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YESTERDAY: Cutesy Yet Not Within Or Without Its Charms

Opening today from here to across the universe:

YESTERDAY (Dir. Danny Boyle, 2019)

Danny Boyle’s 13th full length feature has a very juicy premise. Imagine (sorry) a world in which the Beatles never existed. Well, that’s what happens when aspiring British Indian musician Jack Malik, played by the invested but maybe a bit too wide-eyed Himesh Patel (The Eastenders) gets hit by a bus while riding his bike, at the same moment that there’s a fantastical global blackout.

Shortly after he wakes up in a hospital with two teeth missing, he finds out that nobody knows any of the music of the Fab Four, and even think that their most famous song, “Yesterday,” is his own composition.

Jack’s manager, Ellie, played by Lily James (BABY DRIVER, DARKEST HOUR) gets him gigs in which to premiere the unknown tunes, but they don’t take off until they meet a producer named Gavin (Alexander Arnold). Gavin records some of Jack’s stolen songs at his studio named “Tracks on the Tracks” because it’s located by the railroad tracks.

Before long, it seems that the entire world knows the Beatles’ work as performed by Jack, with pop superstar Ed Sheeran (playing himself in an extended cameo), and dollars-in-her-eyes talent agent Debra Hammer (SNL’s Kate McKinnon) paying particular attention.

But Malik’s guilt increases the more songs he puts out there (Patel performs many classic John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison standards including “The Long and Winding Road,” “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Help,” and “Hey Jude,” which Sheeran wants to change to “Hey Dude”).

YESTERDAY also features a rom com element as Jack pines for Ellie, but she is frustrated by having waited a decade for him to make his move. They are a cute couple, and the film is cute itself – perhaps a bit too cutesy. It’s not without its charms, but Jack Curtis’ screenplay, from a story by Jack Barth, is padded instead of fleshed out and the last half hour doesn’t seem to know where to go with its story. It also contains an ending that’s too pat, with the resolution being less that satisfying

Boyle does his best to compensate for these shortcomings with a lot of flash such as locations’ names are shown in giant colorful letters that float through the air, and there’s a fantasy sequence in which Jack sees images of his fame, and impact. He almost makes it all work, but despite all the good lines, valid laughs, and likable performances – both of the acting and music – YESTERDAY is extremely watchable yet still a throwaway.

Yet, it’s touching that Boyle and company would make a movie with the message that the Beatles’ brilliance would shine even in a world devoid of their presence. Even if in the end, the love they make isn’t equal to the love they faked.


More later…

TOY STORY 4: The Rise Of Forky

Now playing at a multiplex near you:


TOY STORY 4 (Dr. Josh Cooley, 2019) 


When I first heard a few years after TOY STORY 3 that Pixar was possibly planning a fourth entry, I didn’t like the idea at all. 3 had such a beautifully emotional ending that felt like a perfect conclusion to the trilogy. It just seemed a bit cynical to milk the franchise any further.


But I must say that I fairly enjoyed TOY STORY 4. I still don’t think it was really necessary but with all the gags that land, the gorgeous animation, and emotional impact how can one care?


So nine years after the third installment, but just a few years later in the movie’s world, we catch up with our beloved gaggle of playthings in the care of preschooler, Bonnie, voiced by Madeleine McGraw, who we met at the end of the previous adventure. Woody, again voiced by Tom Hanks, stows away in Bonnie’s backpack on her first day of kindergarten orientation because he’s worried about her being overwhelmed.


After some mean kid takes Bonnie’s arts and crafts supplies and tosses them in a waste can, Woody retrieves what he can of them, along with some trash, and the little girl fashions a toy made out of a spork, a couple of mismatched googly eyes, a red pipe-cleaner for eyes, a little putty for a mouth and eyebrow, and popsicle sticks for feet. Bonnie names her new friend Forky, and he becomes her new favorite toy.


To Woody’s surprise, Forky, comes alive with the voice of Tony Hale (Arrested Development, Veep), with movable appendages. Problem is, Forky thinks he’s trash (which he is) and keeps jumping into trash cans to be back where he thinks he belongs.


Bonnie takes Forky and all her toys, including Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), tricertop Trixie (Kristen Schaal), and plastic piggy bank Hamm (Pixar regular John Ratzenberger), on a road trip with her parents in a rented RV.


