What if you were the only human who knew The Beatles ever existed? That’s the high-concept premise of Yesterday from director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and famed writer Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill). We follow Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), and to say he is a struggling musician is an understatement. His best friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) is a constant source of encouragement and unrequited affection. He’s ready to quit when suddenly a world blackout results in him getting hit by a bus. He wakes up in a hospital badly bruised and apparently the world has never heard of The Beatles songs. Jack uses his unique knowledge and launches his musical career by passing on their material as his own. Suddenly he’s a superstar with a craven new manager (Kate McKinnon) and opening for Ed Sheeran. As he catapults to a new level of fame, he starts reconsidering his feelings for Ellie and fame in general.
Yesterday is a fantasy fitting of The Twilight Zone but cheerful and whimsical that it could fit well into the pantheon of Curtis’ other famous romantic comedies. It’s a relatable wishful scenario where you have the inside track to take advantage of pre-established works and zooming ahead to fame and fortune. It’s like a direct passage to the goal of creative acclaim. The movie is generally fun as it works on dramatic irony for laughs, as Jack introduces person after person to the songwriting of the Beatles. It’s a fun magic trick that doesn’t lose its charm. Even the musical score adopts several familiar melodies from The Beatles and Boyle highlights certain landmarks and their connections to the history of the tunes. I enjoyed Jack trying to remember the lyrics for “Eleanor Rigby” and coming up with various alternatives. There’s an amusing running joke about what else is missing from this parallel universe, including Coca-Cola and Harry Potter (there’s a great joke missed having Jack try and spectacularly fail to write Harry Potter). It’s a regular source of silliness and Boyle visually trains the film to automatically do a Google search for the missing item and what is found instead. There’s no rhyme or reason for what is missing; I doubt Curtis is trying to speculate that without Coke we wouldn’t have the Beatles and so on. The movie has an easy charm and affection that makes even its looser moments more agreeable. I was hoping for more moments of subversion, like when Jack is trying to play “Let It Be” for his parents for the first time and they keep absentmindedly interrupting. What if certain Beatles songs didn’t break through as popular today as they did in the 1960s? Does “I Want to Hold Your Hand” seem to quaint for modern listeners? There aren’t many surprises in store with Curtis’ script, which uses the fantasy gimmick as a vehicle to tell a pretty ordinary love story.
The problem with the gimmick is that there really is no downside for Jack. He zooms to international stardom. There is a small idea that he feels like a fraud by getting famous from the creativity of others but this is barely toyed with. Here’s one instance that could have better highlighted that inner turmoil: while on tour with Ed Sheeran, the musician challenges Jack to an impromptu songwriting contest, to go off to their respective corners and in ten minutes come up with a brand-new song. As presented, Jack comes back and plays “The Long and Winding Road” and everyone is spellbound. He wins. The scene could have played out with Jack trying his own material on the piano, either a tune we saw him working on before his accident or something truly original from the moment, and he could watch the crowd looking indifferent. His panic would flash in and he would cave, resorting to a Beatles song to win them over again. That moment could have showcased his internal dilemma of feeling like a fraud but his need to impress and win easy adulation. There is real downside for his passing off the Beatles songs as his own (spoilers to follow for the paragraph). At the very end, on the world’s stage, he announces the truth and that he didn’t write one of his hit songs, instead giving credit to John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Except even after this declaration, he doesn’t suffer any consequences. He maintains his fame, fortune, happiness, and gets the girl. Surely the media would seek out these cited songwriters and they would not know what he was talking about at all. Then what? Apparently nothing, as the world must have just accepted Jack as possibly being mentally ill.
Since so much of the film hinges on the romance between Jack and Ellie, it makes the obstacles keeping them apart feel foolishly arbitrary and annoying. It feels like there should be no stopping these two crazy kids from getting together but the movie manufactures questionable reasons. Firstly, Ellie is practically throwing herself at her friend in every scene for the first half, obviously hinting at her desire to be seen as something more than a friend and manager. At one point she even point-blank asks him why he doesn’t seem to view her as a romantic option (it’s not like Jack is being mobbed by other women), and the man doesn’t even articulate a reason. He just stares dumbfounded at her, as if he too is realizing a plausible reason hasn’t been conveyed. He doesn’t say, “I never knew,” because of course he knows, and he doesn’t say, “I didn’t want it to ruin our friendship,” or anything else along those lines. There isn’t even a protest. Then when he is famous, he starts thinking about becoming romantically involved, and Ellie says she doesn’t know if she can manage his new lifestyle. He’ll be in L.A. and she’ll be in her English small town, and he must choose one life over the other. This is a false choice. He’s rich and famous. He can live wherever the hell he wants, including a small English town with her. This is even glimpsed during the end credit epilogue, meaning it was completely an available option. The reasons both of these characters reject one another are just unreasonable. Lily James is playing a charming woman and should not have this much trouble having a man want to be with her.
