Reel Opinions


Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Lion King

The Lion King is the third Disney remake to hit theaters in about four months, after March's Dumbo and Aladdin from May.  Here, we get the story that we are all familiar with, only performed by expressionless CG puppets, rather than traditional Disney animation.  The end result is one of the strangest disconnects between form and function that I have ever seen on the big screen.

This is as soulless of a big budget production that I can imagine.  The entire cast is made up out of photo realistic computer animated animals that have been faithfully imagined to their real life counterparts, but are never once capable of showing emotion for some reason.  Of course, it would be strange to see realistic-looking animals laughing, crying, or showing human-like expressions.  That would not work here the same way it does in a hand-drawn animated feature.  But to give them constantly blank, expressionless faces is just as off-putting, if not more so.  When we see the young lion cub Simba (voice by JD McCrary) frolicking about and singing about how he just can't wait to be king, yet his face shows no sign of joy or excitement, I had to wonder.  If The Lion King is one thing, it is a story about emotion, exile and redemption.  To see it being told by a physical cast that is unable to express these, or actually any, feeling is more creepy than engaging.

This is special effects technical wizardry run amok.  The artists have obviously gone through great pains to make this movie look great, by giving us an all-animal cast and an African setting that looks real enough to touch.  But at the same time, nothing connects, because director Jon Favreau (2016's The Jungle Book remake) has decided to go far to the "Uncanny Valley" edge of realism.  All the lions, meerkats, warthogs, puffins, hyenas and baboons that populate the story have faces that refuse to show any emotion, and tiny eyes that can barely be seen at times.  It may not sound like much, but when you actually see these soulless computer generated puppets recreating classic moments from the 1994 film, it can't be avoided that something is off.  The classic "Circle of Life" opening has been recreated almost shot-for-shot from the original, but because none of the creatures up on the screen are able to express anything, it comes across as empty.  Case in point: In the original opening sequence, when the tiny bird Zazu flies up to greet the King Mufasa, they acknowledge each other with warm smiles.  Here, the animals seem to just stare blankly at each other.

Why is this considered an improvement?  What is the point of going for a more realistic approach if we can't have the emotion that is supposed to go with the scene?  If we must sacrifice characters who can actually express feeling to one another, then why do it at all?  I have seen a lot of computer generated characters in my time of going to the movies, and I have seen some that have been able to move me, or create the illusion of feeling and depth.  These characters left me feeling completely cold from beginning to end.  And because the completely artificial cast feels cold, so does the film itself.  And so, we get one large disconnect, where we see these expressionless animals, but out of their mouths is coming the talented voice cast, who are clearly taking this material seriously and with respect.  When we see Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones, just as before) showing his son their kingdom for the first time, it's supposed to be an epic and awe-inspiring moment.  We hear Jones selling the dialogue just as well as he did back in the original, but the animated figure that is reciting his words does not match up, because it doesn't seem to be feeling the words.

Of the cast, Jones is the only member of the earlier movie to reprise their role.  This time around, we have Donald Glover as the voice of the adult Simba, Beyonce Knowles-Carter as his best friend and eventual love interest, the lioness Nala, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the voice of the scheming Uncle Scar, comedian John Oliver as Zazu, and Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen providing comic relief as the duo of Timon and Pumbaa.  There's nothing really to complain about when it comes to the cast.  They are selling the material, singing the classic Elton John and Tim Rice songs, and generally live up to expectations, while occasionally offering their own spin on the characters.  I personally enjoyed Ejiofor's villain performance more than Jeremy Irons' take on the character some 25 years ago.  Nobody offends or hits a wrong note here.  They simply are being betrayed by the fact that the high-tech animation cannot live up to the performances that they are giving.