Still on his kick to get thrown away, Forky hurls himself out of the vehicle’s back window and Woody goes after him. Woody is able to find Forky and while walking to the RV Park that Bonnie’s family is staying, Woody is able to convince him that he’s more than trash – he’s a toy and has an important role. When they get to town, they come across a shop called Second Chance Antiques, where Woody sees Bo Peep’s lamp in the window.


Woody and Forky journey into the store where they meet Gabby Gabby, a ‘50s-era pullstring doll from the voiced by Christina Hendricks. Gabby Gabby is initially a sweet character, but it turns out that she’s the film’s villain, who’s plotting to steal Woody’ voice-box. Folks might be tipped off to this from her foursome of creepy ventriloquist dummies that follow her orders.

Also during this antique store segment, Woody is reunited with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who was absent from 3, so that their special relationship can be rekindled.


This is as far as I’ll go with the plot as the second half is a busy bunch of chase sequences punctuated by tender, and poignant moments, all of which are effective and fun. There are highly amusing cameos by Mel Brooks as Melephant Brooks, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as carnival toys Ducky and Bunny, Keanu Reeves as stunt motorcyclist Duke Caboom, Carol Burnett as Chairol Burnett, and Carl Reiner as Carl Reineroceros which help the film keep its humor flow going.


While I originally didn’t want TOY STORY 4 – the full length debut by director Cooley – I have to admit that I found it on par with the rest of the series. Also I really loved Forky. He’s a hilarious piece of trash, I mean toy, that Hale voices wonderfully, and I’d love to see more of him. Dammit – I didn’t want 4 and now I’m pinning for 5? This is how Pixar gets you.

More later…

Jim Jarmusch Gathers His Friends Together For Some Zombie Fun

Now playing at the theater near me:

THE DEAD DON’T DIE (Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 2019)


J
im Jarmusch is a very weird filmmaker. His dozen or so films, neither of which feel like they take place in the same world, nor even the same universe, are populated with oddball characters, awkward but real seeming moments, and humor so oblique that people are unsure whether to laugh at it or not.


But this time around, he’s taken those elements and added zombies, and the result is, again, oddball, awkward, and oblique, but, you know, with the difference of the threat of the undead.


Bill Murray, who heads what the film’s tag-line calls “the greatest zombie cast ever dissembled,” as Police Chief Cliff Robertson for the sleepy, small, and fictional town of Centerville, Ohio (the film was actually shot in Upstate New York). Chief Robertson’s second-in-command, is Officer Ronnie Petersen played by Adam Driver who previously starred in Jarmusch’s wonderfully whimsical PATERSON (2016).

Because of “polar fracking,” that earth has been thrown off its axis, daylight hours are screwed with, pets disappearing, and the rise of recently deceased townsfolk from the morgue and graveyard. “This is going to end badly,” Driver’s Office Petersen repeatedly says to his superior’s annoyance.

The local police are alerted to the zombie situation after a few folks are found dead at a diner. The corpses have been largely eaten (yes, the film is gory), as remarked upon by Chief Robertson, Officer Petersen, and Officer Minerva “Mindy” Morrison, played by the very nervous acting Chloë Sevigny, who enter one-by-one to look at the savaged victims.

Each cop (and Danny Glover as the hardware store owner who found the bodies) has the same reaction: “Is it the work of some kind of wild animal? Or several wild animals?” – a bit of a running gag.


The zombies responsible for the killings are played by Iggy Pop and Sara Driver (no relation to Adam), who are both Jarmusch veterans (respectively Pop in COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, and Sara Driver in too many to list here). Also in the Jarmusch repertory company is Tilda Swinton (BROKEN FLOWERS, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL), as a funeral home attendant who wields a fast slashing samurai sword; Steve Buscemi (MYSTERY TRAIN, COFFEE AND CIGARETTES) as the crochety farmer that most of the townsfolk hate; Rosie Perez (NIGHT ON EARTH) as a newscaster who fills us in on what caused the zombie apocalypse; and rapper RZA (GHOST DOG, COFFEE AND CIGARETTES.


But Jarmusch’s stand-out player here has to be Tom Waits, who has appeared in several of the director’s best known works including DOWN BY LAW, MYSTERY TRAIN, and COFFEE AND CIGARETTES (he also scored NIGHT ON EARTH). Here Waits portrays Hermit Bob, who lives in the woods, and watches the grisly events from afar, providing Waitsian commentary on what he sees. Over the course of the film, he more and more becomes the movie’s narrator.