Because of this forced and arbitrary conflict, keeping the lovers apart until finally letting them at each other, Yesterday is ultimately capped with its enjoyment level. It’s pretty much a gimmick that is meant to serve a more traditional rom-com, which Curtis knows how to do easily. Why then has he seemed to put so little effort in why these two should be kept apart? The yearning you need to feel in every rom-com feels one-sided and then switches over, making the chase feel like running in place for the sake of stretching out this conflict. It doesn’t make sense. There were realistic obstacles available with this premise, from Jack’s ego taking over thanks to everyone projecting the Beatles acclaim onto him, and he could just have become a shallower person that Ellie stops seeing as a desirable mate. That’s the easiest thing and Yesterday doesn’t even do that. Other women aren’t ever an option too. When Jack hits the big time, he isn’t fending off groupies and other industry sorts that want a piece of him. At no point does Ellie have any competition for his heart or any other part of him. They’re good together too, cute, and seem obvious that they should be together, so this foolish keep-away game feels grating.
Here’s a closing question: if the Beatles songs were released in a contemporary market, would they be the era-defying hits that they were? I’m somewhat doubtful. For an experiment, show Yesterday (or even 2007’s Across the Universe) to teenagers generally unaware about the Beatles catalogue. Do they instantly take notice? Do they ravishingly consume the songs and seek more? I’m sure some will; just because music is old doesn’t mean it can’t connect with a new, appreciative audience. However, would these songs be global hits instantly launching the songwriter to stardom? The Beatles are an indelible part of our culture and have influenced generations of artists. It’s hard to overstate their artistic influence but partly because of the time and place of that influence. Would Beethoven be as influential if he had gone unknown by history until the twenty-first century? Anyway, Yesterday is a cute but rather slight movie that reminds you about the power of music and the annoyance of contrivances withholding a happy ending until the final say-so.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Red Joan is inspired by a true story of an elderly British woman being outed in the 1980s for being a spy for the Russians and passing along British nuclear secrets. If the real story were as boring as what appears onscreen, I doubt anyone would care. Judi Dench plays the older Joan dealing with the public reckoning decades in the making and Sophie Cookson (Kingsmen) plays the young college grad in the 1940s who lands a top nuclear physicists job with the government and alongside a married man she falls for. Some friends who might not really be her friends snooker Joan into becoming a spy, and her rationale is that the world will be a safer place if other countries have the bomb other than simply America. Older Joan says history has proven her right and she takes partial credit for helping to ensure peace. First off, this logic seems faulty. If something is dangerous, I don’t know if it’s less dangerous if more people/countries have it (see: the firearm industry). Secondly, there were numerous incidents that almost brought the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to mutually assured self-destruction including the Cuban Missile Crisis. The biggest problem with Red Joan is how shockingly boring it all is. A young woman pulled into espionage and treason, having to maintain her secrets while they eat away at her and she betrays her colleagues and loved ones, that’s the stuff of complex human drama, or at least it should be if the storytelling knows what it’s doing. The movie never seems to treat what she’s doing with great stakes. Here’s an example of how rushed and under developed the story can be: scene 1) Joan learns her co-worker doesn’t have a great marriage; scene 2) they complete a crossword together and he nudges closer; scene 3) they kiss and he declares his love for her. This sequence of events is portrayed during a travel montage or all things. The characters are so underwritten and their compromises and conflicts rarely feel real because of moments like this. The acting is generally good all around and I wish Cookson would get a starring vehicle worthy of her talents. The biggest mystery for me with Red Joan is that the story depicted onscreen is made up, diverging from the real events, so why didn’t they tell a better story with their freedom?
Nate’s Grade: C
Mike Leigh is a famed writer/director who often writes from a working class perspective, so it’s no surprise he would go back to a notable 1819 British massacre where local ruling magistrates and abusive militia mowed down and killed a dozen citizens that had gathered in Manchester to rally for worker rights and voting representation. I was ignorant to the injustice in history but went in suspecting a horrible confrontation by the end. When the tragedy does strike, it’s searing and upsetting and moving. The problem is that it takes forever to get to the moment that we’ve been waiting for and that finally provides meaning for the movie. Peterloo is far too long at two and a half hours and it takes a solid two of those hours just to finally march our characters into the awaiting tragedy of its title. Leigh paints a realistic mosaic of the many working class and middle-class people of the time, families struggling for work, men processing PTSD from the recent Napoleonic wars, political leaders articulating the pathways for reform measures, and Leigh and his production team are very good at recreating the industrial Manchester reality with care and precision. Leigh’s ear for dialogue is almost documentarian. However, for those two hours, Peterloo amounts to a slice of life of relatively boring people living boring lives until the big incident that makes them notable, namely that they were abused and died horribly. It becomes a waiting game where you get anxious for the tragedy to arrive. Another choice that harms the film’s impact is how incredibly over-the-top the villains are written and performed; these are mustache-twirling caricatures of greedy, venal business men, factory owners, and power brokers and their performances are so slimy that they feel like they transported from the most black-and-white of fantasy tropes. It feels like these people would be relaxing by putting their feet up over a pile of child corpses. It gets to be downright campy how the villains are portrayed. Peterloo is ultimately an enraging movie that is far too boring for far too long to feel much more than a sense of relief when it’s over.
