Video Review: The Time Traveler's Wife

Not particularly intriguing in any era.

The Time Traveler’s Wife
Directed by Robert Schwentke

PG-13, 107 mins.
New Line Cinema
* *

We live in a really good movie area that includes six independent screens, so we often delay seeing films that get mixed reviews in commercial release. The Time Traveler’s Wife was one of those movies and now that we’ve seen it, about the best that we can say is that it’s a mindless diversion for a rainy summer night.

We’ve not read the Audrey Niffenegger novel upon which the movie is based, but reviewers say that it’s an odd book and that the central idea of a man whose genetic disorder causes him to time travel is a metaphor for absent and emotionally withdrawn men. We also gather that the book centers on Clare Abshire, the unfortunate “wife” of the book’s title, who has to endure long period’s of Henry DeTamble time-traveling truancy. Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay shifts this so dramatically that the film should be titled The Time Traveler and (by the way) His Wife. Eric Bana plays DeTamble, mostly as a gentle, well-meaning guy who would like to stick around, but those darn genes keep pulling him in and out of the present. Rachel McAdams plays Claire, mostly as a saintly and forgiving figure who stands by her man. Heck, this could have been a film about a 1950s suburban housewife if you took away the sci-fi elements. Mostly McAdams fawns and empathizes. She has no clear personality, hence those few scenes in which she expresses anger over her episodic widowhood ring false. To be fair, this is not McAdams’ fault—neither Rubin’s screenplay nor Robert Schwentke’s direction provide enough scene development for McAdams to do much more than smile, frown, or cry.

There are numerous movie devices that are presumably explained in the book, but make for puzzling holes in the movie plot. Every time Henry time travels, for instance, he appears naked. Why? Okay, so the guy’s age changes and if he left 2005 and landed back in 1990, his clothing wouldn’t have been made yet. But if you had Henry’s problem, wouldn’t you wear old underwear? And if Henry is nude, where’s he hiding the lock picks he uses to break into houses and steal clothing? Again, we learn next to nothing about Clare, so her transformation from the curious six-year-old who first encounters Henry, to the love-struck twenty-year-old who beds him, to the feminist tiger spouting lines about having her own life require watchers to suspend quite a lot of disbelief.

It’s possible that The Time Traveler’s Wife is an unfilmable book. It’s also possible that the job was botched by Rubin and Schwentke. This was the latter’s fifth feature directorial effort, but if the name rings no bells it’s because none of his previous or subsequent efforts have caused any heart palpitations. The Time Traveler’s Wife as a movie is a metaphor for nothing except mindless escapism.


Tribute to Sandy Denny

I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard National Public Radio say that “many people have no idea who Sandy Denny was.” Surely there was some mistake. How could anyone who loves music not recognize Sandy Denny (1947-1978), the voice that made Fairport Convention’s 1969 album Liege and Leaf one of the most important recordings of the 20th-century? So I asked around—young folks as well as folks old enough to remember the 1960s. Zilch! And they don’t remember Fairport Convention either.

Okay—education time. There’s nothing startling about mixing electric and acoustic instruments these days, but almost nobody did that before Fairport. When Dylan plugged in at Newport in 1965, he put his acoustic guitar in mothballs. Fairport didn’t exactly invent folk rock, but what they did was stunning for its time—they took century’s old ballads and amped them. They were more than pioneers. Denny on vocals, Dave Mattacks on drums, Ashley Hutchings on bass, Dave Swarbrick on fiddle, Simon Nicol and a young Richard Thompson on guitars! That’s not a band; it’s the gathering of gods who laid down the standards by which mortals would be measured. Nobody had ever before heard a ballad like “Tamlin” played with thumping bass, wailing electric guitar, and manic fiddle. And none who heard it could forget Denny’s clear, steady voice standing as the calm amidst the mayhem, “Matty Groves”—another classic. Ditto the werewolf tale “Reynardine,” only marginally less edgy than “Crazy Man Michael,” a song that is the ultimate cautionary tale for braggarts. But it’s Denny’s voice that lingers after the tales have been told—pure, strong, lovely, and not a hint of a quaver or strain.

Denny cut her teeth in folk clubs in the mid-1960s at a time in which the British folk revival was on its last legs. In 1967 she joined The Strawbs, a so-so rock band until Denny added some balladry to their repertoire. It was with them that she first dusted off her own "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?," quite possibly the best song written in the 20th-century. (If not, I’m only exaggerating slightly.) By the time Denny recorded it again with Fairport on their 1969 Unhalfbricking release, she had it down. It’s been covered by many singers, but only Judy Collins approached the glory of the original.

