Movie Review ~ Yesterday

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A struggling musician realizes he’s the only person on Earth who can remember The Beatles after waking up in an alternate timeline where they never existed.

Stars: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran, Joel Fry

Director: Danny Boyle

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: It’s not like we haven’t had a movie featuring the music of The Beatles before. Starting with A Hard Day’s Night in 1964 starring the quartet from Liverpool themselves followed by 1965’s Help! and 1968’s Yellow Submarine, the songs lived on in more films. There was the infamous Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band released in 1978, the same year future Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis made the underrated comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Along with the various biopics and documentaries, I can’t forget 2007’s powerhouse but eternally divisive Across the Universe which found director Julie Taymor incorporating the music of The Beatles into an original story within a full blown movie musical.

What would happen, though, if The Beatles never became famous and their music never heard? What if only one person remembered their songs and claimed them as his own, riding their timeless sincerity and undeniable musicality to potential fame and fortune? That’s the set-up promised by the supposed romantic comedy Yesterday and judging from the trailers and promos I was expecting a light musical fantasy positing an intriguing question to a summer audience. Halfway through the summer, a movie free of exploding planets and avenging superheroes was a tune I was interested in hearing.

How strange, then, to find Yesterday one of the more heavy-handed films so far this summer. There are many elements of the movie that work fairly well independently of each other but put them all together and there is a perplexing discord no one can overcome. Looking at the pedigree of those involved, including an Oscar winning director, a much-lauded screenwriter known for making his comedic romances float without being fluff, and two appealing leads, this should have been a slam dunk sleeper summer hit. Instead, it just becomes a snooze.

Struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is getting ready to hang up his guitar for good. Living with his parents after quitting job as a teacher, he’s been trying to make it as a singer-songwriter while working a part time job at a local superstore. The gigs organized by his childhood friend and manager Ellie (Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) aren’t leading to anything of substance and though his friends are loyal supporters, the work he’s putting out into the world isn’t catching fire. The night of his last gig, after telling Ellie he’s quitting, he’s struck by a bus during a worldwide blackout, losing two teeth in the process. It’s not the only thing lost when the lights go out.

Shortly after he recovers, he’s plucking out the notes to ‘Yesterday’ for Ellie and his friends and discovers not only do they not know the song, they’ve never heard of the men that wrote it or the famous band they were a part of. Searching the internet for John Paul George Ringo only brings back the page for Pope John Paul II and looking for The Beatles keeps directing him to the Wikipedia page for insect. Could it be that the entire world had forgotten…or that they never existed at all? At first, Jack is reluctant to use the music to his advantage but the more positive responses he gets the more emboldened he becomes to “write” more and more of the back catalog for The Fab Five. The only trouble he faces is remembering the lyrics to several key songs…after all, if the songs only exist in his head the lyrics aren’t scribbled down anywhere for him to reference.  That’s why he struggles mightily with the complex ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and mixes up the order of ‘For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.’

As Jack starts to skyrocket to fame, his relationship with Ellie changes from chums to maybe something more. All these years they have been best friends…but were both hoping for love to blossom and waiting for the other to make the first move? With Jack’s path taking him away from home and keeping the two apart, the movie unfortunately tries to shoehorn in a romance that doesn’t feel like it wants to be there. Part of that problem is that, for as likable as Patel and Collins are individually, they generate absolutely no romantic chemistry at all. In the friends department, they are believable as pals but every time they are supposed to be pining for each other there are no sparks created.  I get that Yesterday is first and foremost supposed to wear its romance on its sleeve but that the movie keeps returning to this plot that utterly halts any and all forward progress is a major failure.  Without any true pull for the audience to root for Jack and Ellie to be together, I was left wondering if they were meant to be a couple at all.  Why?  Because the movie laws say they should be?  It’s not like either make any huge sacrifice (save for a hammy grand gesture near the climax) for the other…I just couldn’t understand why we should care.