Nate’s Grade: C+
As soon as I saw the name Yorgos Lanthimos attached to the royal costume drama The Favourite I knew it would be one of my most anticipated films of 2018. I’m not naturally a sucker for these kinds of movies without some interesting new angle (Mary Queen of Scotts, we’ll meet soon), but Lanthimos has quickly become one of my favorite (favourite?) voices in cinema, rivaling perhaps even the esteemed Charlie Kaufman. His movies are so wonderfully weird and tonally distinct. A Lanthimos joint, if you will, is two hours of surprises and expanding the surreal with assured foresight. He’s earned such a highly regarded reputation as far as I’m concerned that I’ll see any movie with his name attached in any creative capacity. The Favourite is a different kind of costume drama.
In the early 18th century, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is leading her country through a protracted conflict with the French that is weighing heavily on everyone. Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) is the Queen’s childhood friend, close confidant, and secret lover. She’s also perhaps the real power behind the throne, directly influencing the Queen to enact her own bullish policies. Harley (Nicholas Hoult), leader of a parliament, is worried about the country going bankrupt from the military expenditures. Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin to Sarah and someone seeking to save her once proud family’s name. She rises through the ranks and becomes a rival for the Queen’s affections and a threat for Sarah to maintain her position of power in the court and with the Queen.
What distinguishes a Lanthimos experience is the development and commitment to a distinct vision and the sheer unpredictability. You really never know where the man’s films will go next. One minute you’re following a man struggle to find a romantic partner, and the next they’re talking about turning people into lobsters. One minute you’re watching a family deal with a creepy stalker, and the next people are debating which family member should be killed in the darkest family game night ever enabled. Even though Lanthimos did not write The Favoruite, it still feels of his unique, deadpan, darkly comic worlds and his fingertips are all over it. The story is already playing fast and loose with the history (it’s pretty unlikely Queen Anne was a lesbian, despite the centuries of character assassination from Sarah) so its curiosity where it might go next is electric, especially when it shows some bite. This is a movie that’s not afraid to be dark, where characters can behave badly, testing our sympathy and allegiance as they fight for supremacy. I love how unapologetic the characters are in their pursuits. They will scheme and manipulate to whatever extent works and demonstrate abuse of power for power’s sake (poor bunny). “Favor is a breeze the shifts direction all the time,” says Harley. “Then in an instant you’re back sleeping with a bunch of scabrous whores.” The ensuring two hours of palace intrigue and political gamesmanship is given a sordid boost from the historical deviations, making the political more personal and even more intriguing. I cackled often throughout with the amazingly witty one-liners and curt insults as well as the wonky asides and tonal juxtaposition. It’s a funny movie for offbeat audiences who enjoy offbeat humor.
This is a costume drama that is radical amongst the stuffy world of prim and proper Oscar bait involving kings and queens and the ostentatious royal courts. I’d say it reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and how it broke from the long film tradition of costume dramas, but I’ve never watched Barry Lyndon, my lone Kubrick omission (what, do you have three hours to spare?). Lanthimos has an anachronistic visual style that allows The Favourite to feel modern and different as it plays in familiar terrain. What other Oscar drama can you expect to see a modern dance-off in the queen’s court? The visuals make use of very stylized deep photography with the use of fish-eyed lenses and a locked camera position even while panning and moving. It’s not exactly the colorful, punk rock aesthetic of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette but it gives the film a dreamlike, odd sensibility. It’s a nice visual pairing that achieves the same effect as the screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tom McNamara; it piques your interest, drawing you closer with each moment.
Lanthimos requires a very specifically attuned ironic wavelength that comes across as purposely deadpan, muted to better make the bizarre as the mundane. It’s a type of acting that can be very restrictive unless an actor can tap into that specific rhythm. The three women that top line The Favourite are each terrific. Colman (taking over Queen Elizabeth from Claire Foy in Netflix’s The Crown) is the standout as the temperamental monarch. Her favor is the prize and at some level she knows that people are playing games with her. It’s hard to know what degree of self-awareness Queen Anne is capable of considering she is beset by maladies both physical and mental (she really did lose 17 children in her lifetime, a dozen of them miscarriages). Because of all of this, the unpredictable nature of the Queen matches the unpredictable nature of the film, and one second she can be childish and defiant, the next playful and warm-hearted, the next manipulative and pushy, the next easily cowed and embarrassed. It’s a performance that has definite comic high-points as she howls at her servants and confuses her confidants, but there are layers to the character that Colman digs into. Sure she can be volcanic in rage or extremely funny when giving into the Queen’s whims, but it’s the degrees of sadness and vulnerability that creep through that round out the performance and person.
