JOJO RABBIT

by Alan Yudman

One of the most unique voices in Hollywood belongs to Taika Waititi. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, BOY, HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE. And I believe he actually saved Marvel’s Thor franchise by making the Norse God comically self-serious and lightening the character’s tone. So a comedy about Nazi’s? Sure, why not? Well, apparently a lot of people said no. Waititi says it has taken years to get this made. But it so worth the wait.

JOJO RABBIT is a masterful look at one boy’s life in Berlin as World War II is coming to an end and the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler is being torn down. JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old wannabe Nazi. He says all the right things and wears the right clothes. But as one character points out in the film Jojo isn’t a Nazi, he dresses up in a funny uniform because he wants to be part of a club. His brain says Nazi.. his heart isn’t in it. Jojo lives alone with his mother (Scarlet Johansson). At the start of the film he is off to Nazi youth camp where it is proven that he is more frightened rabbit than killer wolf. He is wounded by a grenade and while at home recovering, he discovers his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls of their house.

That is where the story really takes off. Jojo is faced with having to get to know a Jew and his only frame of reference is the stereotypes he has learned from Nazi propaganda. His mother tries to teach him that life is about more than Hitler’s hate filled rhetoric. You have to dance, listen to music and live. But it is through his relationship with Elsa that he learns the Nazi philosophy is complete bull.

Now that sounds pretty rote. The basic themes are certainly, well, basic. But it is way Waititi tells the story that makes this an absolutely wonderful journey. One reviewer said this is very silly until it isn’t. I think that is correct. Waititi’s humor is big and broad. The opening credit sequence is done to a German version of The Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and is shot and edited of a piece with A HARD DAYS NIGHT. Madcap wouldn’t be a wrong description. Waititi himself plays Jojo’s imaginary friend Adolph… as in Hitler. His performance is pure comic genius. I couldn’t stop laughing at everything he says and does. But Adolph is the evil voice on Jojo’s shoulder. His worst angel. When Jojo wavers on his beliefs, Adolph drags him back.

That is just one of several marvelous performances. Sam Rockwell as a German Captain who is in charge of the Hitler Youth camp is just fantastic. His welcome speech should earn him a supporting actor nomination. Rebel Wilson is genius as female camp counselor. Johansson is touching in the role of Jojo’s mother. And Stephen Merchant as an SS officer is spectacular.

But the two people who have to carry this movie are Davis and McKenzie. And they are both absolutely stellar. McKenzie proved her bona fides in last year’s marvelous LEAVE NO TRACE. So she knows how to command a scene and a movie. The 11-year-old Davis is remarkable. He is in just about every scene and you cannot take your eyes off of him. It’s an incredible performance. Subtly human, funny and heartfelt at the right moments.

The film takes a sad and dark turn near the end, but it is not shocking or out of left field. It is one of several times while watching where you may pull out a handkerchief to dab your eyes. Speaking of eyes… Waititi uses the eaves of homes in a town square where “traitors” are hanged to simulate eyes. Like the town is watching the wrong that is being done. Shoes are also big in the movie. Johansson has very unique footwear that Waititi trains his camera on several times because it will be important later. Jojo hasn’t learned to tie his own shoes and while it could be bit of an eye roll, you know he’s come to the end of a journey because he ties someone else’s shoes. It all worked on me.

History has taught us Hitler and his followers were foolish, evil men. So, every Nazi in is portrayed as a fool. Is Waititi commenting on the growth of Neo Nazis in 2019? Maybe. They are dangerous fools. But JOJO RABBIT is about more than that. It’s about friendship, growth and a young boy learning what life is really all about.

PARASITE

by Alan Yudman

One of the big themes of the Democratic Presidential primary is the income or wealth gap. Candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yank point out that it continues to grow wider. A few billionaires control an inordinate amount of wealth in the United States. It is an idea that started with the Occupy movement and has now gone mainstream. It has also been the subject of some art but none more successfully connects the issue with entertainment than Bong Joon Ho’s PARASITE.

