Friday, June 28, 2019

I Don't Believe In 'Yesterday'

"But I don't get how a guitar can 'gently weep,' Jack."

Would I Want to Hold Your Hand have been a hit if it had been sung by one guy? Would Eleanor Rigby have felt so revolutionary if it hadn't been proceeded a few years earlier by I Saw Her Standing There? Danny Boyle's new film Yesterday would have you believe that the songs of the Beatles are such powerful entities apart from their creators that they'd rock the world even if they were just performed by one charismatically challenged and mediocre musician with a guitar.

Rubbish.

Himesh Patel stars as Jack Malick, a singer and songwriter with too many years playing local pubs and children's birthday parties. After his manager and longtime friend Ellie (Lily James) gets him a gig at music festival that turns out to be on a stage in an an empty tent, he decides to give up the musician's life for good, something Ellie, his biggest fan in more ways than one, begs him not to do.

That night the world experiences a 12 second total blackout, which also results in Jack getting hit by a bus while riding his bicycle home in the dark. When he wakes up he's missing two teeth, and the world is missing something much greater.

Recovered and out of the hospital, Jack picks up a guitar again, and plays Yesterday for his friends. Visibly moved, they ask him when he wrote it, and he tells them, duh, he didn't, Paul McCartney did. You know? From the Beatles.

They have no idea what he's talking about.

Jack's frantic Google search reveals that in this post-blackout word, the Beatles never existed. The Beatles albums he once had in his collection are now missing, and Jack is the only person in the world who knows their songs. Or at least, some of them. (A scene where Jack tries to remember the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby is the only time director Boyle truly gets playful with the whole idea.)

So Jack gives up retirement, and starts to perform as many of the Beatles songs as he can remember. His small audiences love them. Someone offers to record a demo. Jack starts giving the CDs out at his warehouse job. He gets interviewed on local TV. And then Ed Sheerhan (who plays himself) shows up at his front door.

From there a predictable trajectory is followed: Jack tours with Sheerhan. Sheerhan's manager (Kate McKinnon) sees a possible cash cow and signs him on. Greedy music execs want to package Jack in the most commercial way possible, so of course the album title Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is tossed out the window. And Jack becomes increasingly uneasy at the idea of gaining stardom via plagiarism, even if there's no way anyone could ever prove that.

And floating on top of all this is the romantic subplot in which Ellie finally confesses what should have been readily apparent to Jack for years: that she loves him, and, you know...he should be glad! Instead, Jack wavers, and Ellie who has been pining for him for years, is once again relegated to the "friend column," with no real explanation as to why.

It doesn't make sense to her, and it certainly doesn't make sense to us, because the script from romantic comedy veteran Richard Curtis (Love, Actually, Notting Hill) does a piss poor job of selling that conceit. For one, Jack is a self-centered drip who deserves to be single, so why would Ellie even care? And for another, Ellie is cute, devoted, and for years, his only real fan, so what the hell is Jack's problem?

That the film was once titled All You Need Is Love may give some indication as to which path Jack decides to take: love or fame, and that that decision becomes the center of the film is disappointment, with a grand romantic gesture that feels more creepy than heartfelt.

The whole "a world without the Beatles" concept isn't really investigated beyond how it affects Jack's life. I'm sure there have been late night conversations in pubs that had more insight into what our modern pop culture landscape, let alone the whole world, might look like had the Fab Four never formed. Yesterday relegates that philosophical topic to a joke about Oasis never existing either.

Which brings me back to those songs. Himesh Patel has a serviceable voice, especially when he's singing an acoustic ballad. But there is otherwise nothing special about his versions of the Beatles songs, and, in fact, some arrangements are unnecessarily aggressive. Yesterday will definitely have you coming out of the film humming the Beatles songbook, and then desperately rushing to listen to real deal, because a world where only Jack's version of those songs exists would be a sorry world indeed.



Friday, June 21, 2019

'Toy Story 4,' Like Many A Toy, Is Fun But Unnecessary

"Yes, I know we're on the side of the road, but that doesn't mean we're trash."

