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Yesterday (2019)

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-

About Time (2013)

102718_galRichard Curtis is something equivalent to royalty in romantic comedy circles. The man wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, the screenplay for Bridget Jones’ Diary, and he wrote and directed Love, Actually. If you are a fan of those movies, then About Time is already at the top of your to-do list. Reportedly Curtis’ last movie he will direct (he’s only done three), this time-travel romance looks to be a break from a genre burdened by convention. If you like your British rom-coms to be mildly cheeky, hopelessly dewy-eyed romantic, filled with beautiful people, and loaded with hugs, then About Time with suffice. If you were expecting something grander from the premise you’ll walk away shaking your head at all the squandered potential.

Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) is a normal upper class British student when his father (Bill Nighy) sits him down to have… The Talk. This one isn’t about birds and bees so much as it is the space-time continuum. It seems that the men in their family have the unique ability to travel through time, though only during their lifetimes. All Tim need do is find a somewhat secluded, dark corner, clench his fists, and think his way back to a particular memory. Tim is able to blink out embarrassing incidents and use his foreknowledge. He meets Mary (Rachel McAdams) and sets his sights on making her fall in love with him. He corrects their courtship until he gets everything “right.”

108505_galWhile eminently pleasant and suitably funny and emotional, About Time is a tale of wasted potential. I’m unsure why Curtis even brought in such an unconventional element like time travel if he was just going to play it safe. The standard, feel-good rom-com route feels the safe way through, and while it’s well done in that regard, I almost wish the film had pushed further with its concept. To begin with, the time travel restrictions are arbitrarily applied and will later be broken altogether as the film continues. When time travel is used it’s played out like Groundhog Day, with Tim immediately going back to fine-tune his actions, particularly his courting of Mary. That works, as we get used to the inertia of the edits, but that seems to be the lone focus. Once he gets the girl, Tim rarely uses his amazing gift. He’s content and so time travel is an afterthought when, as I suspect for any of us, it would be all we could think about. Tim lacks suitable ambition. I think the film would have been weightier had its lead been less idealistic. He’s a nice guy but imagine a Lothario having the power to travel back in time. He could physically cheat on his wife, go back and make sure it never happened, and live his life, having his cake and eating it too, except for the guilt. Is it cheating if it happened in an alternate timeline? Or what if he was a stockbroker committing insider trading with his past self. In fact, what if he just interacted with his older, more morally wanton self? There’s also the fact that Mary never finds out about any of this. At no point does Tim reveal his family’s incredible ability and have to atone for his actions. I’m fairly certain Mary would feel like her marital bliss could be the end product to manipulation. Alas, we’re stuck with our cute, acceptable, but mostly square rom-com.

While likeable, I didn’t think the characters themselves were sketched out well; I like McAdams and Gleeson, but I couldn’t really say much about them as people. He’s a lawyer. She works as a reader for a publisher. His family is kind of rich. And that’s about it. Even through their interactions we don’t learn much about Tim or Mary. They fall in love, and it’s nice, but the lack of characterization, besides the fact that they are cute together, kept me from fully investing in their love story. I doubt the target audience will have this same issue. I found them cute and their scenes are cute together but I need more about my main characters than a collection of cute scenes. Another nagging aspect of their courtship is that it seems too easy. Tim has the amazing power of time travel so he can fix any problem presented, but that shouldn’t stop the appearance of problems. Tim and Mary are nice people that seem to have no discernible differences, besides Tim’s leftover feelings for a first love. An audience may say they want a couple to be sweet together always. They don’t. It’s boring. We need conflict. With About Time, there just isn’t enough of it and Tim and Mary are too underdeveloped for me to pine for them.

There are loads of dangling storylines that feel like they are leftovers from past drafts. You would think wrapping up a peachy marriage early would lead to some sort of personal crossroads and sacrifice. Everything was coming far too easily for Tim, so I kept waiting for another shoe to drop late in the film, to give him the chance to undo his own personal happiness and marriage to, say, save a beloved family member. I kept waiting for some kind of greater personal stakes, but it never came. Then the movie has all sorts of dangling storylines that do not seem conceptualized. The doddy uncle who seems to be experiencing the ravaged effects of too much time travel? Not much there. They never explain him and so he is just the standard Brit com-com kooky family member to say weird things offhand. Seems like a waste of greater pathos. Tim’s troubled sister? She’s fixed in a pinch and of course it all has to do with the men she’s dating.

