A Puddle of Liver Movie Review: ‘Yesterday’

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CREDIT: Jonathan Prine/Universal

Yesterday raises a lot of questions, most of which has no interest in answering. First off:

-Why does the global blackout erase the Beatles from existence, and why is Jack Malik (Hamish Patel) apparently the only one who remembers them?

I am perfectly fine that this goes unaddressed, because the “why” is less important than the “where do we go from here?” Which brings me to:

-Shouldn’t the Beatles’ absence make the world profoundly different?

To which Yesterday answers by implication: no, not that much. There is one band that was heavily influenced by the Fab Four that is also now no more, but the rest of music history appears to be intact. The blackout has also removed some other things from existence, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with the main premise. Those reveals are played for (decent) laughs, but they also raise their own existential questions (which remain unaddressed). But back to how the Beatles changed the world. Their cultural influence was so wide-reaching that it is just silly not to examine what an alternative history would have been like without them. Moving on…

-If the Beatles never came to be, does that mean the band members don’t exist either?

It is heavily implied that Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are still somewhere, and Jack is in constant fear that he might somehow meet them and thus have to answer for passing off their music as his own. As for the two deceased lads … they are not entirely ignored either. Of course, this all raises the subquestion (which is barely touched upon): if they weren’t making the music that defined a decade, then what were they up to? But getting back to Jack’s fear:

-How much of the Beatles’ success was due not just to the songwriting, but to the people who performed it?

The lyrics of “Yesterday” and “Let It Be” are beautiful no matter who’s singing them, but Jack obviously doesn’t have the personal connection to them that the lads from Liverpool did, a fact that is introduced as quite a hitch … and then promptly ignored thereafter.

All these quandaries are given short shrift because ultimately Yesterday is really about the love story between Jack and his manager/childhood friend Ellie (Lily James). And it turns out that the main conflict is about Jack choosing between becoming a global superstar or getting things started with Ellie. I don’t understand why he can’t have both. I do understand his guilt over pretending he wrote the greatest songs ever written. But he and Ellie have such hilariously few non-obstacles to ending up together.

So look, I’ve been harping on Yesterday‘s shortcomings but I don’t really hate it. It’s got oodles of Beatles music, of course, but also I like having this conversation of drilling down on these questions. I just wish the movie itself had contributed more to the conversation.

I give Yesterday 2.5 Hands for Jude to Hold.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,’ I Can (Mostly) Resist You

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CREDIT: Jonathan Prime/Universal Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2018.

Starring: Lily James, Amanda Seyfried, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Alexa Davies, Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan, Dominic Cooper, Andy García, Cher, Meryl Streep

Director: Ol Parker

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Spicy Dialogue

Release Date: July 20, 2018

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again wants us to care about how a young Donna Sheridan (Lily James) met the three possible fathers of her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). Or really, it just wants us to accept that as the framework around which some beautiful people frolic around a sunny Greek isle while singing the songs of ABBA … again! Audiences who already dig this sort of thing appear generally willing to accept whatever thin framework there is. (The setup in the present day, in which Sophie re-opening her late mom’s hotel is threatened by rain, is even thinner.) So it feels petty of me to call out Here We Go Again for its vaguely drawn backstories. But I wouldn’t call attention to them if the script didn’t also keep doing the same thing. Donna and her suitors keep on talking about the lives they are running away from, and if that motivation is so important, I just want to know the specifics. Or really, I think these characters want to tell us the specifics.

For certain audiences, those shortcomings won’t matter one lick, but for me, Here We Go Again never overcomes the inherent weirdness of a musical. But there is some fun to be had along the way that threatens to sweep up everyone in its path. Certainly, Christine Baranski’s tasty bons mot (“be still my beating vagina”) cannot be beat. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman really lets the colors pop, especially the oranges. And the final number, featuring the entire main cast, including Meryl Streep as a beyond-the-grave Donna and Cher as basically herself, really does manage to be irresistible. I don’t want to be a fuddy-duddy, so I will admit I enjoyed myself, but I must say it all feels rather fluffy and empty.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is Recommended If You Like: Singing and Dancing Along Without Asking Any Questions

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Waterloos

This Is a Movie Review: Gary Oldman Disappears Into Winston Churchill’s ‘Darkest Hour,’ and the Result is Fascinating But a Little Too Stiff

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CREDIT: Jack English/Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane

Director: Joe Wright

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for War Talk and a Dash of Naughty British Humor

Release Date: November 22, 2017 (Limited)

How do you solve a problem like a mumbling lead character? You could make him not mumble, but of course that’s not really an option when he is a real person whose mushmouth is historically accepted fact. So then you could make the difficulty to understand him part of the point, but could that really work when he is known for inspiring his country to plow ahead in a time of crisis? Darkest Hour certainly does not take it easy on Winston Churchill (an exceptionally unrecognizable Gary Oldman). Nobody in Parliament thinks he is up to the task, but somehow he manages to fire up the British citizenry for the war effort without having to tamp down his prodigious appetites. Maybe the men and women on the street appreciate all the bluster thickly surrounding all of his words.