Weisz (Disobedience) has already starred in one kooky Lanthimos film (The Lobster) and easily slips into those peculiar comic rhythms again like a nicely fitting dress. Hers is the “fall” of the rise-and-fall tale, so she begins self-satisfied and ends humbled, except under Weisz she is never truly humbled. Her spirit does not break regardless of her unfortunate circumstances, including at one point being held hostage at a brothel. Even when she knows she must write a gracious letter she can’t help herself, composing drafts that keep veering into profane insults. Weisz is deliciously deadpan and never abandons the confines of that narrow acting range required for a pristine Lanthimos performance. Stone (La La Land) is the freshest face of the troupe as the underestimated young companion who rises through the ranks thanks to her cunning. Stone adopts a solid British accent, which is helpful, but her intonations are perfectly suited for Lanthimos. There are small, stranger moments where the character is breaking the facade with the audience to reveal an eager peculiarity, an imitation of a monster that’s random, or the most delightfully dismissive “yeah, sure” snort in the history of film. Stone is a versatile talent with comic bonafides, so it’s fun and satisfying to see her expand her already impressive, Oscar-winning range.
This is a movie that does not work without a distinct vision, sure handed direction, and pitch-perfect acting, all seamlessly working in tandem to create such a finely crafted dark comedy that can go in many perversely entertaining directions at a moment’s notice. Lanthimos and his cadre of award-worthy actresses have great, prankish fun playing dress up in their fancy locations and making a costume drama with a dash of anarchic farce. The Favourite doesn’t quite rise to the top of my own list of Lanthimos favorites (I’d probably rank it a noble third) but it’s still a razor-sharp, sardonic, unpredictable, and wonderfully, vibrantly weird movie worth celebrating.
Nate’s Grade: A
It’s not quite one of their bests but even a mid-level Aardman movie still presents enough pleasures to justify one viewing. Early Man is in that big-eyed, big-toothed stop-motion clay animation style they’re renowned for, so it makes even more visual sense that we’re following cavemen. What I wasn’t expecting was that the entire movie would be a sports film about the cavemen facing the team of elite soccer players of the Bronze Age. Once that realization settled in, I began lowering my expectations, which lowered further from the less imaginative use of comedy. I chuckled here and there but this is a comedy that relies much upon slapstick. It’s at its best when it veers off into strange tangents or really doubles down on its absurdities, like a pig posing as a masseuse or a recording pigeon that acts out its messages. The character work is pretty minimal and relies upon a lot of stock characters, with the supporting players given one trait or less. While lacking in some areas, Early Man is still an amusing story that has its moments of goofy whimsy even amidst the sports clichés. I especially enjoyed Tom Hiddleston’s vocal performance as the ignorant, effete leader of the Bronze Age. It’s no Chicken Run or Pirates: Band of Misfits, but the gentle comic rhythms of an Aardman movie can still be refreshing.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Watching High-Rise left me in an agitated state of bafflement. I was desperately trying to fumble for some kind of larger meaning, or at least some kind of narrative foothold from this indie movie about a high-rise apartment complex where the rich reside at the top and the lower classes below. I was holding onto hope that what came across as messy, incoherent, and juvenile would magically coalesce into some sort of work of satiric value. This hope was lost. Director Ben Wheately’s (Kill List) movie is disdainful to audience demands, disdainful to narrative, disdainful to characters that should be more than vague metaphorical figures against the British class system. The social class commentary is so stupidly simple. At one point, the upper floor rich talk about how they have to throw a better party than the lower floor plebs (slobs versus snobs!). The movie lacks any sort of foundation but just keeps going; I would check how much time was left every fifteen minutes and exclaim, “How is there still more left?!” This is a chore to sit through because it’s so resoundingly repetitive and arbitrary. You could rearrange any ten minutes of the movie and make nary a dent in narrative coherence. There are some striking visuals and weird choices that keep things unpredictable; it’s just that I stopped caring far too early for anything to have mattered. Tom Hiddelston plays a doctor in the building and becomes the intermediary between the oblivious rich and the rabble rousing and vengeful poor. I can’t tell you why anything happens in this movie. I can’t say why the characters do what they do, why the events happen, why anything. It’s all just weightless materials for Wheatley’s empty impressionistic canvas. As society breaks down, things get violent and yet the movie is still boring. I was hoping for something along the lines of Snowpiercer but I got more of a pulpy Terence Mallick spiral of self-indulgent nothingness. High-Rise is a highly irritating and exasperating movie and I know it’s destined to be a future favorite of the pretentious. If anyone says it’s one of his or her favorite movies of all time, please kindly walk in the other direction as fast as you are able and then tell an adult.
Nate’s Grade: D
It’s got a decent ending but it’s a long, lumbering walk to get there. This handsomely mounted Hammer throwback involves Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, slowly walking through a spooky old Victorian haunted house. And he slowly peeks around a door. And he slowly holds a candle. And I slowly go to sleep. There’s a 40-minute sequence where I swear only two things are spoken. Radcliffe plays a widowed father who has to investigate a haunted house to make ends meet. The movie has a few genuinely creepy moments, mostly owing to set design, but it gets hooked on jump scares and doesn’t know how to quit. The jump scares, accompanied by what sounds like an eagle screeching as music, happen at near two-minute intervals, like some sort of alarm the movie can’t turn off. Alas, The Woman in Black is a pretty staid ghost story where once again a restless spirit is terrorizing others and somebody takes it upon themselves to help that spirit find closure. The plot is so transparently predictable that it becomes fairly frustrating when the movie takes so long to get to its pre-designated stops. The pessimistic ending is weirdly given the most positive spin imaginable. For fans of this horror sub-genre, there may be enough going on to entertain. I just keep learning that ghosts are never grateful and satisfied even when you help them. Ghosts are jerks.