And so I am left to wonder, who is this take on The Lion King for?  I know there is an audience out there for this, but are they really thrilled by the lack of emotion that this new film provides in spades over the traditionally animated film?  I suppose there is, because my screening was attended by a packed and enthusiastic audience.  Is the problem with me, then?  I felt such a strange disconnect with the film that I never once warmed up to it, despite my valiant efforts to do so.  I felt like I was being told a story I knew and loved, performed by a voice cast who was respecting the material, but being interpreted by a physical cast of puppets that just couldn't express the right emotion.  Everything felt off, and just kind of wrong.  It's like looking at a painting that looks beautiful at a distance, but as you walk closer and examine the finer details, you start to see the numerous and glaring mistakes that the artist made. 

Of course, nothing I say will prevent this movie from making a fortune over the summer, and probably shattering box office records this weekend.  Maybe I'm just a cranky old critic who just doesn't get what the public wants.  All I know is how I feel about it, and I felt shortchanged by the entire experience.  Perhaps you will feel differently.  If so, go and enjoy.  I'll pass.

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Saturday, July 13, 2019

Crawl

You go to Crawl for some quick jolts, and the movie provides.  It's an effective and lean delivery system for jump scares, many of which are handled quite well here.  And at only 87 minutes, the film knows how to deliver its simple premise without wearing out its welcome, or padding itself out.  If you want a movie that will make you jump more than once, this will do.

The movie is a joint production between two filmmakers who know their way around a thriller - Sam Raimi (of Evil Dead fame) serves as one of the producers, while Alexandre Aja (Piranha 3D) has directing duties.  By combining both of their strengths, the movie excels.  On Raimi's side, we have a tightly paced and tense story that is centered around a sole location, with the lead characters trapped by something that is hunting them.  In this case, the hunters are some massive alligators that are clearly made by a computer, but are still effective when they leap at our heroes out of the water.  Aja is a filmmaker best known for his over the top gore, and the movie does provide some gruesome kills.  If there seems to be a smaller body count than usual, it's only because the cast in this movie is quite limited.  Still, when the gators do chomp down on someone (such as an unfortunate police officer, or some teens that are looting a convenience store during a hurricane), the water turns plenty red.

The movie wastes no time in setting things up, as pretty much right in the opening scene, college student Haley (Kaya Scodelario) gets a phone call from her older sister, who is worried about their estranged father (Barry Pepper).  A Category 5 hurricane is brewing in Florida, and Haley is the only one close enough to check on him.  We witness in flashbacks that Haley used to have a relationship with her father, as he coached her with competitive swimming, but they have grown distant in recent years.  She heads to her old family home, where she finds him in the cellar severely injured and with some broken limbs.  The source of his injuries?  A pair of massive gators are now patrolling the rapidly flooding cellar, and there are even more outside of the house, waiting to chow down on anyone who comes close offering to help. 

From this simple premise, Crawl manages to create a claustrophobic atmosphere of constant danger.  Both Haley and her dad will have to face a series of dangers as they try to contact anyone outside, or find a way out of the cellar that won't alert the alligators that are constantly on the watch for any moment in the water.  The movie makes good use out of its limited environment, creating different hazards, and areas that offer temporary safety.  The heroes must use different things like pipes and wires that will block their attackers from reaching them, as they strategize different ways to get out of their surroundings.  It's kind of clever how the movie keeps on throwing new situations at the characters, such as keeping dad's beloved dog Sugar safe, or Haley finding herself trapped within a bathtub with a gator just outside, blocked by a glass frame door. 

Along the way, both characters find time to mend their broken relationship, which sounds a bit corny at first, until you realize that people stuck in such a situation probably would be talking about things to keep themselves sane.  The whole family aspect does not eat up too much of the film's time anyway, as this is largely a fast-paced survival movie.  It's a B-movie through and through, but one that has been made by people who are smart about the genre, and know how to keep things moving.  The movie's not really concerned about realism.  Haley finds her various limbs trapped in the mouth of one of her attackers numerous times throughout the film, manages to escape, and keeps on swimming and fighting with little difficulty.  But, the movie is tense enough that we don't really care.  It serves up enough quick jolts to be satisfying for those looking for such a film.