108504_galThen there are the rules, which in time travel need to be adhered to closely or else the butterfly effect ripples cascade. We’re told at first that Tim can only go backwards in time. This gives the impression that he has to live out all that extra time. So, say, if Tim traveled back two years, he’d have to live out all two years to get back to the presumed moment he began his journey backwards (writing about time travel does wonderful things with sentence tenses). So every jump back requires reliving your life. But then all of a sudden Tim can jump forward in time as well. No one comments about this. If the men in the family are reliving days and possibly years of time, then shouldn’t they be preternaturally aging, looking 70 at 50 and so on? Then there’s the fact that Tim introduces the ability to travel back in time WITH another person. This is never dealt with again, sadly, and it’s a big deal. You can bring other people with you through time. This is an amazing opportunity but it’s wasted like so many others.

However, with all that said, the movie won me over more as it transitioned into a greater emphasis on the father/son relationship, enough so that it feels like Curtis trying to get the sense of closure we so rarely get in life. I though a late trip backwards, as a young son skipping stones with his dad before he may never see him again, was quite beautiful. It got me wishing the film had given more time to explore the dynamics of father/son time travelers, a rich dramatic possibility that only reminds you how much more interesting About Time could have been.

About Time will be catnip to its target audience, namely female rom-com fans. I found it a fairly pleasant movie and its stars wholly likeable. I laughed at spots and even got teary-eyed a bit toward the end as the film’s emphasis shifted from a guy-gets-girl narrative to more of a father-son examination. The funny Brit characters do their thing, the lovely scenery remains lovely, and the declarations of love get a spit-shine. It is an effective romantic comedy that will charm and please and get its audience to swoon, but I was left feeling that its potential went untapped as it settled on a safer, more conventional story despite all the unconventional possibility. Why introduce time travel if you’re just going to take the safest route possible with your storytelling, never pitting Tim in a difficult decision he has to make, or jeopardizing his carefully manipulated happiness? There are so many possibilities Curtis had with a premise that opens up alternative histories, but it seems like he settled for another dash of more-of-the-same.

Nate’s Grade: B-

War Horse (2011)

Steven Spielberg and war seem like a dynamite combination. The popular director puts away his childish things and becomes a much more mature, thoughtful artist, with the obvious exception of 1979’s 1941. War Horse is the adaptation of a children’s book-turned-Tony-Award-winning play, where the title star was brought to life on stage via skilled puppeteers. And lo, did people weep for that puppet horse on stage, and lo will they likely weep for the flesh-and-blood version on the big screen. However, I’d hardly call this movie a mature examination on the horrors of World War I. It’s more of a touchy-feely, stodgy, vignette-heavy drama that brings out the worst in Spielberg’s sentimental side.

We’re introduced to our young horse early on, where young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) spies the colt and forms an instant bond. Albert’s father Ted (Peter Mullen) buys the horse on a whim, even though the family could really use a plow horse. Albert names the horse Joey and is determined to prove everybody wrong who doubts the both of them. Together they indeed plow that rocky field and Albert’s family keeps their farm. Then World War I breaks out across Europe and the family ends up losing the horse. Joey is confiscated by the English cavalry and goes on a fantastic journey, switching sides over the course of the war (and allegiances?). Albert enlists in the military so that he can find his long-lost horse. I guess they’ll be no “Dear John” letter when your beloved only has hooves.

War Horse is a throwback to old-fashioned Hollywood epics. It’s like John Ford took control of this movie from beyond the grave (note to self: premise for a supernatural comedy). My theater was filled to the rafters with old people. It was like the nursing home emptied out for the Greatest generation’s couples night. It’s easy to see why the movie would appeal to such an older crowd. It’s a simple story told with its emotions squarely on its sleeve like a badge of honor (mixed metaphors!). It’s so unflappably earnest and sentimental that it can occasionally fall into cornball territory. There’s the greedy landlord who wants to kick the poor family off their farm. Being a Spielberg movie, no expense is spared in milking as many emotions as possible. Spielberg demands tears and you will deliver them, or so help him. It’s all about Joey the horse prancing through people’s lives, touching hearts, bringing enemies together. The movie is primed for mass (older) audience appeal; for God’s sake there is a sassy goose that Spielberg can’t help himself but continue to include. Sassy goose equals money in the bank. This is the only movie I can imagine where plowing is treated as a point of dramatic catharsis. Suffice to say, War Horse is a stodgy war drama that won’t offend anyone with delicate sensibilities.