There are few movie trilogies in history where one can easily say all three entries are classics in their own right, and even better as a trio. The Toy Story trilogy was one of them. So it was a bit of a universal head scratcher when Pixar announced Toy Story 4. It smelled a bit like a money grab, although when you look at its origins--John Lasseter had planned on directing it himself--it makes a little more sense. The last film Lasseter directed, Cars 2, didn't charm the critics, and definitely didn't take home any Oscars, while Toy Story 3 was hailed as a masterpiece...

But, as you might have heard, things at Pixar changed, and the Toy Story 4 we're getting now was directed by Inside Out co-screenwriter Josh Cooley, from a story with no less than nine contributors, including Rashida Jones and writing partner Will McCormack. And while the resulting film doesn't feel like an addition anyone needed, it's certainly not one that deserves to be thrown in the trash.

Speaking of trash, that's kind of a recurring theme in the Toy Story universe, with the entire gang of toys at the end of TS3 almost meeting the ultimate sad end of many a child's plaything, as trash on the way to an incinerator. Its every toy's fear that they'll be lost or abandoned, and Woody (once again voiced by Tom Hanks), is far from immune. As the film opens, he's fallen a bit out of favor with Bonnie, his new kid, and he's often relegated to the closet to collect dust bunnies during her playtime.

Determined to prove his usefulness, and, sure, also be there for some support, he sneaks into Bonnie's backpack on her first visit to kindergarten, and ends up clandestinely helping her make a new friend. Literally.

Crafted out of a Spork, a Popsicle stick, clay, a pipe cleaner, and some googly eyes, Bonnie names her new toy Forky, and they are instantly inseparable. Problem is, Forky (voiced to perfection by Tony Hale) doesn't really understand that he's a toy, and not trash, and in fact, would much prefer the warm comfort of a garbage can to Bonnie's embrace.

So Woody, ever the do-gooder, does his best to make Forky understand his role, while also constantly removing him from the various trash receptacles he flings himself into. This proves even more challenging when Bonnie and her family go on a road trip that ultimately brings them to a small town carnival, and an antique store that might hold Woody's long lost love interest, Bo Peep (Annie Potts).

All of the usual toys are there, including Buzz Lightyear, Rex, Hamm, and Mr. Potato Head (still voiced by Don Rickles, despite his death in 2017). And sure, having all those beloved toys featured in the movie relies on accepting that Bonnie's parents would allow her to BRING THEM ALL on a road trip, but we're talking about sentient toys here, so I'll let it pass.

And it's the new toys that take center stage this time around. Along with Forky, there's Ducky and Bunny, who, next to Forky, are the film's funniest characters (they're voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), and Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a defective talking doll from the 1950's who's only slightly less creepy than the ventriloquist dummies that act as her bodyguards.

With each Toy Story, the animation only gets more beautiful and impressive; Ducky and Bunny could be stop motion, their fake fur looks so realistically...fake. But I was most impressed by the backgrounds, with nighttime scenes that were never murky, and a colorful and energetic carnival that serves as backdrop for much of the action.

And there is indeed a lot of action. The story this time isn't much different, plot wise, than the other Toy Storys or, frankly, a lot of Pixar movies: someone gets lost, and needs to get home. But what's different is that our usual hero Woody is relegated to the sidelines through much of the rescue, with Bo leading the charge (she's learned a lot since she escaped being a child's lamp). It was nice seeing some girls' toys as both heroines and villains this time around.

But I can't help but come back to Toy Story 3, and just how perfect a finale it was. And it's not just that it managed to reduce me to a quivering and sobbing mess at the end, since this one is not without its tear-jerking moments. It's that Toy Story 4 just never feels as vital, which is a problem considering some of the drastic choice one of the most beloved characters makes.

And really, all of this comparison could have been avoided if they just hadn't called the movie Toy Story 4. It's not like the whole franchise ended with the third film. Pixar has been releasing Toy Story related shorts for a number of years, and one, Toy Story of Terror, has even joined the ranks of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown as a perennial Halloween TV favorite.