Nate’s Grade: C
Submarine is the latest coming-of-age story, this time set in 1980s Wales, and while not breaking any new ground, it manages to be witty, stylish, and a completely winning portrait of a unique kid and his unique view of the world.
Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a 15-eyar-old kid with two life goals. He’s like to romance the rebellious loner Jordana (Yasmin Paige) and, if possible, lose his virginity in the process. Oliver is also on a mission to save his parent’ marriage. Jill Tate (Sally Hawkins) has been drifting from her husband, Lloyd (Noah Taylor), a marine biologist who has been in a depressive funk for years. Jill’s old boyfriend, Graham (Paddy Considine), has moved in next-door and begun to insert himself back in her life.
Submarine is going to be something of an acquired taste. It’s almost drowning in whimsy, following the numerous affectations of its main character. Fans will say that the movie borrows liberally from Wes Anderson’s 1998 film, Rushmore; non-fans will just say the movie cops to outright theft. Like Rushmore, this movie follows the coming-of-age trials and tribulations of an intelligent but lonely outcast, a wiseacre beyond his years. What sets this movie apart is that we taken on the point of view of Oliver. He often refers to his life as if it were a movie, noting dramatic moments that would be accompanied by dramatic music, and a solemn moment that would feature a crane shot rising above the ground but if the budget were low he’d settle for a slow zoom out (the actual movie chooses the slow zoom). “I have turned these moments into the Super-8 footage of memory,” he remarks. Oliver is a student of pop-culture, an early Rob Gordon (High Fidelity), and as such blurs the line between reality and the movies. He will routinely point out film tropes ad then indulge in them. We are each the stars of our own stories. In this manner, Submarine separates itself from the idiosyncratic, miniaturized-doll house world of Anderson’s films or the fanciful magic realism of Jean Piere Jeunet (Amelie). For me, the multitude of quirks were appealing instead of insufferable because we were inside the mind of Oliver, seeing his world through his unique worldview. This brings rationale for the whimsy.
Oliver is both an unreliable narrator and a flawed protagonist, a fantastic development. So often coming-of-age tales are mainly autobiographical (this one is based off a book by Joe Dunthorne), and as such the authors usually portray themselves as individuals whose chief fault is that they are naïve. Some life experience will shatter their innocence, usually a girl, and thus they will grow and learn. With Submarine, Oliver gains our sympathy by being clever but then he tests it with the compromises he makes to fit in. He engages in some very mean bullying all to win over Jordana. He’s trying to seem so mature, using advanced vocabulary to provide the illusion of adulthood, but really Oliver can’t comprehend the subtleties of social cues. Just when Jordana appears to be opening up and looking to him for need, that’s when he botches it, acts kind of awful, and then justifies it in his head, like so many of us will do with our mistakes. Still, I never stopped rooting for this kid. I was rooting for him and Jordana to work out. So hard was I yearning for these two loner oddballs to have their happy ending, I think I pulled something (my dignity?). We can see Jordana through Oliver’s infatuated eyes, but then we can also see deeper, see the vulnerability that comes forward that Oliver might be blithe to. Paige (The Sarah Jane Adventures) is a true breakout star and it’s easy to see why Oliver is so infatuated with the charming lass. She’s bruised but approachable, risky but relatable. We can see the connection building between these two, and we want it to continue (maybe that’s my own high school experience speaking out). The youthful romance is sweet and unconventional without seeming like a coming-of-age folly, something that Oliver is supposed to learn some gallant life lesson.
The other plot development, the rocky relationship between Oliver’s parents, is less resonant but it does provide for some fine moments of humor. The new neighbor, Graham, who practices martial arts and believes himself to be a New Age mystic, healing people by sensing their aura colors, just feels like a leftover Napoleon Dynamite. It provides Considine (In America) a springboard to act goofy, which he’s quite good at. The goofiness of the character, however, cuts into the credibility of being a threat to steal away Jill. She may be caught up in this guy’s tiny bubble of fame, but there’s no way she would leave her husband for this doofus, even if her husband has been suffering from depression for years. Oliver’s attempts to reignite his parents’ marriage are plenty hilarious, but they’re also informed with a sweet, if misguided, earnestness. He loves his parents and wants them to stay together. He doesn’t want a ninja mystic for his new dad. Fortunately, Oliver’s attempts to sabotage Graham are kept to a minimum and restrained enough not to resort to cheap slapstick or gross-out humiliation. Maybe it’s the distinctive point of view steering the narrative, but the potential doom of the marriage never feels as portentous and heartbreaking as Oliver’s hope at wooing Jordana.