A family living in Seoul is so poor their phones and internet get turned off. They resort to anything to make money, including folding pizza boxes for a nearby restaurant. The parents seem beaten down by failure. The son is too nice. The daughter always seems to be looking for an angle to play. They seem to be four lost souls looking for an opportunity to make easy money. Then it comes their way. A friend of the son gets him a tutoring job for a wealthy family even though he’s not really qualified. They counterfeit papers and he lies to get the job. The son sees it may be possible to bring in the rest of his family. He lies to get his sister in as an art tutor for the wealthy family’s younger son. They set up the family’s chauffeur to get him fired and move the father into that job. Then they scheme to get the family maid fired and create an opening for the mother. But that’s where it all goes sideways.

That’s about all I’m willing to reveal about the plot. Anything else would spoil the surprises that make this movie so special. Bong has told this story of those with less fighting against the establishment (see Snowpiercer). But this isn’t a bleak vision of a dystopian future. This is a plausible portrayal of a family struggling against the class structure. It’s not like they aren’t trying. They have had jobs that have gone away. They cannot catch a break. Failure begets failure. Society is structured to prevent them from becoming successful. Now before you think this is a sullen, depressing slog… it’s not. This is a very funny movie. Bong uses humor to create empathy with the central characters. The wealthy family is portrayed as pleasantly clueless about their place in the world. PARASITE is at times a raucous farce of a film. Kind of a Korean version of Charlie Chaplain.

The movie is subtitled. I feared the humor would be lost by having to read the jokes, but it works. The actors are fantastic. Bong’s script is smart, funny and moving. The cinematography is fabulous. The camera placement is everything and where Bong places the actors in those scenes is just brilliant.

But when it all goes to shit, it becomes disturbingly and surprisingly violent. The violence fits. You can see how the desperation escalates into a bloodbath. In the end, no one is really happy. Some aren’t even alive. Initially I believed the title PARASITE referred to the central family since they worm their way into the wealthy family’s lives. But after giving it some thought I believe income inequality is the PARASITE Bong is talking about. If you have a society built on a wage gap, it is a PARASITE festering that either needs to be eliminated or it will wind up killing things you love.

JOKER

joker

by Alan Yudman

JOKER is either the best movie ever made, or an overrated piece of crap. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. It is a film that starts dark and just keeps getting darker. It is unrelentingly bleak. Every time you believe that maybe, just maybe Arthur Fleck has found a way out from under his own mental illness, the world turns on him.

There are undeniable parallels to KING OF COMEDY. A struggling comedian becomes obsessed with a beloved pro. As the fandom turns to obsession the main character falls prey to his own psychosis. To further the parallel in King of Comedy Robert De Niro is the fan… in JOKER he is the target.

The commentary on society is undeniable. The mentally ill are ignored or given the least amount of attention possible. The wealthy present themselves as entitled jerks who don’t care a whit about most people. In interviews around the release of the movie Director Todd Phillips commented he no longer can make comedies because of “woke culture”, people are too easily offended. Explaining how silly that is seems beside the point. Phillips just can’t make the bro comedies (The Hangover movies for example) that he did when he was younger. Whatever Todd. But he seems to be taking a shot at all the wokeness. De Niro’s Murray Franklin makes fun of Arthur which sends him spiraling deeper into madness. A sort of, “see what happens when people become too offended, they go nuts!” Again, whatever Todd.

Joaquin Phoenix is unbelievable. As an actor he is willing to transform himself emotionally and physically, much like his co-star De Niro. He lost a ton of weight for this role. He is emaciated and gaunt. His physicality as an actor is something to behold. He just doesn’t “act” crazy, he moves crazy. Watching him run you think to yourself, “yup… dude is not well.” It’s such a wonderful performance that at points you really feel for Arthur even as he falls deeper into madness. Is what we are seeing real? Or are we so deep inside Arthur’s insanity that even the audience can’t even tell what is real or what is not. The audience is on board the crazy train right next to your main character. It’s a powerful and unique way to build a connection with your main character.