The only real complaint I can find with Crawl is that it could have used a sense of humor, or maybe some morbid jokes to make the audience wince and smile at the same time.  At least the movie ends on a good laugh, as the end credits are accompanied by the song, "See You Later, Alligator".

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Friday, July 12, 2019

Stuber

Stuber is another one of those movies where an average guy finds himself dragged unwillingly into a crime situation by a hard-nosed cop.  The cop this time around is Vic Manning, played by Dave Bautista.  The average guy is Stu, played by Kumail Nanjiani, who works part-time as an Uber driver.  The title of the film comes from the fact that everyone calls him "Stuber", because of his name and his occupation. 

The film opens with a shootout and chase scene that is shot as if the cameraman is constantly wobbling around, and just could not stay steady on his feet. (Fortunately, the rest of the movie is not filmed this way.) Vic and his partner are close to bringing down a crime kingpin (Iko Uwais), but the partner is killed in the exchange, and the villain gets away.  Six months later, Vic gets a tip on the kingpin's location, and wants to track him down.  Unfortunately, he just had laser eye surgery, and can't see very well.  This leads to a series of gags that seem lifted directly out of the old Mr. Magoo cartoons, as Vic somehow thinks he can drive while he is practically blind.  After some failed attempts at getting around, he calls an Uber, and winds up getting Stu for his driver.  The two become unwilling and unlikely partners as Vic tries to track down his partner's killer, while Stu gets dragged along.

Both Bautista and Nanjiani are funny actors, but are cashing paychecks here, playing character types they could do in their sleep.  Bautista, so memorable in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, is playing a tough as nails cop who uses as many four-letter words in his dialogue as possible.  Nanjiani, who just two years ago co-wrote and starred in the wonderful romantic comedy The Big Sick, is the sensitive type in touch with his feelings, afraid to admit his love for the woman he likes, can't stand up to his jerk of a boss at the big box store he works at most of the time, and likes to reference movies a lot.  The comedy is supposed to come from how different these guys are, but the energy and the chemistry is just not there.  The movie seems to know this, so it throws in a subplot for Bautista's character, giving him an adult daughter (Natalie Morales) that he doesn't pay enough attention to, and never has time for.

Stuber is very minor.  It knows it doesn't really have to be all that good.  Just give the audience some car chases and gunfights, and have the two main characters comically bicker back and forth for most of its running time, then call it a day.  The inescapable fact is that the movie is utterly unnecessary.  The only reason it got made is because people showed up to get paid.  It plays like a filmed deal.  The film is one of those safe packages that studio executives love, because there is no risk involved.  You hear the premise, and you can pretty much picture the ad campaign in your head.  All you need are talented stars willing to work below their ability, a director who has mostly worked in television, and a writer who doesn't care if the script is exactly like dozens of other movies just like it.  They just want the paid writing job.

If you watch the trailer for this movie, you'll know exactly what to expect.  Just imagine it stretched to 95 minutes, and you'll have saved yourself the ticket price.  Seeing stars like Bautista and Nanjiani plugged into such generic roles is depressing, because you know they deserve so much better than this.  If you want to see the level of imagination this movie holds, just scroll back up to the very top of this review, and glance at the poster image.

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Friday, July 05, 2019

Midsommar

When filmmaker Ari Aster made his debut with last summer's paranormal thriller, Hereditary, many hailed him as a new voice in horror, and described the film as being kind of brilliant.  I found a lot to admire about the film, especially the lead performance by Toni Collette, which should have been recognized at Award Season.  However, I also felt the movie flew off the rails during the third act, and just was going for weird for the sake of being weird.  Still, I admired quite a lot about the film, and was excited for what he would do next. 