Instead of trying to tie this film into the series, it could have been the start of an endless number of off-shoots featuring our favorite toys befriending new toys, and having new adventures. That's likely the route they're going to take anyway, should this one become a hit. But because of that title, Toy Story 4 will always be the Forky of the series: a thoroughly lovable but slightly weird creation that never quite fits in.


Friday, June 7, 2019

'The Last Black Man In San Francisco' Is Home

Home is where you left your heart

As a San Francisco native who has never lived anywhere else I'm not going to pretend I can give a purely objective review of The Last Black Man In San Francisco, a film that moved me more than any other film set in the City ever has.

Before I saw it, I had a broad understanding of its plot and themes (gentrification; displacement; the City's shrinking minority population), and as I got off the shuttle from my tech job to attend the premiere (yes, I am not immune to the irony), I couldn't help but wonder, as I sometimes do these days, if I was part of the problem. Do I get a pass because I've lived here my whole life? Does it matter that my (inconsistent) career in tech is one of the only reasons I've been able to stay here? Does that fact that I will always live with the fear of possible eviction absolve me from any blame for the City's gentrification?

The Last Black Man in San Francisco didn't give me any clear answers (even if the closest thing to a villain the movie has is a white San Francisco native), and I was actually thankful for that. It's a plus that it cleverly avoids casting any outright dispersions against any particular group, while also slyly acknowledging the City's extended history of displacement.

Debut director Joe Talbot co-wrote the script with Rob Richert, from a story by Jimmie Fails, who also stars as....Jimmie Fails. Jimmie, who works in a nursing home, shares a room with his best friend, artist and aspiring playwright Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), in a house owned by Montgomery's blind grandfather, Allen (Danny Glover). Many of their evenings are spent watching old noir movies together with Montgomery describing the action to his grandpa.

But Jimmie's passion centers on an old Victorian in the heart of the Fillmore. The house used to be his family home, with the story passed down that it was built by Jimmie's grandfather in the 1940's after he had come to San Francisco to work in the shipyards. He didn't want to take over one of the many Victorians that were abandoned in the neighborhood after its Japanese residents were forced into camps during the war, so he instead painstakingly recreated a Victorian mansion, right up to the roof's corner witch's hat. (The house seen in the film is actually located in the Mission on South Van Ness, and has a pretty interesting history of its own.)

While Jimmie's family lost the house years before, he still longs for it, and sneaks onto the property to repaint, garden, and make the minor repairs the current (white) owners don't want to make (and certainly don't appreciate him making). But when those owners, not immune to displacement themselves, are forced out, Jimmie reclaims the house, and works on making it home again.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco certainly wasn't what I was expecting, which was perhaps something closer to Boots Riley's Sorry To Bother You; something broader, and taking aim at obvious targets. Instead, it more closely resembles the lyrical work of Barry Jenkins, who also tackled being black in a changing San Francisco in 2008's Medicine for Melancholy. It's a movie that lives and breathes San Francisco, featuring local actors and characters like the aforementioned Danny Glover, as well as Jamal Trulove, Jello Biafra, and a naked Castro street dude.

It's also gorgeously shot, with breathtaking sequences that pan across neighborhoods that will be familiar to some, and wholly new to others, particularly in an opening sequence that took my breath away, and is a sole reason to watch the movie more than once. Paired with Emile Mosseri's haunting soundtrack, scene after scene becomes straight up poetry.

I won't deny that seeing it at a packed Castro Theater, with a vocal San Francisco crowd that included the cast, creators, and local legends, gave me a lot of feels, perhaps more than the film alone could have mustered. This was especially true when, over the closing credits, Mike Marshall gave a surprise live performance of the song San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair) (which is also memorably featured in the movie). Suddenly, a song that had always made me cringe now made me cry, its hippie dippy lyrics taking on new meaning filled with nostalgia, reassurance, and hope.