The music cues are either on point or eye rolling. I’ll leave that to you to decide but I didn’t even notice it. The visuals of the movie are mostly grey and dirty which adds to the bleakness. The only real color enters when Arthur fully embraces his transformation to Joker.

This is a depressing take on an origin story. Some have lumped it into the Superhero genre. While that is clearly what Phillips is counting on that connection to draw you in, it is not at all of a piece with a Marvel or DC film. This is a drama about someone losing their mind. It is powerful and disturbing. It took me weeks to come to terms with its themes and now that I have, I am all in. JOKER is definitely worth your time.

DOWNTON ABBEY

DOWNTON ABBEY

by Alan Yudman

 

A bell chimes, the music swells and eventually a drone camera flies over the familiar manor. It’s at that point less than 5 minutes into the movie that I knew I was going to adore DOWNTON ABBEY.

 

This is an entire movie of fan service. Nearly every character from the show’s 6 seasons who didn’t die in a war, from eclampsia or in a car wreck returns just as you remember them. The Dowager Countess and Isobel, Robert and Cora, Ladies Mary and Edith, Tom Branson, the downstairs staff… are all back though some have more to do than others. No Lily James as Lady Rose (guess she couldn’t make it back from America. That’s what happened, right?)

 

The story revolves around a visit from King George V and Queen Mary. That is the through line upon which other plots are hung. The preparations, the visit itself and a ball at Princess Mary’s castle nearby are just background for everything else. As a result, there is no real story arc other than pulling off the Royal visit. But that’s ok. Because all anyone wants to see is our favorite characters doing that with which we are familiar. Tom Branson has more nobility than any nobleman. Lady Mary has a killer bob and worries about the future of Downton. Lady Edith pushes away from tradition and yearns for a more modern existence. And most joyously, Violet trades quips with Cousin Isobel. I was there for all of it.

 

The downstairs staff has to deal with the truly horrible members of the Royal household. The King’s Page of the Backstairs, the head housekeeper and an assistant seamstress are simply awful. They dismiss the staff as incapable of serving the King and Queen and the Crawley family as insignificant leaders of a minor house. That unites the staff (lead by Mr. and Mrs. Bates and over the objections of Carson) in hatching a scheme to take back their house and their dignity. Mr. Carson returns to take over Butler duties for a seemingly overwhelmed Barrow. Barrow, feeling shoved aside, takes up with an assistant royal valet. Daisy remains a revolutionary who wants to grow beyond her role as assistant cook.

 

I know. That’s a lot. And I am barely scratching the surface. The whole movie feels like it could have been another couple of episodes to open a seventh season that never came. That’s smart if you just want to please fans. And DOWNTON ABBEY is all about pleasing fans. Julian Fellowes keeps it simple. He stays faithful to each character and doesn’t invent some elaborate story that would have felt out of place. So, if you were expecting some grand political statements that portend a future that includes Brexit and the irrelevancy of the Royal Family, well you don’t know Downton.

 

You may be asking, why make a movie and not just another short season? Only Lord Fellowes (yes, he’s a member of Parliament) can answer that, but here’s a few guesses. They couldn’t get the cast to commit to another full season. The show started feeling tired toward the end. I still loved it, but it was starting to crumble around the edges like an ignored estate. A new platform means the opportunity to make piles of money. While all that may be true, here’s my number one reason. This all just felt grander on the big screen. The cinematography was spectacular. Downton never looked better or more regal than it does here. High sweeping drone shots of Highclere Castle set against the English countryside are enough to make an Anglophile swoon. The music is bigger. The familiar theme from the TV show was played mostly on a piano. Here employing a full orchestra makes John Lunn’s score feel immense and powerful. Fellowes’ screenplay is perfectly familiar.

 

Maybe there are too many subplots… I lost track at about the “F” plot… but it is far from annoying and I loved nearly every minute. One quibble is with the plot that sees Barrow going to an underground gay club in York and being arrested. In case you forgot, being gay in the United Kingdom was a crime well into the 1970’s. It sort of worked until nearly the end of that thread which felt a little preachy and eye-rolly.