His follow up, Midsommar, has just as much to admire, and I am recommending it.  However, once again, Aster shows signs of weakness in an overall strong film.  This time, he is making a slow burn thriller where the creepiness comes from the bizarre nature of a commune that seems in touch with nature and the "old ways" of traditions, but is actually holding a dark secret.  Again, Aster shows a natural talent for building tension, even when he surrounds his characters in sun-drenched fields and flowers.  He does this by using camera angles that are intentionally just a bit odd and off, creating a sense of unnaturalness.  He also uses a lot of tight shots, making the wide open spaces of the film's setting just as claustrophobic as your standard haunted house setting.  Just like in his last film, he shows a real mastery of building suspense and technique, and I applaud him.

Where he goes wrong this time is by stretching a very thin story to almost the breaking point with a nearly two and a half hour running time.  Aster starts out with a perfectly tense and winding story that immediately grabs our attention with a knock out opening sequence involving a family tragedy that is a masterclass of minimal storytelling.  And when the characters do arrive at the commune, again, he winds up his audience very well by giving subtle hints that things are not quite as peaceful as they seem, and that there is a cult-like mentality at play.  Even when the movie starts resorting to gore and shock imagery in a sequence involving a ceremony, it's effective and disturbing, instead of simply being gross.  I was completely invested, and ready to praise this as one of the better films of the year.  But, little by little, I found the film's spell slipping on me.  The movie starts dragging its feet just a little, and there are even a few moments that are total missteps and earn bad laughs from the audience.  Here is a movie that carries itself with total confidence for about 90 minutes or so, and then little by little starts to slip up.

Midsommar tells the story of Dani (Florence Pugh, who made such a big impression earlier this year in Fighting with My Family, and continues to do so here), a college student who suffers a personal tragedy when her bipolar sister takes her own life, as well as the life of their parents.  The way that this nightmarish scenario is depicted is deeply effective and emotional, playing up both the tragedy and horror of the situation brilliantly.  Dani's boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), has been contemplating a break up with her, but decides to stick it out in order to support her.  Six months later, it is now summer, and they are still together, though Dani is obviously still haunted by her trauma.  Christian is planning a month-long trip to Sweden with some of his college friends, and brings Dani along with him.  With his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Wilhelm Blomgren), they will head to a commune where Pelle originally hails from in order to celebrate the summer solstice.

After they arrive, there is a lot of music and dancing, as well as hallucinogenic drugs being freely passed around.  The movie plays up the reactions of the Americans (as well as a young British couple who are also visiting the commune) to the customs of their locals, as well as how the locals react to the strangers.  This starts out with simple misunderstandings, but things quickly escalate and turn more sinister, and even sexual.  Ari Aster is clearly paying more than a little bit of tribute to 1973's The Wicker Man here, which is nothing new, as Aster paid respect to a number of horror classics with his last film.  Midsommar becomes drenched with paranoia as the bizarre incidents keep on escalating, and certain characters start mysteriously disappearing.  If there's one thing this movie knows how to do, it's how to put us into an unnerved and intrigued state, at least for a time.

I think this is a case of a movie needing another trip through editing, as there are some serious pacing issues that drag down the last hour or so of the film.  To be fair, the entire movie is fairly slow, and is in no hurry to get to where it's going.  However, the first half has a kind of intriguing mystery, plus the oddness of the commune itself, to carry the audience through.  As the pieces start falling into place, and we start waiting for the movie to wrap itself up, it kind of seems to be dragging its feet.  Aster starts lingering on some scenes for far longer than he should, and the energy that was once there starts to slip away.  I wouldn't say that I was bored, but I did find myself checking my watch a lot more, and wanting things to move along a bit quicker. 

I do believe that Ari Aster is extremely talented, and he clearly has a truly great movie in him.  He's not there yet, but he should keep on trying.  There's a lot to like in Midsommar, and even more to get excited about.  At the very least, this movie does have some unforgettable images and visuals, which is more than I can say of a lot of the competition playing this summer.

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Thursday, July 04, 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Writer's Note: This review will feature some spoilers for Avengers: Endgame if you have not seen it.