Near the end of the film, Jimmie overhears two transplants on a Muni bus complaining about San Francisco, and how much they hate it. He interrupts to ask them "Yeah, but do you love it?," which stumps them a little. And then he tells them, "You don't get to hate it unless you love it."

Amen, Jimmie.

As well as being one of the best movies of the year, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a cinematic anecdote to the recent proliferation of doom and gloom profiles of a supposedly soulless San Francisco past the point of saving. Its very existence is proof that the City is still capable of wonderful things.

Friday, May 31, 2019

'Ma' Ma Mia!

Ma loves you. A LOT.

Classic slasher movies tend to follow familiar formulas: teenagers getting knocked off by a mysterious stranger who is eventually revealed to be someone with some kind of grudge, usually having to do with neglectful or mean teenagers in their past. Ma follows a bit in that vein, but omits some of the mystery. There's no doubt Ma is nuts, and doesn't have her teenage posse's best interests at heart. But the why is revealed slowly, as is the extent of her insanity.

Set in an unnamed southern town (though filmed in Natchez, MS), the film establishes our Final Girl immediately. Maggie (Diana Silvers, recently seen in Booksmart), and her single mother Erica (Juliette Lewis) have recently moved to town, but it doesn't take long for Maggie to make friends with the cool kids: party girl Haley (McKaley Miller) and a trio of boys, including insta-boyfriend Andy (Corey Fogelmanis).

The group's go-to fun time is drinking at the Rock Pile, which is, literally, a pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere. Getting booze for these jaunts requires hanging outside a liquor store and begging an adult to buy up for them.

Enter Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer). At first adamantly against it, she eventually gives in, for reasons that are very obviously ulterior, especially after she makes sure the kids get caught that evening. When she conveniently runs into them again, she tells them they can drink in her basement. After all, it's better than them driving around drunk, right?

She quickly earns the nickname "Ma," and before her complimentary Pizza Rolls are even finished, her basement is the new hot ticket, although there are rules: there has to be a designated driver, and no one is allowed to go upstairs.

While partying in a middle-aged stranger's basement doesn't seem particularly odd to the teens at first (because, one, drunk, and two, dumb teenagers in a horror movie), when Ma starts to send them incessant texts and video messages, practically begging them to keep showing up, they get wise, and spread the word that Ma is a little weird, and they should probably stay away from her party den.

Which gets back to Ma....

At first, we just assume Sue Ann is a lonely woman who gloms onto the kids out of a combination of concern and lonely desperation. But flashbacks reveal Sue Ann has a history at their high school, and with some of their parents. But the pace at which those flashbacks are scattered throughout the film is off, both slowing things down, and remaining annoyingly enigmatic for the majority. We know something bad happened to her, but when they finally get to it, the event loses much of its impact.

Pacing in general is a big problem, as there's nothing gradual about Ma's turn from creepy to completely psychotic. In fact, her break is so sudden it ends up being one of the film's biggest laughs, which the movie could use more of. And indeed, there are clues that this is all being played for camp, the biggest being the presence of Allison Janney as Sue Ann's veterinarian boss, who spends all of her extremely brief screen time glaring or yelling at Sue Ann ("Sue Ann! Why isn't that dog shaved?!"). But Ma never truly commits to the camp.

(I'll also add that the fact that Ma works with animals had me tense throughout the whole thing, fearing she was going to murder everyone's pets. Happy to spoil it for the similarly nervous and say no dog dies, though one does get hurt.)

Director Tate Taylor worked with Octavia Spencer previously on the film The Help, which was firmly set in the south, and dealt with historical race relations. Ma is also centered on a black woman in the south, and yet race plays almost no part in the story. The flashbacks reveal she was the only black girl within her social group, and everyone she deals with as an adult is white. (Aside from one of the partying teenagers, and at least that doesn't go unnoticed or without comment)

By ignoring the topic, the film falls into the camp of unsurprising crazy killer stories, offering no real nuance, commentary, or subversion to the genre. It had me imaging what someone like Jordan Peele could have done with the same story. Perhaps he could have given us a film actually worthy of the all-in performance from Octavia Spencer.