 

DOWNTON ABBEY is far from a perfect movie. I doubt it will win any awards. But it felt like lighting a fire in the drawing room and curling up with a familiar book while your family is gathered around you. It’s comfort food. And we could all use a little comfort food these days.

HUSTLERS

HUSTLERS

by Alan Yudman

 

Here is a pro tip for anyone who reads reviews before going to see a movie. Don’t.

Sometimes I find it difficult to follow my own advice. Such was the case with HUSTLERS. I heard the buzz, read a couple of reviews and was ready to see the best movie of my life. Ok, I’m exaggerating. But the buzz on this film was incredible. The movie, not so incredible. Yes, I feel like I was Hustled.

 

Don’t get me wrong, this is a very enjoyable movie. But it is a flawed one. Depending on how you want to look at it, it’s either a revenge movie with the dancers getting back at the Wall Street hustlers who swindled people during the 2008 crash or a psychological drama about how a vulnerable person can be manipulated by a psychopath. Here’s a spoiler… it’s both.

 

The film is based on a 2015 article by Jessica Pressler for The Cut, “The Hustlers at Scores”. It’s the true story of how these dancers ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges on clients’ credit cards after slipping each of them a mickey. Lopez’s Ramona is the leader of the crew and takes Constance Wu’s Destiny into her fur coat and under her wing. Ramona is the

Queen Bee of this hive. She is the best dancer, the most in demand by guys and she knows how to use her gifts to make money. She just takes it to the next level with her scheme to rip off the guys. Destiiny appears to be inexperienced and desperate to learn the tricks of the trade from Ramona. And it all works great. The girls are making money like crazy until they are finally caught and arrested.

 

The reviews have lauded Lopez’s performance. Mostly that’s deserved. She is tough and uncompromising. But she is also a bit of a manipulative psychopath. She wants to make money, to make the guys “pay” at all costs. She doesn’t see how they are becoming vulnerable. And when Destiny questions her leadership she tosses her aside. Wu’s character has an arc. Lopez’s has a purpose. Ramona is the real villain of this story. She takes advantage of Destiny’s vulnerability for her own gain. She hustles her. How Wu works through that is the heart of this story.

 

There are a lot of noteworthy performances. Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart are great as members of the crew. Cardi B and Lizzo have fun, yet small parts as strippers in the club.

 

Lorene Scafaria does a fine job as both director and screenwriter. She really nailed the atmosphere of a gentleman’s club. The women are portrayed as strong and powerful, not just nude playthings for the men. The scheme is fun and funny. You find yourself rooting for the crew as they target each guy and take them for all they can.

 

The psychological drama is disturbing as Destiny falls deeper into the web spun by Ramona. I actually enjoyed that part of the film more than the “hustle”. That is where Wu shines. She is vulnerable even when she is trying to project power and strength. Wu always looks to Lopez for approval until she is pushed aside for a newer model. Then she is desperate to figure out why and what happened. But Wu also sees what is happening because Lopez is hiring dicey characters it makes the crew vulnerable. It all comes crashing down when they are arrested in a sting that comes to fruition because of one of those dicey hires. And despite all that, Wu still seeks approval and the friendship of Lopez. It is a tough and vulnerable performance and Wu’s star continues to shine bright.

 

The theme of the hustle is threaded throughout the story. The dancers are hustling the guys. Ramona is hustling Destiny. And Destiny is hustling the journalist who is interviewing her (a very small but important role for Julia Stiles). Is it all a metaphor for America? Ramona as much says so in one scene. If it is, that is a pathetic commentary on society.

 

 

 

CITY ON A HILL

CITY ON A HILLBy Alan Yudman

 

Showtime’s CITY ON A HILL is a lot. A lot of story, a lot of corruption, a lot of cast and a lot of “chowdah”. Set in Boston in the late 1980’s, the show features a corrupt FBI Agent (Kevin Bacon), and an ambitious and idealistic young prosecutor (Aldis Hodge) who team up with the goal of getting rid of corruption in Boston. Then there is a crew of robbers who are ripping off armored cars lead by Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker) who is trying to keep his family together while “taking care of it”(his signature response when a problem arises).