Debut director Richard Ayoade, who also adapted the screenplay, utilizes every visual trick in the book to tell this story. If the main character weren’t so amusing, and his plight so interesting, all the visual artifice might be exhausting. Instead it keeps the movie lively, crafty, and constantly wonderful to observe. Ayoade’s also quite a talent when it comes to screenwriting. He smoothly captures the very mannered speaking style of Oliver. Then there are just lines that make you laugh out loud from the sheer absurdity of misplaced teenager awe: “He wasn’t even considered hard until the Watkin twins famously stabbed him in the back with compasses. He said nothing; showed no discomfort as his shirt blossomed with blood poppies. His stoicism reminded me of the brave men who died in the First World War.” Ayoade, best known for his starring role on The IT Crowd, will probably soon have a lot more offers to direct features once people get a gander at Submarine. The man’s a natural storyteller and will be snapped up by Hollywood in no time flat.
Finally, the movie’s lead actor needs to be good, better than good, if this movie is going to rise above the din of precocious, coming-of-age cinema. Roberts (Jane Eyre), hollow eyed and just a little “off” looking, handles the material with ease, never letting his performance transform into a series of tics strewn together. Oliver is straight-laced throughout, letting the peculiarities of his imagination and worldview seem ordinary. Roberts doesn’t get overwhelmed by the material and makes a strong impression as a more literate, less rebellious, more anxious, less despondent Welsh version of Holden Caulfield (okay, so maybe that allusion doesn’t hold).
Submarine is an unfailingly entertaining vehicle full of quirk and humor and surprising heart. Oliver’s relationship with Jordana is sweet and mildly touching. I was surprised at how emotionally invested I was in their romance. The movie is also refreshingly low in angst, resorting more to Oliver’s comic anxieties and insecurities. It certainly owes a debt to Anderson’s Rushmore, but Submarine is so good, so thrilling in its creative voice, that it can stand outside the mighty shadow of Anderson and his indomitable influence.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Attack the Block is the hip new sci-fi comedy/thriller from across the pond. The Brtis know a thing or two about elevating genre movies to an art form. While not rising to the same level of executive producer Edgar Wright’s oeuvre, this is one of the most fun experiences I’ve had in a movie theater all year.
On New Year’s Eve in a South London ghetto, a very different kid of firework is lighting the moonlit sky. An alien race is crashing to Earth as fiery meteorites, which the kids of the neighborhood term “Gollums.” Moses (John Boyega) is the leader of a group of teenage wannabe hoodlums. Their crazy night begins with mugging Sam (Jodie Whitaker), a nurse who lives in the boys’ apartment complex. Moses and his crew later run into Sam and need her help when one of their own is injured. The alien monsters have descended upon their block, scaling the apartment building looking for easy prey. Moses and other block residents band together to battle a common foe, the outer space monsters, which have the misfortune of trying to invade the wrong neighborhood.
Attack the Block is a refreshing spin on a genre that seemingly had covered every ground. But lo, it never covered the modern urban landscape, or, as the tagline succinctly puts it: inner city vs. outer space. It’s not long before you realize that writer/director Joe Cornish (writer of the upcoming Tin Tin flick) is the real deal. The camera angles are lively and inventive, without crossing over into self-infatuation for style’s sake. The cinematography by Thomas Townend is delightful to look at, often making our own home feel like an alien landscape with harsh color tones. The movie has the slick look we associate with music videos and commercials, but never does the movie let the visuals overwhelm the story. The edits are crisp and quick, packing a lot of material into a small 99 minutes and doing well to quicken your pulse during several iterations of the alien attacks. But most of all, the film is completely, unabashedly fun with a capital F. It has a swagger to it, adopting the same cocksure attitude of its main characters. The accents and the breathless jargon take some adjusting, but by the time we’re running from aliens you’re pretty much at the same pace of astonishment with the characters, forgetting the language barrier. I was quickly sucked into the world of this movie, able to enjoy the depth of skill by the invisible technicians. There’s an immense sense of satisfaction watching this crew band together to take out superior numbers of baddies, some of them even Earthlings. Cornish confines his narrative focus to one apartment building over the course of one night, setting up our orientation to the building so that when we have characters running back and forth, and various storylines criss-crossing, we are kept in the loop. As people start becoming monster chow, the stakes get even higher.
The dialogue is regularly clever without having to stoop for self-aware gags. This is not a genre spoof. This is played relatively straight, just with amusing characters (“You’d be better off calling the Ghostbusters, love.”). One of the kids, who is on a pay-as-you-go cell plan, breathlessly says, “I only got one text left. This is just too much madness for one text!” Attack the Block is the right combination of scary and funny, the same fine line that its forebear, Shaun of the Dead, so successfully walked. This is the kind of movie that genre fans tell their pals about in breathless declarations of awesome before falling over dizzy. Nick Frost, star of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, even has a minor roll as the neighborhood pot supplier. While Block doesn’t approach Shaun’s utter genre-spoofing greatness, there is enough of squandered potential in Cornish’s script, particularly how the various pieces ultimately stack together for its standard but effective fist-pumping climax, to keep Block from being crowned an instant genre classic. The characters remain little more than types, distinguishable by the few traits thrown to the actors like meager breadcrumbs (kid with glasses, angrier kid, white kid, etc.). If you’re a fan of Shaun of the Dead, and witty, bloody sci-fi, then you already know that Attack of the Block is destined to beam into your home.