I wasn’t expecting War Horse to be the equine version of The Red Violin (if you unfamiliar with the masterful 1999 film The Red Violin, go see it immediately instead of watching this flick). We see the horrors of war through a series of vignettes as Joey passes from owner to owner, each befalling some unfortunate fate, though I don’t think the horse is to blame (or is he…?). The vignettes run about 15-20 minutes or so apiece and because the one constant is the horse, that means we have to feature characters talking out loud explaining everything they do and feel. The horse just kind of takes in everyone’s secrets, probably wishing these people would stop their yapping. The characters are drawn rather broad so we get the German brothers who desert their posts, a French girl wanting to learn to ride a horse, and a noble English cavalry marshal, amongst others. It’s hard to get attached to such disposable characters that fail to leave a modest dent. I thought maybe all these characters would converge in the end for an emotional climax, but then I remembered that many of them were dead, so nope. It’s a strange screenwriting shortcoming when the most engaging character for most of the movie is on four legs and never says a word.

It’s hard not to emote when Spielberg lathers on the sentimentality with aplomb. But if you took away John Williams’ earnest score, Spielberg’s sappy staging, and all those close-ups of animals, would you feel anything for this story or these characters; would you feel anything without all the reminders to feel? I doubt it. Don’t count me heartless, for I’ll have you know I bawled like a baby who just watched another baby hit with a shovel at Marley & Me, but does the life of one horse matter so much more than the millions of lives lost at war? We watch all those boys, many not old enough to be called men, run into the unforgiving gauntlet of war, but someone the life of one horse is supposed to outweigh the countless death. I understand a tight narrative focus so that large, unfathomable horrors can feel personable and better felt. Shindler’s List is that kind of movie. War Horse is not. This isn’t even Black Beauty or National Velvet. One of the English soldiers chides the sobbing Albert with a sharp quip: “It’s not a dog, boy, it’s just a horse.” I felt sad when the horse was in danger; I’m not a heartless bastard.

And oh does this horse seem to be Spielberg’s symbol of purity, mankind’s ultimate accomplishment, or, you know, something Big and Important. At one point, Joey gets tangled in a mess of barbed wire and the English and Germans all come to some sort of uneasy truce to work together to free this beautiful animal (if only more hapless horses had gotten lost in No Man’s Land maybe the war would’ve been over sooner – now I sound heartless). The horse is supposed to represent some messianic cost of war, where we destroy nature, turning majestic creatures into weapons of war, etc. I don’t really know what the message/symbolism is striving for but it’s constantly grappling, looking for a suitable sticking point. Honestly, if Joey was supposed to represent purity, goodness, nature, then that filly needed to get turned into glue by film’s end (spoiler alert). I erroneously predicted War Horse to be the “Marley & Me of war pictures.” The horse lives, rejoice America. Never mind the millions of people who died horribly. You can’t have a messianic symbol without martyrdom. If Spielberg wants to drive home the loss of innocence that many underwent thanks to the War to End All Wars (oh, if only), then the horse, a symbol of innocence and nature, needed to die at the machines of war. Otherwise the movie becomes an episodic journey of a single horse, an equine Forrest Gump. I can’t imagine that’s what Spielberg had in mind. I envisioned an M. Night Shyamalan-esque ending wherein the horse does eventually die, get turned into glue, and that glue is sued to construct a bomber plane for World War II. That plane? The Enola Gay. Cut to end credits. War Horse!

This movie has deteriorate in my mind the more I think back, picking away its cornball earnestness and stodgy sensibilities. When the horse is your greatest character then your war drama has some problems. War Horse is not a bad movie by most counts. It looks swell, the emotions are big, and hey horses are pretty aren’t they? But for any discerning moviegoer looking for a strong narrative, incisive commentary on the war, or even moderately appealing characters, well I hope you like looking at horses.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004)

You don’t see too many sequels to romantic comedies, and that?s practically by design. Most romantic comedies consist of keeping the leads apart as long as possible, and then in that final climactic moment they connect, embrace, kiss, usually while a camera pans around them and some up-tempo Top 40 songs swells on the soundtrack. Then we end, our story finished. You see, romantic comedies are essentially modern fairy tales, and they end on the “happily ever after” moment, the most joyous moment. We don?t think about what their lives could be afterwards. I doubt few in the audience are biting their nails to know who does the dishes or if their sex life diminishes.

