‘Needle in a Timestack’

Rated R for some language. Available via digital, On Demand, and limited theatrical release on Oct. 15; available on Blu-ray and DVD Oct. 19.

I’m a sucker for time travel stories, so I figured I was already in the tank for “Needle in a Timestack,” a new romantic drama adapted from Robert Silverberg’s 1983 short story. The trailer gives off big “Somewhere in Time” vibes (the 1980 cult favorite starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour) and the cast is stacked.

So why did I feel underwhelmed when the end credits rolled? Probably because — while time travel certainly comes into play — it’s a standard “marriage in crisis” drama for most of the running time. Granted, it’s one that remains watchable due to an immensely talented actors that elevate the material, but it seems like Oscar-winning filmmaker John Ridley squandered an opportunity to make a great film and chose to settle for something that’s simply fine.

Despite its high-concept trappings, the plot of “Needle in a Timestack” is fairly simple. Nick and Janine (Leslie Odom Jr. and Cynthia Erivo) are a happily married couple who live in a near-future when time travel is possible, but only for the wealthy. That exclusivity makes Nick begin to suspect Janine’s ex-husband Tommy (Orlando Bloom), a hugely successful CEO, is trying to change the past to prevent their divorce.

Now that paranoia becomes a threat to Nick and Janine’s marriage; she tells him to let it go, while he insists it’s not wrong for him to be worried. That’s when a major “phasing” incident (what it’s called when someone changes the past) throws several relationships into chaos, including one involving Nick’s college girlfriend Alex (Frieda Pinto). Now, as Nick’s memories fade and reality shifts around him, he must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice to set things right.

Let’s be honest: it’s not the movie’s fault, but strike one is that super-clunky title (although Ridley could’ve changed it). Not only does “Needle in a Timestack” fail to set the tone for this slow-paced, surprisingly morose tale, it doesn’t even make sense in the narrative’s context.

Strike two is separating Odom and Erivo for long stretches of the film after initially establishing their scorching chemistry. Granted, the extended absence makes for a melancholy love story, but it ends up being a ton of setup for a tiny bit of payoff. When the final scene cut to black at the precise moment I wanted the story to continue, I groaned. Yes, I know the adage is “leave the audience wanting more,” but sometimes that just ticks them off.

Fortunately, there’s not a strike three — hence the mostly positive grade at the bottom. I was able to overlook a lot of my misgivings (including a tangential subplot involving Nick’s sister, played by the endearing Jadyn Wong) simply because I enjoyed watching terrific actors do their thing.

Odom has the most screen time by far, and he takes full advantage of it. One of this generation’s finest actors (if you haven’t seen “Hamilton” on Disney+, “One Night in Miami” on Amazon Prime or “The Many Saints of Newark” on HBO Max, fix that ASAP), he’s destined for superstardom and “Needle in a Timestack,” despite its shortcomings, is a bright spot on his resumé. His work in the aforementioned final scene makes the movie worth checking out by itself.

Erivo is also outstanding, despite not getting nearly enough to do after the first act. The same goes for Pinto (who should’ve become a megastar after “Slumdog Millionaire”), except in reverse — she shows up just as Erivo disappears for a while. But the stealth scene-stealer is Bloom, whose initially loathsome character (such a punchable face!) reveals complexity and pathos as the film progresses.

Overall, “Needle in a Timestack” is a study in delayed gratification. The third act is by far the strongest part, but it’s an exercise in patience for viewers to get there. Those who are up to the challenge will be rewarded with a strong, if frustrating, conclusion. But viewers with short attention spans might not make it that far.

  • Note for parents: the R rating baffles me, especially since I didn’t notice any particularly rough language. If you’ve got older kids who love time travel stories, there’s nothing here to worry about.

Grade: B-

Home Video Spotlight

‘On Broadway’

Not rated. Available on DVD Oct. 19.

In this breezy, informative documentary, filmmaker Oren Jacoby chronicles Broadway’s collapse as rock ’n roll eclipsed showtunes in the 1960s; its revitalization in the ’70s and ’80s; the devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic; and its ultimate transformation into a corporatized theme park for the wealthy. With insight from theater all-stars including Helen Mirren, Christine Baranski, August Wilson, John Lithgow, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen and many others, the doc explores the uneasy balance between art and commerce, as well as the constant need for reinvention. The disc also includes “Give My Regards to Broadway,” a short doc featuring interviews with theater legends.

Grade: B

‘Summertime’

Rated R for language throughout and sexual references. Available on Blu-ray Oct. 19.

This charming movie follows the intersecting stories of 27 young spoken word poets over a single day in Los Angeles. Director Carlos López Estrada’s idea began at a poetry showcase where performers recited deeply personal texts about themselves, their communities and their relationship to L.A. The project was then developed around their individual poems and interwoven into a larger, unified, narrative experiment that is part contemporary musical and part sociological art. Bonus features include behind-the-scenes featurettes, as well as an audio commentary and Q&A with the cast and director.

Grade: B+

‘Universal Classic Monsters Icons of Horror Collection’

Not rated. Now available.

This impressive new 4K collection showcases four of the most iconic monsters in film history: “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” (one of my all-time favorites), “The Invisible Man” and “The Wolf Man.” Starring revered actors including Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Rains, these original movies set a new standard for the horror genre with revolutionary makeup, imposing cinematography and groundbreaking special effects. The set also includes hours of bonus features, including six featurettes about the monsters and the actors who portrayed them.

Twitter: @IAmJoshSewell