The aliens themselves deserve a special mention since they break away from the traditional mold of cosmic movie monster we’re familiar with. These minimalist aliens look more like giant yeti creatures that run on all fours. They’re all black, like inky black hole light-cannot-penetrate black, which is scary but also a clever way to hide the shortages of a limited budget and the reality of people in suits. The only thing that stands out is a set of fluorescent blue jaws that snap wildly. It’s like the monsters ate a can of glow sticks. This aspect is smartly used at points to pump up suspense. It’s a novel approach that veers away from the H.R. Geiger (Alien) stuff that’s been copied and recopied to death for the last 30 years. These aren’t smart aliens. They’re more like rabid beasts overwhelmed by their biological impulses. These aliens don’t come across as organized as other movie aliens. It seems like they’re just floating around through the void of space waiting to land on the right rock and multiply.
The musical score is greatly enhanced through the talents of Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe, better known to big beat electronica fans as Basement Jaxx. The musical duo provide a score tinged with their famous electronic mélange of sound, including pieces that sound like retro video game sound effects (Space Invaders?), 1950s sci-fi movie scores thick with Theremin use, and an ongoing sludgy beat that weaves in and out of the picture. Working with Steven Price (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), traditional rousing musical pieces are enhanced with the Basement brothers’ dubsetp influenced bass and drum lines. The score perfectly matches the frenzy of what’s happening onscreen, evoking a fuzzy mood. I have been listening to clips of the Attack the Block score for days. It’s not as integrated and essential to the film as Run Lola Run’s famously kinetic electronica score (the standard bearer of all electronica-enhanced scores), but I was delighted every time it remerged. With the Chemical Brothers score for Hanna and Oscar-winner Trent Reznor’s score for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo later this year, this may be the best time yet for film lovers that enjoy toe tapping to some electronic beats. These kinds of scores age so much better than synth scores, one of the absolute worst things ever to happen in the history of movies (Apocalypse Now is almost unmatchable thanks to its dreadful synth score).
Of course your level of enjoyment is going to severely rest upon whether you want the main characters to survive or get eaten. Attack the Block begins with an empathy deficit, meaning it puts its hoodlums immediately in a hole that they might not get out of. Our first introduction to Moses and the gang is watching them mug Sam. Later on one of the guys says the knife that was bared was just for show, and that the boys were just as scared as she was. I doubt that. When you’re on the receiving end of a weapon, and outnumbered, and surprised, it sure seems like you got it worse. The movie then spends the rest of its running time with these wannabe ruffians, and we do get to know them slightly better but really only slightly. Some of the kids have absentee parenting situations, which isn’t too shocking, and occasionally a character will take a moment to reflect, thinking beyond the situation, blaming the government in a fit of paranoia for being behind the alien nasties. One kid even makes a curt remark when he finds out Sam’s boyfriend helps impoverished kids in Africa. “We don’t got poor kids here that could use some help?” he comments. Well, kid, I wouldn’t dismiss the magnitude of systemic poverty in the African continent, but you could have made your point without seeming like a dick. And these are our characters. They blather a lot; in fact they rarely stop talking. Eventually they do apologize to Sam for mugging her and Moses does take the mantle of hero to redeem himself. However, by that time some audience members may have checked out. Attack of the Block is decidedly less fun if you don’t give a fig for its wannabe thug figures.
Attack the Block is like a delirious head rush, witty, full of energy and style to spare, and an infectious attitude that washes over you. The movie delivers what Super 8 promised, namely the bond of kids coming together to thwart an alien invasion on their home turf. This is a high-energy flick that succeeds as a comedy and a thriller, with a few nasty splashes of gore thrown in for good measure. It has some issues that keep it from the pantheon of genre greatness, but I won’t quibble the movie to death. Not when I get something as deliriously entertaining as Attack the Block.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Public speaking is a nerve-racking position. Nobody wants to seem like a fool but it can be hard to do anything else when all eyes fall upon you with expectation. There was a poll a few years ago that asked Americans what their top fears were, and death came in second to public speaking. The Grim Reaper should feel relieved. Now imagine that you’re the leader of a country during a time of duress and you have a speech impediment. That’s the grueling circumstances for King George VI (affectionately known as “Bertie” to family), leader of Britain on the eve of World War II. The King’s Speech tells the inspirational true story of one of the most powerful men in the world finding his own voice.
Before becoming king of his country, Bertie (Colin Firth) was the Duke of York and a man suffering from a debilitating stutter. When stressed, it was difficult for Bertie to even read a statement. This speech impediment is made all the more troublesome now that the world has entered into the radio age; kings and presidents are now expected to speak to their peoples, no longer content to just be a striking figurehead. Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), future Queen Mother, seeks out different speech therapists but the traditional methods are getting her husband nowhere. Then she comes across Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a self-taught speech therapist who worked with shell-shocked WWI soldiers in his native Australia. His methods are unorthodox but he’s the first to begin to get results with Bertie. The demands of his position get even greater when Bertie’s father, George V (Michael Gambon), dies in 1936 and Bertie’s older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicates the throne. Now Bertie is expected to lead his nation, that is, if he can string two sentences together in public.
