas with how Safety Not Guaranteed ends, you feel you’d quite like to know what happens to the characters next, which is, like, the best way to feel at the end of a movie, yes?

Safety Not Guaranteed is currently streaming on Netflix, and if you’re feeling brave, so is Timetrap.

The Lazarus Effect (2015)

laz1Oh dear. Flatliners meets Brainstorm and it ain’t gonna be pretty. Its funny really, watching this so soon after rewatching 1989’s Pet Sematary, another film in which fools embark gladly on playing Frankenstein and things go very badly. It’s as if movies are made in some alternate universe in which no scientist has ever read Mary Shelley or watched any horror film about bringing back the dead. I suppose it gets points for resurrecting a dog first instead of a cat, but still, when the inevitable accident happens and our heroes are ‘forced’ by cruel circumstance to use their new science breakthrough on a human subject, it’s clearly not going to end well. One of the scientists teases us with the old adage that humans only use 10% of their brains, but only people paying the film 10% of their attention could be surprised how things turn out, it’s so routine and poorly telegraphed throughout.

Which is something of a shame, because the cast is pretty good -Mark Duplass (so good the other night in Paddleton), Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger, these are pretty impressive names, and the film even features Twin Peaks fave Ray Wise as a corporate bad guy to add some geek appeal, but its all for naught. They are stuck with a script that is Dead on Arrival, and no miraculous Lazarus Serum is going to resurrect this one.

It is so frustrating, because although the premise is inherently daft (scientists develop a serum that when injected into a corpses brain and activated by an electrical shock brings them back from the dead) it offers all sorts of possibilities but doesn’t even try other than suggesting that sometimes dead is better. No wait, wrong movie….

Lets try again- let’s say they do bring someone back, lets not saddle them with esp/telekinetic superpowers straight away, lets show her demonstrate her acting chops by dealing with being pulled back from Heaven (or Hell, it seems in this case) and returning to the living and all that psychological and religious baggage that entails. But no, I suppose that risks upsetting someone in the audience for ridiculing their belief system or actually making an empirical statement about Life, Death and the Beyond, so instead… lets make her eyes go spooky black and have her bump everyone off one by one. The irony is, even as a horror film this film fails, it simply cannot carry of any level of tension or scares.

Not so much a case of sometimes dead is better, then, but maybe that 1989s Pet Sematary (and Brainstorm and Flatliners before it) is better than previously thought. All things are relative, I suppose, and it does seem that you can count on new bad films showing old ‘bad’ films in a new, kinder light…

Paddleton (2019)

paddleton1Paddleton is a surprisingly affecting, lovely little comedy drama starring Ray Romano and Mark Duplass as two middle-aged neighbours who have become best friends, sharing a love of pizza, jigsaws and badly dubbed kung-fu movies. They are outsiders, a sense cleverly reinforced as they repeatedly play a made-up game of paddleton at an abandoned drive-in. The decaying ghosts of better days that lingers in the faded paint of the facades mirroring their own greying stubble and lined faces. Underachievers, seemingly neither of them having friends outside of each other, nor family to speak of, and stuck with mundane and unfulfilling jobs, the world has passed them by but they seem fine with it. There is a lovely and convincing routine in their evenings eating pizza and watching movies, it feels real.

The film begins soberly enough (considering its billed as a comedy) with Michael (Duplass) diagnosed with cancer. After some tests confirm the prognosis is bad, Michael decides that rather than suffer, he wants to take control of his situation and end his life on his own terms. Andy (Romano) is conflicted by this, he loves his friend and wants to support him, but he’s clearly terrified at losing his only friend and being left alone. So no, this clearly isn’t a belly-laugh comedy.

What it is, though, is a tender and well-directed story with two really good central performances- Romano makes quite an impression, as I’m more familiar with his Everybody Loves Raymond sitcom hi-jinks from years ago, and his acting chops here really surprise- it’s really fine work. I watched a Louis Theroux documentary series several months ago about assisted suicides in America which was deeply involving and upsetting, which only intensified the drama and reality of this film. I think it raised this film to some other level really, being aware of the tragic real-world behind it.

So, this is a wonderful little film, quite affecting and emotional with two great performances. Considering the really dark subject matter, it was very enjoyable and something of a surprise treat- I think Netflix would be wise to pursue this kind of low-key American drama film-making rather than all the blockbuster stuff.  Paddleton is billed, yes, as a comedy drama and it does work as such (there is some humour amongst the sadness and tenderness) but it also serves as a focus, I think, for some very real issues.