The big question post-Avengers: Endgame is what is the Marvel Cinematic Universe going to do next?  Spider-Man: Far From Home does not really have many answers, although it does hint at some very intriguing possibilities for those in the audience who sit through the end credits. (And at this point, why wouldn't you sit through the credits of a Marvel Movie?) Instead of big answers, what we get is an extremely fun teenage superhero film that feels like a Spider-Man movie in the truest sense.

This is no big surprise, as ever since Marvel obtained the rights to use the character in their films, they have gone above and beyond to give us a Peter Parker who actually seems like the boy next door, with plenty of sarcastic and pop culture wit.  Not only does the current star, Tom Holland, actually look like he belongs in high school (a first for the series), but adding Spider-Man to the extended Marvel Universe has allowed him to play off some fantastic characters that he couldn't in earlier films due to complicated legal issues.  The almost father-son bond that he built with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) over the past few films has only strengthened his character, and the films up to now have played upon it beautifully.  Now, with this film, we have to wonder where is this Universe going to go without Stark?

As the film opens, Peter (Holland) and his fellow classmates are dealing with the aftermath of Thanos' snap that almost ended all life, and the effects of returning five years later.  As usual, he is trying to juggle his life as an ordinary high school kid, and protecting his city as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  However, losing Tony has created a deep void within him, and he sort of wonders about his place as a superhero in this ever-expanding world.  He still wants to do good and appear at charity functions headed by his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), but he's not really interested in having the weight of saving the world on his shoulders at the moment.  Even when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) starts calling Parker for help with a new threat that may hold most of the planet in balance, Peter is not interested.

Instead, his focus is on an upcoming class trip to Europe, where he hopes to get close to and finally tell his feelings to M.J. (Zendaya).  However, Nick Fury has never exactly been one to take no for an answer, and so he starts rearranging Peter's vacation so that he will have no choice but to help in the battle against a villain who can apparently control all the elements of the world, and use them to create towering monsters made of water and fire.  There is also a new hero on the block, a man dubbed Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) who claims to hail from an alternate Earth, and has come to save ours to prevent what happened to his world from happening to Peter's.  As Peter is dragged unwillingly into battle, he must question just what kind of hero he's going to be, and whether he truly has the potential that Tony saw in him.

Spider-Man: Far From Home does not really rattle the successful formula that has worked so well in the comics and previous films, which juggle massive world-shattering battles, with quiet coming-of-age moments, and a healthy dose of humor.  The action scenes are par for the course with these kind of movies, featuring ferocious otherworld creatures causing destruction on a massive scale.  The fun little twist that this movie adds is that this is all happening in the middle of a school trip, and a lot of the humor comes from the everyday students and teachers being thrown into these cataclysmic events.  Also, Peter must struggle to keep his identity a secret, since he is constantly surrounded by his friends and peers almost every time a new threat pops up.  The movie comes up with a lot of fun ways for Peter to try to distract or lead them away from the danger, and how many of his efforts go wrong.

The human element here is just as strong as the action, as a good part of the film deals with Peter coping with the void that has been created by Tony's death.  There is an obvious connection that he seems to create with Mysterio, who understands his desire to lead a normal life, and the struggle he feels between doing what is right for others, and doing right for himself.  All the other Avengers are M.I.A. at the moment, so Spider-Man seems to be all the world has right now.  But at the same time, he's still technically a kid, and there are times when he will screw up or certain situations are too much to handle.  This movie is just as much about Peter finding his place as a hero and what he will stand for, as it is about saving the world.

But at the same time, this is not a movie that gets bogged down by the hero's personal issues, like the underwhelming and mopey Dark Phoenix.  All the supporting characters get to stand out, such as Peter's class who accompany him on the trip, like his nerdy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and school bully Flash (Tony Revolori), who hates Peter but ironically idolizes Spider-Man.  There's even a place in the plot for Marvel mainstay Happy (Jon Favreau), who not only provides some much-needed support for our hero, but gets his own funny subplot concerning his attraction to Peter's Aunt May.  Also, when the true identity of the villain is revealed, we not only get a great bad guy, but probably the strongest to appear in a Spider-Man film since Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus all the way back in 2004's Spider-Man 2.