Sandy Denny made three albums with Fairport in 1968-69 and then formed her own band, Fotheringay, in 1970. It only lasted one record and broke up when producer Joe Boyd left for America. Before he split, Sandy’s recording of “Banks of the Nile” became a classic, and her own “The Sea” won acclaim for its innocence and beauty. She went on to make three solo records featuring her own compositions between 1970 and 1974, with Sandy (1972) the best of the lot. In 1974-75 she rejoined Fairport (minus Richard Thompson) for another go-round, though it was only partly a folk rock ensemble by then. One more solo record in 1977 included her fine “No More Refrains,” and then there were none. Denny died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 21, 1978, four days after falling down a flight of stairs. A freak accident or the aftermath of too much drinking? Both stories circulate and by then Denny had fallen prey to the temptations that laid low too many of her contemporaries: too much smoking, too many controlled substances, too much frustration with the music industry.

If you’re one of the ones who have “no idea” who Sandy Denny was,” start with the fact that she was twice voted the best singer in Britain. Move on to the tidbit that she’s the only guest artist to appear on a Led Zeppelin album—her 1971 duet with Robert Plant on “The Battle of Evermore.” Consider that she was so highly regarded that there have been ten posthumous Sandy Denny releases, that she inspired virtually everyone who heard her, and that most people would have stopped if they made an album as good as Liege and Leaf or written a song as perfect as “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”

Every song mentioned in this piece is on YouTube. Listen to one and you’ll want to hear them all. Listen—and let your education begin.


All-Star Game Musings

MLB needs more George Steinbrenners!

The All-Star Game is baseball’s traditional halfway mark, so it’s time for a few midseason thoughts:

Nobody except Bud Selig really cares about the All-Star Game, nor should they. Its allure was long ago destroyed by interleague play, an experiment that can’t end too soon for my taste. H
ow can one even pick “All-Stars” based on a half year’s performance?

Can somebody explain to me how Seattle Manager Don Wakamatsu or General Manager Jack Zduriencik still have jobs? The sexy pick to win the AL West (including mine) is on a pace to lose 100 games and Cliff Lee has been sent packing to Texas, a team in Seattle’s division, a no-no for a GM with half a brain. You look at this roster and there’s no way the Mariners should be this bad.

Forget the Stephen Strasburg hype—the Nationals still stink and DC still doesn’t deserve an MLB franchise. While I’m on the subject, can we also agree that Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Miami, Tampa, and Milwaukee are burgs more appropriate for a tractor pull than MLB? Anybody who pays money to see the Pirates or Royals needs to get an EEG to check for brainwave activity. Get back to me in three years on Strasburg.

The Giants are proof that all the pitching in the world won’t matter if your everyday roster can’t hit a fat woman’s tush with a cello. The Blue Jays confirm the opposite—they lead MLB in homers but their pitching staff gets hammered like a lumberyard’s inventory.

I said that the only way the Phillies could lose the NL East is to implode. That’s exactly what’s happening. I still think they’ll right the ship, but they seem to be baking from scratch what should have been a ready-to-eat championship pie. The Braves will be tough—they’re giving Bobby Cox a fitting tribute in his swan-song managerial season.

I picked the Padres to lose a hundred games. They’re in first, but I still think it shows how awful the NL West is, not how surprisingly good the Padres are. And I still don’t think it will last. Gotta love the breakout season of the Rockies Ubaldo Jimenez, who may single handedly help the Rocks take the NL West.

The AL West is equally putrid, so much so that the Angels could still win it with a roster of has-beens and never-will-bes. Texas is favored, especially now that they’ve rented Lee for a half year, but Arlington in late summer is the graveyard of pitching staffs and the Rangers may still have to bash rather than finesse their way to the title.

Close behind in the weak sister race is the AL Central. It’s hard to see the ChiSox remaining atop the heap now that Jake Peavy has been lost for the season and Ozzie Guillen is still at the helm. But the Twins remain as cheap as ever and simply won’t spend what is necessary to upgrade their cramped ranch house roster to a comfortable split-level even though they’re swimming in revenue from the opening of Target Field. The urban blight Tigers have a decent shot of redeeming last year’s collapse and stealing the crown from suburban Minnesotans.

Three more for the spend-what-it-takes or sell-the-damn-club category: Oakland, Houston, and Arizona. My solution for the horrendous D’backs is to float a rumor that there’s a plan afoot to relocate the team to Hamilton, Ontario.

It’s a shame about Cleveland—first they lose LeBron and then they get the 2010 Indians. Even sadder is the continuing ineptitude of the Orioles, who I actually thought would be competitive this year. Boy was I wrong! I was never an O’s fan, but it’s painful to see such a storied franchise become such a joke.

The Cubs would still rot no matter who managed them, but would somebody please fire Lou Pinella and put him out of his misery?

Did any general managers have a worse off-season than Theo Epstein and Brian Cashman? The supposedly defensive-minded Red Sox have booted more balls this year than last, and Adrian “Crash” Beltre has taken out two-thirds of the starting outfield. I predicted that John Lackey would be more like a four of clubs than an ace in the AL East and so far I’m right on the money. Lackey’s inflated career numbers reflect the AL West weakness, not his pitching prowess. Theo’s big plan to get Matsuzaka (Japanese for “mediocre”) back on course hasn’t exactly dazzled either.