 

The Matt Damon/Ben Affleck produced show is well acted and has a lot of potential for exploring the DEPARTED/BLACK MASS territory in more depth. But instead of going deep on a couple of storylines, the show casts a wide net. At times it feels a mile wide and an inch deep.  The cast is enormous and talented. In addition to Bacon, Hodge and Tucker there are (deep breath).. Jill Hennessy, Mark O’Brien, Lauren E. Banks, Kevin Dunn, Amanda Clayton, Sarah Shahi, Jere Shea, Cathy Moriarty, James Remar. All have significant roles, so as you can see if you have that many mouths to feed someone will go hungry. In this case it’s the audience.

 

Surrounding the main plot of the heist and investigation are Bacon’s family drama, Hodge’s wife’s career, and Tucker’s family drama. And there are subplots piled on subplots. It never gets confusing because nothing is explored in any depth. For example, Tucker’s oldest daughter has obviously witnessed some type of trauma that is giving her nightmares. We sort of find out what it’s connected to but never explicitly learn what happened. Hennessy is Bacon’s aggrieved and tormented wife who has to deal with his attitude and infidelity. We find out she’s been abused as a child, but so late in the series it’s treated more as a bombshell than a piece of a larger story. Shahi is a state police detective who references her Persian heritage and how she tries to pass as one of Boston’s Aqua Netted natives. She has a wonderfully honest and well-acted scene where she admits she’ll never be one of “them”. But once that threat is pulled, it is cut and disposed of. Plus, that stated goal at the beginning of the series, cleaning up the corrupt Boston and Suffolk County system, is never really explored or fulfilled.

 

Those are just a few examples. What keeps this from being an unwatchable mess are Bacon and Hodge (and in a smaller role, Shahi). Their working tension and scheming behind each other’s backs is the heart of the series. Bacon puts on his tough FBI agent façade but is tormented by his mother-in-law and his reputation. He buries himself in cocaine and drowns his sorrows in booze. He is a bastard and hard to like. Hodge’s ambition is thwarted by Bacon’s hubris and his own idealism. But he plays the calm, calculating prosecutor very well.

 

If Showtime decides on a second season for CITY ON A HILL, here’s hoping they decide to drop some of the B, C and D plots and give more time and depth to whatever the main story will be. Thatwould be bet ter for the actors and the audience.

INGRID GOES WEST

by Alan Yudman

Swipe up. Double tap. Swipe up. Double tap. If you have ever opened Instagram on your phone you recognize those gestures. Browsing through the people you follow looking at food, selfies, vacation venues and booping the noses of dogs. Apparently it can also be quite a dark place. A place where lonely people live through the experiences of others or only know what is cool because an “influencer” tells them so. While that’s not especially healthy, INGRID GOES WEST takes it to the next level.

The damaged psyche of Aubrey Plaza’s Ingrid is apparent from the first scene where we see her sweating and crying in a car while looking at her Instagram friend Cindy’s feed and doing the “swipe, double tap”. And the crazy is confirmed when she barges into Cindy’s wedding to mace her and call her a bitch for not inviting her.

It is both a critique and affirmation of our culture, where social media is great for making connections but all too often replaces human interaction. If your mental state is fragile enough, as Ingrid’s is, you can believe a like is an opening to deeper understanding. Ingrid stares at her phone her thumb swiping, desperate for her new “friend” Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) to like a comment Ingrid made on a post. When she not only likes it but comments back, Ingrid takes this as an invitation to move to California so they can be friends.

Ingrid appears to crave connections like this because she is alone in the world. Her mother has died and left her enough money to make the move to Venice. She “accidentally” runs into Taylor, she gets her hair done like hers, she buys the same clutch as Taylor because that is the way they can be alike. The crazy keeps ramping up. Stealing Taylor’s dog and returning it to seem like a hero and deepen their connection. Buying a piece of art by Taylor’s husband. Ingrid continues to spiral down a rabbit hole that is filled with killer bunnies.