The King’s Speech is really the heartwarming story of the unlikely friendship between a king and a quirky Australian commoner. Their warm, humane friendship allows for several scenes of great humor and great drama. Watching the irreverent Lionel bounce off the proper and isolated Bertie supplies plenty of comedy. It’s essentially an odd couple comedy mixed with a true-life historical drama. There’s great pleasure in watching the chilly relationship between classes thaw, the men grow closer together, and Lionel’s unconventional tactics make progress. Each time Bertie discovers a new practice that removes his stutter, whether it is speaking while listening to music or speaking in the cadence of a song. This is a film that follows the English tradition of understatement even given the dramatic setting, principle characters, and a speech impediment. The characters don’t go around blurting their feelings, leaving the actors room to explore oodles of subtext. There’s a signature scene where Lionel coaxes Bertie into opening up by promising to allow him to paint a child’s model airplane (a treat for a man of title never allowed such toys). As he paints away, Bertie reveals a damaging truth about a neglectful childhood nanny. The truth is so painful that Bertie is forced to reveal it through the cadence of song, which somehow makes the revelation more sad and tragic. Their ongoing relationship is deeply satisfying and emotionally rewarding.
You won’t see a better-acted movie all year, thanks to Firth and Rush. More than following a checklist of gimmicks, Firth inhabits his character from the inside out. He feels like a living, breathing, somewhat broken person instead of a collection of ailments. Firth doesn’t overdo his stutter and treats the character, and the ailment, with a deep sense of compassion. Firth gives what is likely the greatest acting performance by any male in 2010. He is magnificent, commanding, and empathetic in every scene. Likewise, Rush doesn’t overpower as a personality foil. His character manages to be irreverent but without being flippant; he finds a reverent irreverence, if you will. Lionel is treating the future King of England, and the gravity of this stately relationship is not lost on him. Both men hide an inner melancholy, perhaps one of the things that ultimately bonds them together. Rush is flush with vigor and merriment, truly delightful to watch. This is his finest onscreen performance since he won his Oscar in 1996 for Shine.
The enormity of the king’s duties is given due care. You feel the weight of the crown that awaits Bertie and empathize with his quaking hesitation. Ever since childhood, his family looked down on Bertie. His father felt a stern tone would best aid the young stammerer, and his older brother would often belittle Bertie with cruel taunts. You see flashes of this unhealthy dynamic when Edward cuts down his little brother after their father passes.
Bertie was seen as unimportant. Edward was the one set up for the throne. And yet Edward is the one who shirks his responsibilities in the name of love (a twice-divorced American woman). Edward refuses to become the leader of his people if the ancient rules forbid him from marrying a divorced woman. Bertie cannot buckle under the tremendous pressure and expectations that wait. Even when the rather passive Bertie lashes out, you feel like his anger is a moment of achievement. King George VI also had to deal with the fact that his brother is still alive and well and an alternative to the throne if Bertie is deemed incapable. Firth makes it easy to feel the remarkable pressure of being a leader not born or elected, merely expected. And even if an audience is clueless about British monarchy history and the rules of royal succession, The King’s Speech is easy to follow and comprehend for a daft American like myself.
Truth be told, The King’s Speech is a little stagy, a little square, and a little too fastidious for its own good. Hooper and crew are too content with making a pleasant moviegoing experience that the film lacks any slight form of edge. It’s all just a little too safe, a little too staid. While rated R, this movie could easily be a PG-13 family film, maybe even a PG one, sans the two sequences where Bertie unleashes a torrent of profanities in frustration (he discovers that he does not stutter while swearing). I feel like a curmudgeon for dinging a movie for being, essentially, too nice and gentle, but it clips the ambition of the movie when crowd-pleaser is the zenith of accomplishment. The fateful speech to the nation, on the eve of war with Germany, is even given an extra oomph thanks to the background music of Beethoven. A larger story of triumph seems reduced to the Oscar favorite storyline of Man Overcoming Physical Adversity. The direction by Hooper has some curious tics to it, like sequences of two people talking where they will never share the frame despite sitting side by side. I assume Hooper is trying to communicate some form of emotional distance or wariness, or perhaps it’s just a nod that different actors had unworkable schedules and could not be filmed together. Hooper is a talented director, as anyone who saw the massive undertaking of the masterful HBO miniseries John Adams can attest. However, like John Adams, Hooper is prone to TV-movie staging. His direction limits the cinematic power of the film. It looks like any ordinary episode of Masterpiece Theater.
The King’s Speech is pretty much everything you’d wish for in a movie groomed for awards consideration. This is prime Oscar bait. You may tear up at points, you’ll probably smile in many places, and your spirit will definitely rise. Plus it features some of the finest acting you’ll witness all year. And yet it’s that conscious need to please, to uplift, that can occasionally distract you from the many charms that The King’s Speech offers. The fact that the story is predictable is not a detriment, but the fact that the film doesn’t push harder, dig deeper, or expect more from its audience is a missed opportunity. The material is so rich, but a terrifically acted, smartly written film isn’t a bad consolation. Especially when that film happens to be one of the most rousing and rewarding theatrical experiences of the year.
Nate’s Grade: A-