But Theo’s had a better year than Cashman. None—as in zero—of his pre-April moves have worked and the fact that the Yankees have the best record in MLB at the break is commentary on how good the rest of the team is. Nick Johnson? More likely to be in a salvage yard than in the lineup. Curtis Granderson? His All-Star year was a fluke; the dude is a .230 hitter with less chance of hitting left-handed pitching than Bin Laden has of becoming pope. Randy Winn? Released. Javier Vasquez? Spotted filling out applications for Basket(case)ville. Chan Ho Park? Revealed to be 60.39 years-old, which coincidentally is also his ERA. When your best off-season move is signing Marcus Thames…

For all of this, I still think the Red Sox and Yankees will finish 1-2 in the AL East and that the Rays will come up a dime short. The Yankees need a better bench and relief pitching, a task they might accomplish by unloading Joba Chamberlain while he still has any value whatsoever. The Red Sox need relief pitching as well, and could really use another bat. The Rays, however, need an entirely new bullpen short of Rafael Soriano, and hitters with an on-base percentage roughly double what it is currently. Corey Hart is rumored to be on his way to Tampa, but he’s not a high OBP guy either. The Rays are talented, but the holes in their lineup strike me as bigger than those of the Sox or Yankees.

As I was preparing this, the news hit that George Steinbrenner has just died at the age of 80. He’s the guy everyone says ruined baseball. What a crock! If every owner in the game cared as much about their play toys as The Boss did, some of the league’s pathetic franchises would fare much better. To be sure, few could spend as much as Steinbrenner, but take a look at the percentage of team revenue they spend on players and get back to me. Steinbrenner always put his money where his mouth was, whereas clowns in Pittsburgh, KC, Miami, and elsewhere are content to put Yankees’ revenue-sharing checks in their personal bank accounts. MLB needs more Steinbrenners.


Stupidity Sucks as Practice and Documentary

Stupidity: The Documentary (2003)
Directed by Albert Nurenberg

Canada, 61 minutes

I didn’t mean to do it. Maybe it was seeing a TV clip of Tea Party Neanderthals fawning over Sarah Palin. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was because I was standing inside the only bookstore in Hershey, PA and it was really lame. But I know what set me off. I heard the bookstore owners complaining that no one buys books any more. I offered condolences and they set me off by asking, “What’s going on in this country? Why doesn’t anyone read any more?”

Before I even thought I blurted out, “It’s because we worship a god called Stupidity. We’ve created a society in which we punish intelligence and reward fools, boors, and morons.” That got their attention and that of a few more folks as well. One guy asked me to say more. I explained that, as a college professor, it was disheartening to see how little education, reason, expertise, and facts matter in modern America. The name of the game is either to tell people what they want to hear, or force them to wallow in mediocre muck until they no longer care what’s true and what’s not. Either way, you turn sentient beings into sheep. Another guy, arms loaded with $1 Garfield books no less, asked what we should do. “Make it unacceptable to be stupid,” I remarked. “Stop passing, hiring, and voting for stupid people. Punish stupidity instead of rewarding it.”

I caught my breath, realized it was past time to shut up, and apologized for soapboxing. A kind woman said, “You’re worked up, honey, but you’re not wrong.” Musing on the matter stayed with me and when I saw a video at my local library purporting to be a documentary on stupidity, I had to watch it. Finally, I hoped, somebody will have an explanation for the mess we’re in. Boy, am I glad I hadn’t seen this piece of junk before I hit that bookshop!

I should have known better. I had never even heard of this film and that’s seldom a good sign. The film is Canadian and is narrated by Fred Napoli, presumably because he sounds like Donald Sutherland, who is way too smart for tripe like this. I suppose there’s cold comfort in watching footage that shows that Canadians can be just as dumb as Americans but, after a promising premise, the film is simply a waste. It opens with one of its few enlightening points: we simply don’t know much about stupidity. We have as much trouble defining it as we have stopping it. The other thing we learn is correct terminology. Technically speaking we shouldn’t call people “idiots” unless their IQ is under 25, an “imbecile” unless it’s 25-50, or a “moron” unless it’s 50-75. Most stupid people are “dull normal”(76-90) or “normal” (91-110) folks willfully turning off what few rational centers they possess.

So what produces a culture that valorizes Adam Sandler, Jackass, George W. Bush, Paris Hilton, Steve-O, and Coolio? Nerenberg had heavyweights lined up to offer insight—John Cleese, Noam Chomsky, Bill Maher, Michael Moore, and a host of academics whose names you don’t know—but he wasted it all with amateurish and cheap filmmaking. The film’s longest cut is of college kids overturning cars outside a concert hall and justifying their boorish behavior. The rest? Ten-second sound bites of no consequence, or random acts of irrationalty. Even more distressing is that the film ends with a guy who sounds like he actually has something to say until you realize that he’s actually celebrating stupidity in a how-to-be-dumb guide the likes of which show up on the remainder tables of bookstores like the one in Hershey—just before they go out of business.

Okay—now I am on a crusade. I’m sick of stupidity and I pledge to denounce it whenever and wherever I encounter it. Let’s start with this film: it’s inept and STUPID!