Some of that is the fault of the script from Curtis (About Time) which is uncharacteristically free of heart. What I’ve always appreciated about the way Curtis fashions a screenplay is the way he is able to bring not only the two leads together in a witty way but in the method he involves the supporting players as well. Think about the ensemble casts of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. Yes, the stars stick in your mind but so do the nicely drawn people surrounding them. That’s another problem here. Aside from Patel and Collins, the supporting cast in Yesterday are completely forgettable. The ones that stick out do so for the wrong reasons. As Jack’s annoying friend and roadie Rocky, Joel Fry (Paddington 2) is basically the exact same character Rhys Ifans played much better (and to 100% more laughs) in Notting Hill. Treating her performance like an extended SNL sketch, Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters) squares herself as Jack’s Los Angeles manager to be so nasty that what is supposed to be funny just comes off as mean-spirited and, ultimately, exasperating. McKinnon started as such a breath of fresh air but her act is stale.  Playing himself in an extended cameo, Ed Sheeran shouldn’t quit his day job.

The biggest issue with the movie is the director. At the end of the day Danny Boyle (Trance) was just, I think, not the right director for this film. Though he’s shown an agility with movies that have a bit of a fantastical edge to them (go watch Millions if you don’t believe me), he seems totally lost at how to keep Yesterday from dragging almost from the beginning. The movie should have a snap to it, especially considering the numerous up-tempo numbers sung by Patel who has quite a lovely singing voice. Instead, these musical moments feel cold and unwelcoming. For a movie with so many magical points of interest there is little whimsy to be had. Curtis introduces an extra twist to the circumstances where we find out that it’s not just The Beatles that were erased from existence and Jack isn’t the only one that remembers how things once were…but Boyle never takes those ideas further so they become footnotes to the unexplained phenomena instead of additional clues.

In some ways I wonder if this wouldn’t have worked better as part of some sort of Black Mirror-ish type of show. Pushing up against the two-hour mark, the film struggles to justify that length and stretches on longer than it has to. One thing I will say that it has going for it (aside from the soundtrack which I secured fairly quickly) was that I didn’t quite know what to expect from the ending and what I thought would happen didn’t. There was an easy way to end the movie and a more complicated resolution and the film took the road less traveled.  I don’t think it will satisfy the average movie-goer, though the woman next to me was bouncing around in her seat throughout and practically dancing during the hummable closing credits.  Under the watchful eye of a director less interested in reality and the recasting of McKinnon’s character, Yesterday would be an improvement.  Right now, it’s helter skelter.

Movie Review ~ Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Five years after the events of Mamma Mia!, Sophie will find out more about her mother’s past, including how she fronted The Dynamos, started her villa on the island from nothing, met each one of Sophie’s dads, and raised a daughter.

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

Director: Ol Parker

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I happened to be in London in January of 2000 and was able to catch the original London cast of the smash hit, Mamma Mia! It was one of the most exciting nights I’ve had in the theater, not just because the show was enormously entertaining but because the audience just went absolutely nuts for it. I was in the highest point of a steep balcony and watching grown men and women shaking their groove thing to the finale megamix without fear of falling was a sight to behold. In touring productions over the past 18 years I’ve seen the same effect, audience members that came in looking glum but leaving with a crazed look in their eyes.

2008’s Mamma Mia! was a surprise hit, though anyone that didn’t expect a global phenomenon starring one of Hollywood’s most A-list stars to rake in some kind of cash likely isn’t still working in the industry today. Released in the summer months when people were tired of explosions and CGI, it was a perfect (if slightly underwhelming to me) summer antidote to the loud and noisy fare ticket buyers were bombarded with. If anything, it showed us how star Meryl Streep (Hope Springs) could turn even the silliest project on paper into a fully-formed performance with feeling.

When a sequel was announced, I was fairly surprised. After the box office success of the first one, it’s not that a sequel was unheard of, just unexpected. Hearing the gang was getting back together again with a few new additions was interesting and with new songs from the ABBA catalog being added the stage was set for a repeat of the fun frivolity the original almost outright encouraged.

