‘Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time’, an excellent meta bio-doc; Tim Roth is a brooding enigma in the beguiling drama ‘Sundown’

Opening up: The author of ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ spent decades on camera for the bio-doc ‘Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time’

KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME ***1/2 (126 minutes) M
As far as documentaries go about literary greats of the 20th century, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is definitely one for the books.

It’s a safe bet Vonnegut fans will enjoy like a midnight snack of cold roast chicken the depth of detail offered here, yet directors Robert B. Weide and Don Argott offer much more than an excellent, comprehensive cross-section of the author best-known for the slender, culture-shifting anti-war tome Slaughterhouse Five.

Pushing the subjective documentary form to an extreme, the film also chronicles the long association and eventual friendship Weide developed with Vonnegut over four decades of filming, which began with Vonnegut’s surprising and generous response to a letter a young Weide nervously sent him about making a film.

So, parallel to the career profile is Weide’s personal story of his friendship with Vonnegut, including letters, phone messages and many sessions where Vonnegut asked to be interviewed.

In a way, the film is an odd beast – a meta bio-doc where the process of making the film and the relationship between director and subject are entwined in the story. It’s a deeply subjective documentary form, one deeply loved by Louis Theroux and Werner Herzog.

Did we need Weide’s story? Probably not. Does it add a layer to the Vonnegut narrative and make for a richer film? Most definitely.

Rightly acknowledging the power and influence of 1969’s Slaughterhouse Five, the film has a clear brief to fill out Vonnegut’s personal and literary story, with much emphasis on his struggles and writings before Slaughterhouse Five made him world-famous.

With the aid of reams of archival footage showing Vonnegut as a kid and a young man in a big, happy family, we learn of his early crisis of confidence as a writer and the invaluable support of his wife Jane. It was her dauntless letter-writing campaign that got Vonnegut’s short stories published, igniting his literary career.

Vonnegut himself comes over as a lovable, irascible jokester, forever talkative and funny, the many clips from his lectures – some of which can be seen in full on YouTube – showing what a bone-dry wit the guy had.

There is, quite properly, prominent mention of what the film playfully refers to as Vonnegut’s most famous moment, his cameo in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy film Back to School. It’s a serious profile, of course, yet Vonnegut is sometimes so self-deprecating Weide, and other interviewees, become confounded.

The only quibbles in an otherwise outstanding bio doc are that the circumstances of Vonnegut’s accidental death are gleaned over, and that Weide – best-known for directing and producing the first five seasons of the Larry David meta-comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm – doesn’t confront Vonnegut for how he treated his first wife, leaving her for a younger woman.

Those carps aside, the film will both satisfy his fans as well as present a delicious entrée for those coming in cold to Vonnegut, his formidable body of work having proved enticing to successive generations of young people eager to experience the simple pleasures and enduring power of the way Vonnegut put words together.

Tim Roth at his understated best in ‘Sundown’

SUNDOWN *** (82 minutes) MA
Rational people generally accept how each person is entitled to process grief and tragedy in their own way. Yet there are certain behaviours in such circumstances that even the most tolerant and empathetic would consider incomprehensible and out of line.

That’s the conundrum confronting attentive viewers of writer/director Michel Franco’s alluring, strange, slow-burning psychological drama Sundown.

While enjoying a luxurious beachfront holiday in the Mexican tourist hotspot of Acapulco, Neil (Tim Roth) and his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) receive some bad family news that pulls them out of their laid-back mindset and onto the next flight back home to Britain.

Things worsen by the time they arrive at the airport but Neil announces that he left his passport back at the hotel and must let them go on without him, promising to catch the next flight he can.

What seems like a careless mistake turns out to be something more perturbing as Neil steadfastly refuses to follow any common emotional pattern when coping with a distressing family event. Not even a visit from a very angry Alice can make sense of his behaviour.

Again proving himself a great exponent of the Less is More school, Tim Roth (also a producer on the film) plays Neil as an enigmatic soul who, while not exactly lost, offers few clues as to what is going on in his mind.

Is it scrambled and aimless? Or has he reached a point of mid-life clarity that render the trappings of wealth meaningless and the pain of conflicted family ties a source of needless aggravation?

It’s one of the many tantalizing questions swirling around Neil as he wanders the foreshore, lazes in the sun, takes up with a beautiful local called Berenice (Iazua Larios) and regards with puzzling insouciance the strange goings on in his hotel.

The admirable thing about Roth’s deceptively downbeat performance and Michel Franco’s unobtrusive direction is that you’re always with Neil, even though you’re never quite sure where he is.

Sundown is an offbeat, oddball arthouse offering, strangely seductive and intriguing dure to it not over-playing its hand. It’s not for all tastes, that’s for sure, yet those after something unusual in a movie market brimming with sameness will likely find its unforced pace and sudden turns rewarding.