So for all of these stated reasons, sequels to romantic comedies are rare, unless, of course, they’re based on a book series that’s a cash cow of chick lit. Thus, America, we are given Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the sequel to the smash 2001 film Bridget Jones’s Diary.

The movie takes place four weeks after Bridget (Renee Zellweger) and Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) cuddling in the falling snow. Their relationship is all lovey-dovey, until Bridget starts reconsidering if she made the right choice of men. Her former boss, Daniel (Hugh Grant) has gone on to fame as a travel correspondent for TV news. He’s a bad boy, for sure, but sparks flew with him. Bridget also suspects Mark of cheating on her with a leggy colleague (whose final plot revelation is quite dumb). Bridget tries her best to fit in with Mark’s upper crust society, but is starting to feel unaccepted. Then she becomes a partner to Daniel on his travel reports, and the two visit exotic locales and sparks begin once more.

Edge of Reason feels like a poor slapdash grab at money. The film lifts entire scenes from the first Bridget Jones movie and tries reworking them for similar effect. Watching Firth and Grant sissy fight each other is amusing … the first time I saw it in 2001. For the most part, it seems like the filmmakers behind Edge of Reason were straining to come up with things after that “happily ever after” moment. What other reason can there be for some of the disastrous plot turns in Edge of Reason? The revolving door of writers (including author Helen Fielding herself) manufacture petty and foolish nitpicks for Bridget that she treats as life or death. It’s hard to feel concern for her. When you strand your main character -in a romantic comedy, no less- in a Thailand prison because she was caught smuggling drugs -in a romantic comedy, remember- then you have some giant plot issues.

The wit and biting commentary from Bridget seem to be stripped away. She only makes two journal entries, which open and close the film, and they were responsible for some of the greatest comedy bits in the original movie. She no longer comes across as a snappy, ordinary girl with a big heart and some big neuroses (did I mention the Thailand prison?). The Bridget of Edge of Reason seems a bit obnoxious at times. The comedy of Edge of Reason doesn’t generally rise above slapstick. Watch Bridget parachute into a dung field (Ha!), watch Bridget ski backwards down a slalom (Hilarious!), watch Bridget get stoned from magic mushrooms (You’re killing me!), and don?t forget to watch her fall down, like, a lot (R.I.P. Nate; cause of death: laughing too hard). The makers of Edge of Reason are just trying too damn hard.

It’s a wonder that Edge of Reason does work at times, and that reason is because of the acting of our romantic trio. Zellweger is still incredibly charming despite some of the things she’s forced to do. She’s never looked better than when she has her Bridget Jones physique; she’s practically glowing. Grant is at his best when he’s a cad, and once again he gets the best lines, especially when he’s undressing Bridget during a work trip. The movie comes alive when he and Zellweger start their flirtatious battle. Firth adds shades of humanity and adoration to his fuddy-duddy role. He’s got a great everyman appeal even when he’s being a twit.

Edge of Reason also seems to flog whatever it feels is funny. If Bridget saying something inappropriate in front of a group of dignitaries and ambassadors is funny, then expect it to happen again five or six times. And it does, sadly. Edge of Reason is almost a wall-to-wall torture chamber of public embarrassment for Bridget, and if the filmmakers thought that would endear her to audiences they were wrong. We were endeared already by her wit and charm, but I guess the people behind Edge of Reason thought we didn’t want more of that. I miss you old Bridget Jones, wherever you are.

The first Bridget Jones movie was directed by Sharon Maguire, a personal friend of Fielding. Maguire was close enough to know how to adapt the story and retain the elements that made Bridget Jones entertaining. Edge of Reason‘s director Beeban Kidron seems to be assembling a Bridget Jones movie for a focus group. We lose the personality of Bridget and get an accident-prone buffoon. All that’s missing are the banana peels.

Everything about Edge of Reason screams laziness. A great example of this is the film’s choice for music. The songs are so obvious, from “All By Myself” to “I’m Not in Love” to songs that simply have “love” in their title, like “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” to Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” Chances are, if your band ever released a song with “love” in the title, the music director of Edge of Reason considered using it.

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason will likely entertain its core audience (there were very few men unaccompanied by women in my theater). The cast makes this stilted sequel worth watching. If you really liked Bridget Jones’s Diary, you’ll probably be intermittently amused with Edge of Reason, because it’s the same meal, only reheated with a bit of a chill. Let this be an example of why Hollywood doesn’t make sequels to romantic comedies. We’re happy enough with “happily ever after.”

Nate’s Grade: C+

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