REVIEW: “Yesterday” (2019)

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From its very first trailer there was something really weird about “Yesterday”. I actually say that as a compliment. I was immediately fascinated by its bizarre concept and the wacky way it blended romantic comedy with a ‘price of fame’ cautionary tale veiled as a fun tribute to the Beatles.

Danny Boyle helms this light-hearted tale starring newcomer Himesh Patel. He plays Jack Malik, a struggling singer-songwriter who has lost faith in his chance at a career in music. His lone true supporter and loyal manager Ellie (a delightful Lily James) encourages him to stay with it while tirelessly working to secure him gigs. From the start it’s pretty obvious Ellie has feelings for Jack, but he’s too lost in his own perpetual pity-party to notice.

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Now things get weird. One night while riding home on his bike Jack is hit by a bus during a brief worldwide blackout. He wakes up to discover that no one on the planet has ever heard of the Beatles. Along the way the movie randomly mentions several other random things the world has forgotten (Coca-Cola, Harry Potter, etc.) but we never learn what or if there is any connection.

But back to the Beatles. Jack (a big fan of the Fab Four) begins writing down the lyrics to their songs and singing them as his own. Ellie hooks him up with a small-time producer to do a demo which leads to performance on a local television talk show. Global pop star Ed Sheeran (playing himself) hears the new songs and invites Jack to be his opening act in Moscow.

His meteoric rise to stardom reaches its apex when a rapacious and brutally honest record company executive (a pretty funny Kate McKinnon) signs Jack to a lucrative recording contract. She whisks him away to Los Angeles to set up recording sessions and promotional appearances. Jack’s new found fame puts him on top of the world, but how long can he lie to the public, himself, and the one girl who loves him?

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It goes without saying the whole thing is a little hokey, yet there is still a sweet and tender undercurrent that runs throughout the movie. Much of that is channeled through Lily James who is so earnest, charming and who you could argue is the heart of the movie. Patel is also really good in his feature film debut. In addition to acting, Patel does his own singing and playing on the movie’s numerous musical numbers.

Still, it’s hard to view “Yesterday” as anything more than lightweight, feel-good fluff. But is that such a terrible thing? Sure the premise is silly and makes little sense. Yes it zips through parts of the story too fast for us to ever get our footing. But as a pop music fairy tale and a reminder of how these songs stand the test of time, there is certainly room for a movie like this. And I kind of admire its complete disregard for conventional storytelling.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “You Were Never Really Here”

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With “You Were Never Really Here” writer-director Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) makes a forceful statement. Not just to her own individual talents as a filmmaker, but to the female perspective and the powerful jolt it can give a genre. By genre, I would call her latest film an action/revenge thriller although even giving it a label feels like a disservice to Ramsay and the plethora of cool ideas she is working with.

Ramsay adapts “You Were Never Really Here” from Jonathan Ames’ 2013 noir novella. At only 95 pages, the novella is both brisk and brutal, an equally fitting description of Ramsay’s movie. Not a second of the taut, economical 90 minutes is wasted and within its framework is a level of craftsmanship and unique storytelling prowess that leans heavily on mood and immersing us through our senses.

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Look no further than the opening scene, a tightly edited collage of sound and images that introduces us to Joe (a burly and bearded Joaquin Phoenix). We learn he is a hired gun who specializes in retrieving the young daughters of wealthy, prominent parents from sex trafficking rings. He works off the grid and in his own moral mĂ©lange of brutality and compassion. Ramsay only feeds us bits but Joe’s scar-riddled body and glazy worn eyes speak volumes.

When not embedded in New York’s sordid underbelly, Joe cares for his elderly dementia-stricken mother (played by Judith Roberts). Phoenix, the definition of committed and uncompromising, seamlessly moves back-and-forth between these two contrasting worlds. In one scene he’s wiping off a blood-soaked hammer and shortly after polishing silverware and singing a song with his mother. And when Ramsay pushes us deeper into Joe’s head we witness suicidal impulses and traumatic flashbacks to his childhood and military service. They come in startling quick bursts making them all the more unsettling.

Things get even uglier when Joe takes a job to find a State Senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) only to run face-first into unexpectedly deeper levels of depravity and corruption. The story grows darker (there is rarely any light to begin with) and the bloodshed amps up. But Ramsay doesn’t revel in the violence nor exploit it for effect. Joe, her principle subject, is a child of violence and his dark psychological journey is often defined by it. While at times graphic, most of the killing happens just off camera or from strategic perspectives – a cracked mirror on a ceiling or through surveillance cameras. It certainly doesn’t mute the savagery.

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Ramsay’s style of filmmaking has a fascinating synergy with this material. She often tells her stories through vivid imagery and pulsing sound design instead of a more traditional narrative structure. This is what keeps “You Were Never Really Here” from falling in with more conventional genre pictures. Her camera works like a gritty kaleidoscope, creating and maintaining an essential mood and intensity. Jonny Greenwood’s menacing score is filled with eerie strings and synthesized chords as if pulled from the cracked psyche of its lead character. It all works together in a twisted hypnotic harmony.

At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival “You Were Never Really Here” received a seven-minute standing ovation. Awards went to both Ramsay (Best Screenplay) and Phoenix (Best Actor). I understood why after first seeing it. But it was my second viewing that I was able to fall in with the film’s unique rhythms. And while Joe isn’t necessarily a character you want to spend time with nor is this a comfortable world to be in, Lynne Ramsay keeps our eyes glued to every frame.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Yojimbo”

Classic Movie SpotlightYojiMboAkira Kurosawa’s 1961 classic Yojimbo is a Japanese samurai film that’s not only beautifully hypnotic entertainment but is a master’s class on camera work and film making. Kurosawa creates a gritty and audacious period picture that manages to mix action with small bits of dark comedy while constantly showing off his technical savvy.

Yojimbo was heavily influenced by American westerns from the Japanese village’s dusty, deserted main street to the face-offs reminiscent of classic western one-on-one gun duels. Even more interesting is that it went on to be the inspiration for other westerns including Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, which is almost a scene by scene replication instead of a remake. Both films tell the story of a mysterious stranger who enters a small town ran by two brutal, warring gangs. Instead of heeding the advice of a local resident, the stranger sees there’s money to be made in the village by playing both sides. Even Clint Eastwood’s Fistful character seems specifically patterned after Yojimbo’s samurai all the way down to his constant beard scratching.

Toshiro Mifune gives an impeccable performance as the solemn wandering samurai. He and Kurosawa collaborated for 16 films with Kurosawa once saying of Mifune  ”I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him”. Their creative chemistry is evident in Yojimbo with Kurosawa really focusing on Mifune’s strength of communication through expressions and mannerisms. This is a strong performance.

Yojimbo looks and sounds amazing. Masaru Sato’s magnetic score starts with the opening credits and resonates throughout the picture. The cinematography is fascinating with some cleverly staged camera angles, near perfect camera movement, and beautiful wide-framed shots. The story is pretty basic but very efficient with the exception of a few too many conversations over sake at the restaurant. Yet it’s never boring and more often times mesmerizing.

Yojimbo earns it’s recognition as a classic. With each viewing I gain a better appreciation for the movie and for Kurosawa’s brilliant vision. It’s easy to see why another great director like Sergio Leone would be inspired by Yojimbo. It’s a true motion picture  accomplishment and you don’t have to be a cinephile to appreciate it. If you haven’t seen it, make time to. Then follow it up by watching A Fistful of Dollars. You’ll not only see a great film but also appreciate it’s influence.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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