Darkest Hour is the third in 2017’s (accidental) trilogy about Britain’s early days in World War II. First came Their Finest, depicting the production of a propaganda film about the evacuation of Dunkirk. Then of course there was Dunkirk, about the evacuation itself. And now Darkest Hour presents the political maneuverings surrounding these same events.

With Germany holding the upper hand in 1940, the crux of Darkest Hour’s conflict is Churchill wrestling with the decision of whether to negotiate with Hitler or to rally the nation to keep fighting. This is a more complicated narrative than the simplistic version many of us have been told, in which the concessionist Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) gave way to the bulldog Churchill. In fact, Chamberlain’s decision to step down may have had more to deep with his creeping cancer. And I am no expert on British government, but Darkest Hour makes it clear that the executive forces on Chamberlain’s side were very much still present when Churchill ascended.

As a character study, this film is best regarded as a portrait of Churchill awkwardly slipping into the suit of the prime ministership. With his bulbous shape, and that physicality serving as a shield over his lack of self-confidence, so much of Churchill’s life is ill-fitting. Darkest Hour is similarly aesthetically unpleasant, in ways that I imagine were both intentional and unintentional. It cannot be helped that England is often a dreary country, and it is fair that that should be emphasized. Also reasonable but frustrating is the decision is to set many of the scenes in the deepest and most cramped bureaucratic interiors.

So it is quite a relief when Churchill and Darkest Hour trek out into the world, turning to the opinions of everyday Londoners riding the tube. The message here, at least as far I take it, is not so much that the commoners won the war, as much as it is that breaking out of your constrictions is always a good idea, whether you are a prime minister, an Oscar-angling motion picture, or anyone or anything else. So there is plenty of inspiration to draw from this film, though its shape may feel a little stitched-together.

Darkest Hour is Recommended If You Like: Winston Churchill mania (it’s hot right now), The King’s Speech, Chugging a Scotch and Puffing on a Cigar While You Watch Movies

Grade: 2.75 out 5 Litanies of Catastrophe

This is a Movie Review: ‘Baby Driver’ is a Fun Thrill Ride, But More Alarming Than Expected

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González

Director: Edgar Wright

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: R for Everything Spinning Out of Control

Release Date: June 28, 2017

I am not sure if the one nagging thing preventing me from fully embracing Baby Driver is a moral one or a storytelling one. I am also not sure if that thing matters and I should just embrace the film unabashedly. But either way, let me let you in on my thought process: am I bothered by not just all the bloody mayhem, but also that we are seemingly meant to cheer on all this violence? Or am I more flummoxed by the lack of context regarding Doc the crime boss (Kevin Spacey)? Part of the issue is that I was prepared for just a fun stylized thrill ride but what I got did not skimp on the consequences. In fairness, I should have been prepared, as writer/director Edgar Wright’s films always grapple with the practical and emotional fallout of even the most outrageous circumstances. While that is alarming, Baby Driver is frankly better for it.

But back to that highly stylized premise for a moment. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver with a drum in his hum (i.e., tinnitus sustained from a car accident that killed his parents) and thus always has earbuds in to keep himself centered and rhythmic. Accordingly, the soundtrack never lets up. It is a toe-tapping mix of classic rock, funk, and R&B that is never too familiar to be too tiresome. It would be impractical to list every track, but I will pick out a few favorites (Bob & Earl’s breezy “Harlem Shuffle,” Golden Radar’s ominous-but-in-a-fun-way “Radar Love,” Focus’ face-melting yodeler “Hocus Pocus”) and note that all of them have everyone’s heart ticking at just the right click.

This could all be a setup for a nearly dialogue-free sensory experience, but instead it has an honest-to-goodness narrative, and the result is more challenging than the alternative. It traffics in clichés, but it spins gold out of them. Baby never meant to get mixed up in this world of thieves, and he is going to get out of the game after ONE LAST JOB. Naturally, Doc threatens to break his legs and destroy his loved ones, but the two also seem to somehow have a genuine friendship. The contradictions are striking but lived-in and convincing. The love story is just as basic and formulaic, with Baby dead-set on driving out of town with diner waitress Debora (Lily James). But their attraction is sparkling and immediately filled with mutual respect. The only improbable thing is how they lucky they are to have met their perfect match by sheer happenstance.

Ultimately Baby chooses to resort to some extreme means to escape his lot in life, and the fate that then meets him somehow feels simultaneously black-and-white and filled with shades of gray. Herein Baby Driver reveals itself as an illustration of the tension between a decent man and an indecent world. We all need to something to keep us centered to get by. For Baby, that is not just his music. Even more so, it is a penchant for mutual acts of kindness and pleasantness. A valuable message absolutely, and one that makes the few moments when Baby slips into darkness so difficult to bear.

Baby Driver is Recommended If You Like: Its Trailers – this is a well-advertised movie

Grade: 4 out of 5 iPods