A Troubled Time 

Taking apart The Time Machine, plus counting out All About the Benjamins.

It's a pity, really. All this fuss over a gaudy engagement ring a bright-blue mood stone, to be exact, and the object of desire of both a petty thief and the woman who was presented with it just minutes earlier. He demands, she demurs, and so, with the pop of a gun, she falls and lets loose a pool of blood that matches her red hat.

A pity, too, The Time Machine, the latest adaptation of H.G. Wells' sci-fi novel and a ho-hum-er of a movie if ever there was one.

The action begins in 1899 in New York. Professor Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) is an absent-minded professor covered in chalk dust and enamored of gadgets. Time flies when he's absorbed in his formulas, but he does allow a lapse when it comes to Emma (Sienna Guillory). He meets her for ice skating, pops the question, then loses her over the ring.

Now there is no more time for lapses. Alexander works on his formulas for two years until he pulls back a curtain to reveal his machine, a brass number that looks sort of like a luggage cart at better hotels. He climbs in, sets the date, and is suddenly back at the ice pond, back in front of Emma. Alexander is careful not to retrace his steps from that awful night, but that doesn't stop Emma from ending up the same bloody mess. And Alexander accepts this. He can't change the past, but what is nagging his scientific mind now is why.

So it's back into the time machine and into the future. The year is 2030, a year he figures the time riddle would have long been solved. He first encounters a buzzing big city with a billboard barking the wonders of living on the moon and then a sarcastic librarian contained within a pane of glass. The librarian offers his help. Alexander asks for reference materials and is given instead a roll of the eyes and an impatient lecture on the impossibility of time travel.

Alexander, unsatisfied, ventures further into the future and further still to the year 802701. Still no answers. But if it was the past he was looking for, this appears to be it no signs of progress here, just a primitive society living in straw abodes that cling like cicada shells to the sides of an enormous canyon. The simplicity and the near-nudity of these people appear idyllic to Alexander, but idyllic it's not. They are terrorized by the Morlocks, underground dwellers part human, part beast, part stone who hunt them for food and breeding purposes. Alexander knows he can't do anything about the past, but, he thinks, maybe he can do something about this.

Imagine the boon of The Time Machine for production designer Oliver Scholl and the various costumers who were entrusted with working up and dressing so many different worlds, from turn-of-the-20th-century to post-apocalypse. While none of it is mind-blowingly original, it is a real show of effort (an effort apparently not passed on to the makeup of Uber-Morlock played by Jeremy Irons, who, in white face paint, black lipstick, and a long white wig, looks like an elderly Marilyn Manson). It seems, however, that all these different vistas were budgeted as part of the dramatic thrust, a miscalculation given the always swelling number of movies set in the future.

Directed by Simon Wells, H.G.'s great-grandson, The Time Machine is his first live-action film after countless animated features. It makes sense then that this movie feels so flatly harmless (and even sounds clichéd with its tired, look-at-the-wonder score) and appears to have been aimed narrowly at 12-year-olds, who can get some titillation from the shapely natives while not being scared to death by the Morlocks dragging those same natives squirming and squealing under the sand.

As for Pearce, he doesn't seem right for such a pristinely square picture. In last year's absorbing agitator Memento, he played his memory-deficient character confused and bold. There's not much of a switch for The Time Machine, though his approach is as artificial as the good-chap accent he affects for Alexander.

There's no topping rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube's scowl. The straight line of his mouth spanning his face and his eyes half-closed give even the most matter-of-fact moments an air of menace. So in All About the Benjamins, which he stars in and co-wrote with Ronald Lang, when he flashes a smile and when he really gets tough, it feels like a gift, like a little pulse of authenticity. But let's not get too deep, because All About the Benjamins is all about the surface a workable action film/buddy movie that expands not a single boundary.

Ice Cube stars as Bucum Jackson, a bounty hunter who has about had it with the low pay he gets for collecting lowlifes. His latest gig is to deliver Reggie Wright (Mike Epps), a small-time con man well-known to Bucum. Bucum catches up with Reggie just after his target, with the aide of two elderly women, has lifted a few sundries from a store just nickel-and-dime stuff, nothing Winona Ryder-ish. While still in the store, Reggie completes a legit errand: buying a lottery ticket for his girlfriend.

There Reggie is, holding his bag of stolen goods, when up comes Bucum. There's a chase, some taunting, and then a whole lot of blood. Seems the pair stumbled onto the tail end of a diamond heist, a heist that went wrong and has both the bad guys and Bucum looking for Reggie, and then Bucum and Reggie looking for the bad guys who happen to (unknowingly) have Reggie's girlfriend's lottery ticket.

You can guess where it goes from there the bickering, reconciliation, more bickering, a car chase, flying bullets, a fight on a speedboat, and a couple of harshly violent scenes. Epps, as the comic side of the duo, is a gifted mimic, while Ice Cube is, of course, Ice Cube, one of the grimmest straight men ever.

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