So, while Spider-Man: Far From Home may not be all that massive in the grand scheme of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is a standout title that headlines this particular hero.  It's the kind of fast-paced and humorous thrill ride that the Summer Movie Season is made for, and that we seldom get these days.  Watch it, sit through the end credits, and dream of the possibilities that these expanded films will provide in the future.

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Annabelle Comes Home

The latest film to be spun off from the lucrative The Conjuring franchise, and the second one to hit screens this year, Annabelle Comes Home is a pleasant surprise, as it's probably the best of the three Annabelle movies so far.  Writer-director Gary Dauberman (who has written the previous two films, and is making his directorial debut with this) takes a simple premise and a single setting, and then manages to create a genuinely chilling atmosphere, and a fast-paced thrill ride tone once the infamous demonic doll starts unleashing hell on three unsuspecting young girls.

This time around, the action is set almost entirely within the confines of the suburban home that belongs to paranormal investigators, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga).  The opening 15 minutes of the film displays how the Warrens first encountered the evil Annabelle doll.  Some of this we saw in the first Conjuring movie, but this movie expands upon it, creating a tense scene built around their car breaking down on their ride home with the doll in the back seat.  This may lead you to think that this will be a main entry in the franchise that focuses on them, but Ed and Lorraine exit the movie shortly after, as they have to leave on business, and leave their 10-year-old daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) in the care of teenage babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman).  The plan is for both girls to enjoy a quiet evening at home baking a cake for Judy's birthday.  But obviously, that plan goes out the window fast.

Things kick off when one of Mary Ellen's friends, Daniella (Katie Sarife), shows up at the house uninvited.  Daniella has the air of sarcastic detachment, but she has a past pain in her personal life that draws her to the Warren's house, and their line of work in the paranormal.  She claims she just wants to hang out with Mary Ellen, but in reality, she hopes she can find the rumored locked off room within the house that contains objects possessed by spirits, so that she can get some answers for herself about what lies beyond in the afterlife.  Daniella tracks down the key to the forbidden room, which contains the Annabelle doll locked away in a glass case, as well as other seemingly-everyday objects that apparently hold evil spirits.  Naturally, the doll is the most evil object in the room, and finds a way to escape from its prison while Daniella is snooping about the room.

From there, the movie seldom lets up as it creates what is first a slow-burn tension, and then quickly escalates into an all-out thrill ride, as the Annabelle doll and the various other evil spirits locked away in that room are given free reign of the entire house, while the three young girls trapped within just try to survive.  One key feature that makes the film work is the wide variety of evil spirits that it throws at its three heroines.  Like I said, the Annabelle doll is not the only evil spirit that has been unleashed by Daniella's meddling.  There's an evil wedding dress that turns anyone who wears it into a knife-wielding psycho, a possessed suit of armor from Ancient Japan, and even a TV that can show you horrifying visions.  The house also becomes downright crowded with various evil spirits, including a decaying old Priest, wolves, and other demonic entities.  The scares and ghoulish entities come pretty fast, yet Dauberman has also paced the film well so that it is successfully manic, instead of overkill.

Annabelle Comes Home also genuinely works, because the three young actresses at its center are giving strong performances here.  They're not just cogs in a massive machine who scream and constantly make bad decisions.  I found myself caring about them, and they have a bit more personality than your usual horror heroine.  The screenplay effectively makes Daniella more than the joking troublemaker she initially comes across, by having her tragic background drive part of the storyline, and giving it enough dramatic weight so that the audience can be involved.  And even though the movie is shrouded mostly in darkness, cinematographer Michael Burgess makes the images vivid.  There is no murkiness here, not even when the ominous fog starts rolling in outside, and seems to even permeate the house itself.