Friday, May 24, 2019

'Booksmart' Schools The Teen Comedies That Came Before It

"YOLO POLE THO!"

Booksmart, actress Oliva Wilde's directorial debut, is the first film of 2019 I immediately wanted to see again, both to catch the jokes I missed when they were drowned out by laughter, and because it just made me so...happy.

A ribald, raucous, and revelatory comedy centered on female friendship, it manages to firmly entrench itself into the annals of great teen comedies, while also flipping cliches, and avoiding the tropes that often make us look back at our teenage faves thinking, "Really? Really, now."

The story centers on Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Deaver), two high school seniors on the last day of school. Both have gotten into Ivy League schools, though that's not something they can brag about since class president Molly instituted a rule that seniors can't talk about their college admissions, lest it make lesser students feel bad.

You would expect two overachievers like Molly and Amy to be the butt of many a joke, and they are. But they also deserve some of the derision they get because they're a bit insufferable. And that's what makes them perfect heroines. They aren't just nerdy outcasts. They also have a tendency to be condescending and dismissive of their more carefree classmates. Which is why it comes as the most tremendous of shocks to them when they learn that a lot of those classmates also got into good colleges (aside from the one slacker who repeated a grade and is heading straight to a coding job at Google).

"How?!," screams Molly, "You guys don't even care about school!" "No, we don't only care about school," replies the girl known as AAA for reasons related to rumored roadside hand-jobs.

Realizing they spent four years needlessly devoted to nothing but school, Molly and Amy decide to pack four years of fun into one night. This means going to a house party thrown by Molly's underachieving but very cute student council vice president, Nick (Mason Gooding), if they can only figure out where it is. (Unsurprisingly, they weren't invited.)

The resulting evening is filled with both the things you'd expect from a teenage comedy, and surprises. While Molly and Amy are looking to possibly hook up with the objects of their affection, that's not the sole purpose of their evening, which is instead a broader YOLO smorgasbord of shenanigans. (That Amy is gay is nicely presented as long established fact, and only her Christian parents, played by Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow, who are comically over-accepting of it, ever seem to give it much thought.)

There are plenty of times where we laugh at Molly and Amy, but also plenty of times when we laugh with them. And what I found most refreshing is that not once are Molly's or Amy's looks the object of derision. There are no jokes centered on weight, or their level of attractiveness. At one point, a student even talks about how he'd totally get with Molly, if he could only put a paper bag over her "butter personality."

And yes, perhaps that's not a realistic portrayal of high school life in the age of the bully-in-chief. But it sure is a nice break from stereotypical cinematic mean girls who always seem to pop up in high school comedies to do nothing but be mean and pretty. Instead we get girls like Gigi (Billie Lourd, perfection) a rich party girl with an almost shamanistic supply of insight and hallucinogens, and Hope (Diana Silvers), who is, yes, mean and pretty, but also...well, I won't give it away.

Director Wilde perfectly weaves the film's raunch and warmth, perhaps best demonstrated during Molly and Amy's conversation about masturbation and the involvement of a beloved stuffed animal, while also throwing in some truly gonzo bits of surrealism (animated Barbie dolls are involved). It's rare to see a comedic debut so masterfully assured.

And Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Deaver are so, so good as the BFFs, I almost assumed they actually did know each other for years in real life. They didn't, but apparently Wilde suggested they immediately become roommates once they were cast in the film. It worked. That familiarity paired with the script by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, and Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, gives us the most believable pair of besties since...well, since Ilana and Abbi bid us farewell a few months ago.

Booksmart is being compared to 2007's Superbad, both because of the subject matter and because Beanie Feldstein's older brother Jonah Hill starred in it. And while I liked Superbad just fine, I ultimately came away from it feeling like it just wasn't a movie made for me (and that period shaming scene wasn't the only reason why, though it was a big part). Booksmart had the opposite effect. It's the teenage comedy I wanted as a teenager, and as a young adult, and now, and forever.