Monday 2 January 2012

Time Again (2011)

Director: Ray Karwel
Stars: Scott F Evans, John T Woods, Angela Rachelle, Tara Smoker and Gigi Perreau

Director Ray Karwel kindly sent me a screener of his indie time travel/action feature Time Again to review back in September and, given the subject matter, I wish I could conjure up some sort of time travel shenanigans of my own to post a review back then. As it stands, I'd have to settle for changing the date of this post and that would just be cheating. So, my apologies to Ray for the delay and to any readers I still have after a particularly empty last six months. Hopefully all the things that have kept me from writing for so long are taken care of now and I can be much more prolific in 2012. I'm especially happy to get back into a routine with Time Again, as indie science fiction features are something of an endangered species nowadays. Anyone who has screened submissions for genre film festivals knows that there are ten horror pictures for every science fiction movie and there are twenty sci-fi shorts for every feature.

It helps that this is a decent film too, certainly if you consider its budget which is somewhere on the south side of not a heck of a lot. Its flaws are not the usual ones that come along with a lack of money: there's nothing wrong with the lighting, the pace or the dialogue for a start. It's rare to see an indie sci-fi feature that doesn't fail on at least one of those fronts, if not more, and I can happily report that this is an exception to that rule. That isn't to say it looks like a Hollywood epic because it doesn't. The camerawork isn't as slick as we expect, Karwel making up for that in the editing room; the music is generic, obviously public domain; the stunts, while refreshingly done by the actors themselves, are too obviously set up; and a couple of the actors can't stop smiling. Yet the engaging story and the fast pace go a long way towards making up for all those flaws. Hollywood nailed pace long ago but still has a habit of forgetting about the story. This has both.

It centres around a set of four coins minted by a Roman priest for Augustus Caesar at the point the Christian calendar was being established and they have the power to revisit the past to make different choices with the power of hindsight, like a pack of magic undo buttons. It's both a cool MacGuffin and the mechanism by which a waitress by the name of Marlo tries to save the life of her sister, Sam. As Marlo, Angela Rachelle proves a capable lead, not only because she's terminally cute but because she successfully grows as a character along with the story. Initially she's very much a waste of space little sister, so we're surprised to realise that we'll be watching her rather than Sam, but Marlo becomes much more than her beginning while Sam becomes just a prop for her to work with. Rachelle seems to be getting steady work as an actress but she deserves bigger and better parts and surely this performance can only help that to happen.

The acting is surprisingly capable for a low budget action film without anyone we recognise and with a story that by definition makes everyone's job harder. Only Marlo gets to progress through the film in a chronological fashion, allowing Rachelle the opportunity to build her character. The rest are given to us in fragments, their parts broken up by a story that leaps around in a number of different timelines over a period of six months. This means that most of the actors are tasked with establishing their roles in mere snatches of time that might be duplicated, replayed a little differently or entirely undone later on in the film. It's tough to get involved with characters when we see them running through the same lines and scenes over and over again, as it's far easier to sit back and imagine them as props for Rachelle to play with. Needless to say, some of the actors are more successful than others in making their presence known.
Scott F Evans is perhaps the standout as Mr Way, a Los Angeles crime boss. Sure, some of his lines seem a little too cool but for the most part his biggest problem is how hands on he has to get as the lack of budget is most obvious when counting extras. Similarly, John T Woods, who is ostensibly tasked with playing a likeable cop called Det Lym, is most taxed when he realises that he's actually the entire LAPD (the SWAT team don't count: they're the worst thing in the entire film). Robert Pike Daniel, whose IMDb headshots suggest he's stereotyped in stern, emotionless roles, is pleasantly genial as a boss who every waitress surely wishes they worked for. Dan Lookabill is just as pleasant as Marlo and Sam's dad, perhaps highlighting that Ray Karwel might just be a big softy at heart who wanted to make his action film as filled with feelgood moments as with bullets. If so, he succeeded. It's a happy action movie.

The biggest name is perhaps the most surprising one, a French-American child actor from the forties and fifties called Gigi Perreau. I probably last saw her in 1945's Voice of the Whistler, a William Castle picture she made at the ripe old age of four, two years after Mervyn LeRoy began her career as the title character's bilingual daughter in Madame Curie. She brings an agreeable sense of quirkiness to Time Again as an unnamed old lady (unnamed for a very good reason) who only gets a few scenes but nonetheless serves as the oil that keeps the story in motion. I wonder how Karwel talked her into this picture. Sure, she has a vast amount of experience, with 35 films behind her before she turned 21 in 1961, but she promptly retired from the screen at that point to focus on stage direction instead. I'm happy she graced us with her presence once more and I may need to dust off Journey to the Center of Time or Hell on Wheels in celebration.

The best reason to see Time Again is for the script. Karwel is one of three writers, who deserve as much praise for their attention to detail when dealing with time travel paradoxes as they do shame for not counting bullets or for use of overly convenient props. This is a well thought out, story based, time travel movie and those are rare creatures indeed. No, you shouldn't blink early on or you may do as I did and conflate a dead character with a live one, thus confusing yourself royally for a little while; but once established, it gets more intriguing the longer it runs and the foreknowledge that accompanies a repeat viewing makes it feel tighter still. I found some subtle establishing shots second time through that I'd missed previously. Any picture that works on a first viewing but still improves on a second is a keeper, especially when suspense is a key factor, and I'd happily come back again for a third watch.

The most annoying part of the script is that almost everyone has a generic one syllable name, which means that we have to pay just a little more attention to be sure of who's doing what to whom, especially in those quick changing early scenes. Perhaps Ray Karwel's background as an editor, starting out on the Asylum's version of War of the Worlds, helps him to see things clearer outside the traditional linear timeline of a story without distinctive names as cues. As the job of an editor is often to fix what everyone else has done wrong, they pick up an inherent grasp of what's good and bad in a picture. As editors become writers and directors, they often approach their films with an eye for detail so lacking in others. Karwel doesn't achieve what fellow editor Mike Flanagan did with Absentia, but after this engaging first time out as a writer, producer and director I'd like to see what's next. More budget and consistency could give us a treat.

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