Compared to the Child's Play remake, the other evil doll movie we got this summer, this one just feels a lot fresher and more intense.  Yes, it's clearly a low budget cash in, but it's been made with a sense that the people involved actually wanted to make a generally creepy little movie, and in my mind, they have succeeded.  It's the kind of film where you'll probably be laughing with your friends as you walk out of it, but when you get alone in your car afterward, you might take a quick glance in the backseat.  You know, just to be sure.

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Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Yesterday

Yesterday will seem familiar to anyone who has watched a movie written by Richard Curtis.  If you're not familiar with his name, I'll bet money you are with his work, which includes Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually.  Basically, if you've been on a movie date during the past 25 years, there's a good chance you've seen one of his films.

His latest contains a lot of his favorite elements which he frequently falls back on in his writing.  The main character is usually down on his luck and/or unlucky in love, there is an incredibly sweet or gentle love interest, and the drama revolves around whether or not the main character can work up the courage to be truthful with their feelings.  There are really no bad people in the Richard Curtis Universe.  Someone might be a greedy or selfish person, but they never get what they want in the end.  There's also usually some very witty and smart dialogue throughout, which is not surprising, considering Curtis got his start working on TV comedies like Blackadder and Spitting Image.  If Yesterday feels at all familiar for the writer, he's at least following his best instincts, and gives us a warm, light and funny film that doesn't really feel new, but is still memorable.

The movie does at least have an ingenious hook to anchor it, which imagines what a music industry would be like if The Beatles and their songs had never existed.  But rather than deeply explore this issue, it basically uses it as the basic angle for which to hang a much more conventional romantic comedy plot.  This may be disappointing to some, but the screenplay here is charming and entertaining enough that it didn't bother me.  There's definitely some missed opportunities here, but they don't go so far as to sink the film.  And if this does have to be a fairly common romantic comedy with an intriguing premise that's not fully explored, at least it's one with characters we like spending time with, and some genuine laugh out loud moments as well to make up for it.

Much like his 2013 film, About Time, Curtis throws a Sci-Fi element to liven up his romantic story.  Yesterday starts off by following struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who spends his days miserable working at a big box store, and his weekends trying to advance his music career by giving concerts that are usually attended only by his four or five closest friends.  His manager/childhood best friend Ellie (Lilly James) is constantly encouraging him to keep trying at his dreams, but Jack is starting to fall into despair and considers quitting his music act altogether.  As Jack contemplates his future while riding his bike that night, the entire world experiences a 12-second blackout, during which Jack is struck by a bus.  When he awakens in the hospital, he has somehow been sent into an alternate version of Earth which is exactly like ours, only certain everyday things don't exist.

We already know from the ad campaign that Jack no longer lives in a world where The Beatles formed as a band and revolutionized music.  But, the movie has fun with the ideas of other things not existing in this world, such as Coca Cola and cigarettes.  Oddly enough, Jack doesn't seem all that interested in how or why he has stepped across the barrier of space and time, or what caused it.  Neither is the movie.  Rather, he quickly latches onto the idea that since the entire music library of The Beatles is non-existent here, he can make the songs his own.  At first, no one seems interested in the music, expressed nicely in a funny scene where he tries to play one of his "new songs" for his family.  But then, he is discovered by a small-time agent with a recording studio (Alexander Arnold), and soon Hollywood comes calling, and he is drawn into the big time by a scheming music mogul (a funny Kate McKinnon). 

It's at this point that Yesterday sort of drops its whole alternate reality concept, and goes for the conventional romantic comedy of Jack realizing that he has deeper feelings than just friendship for Ellie, and whether or not he is willing to give up his sudden fame to be with her.  Again, I will not blame those of you who see this as a giant missed opportunity, as it certainly is.  But, this element is done well enough that it didn't bother me as much as it probably should.  Both Patel and James create enough sparks to carry the picture through any shortcomings.  Patel, in particular, stands out as a great find, considering this is his first film role.  As for James, she finds a certain honesty to a role that easily could have come across as underwritten.  We get what she sees in Jack, and we want to see her return his affections.