Look, times are hard enough as it is so when movies like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again are released there’s a certain amount of goodwill restraint I believe critics should utilize because while this is far from an equal, this prequel sequel has its heart and, often, voice in the right place.

So now we reach the point where we can’t go on without a few spoilers, but nothing that hasn’t already been hinted at by the trailers.

It’s been five years since about-to-be-wed Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, Love the Coopers) invited three men she thought might be her father to a taverna on a remote Greek island without telling her mother they are on their way. Comic and musical hijinks were the result and the film, like the stage musical it was based off of, ended with a spandex and platform heeled finale set to ABBA’s Waterloo. Now, Sophie is re-opening the hotel one year after her mother’s death while harboring a growing secret of her own. As the guests arrive, the film bounces back and forth between the present and 1979 to see how Donna (Lily James, Cinderella) came to the Greek fantasy island and made a life for herself.

It’s rough going for the first twenty minutes or so as the film dives headfirst into exposition and a few lesser known ABBA songs. A strange musical opening set at Oxford has valedictorian Donna doffing her cap and gown for a lycra bodysuit to bump and grind through the sunny but silly When I Kissed the Teacher along with her fellow Dynamos, Rosie (Alexa Davies) and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn). It’s an off-kilter and gangly way to introduce us to Donna and the film stays safely in idle mode until she lands in Paris and meets young Harry (Hugh Skinner, Les Miserables) before heading off to Greece where she’ll sail away with young Bill (Josh Dylan), and fall in love with young Sam (Jeremy Irvine, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death).

While we’re getting this backstory, the events taking place in the present aren’t always as sunny. Sophie and Sky (Dominic Cooper, Dracula Untold) are halfway around the world from eachother and experience the stress of a long-distance romance (explained in a sketchily sung One of Us) and other dads Harry (Colin Firth, Magic in the Moonlight) and Stellan Skarsgård (Avengers: Age of Ultron) can’t make the re-opening due to business commitments. Tanya (Christine Baranski, Into the Woods) and Rosie (Julie Walters, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) do arrive and try to brighten Sophie’s spirits when a storm threatens to derail the proceedings.

It’s all set to a songlist from the ABBA canon, many repeated from the original film to lesser results. The old songs new to the sequel are clearly B-sides for a reason, though Baranski and Walters have fun with Angel Eyes. The biggest success is likely Dancing Queen, a highlight here just as it was in the first outing. It’s a huge production number set on land and sea, you’ll wish all boat rides had such excellent choreography.

The overall problem I had with the movie is that it feels like a project crafted around the availability of its returning cast. The movie was shot in London and plenty of it is done on green screen to recreate the Greek setting. Add to that a handful of cast members that feel like they filmed their scenes in several days (no surprise many did) and the film feels a bit clunky and unkempt. That being said, it takes about 90 minutes for the film to find any kind of rhythm or shape and that just happens to be the time that Cher (Mermaids) stops by.

It’s widely known Cher turned down the role of Tanya when produces approached her about it but we should all be glad she signed up to play Ruby, Sophie’s grandmother (try not to do the math when you consider Cher is only three years older than Meryl Streep), a Las Vegas entertainer not much for family gatherings. Not long after Cher shows up and sings a bang-up version of Fernando, none other than Streep herself appears in a scene/song you’ll need some tissues for. It shouldn’t have, but it honestly caught me off guard how moving her performance was and it serves as a wistful reminder of the below the surface heart the rest of the movie was missing.

Writer/director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) might not improve on the formula introduced in Mamma Mia! in terms of cleverly blending songs in with the action but his film marks a vast improvement visually. He lets the camera take in more of the large action and dancing scenes, instead of quick cuts around the dancing he makes good use of the widescreen vistas. Like the first film, expect Greek tourism to get a bump from the lovely displays here.

 

Movie Review ~ About Time

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The Facts:

Synopsis: At the age of 21, Tim discovers he can travel in time and change what happens and has happened in his own life. His decision to make his world a better place by getting a girlfriend turns out not to be as easy as you might think.

Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Tom Hollander, Margot Robbie, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan

Director: Richard Curtis

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: The majority of the films that writer/director Richard Curtis has been involved with have required a few viewings before I was able to make up my mind whether I liked them or not.  As the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and both movies in the Bridget Jones franchise Curtis displayed a cheeky and very British charm that he extended into his directorial debut: Love, Actually.  For his third (and reportedly final) time sitting in the director’s chair, he’s delivered one of his most well-rounded and deeply felt flights of fancy.

I get the feeling that About Time is the product of two ideas that wound up being molded into one crisp film, the romance angle is something that Curtis could probably do in his sleep but it’s the time-travel element that makes the movie truly unique.  In adding in that fantasy element, Curtis has allowed the film to break free of the romance flick clichés and chart its own path, becoming less about finding true love but in valuing the love right in front of us.

Love-lorn Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, Anna Karenina) narrates the film from a time and place we’re not quite sure of, he clearly knows how this will all end but doesn’t hint at what’s to unspool over the next two hours.  We meet his family, eccentric in their own right but not quite as daffy as some of the other loons Curtis has scripted through the years.  Dad (Bill Nighy, The World’s End), Mom (Lindsay Duncan), sis Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) and Uncle D (Richard Cordery) all live in blissful harmony in a home nestled by the sea outside of London.

When Tim’s dad spills a family secret (all of the men in the family have the ability to travel through time) Tim does what any young man would…uses it to manipulate a situation to impress girls.  Setting his sights first on a visiting friend of his sister’s (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street), he learns over one lazy summer that maybe not even time travel could solve some of his woes.

Though the film is billed as a love story between Tim and American Mary (Rachel McAdams, The Vow, Passion), there’s a lot more to recommend as the movie twists and turns down its path showing the consequences of Tim’s actions or lack thereof.  Though leaping through time has its advantages, there are drawbacks that will alter the course of Tim’s life and everyone he loves…leading to a three hanky finale that brims with the situational warmth that Curtis wields so slyly.  The film crept up on me to be quite touching, and I predict many audiences will feel the same way.

Gleeson is a wonderful, affable lead that provides exactly the kind of shaggy dog charisma the role would have been lacking without.  He even brings out the best in McAdams who can sometimes feel like she’s giving a McPerformance – that is, something highly processed and not all together good for you.  Her defenses are down here and she’s grounded nicely by her costar and the convincing screenplay.  Nighy is always up for a devil-may-care performance but he tightens up his usual loosey goosey act to surprisingly affecting results.  As is the norm, Curtis has a knack for his strong casting of not only the leads but his various supporting roles.  Whether they are onscreen for the whole movie or just a passerby, there’s always an interesting face you want to know more about.

Fans of romantic dramadies would be advised to make the time to catch this in the theater because there’s a certain warmth that lends itself well to seeing the movie on the big screen.  Even if these types of films normally aren’t your bag, About Time is a worthwhile watch thanks to a script with real heart and performances to match.

The Silver Bullet ~ About Time

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Synopsis: At the age of 21, Tim discovers he can travel in time and change what happens and has happened in his own life. His decision to make his world a better place by getting a girlfriend turns out not to be as easy as you might think.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts: Director Richard Curtis has given audiences some interestingly original love stories over the course of his career.  From his Oscar nominated Four Weddings and a Funeral to Notting Hill to the modern classic (to some) Love, Actually…he’s demonstrated time and time again that sometimes love just doesn’t come easy.  In his new film, he’s putting a little sci-fi shine on things with a product that looks like a take-off of Groundhog Day and The Time Traveler’s Wife (a dud which also starred Rachel McAdams, The Vow).  Lead Domhnall Gleeson made such a great impression on me in Anna Karenina, I think he’s a great choice for the type of film I believe Curtis will deliver.  Arriving late in 2013, this could be one to watch out for.