As for the newcomers to Jarmusch land, we’ve got the aforementioned Glover, Caleb Landry Jones as nerdy gas station operator and pop culture peddler; Carol Kane (hard to believe she hasn’t been in a Jarmusch joint before) as a woman who dies and comes back to life chanting “Chardonnay,” and Selena Gomez, who happens to be travelling through town at the wrong time.


Oh, yeah – county artist Sturgill Simpson appears as a zombie dragging a guitar around who’s credited as “Guitar Zombie.” Simpson also contributed the title tune, which can be heard throughout, and is even referred to as “the theme song” by Driver’s character.


There are a few other meta moments like that as when Driver says he read the screenplay, and Murray says he only got his parts of it.

THE DEAD DON’T DIE is far from Jarmusch’s best, but I enjoyed at quite a bit. Some of the dialogue, particularly the repeated lines reminded me of the Coen brothers circular wordplay, and I adored the laconic playfulness of many of its scenes. It’s a lark, but one with some solid laughs, and a stellar ensemble who are a lot of fun to watch.

Folks who don’t like zombie movies, even zombie comedies, may be turned off, but for those people who aren’t into decapitations that result in a bunch of black dust coming from the beheaded necks, bloody crime scenes with disgusting corpses, and in-your-face flesh-eating, I’ll just say that the great cast more than balances it out.


More later…

ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: Dylan & Scorsese Together Again!

Now available on Netflix:


Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to his 2005 Bob Dylan
documentary, NO DIRECTION HOME, is a very different film from that examination
of the master musician’s early to mid-‘60s beginnings.


The two hour and 20 minute film, in which Scorsese paints a
vivid picture of Dylan’s mounting of the legendary Rolling Thunder Revue, a
gypsy-style traveling circus of a concert tour in 1975-1976, is a much more
abstract, freewheeling work. It jumps around from a 1896 silent film by Georges
Méliès (the subject of Scorsese’s 2012 film, HUGO), to vintage TV clips of bicentennial
celebrations, and bits of speeches by Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter,
to, most importantly spectacular live performances by Dylan and his ferocious
backing band which he dubbed Guam.


Dylan may say, “I’m trying to get to the core of what this
Rolling Thunder thing is all about, and I don’t have a clue because it’s about
nothing! It’s just something that happened 40 years ago, and that’s the truth
of it,” but he actually has a good deal of insights to share throughout. He’s
pretty damn funny too.


So do other participants in the revue, such as Joan Baez,
Sam Shepherd, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot who all
provide their often hilarious takes on the tour. Then there are interviews with
lesser known figures such as cinematographer Stefan Van Dorp, who shot the tour
(“I wanted to show the land of Pet Rocks and Super Slurpees from 7-Eleven”);
concert promoter Jim Gianopulos, who claims that the tour was his idea; and U.S.
Representative Jack Tanner, who talks about Jimmy Carter getting him a ticket for a Rolling Thunder Revue show.


But the thing is, none of these people are who they say they
are. Van Dorp is played by Martin Von Haselberg, who is a filmmaker but had
nothing to do with the Rolling Thunder tour. Gianopulos is a real person, but
he’s not a promoter – he’s a CEO of Paramount Pictures and also wasn’t on the
tour. The most interesting of these characters is Tanner – a character from the
Robert Altman/Garry Trudeau TV series, Tanner ’88, about a Presidential
candidate.


Why Scorsese added these fictional folks into this epic rock
doc is beyond me, but I was still highly amused by the conceit. When Sharon
Stone appears to talk about her flirtations with Dylan, and joining the tour,
it’s hard to believe anything she says. I learned later that this was a
justified feeling as Stone didn’t go on the tour, and it’s speculated that very
little that she says is true.


But what does that really matter when there’s so many great
musical moments. Dylan, mostly in whiteface makeup, performs incredibly
passionate versions of some of his greatest songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna
Fall,” “Hurricane,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley
Below),” and 
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (featuring a great bug-eyed duet with Roget McQuinn of the Byrds)But one real showstopper that stands out is an absolutely scorching
version of “Isis” from Dylan’s album Desire, which was released after the first
leg of tour. 

When the mind-blowingly powerful performance concluded, many
people in the audience at the screening I attended applauded like it was a real
concert. I’m not normally a fan of folks clapping at the movies, but this felt
seriously justified.


Despite the odd fictional elements, ROLLING THUNDER appears
to grandly capture the highlights of one of Dylan’s most vital, and essential
tours. With its epic length, it may be too much for casual Dylan fans, but
hardcore fans will wish that it never ended.



More later…