Since that is essentially what every romantic story rides on, I have to label this a success.  Yes, it could have been better.  But, so could a lot of movies.  What's here works.  It's an emotional and sweet film that doesn't require a lot of thinking.  In other words, it's the perfect kind of summer escapism that isn't built around superheroes or CG animation.

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Saturday, June 22, 2019

Anna

Say what you will about filmmaker Luc Besson, but he usually makes films that are unmistakably his.  Even his last film, the big-budget Sci-Fi bomb, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, could have only come from him.  Either that, or an overactive 10-year-old boy.  That's why his latest film, Anna, is a surprise in the worst way.  It has none of his flourish, humor, or style.  I fear the rejection of his previous movie may have watered down his talents just a little.  Either that, or his mind has been on other things lately, primarily the several allegations of sexual misconduct that have dogged him lately, and caused the release of this film to be delayed.

Whatever the case, Anna will seem familiar to anyone who has seen La Femme Nikita, which launched Besson's career back in 1990.  So familiar, in fact, that he almost seems to repeating many of the same ideas as he did in that film.  To help perhaps make this new movie stand out, he employs a gimmick throughout the film in which the story is constantly backtracking and jumping around chronologically.  The story will start out by going in a fairly linear fashion, then there will be some kind of big reveal, and the movie will suddenly cut back to an earlier event, where it turns out there was some information that we didn't see before.  This is the movie's way of trying to be smarter than us, by withholding information.  It's the cinematic equal to listening to someone tell a story or a joke, and they're constantly going back, because they forgot to tell you something important.  If that sounds like fun to you, be my guest, but it irked me to no end.

Anna (played by fashion model Sasha Luss) is an attractive but down on her luck Russian woman who is stuck in a relationship with an abusive lout, until an agent from the KGB named Alex (Luke Evans) recognized her talents, and took her away from the life she knew in order to work for him and his boss, the chain-smoking and foul-mouthed Olga (Helen Mirren).  They promise to let her return to a normal life after five years, and Anna begins a life as an assassin.  In short time, Anna is one of their most skilled killers, using her beauty and deadly instincts to seduce and then murder her targets in various brutal ways.  Her current mission has her posing as a model in Paris, where she begins a romantic relationship with a fellow model named Maud (Lera Abova), all the while trying to keep her real line of work private.

Her cover is ultimately blown by an American CIA agent named Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy), who wants to use Anna to get to the inside of the KGB.  Over time, Anna starts sleeping with Lenny, as well as Alex.  Not that any of these relationships matter much to the overall narrative.  It's just an excuse for some provocative love making that doesn't hold as much weight as you would expect.  Anna is basically playing all sides of the conflict in her desire to get out of being a killer, which naturally is easier said than done.  Again, this fairly straight forward narrative is told in a manner that confusingly jumps around.  We get constant subtitles that read "Five Years Later", "Three Years Before", "November 1990", "1985"...The whole time line jumping gimmick, as well as doubling back to reveal information we didn't see before, feels more like an attempt to mask just how simplistic the story actually is.

Besson would normally attack this kind of material with ferocity, and perhaps even a hint of lunacy that would generate some laughs.  But, as I've already stated, Anna feels cold and offers very little of interest.  The only stand out action sequence is one that takes place within a crowded restaurant, where Anna takes out the goons of an intended target with anything she can get her hands on, including the dinner plates.  However, a lot of this scene has already been shown in the trailer.  The studio obviously knew that this was the main highlight, so they built their ad campaign around it.  Fair enough, but it still feels like a cheat when you realize how little there is going on for the rest of the film.  Rather than creating a thriller that quickens the pace of the audience, Besson instead decides to distract us by telling his story out of sequence for no discernible reason.

Obviously, the studio is releasing Anna on a big summer weekend in the hopes that no one will notice it, and that it will be gone by the 4th of July.  Given the limited advertising this film has gotten, and its delayed release, they obviously are just pushing it out in order to be forgotten as quick as possible.  I say grant their wish, and save your money.

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