But, the film also points out how Taylor is a phony. Her husband reveals that books she posts about are really his favorites. Taylor was just a nerdy young woman before she started down her own rabbit hole of phony. So who is sicker? The person living the lie or the person trying to adopt the life of that person. A question you, or your psychotherapist will have to figure out.

The movie works because of Plaza and Olsen. While you recognize Plaza’s crazy, you feel more sorry for her than scared of her. She does things with her eyes and smile that any fan of PARKS AND RECREATION will recognize. Plaza can make crazy seem endearing. Olsen has a chameleon-like ability to fully become the person she portrays whether it’s Taylor or the Red Witch in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The only real “fun” performance is from O’Shea Jackson, Jr. who plays Ingrid’s landlord/love interest.

INGRID GOES WEST hits some very dark themes. But there is a twist at the end which seems to torpedo the whole message the filmmakers (Director and Co-writer Matt Spicer and writer David Branson Smith) had been telegraphing the whole movie. It’s almost like they couldn’t fully commit to a dark ending that the story seems to demand. Even so, INGRID GOES WEST says something that people need to hear and should make you think twice the next time you mindlessly pick up your phone to Tweet or Insta (god I hate that term). Don’t pick up the phone. Go and interact with real people. If you don’t you could be Ingrid.

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

by Alan Yudman

Bruce Springsteen, throughout his career has been seen as the voice of the working man. But in his one man show SPRINGSTEEN ON BROADWAY he admits it is all based on a lie, saying he’s never worked a day in his life. He admits the characters in his songs are people he grew up with, friends and family. But that doesn’t make his voice less authentic. Springsteen, like many great artists is an observer and chronicler. Maybe that’s why the main character in BLINDED BY THE LIGHT connects so intimately with him once he discovers Springsteen’s music.

Javed Khan is not an observer by choice. It is a role life has saddled him as Pakistani living in Britain in the 1980’s. He is not comfortable. He has reason not to be. He has but one close friend, the aspiring musician Matt. Javed is too shy to even ask a girl out. His strict Pakistani family wouldn’t allow it anyhow. His father takes all the money Javed earns in his summer job for the family. Family and following Pakistani tradition are everything to his father. But Javed sees his peers living a modern life and he observes and chronicles that in the form of journals he has kept for 7 years. He writes songs for Matt’s band but they are political, observing the injustices of Margaret Thatcher’s government and the bigotry of the New Fascist movement. Matt wants love songs, but Javed cannot write them honestly.

When Javed is handed two Springsteen tapes (Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A.) by a Sikh friend he takes them but doesn’t listen to them right away. Later that night, alone in his room Javed begins listening and it awakens something inside of him. It is revelatory. He wonders where this voice has been all his life. Director Gurinder Chadha surrounds Javed with the lyrics from Springsteen’s songs. It is a great visual representation of the moment when you discover a band and fall into the rabbit hole of their music.

That begins a journey of discovery for Javed. Discovery of Springsteen, but also a discovery of what he really wants out of life. He doesn’t want to follow his father’s rules or plans. He becomes the rebel he is hearing about in the music. The movie celebrates that in a couple of set pieces where Javed sings and dances with his friends through the streets of Luton. That theme and style fills about half the movie.

Then,Chadha abandons that in favor a more traditional telling of a family and political drama. Javed rebels and it costs him. Violence erupts when a wedding celebration runs into a march by the British Ne-Nazis. That costs him too when he misses the confrontation that leaves his father bloody because he is off buying tickets to a Springsteen concert.

That shift in tone of the movie feels real and necessary, but it also means the film is inconsistent. The first half feels a little corny and that makes the seriousness of the latter half a bit jarring. There is once sequence where Javed wins a writing contest and flies to Monmouth College in New Jersey for a conference. That is very close to Springsteen’s home town, so he visits a bunch of locations that are iconic in Springsteen lore. It is weird and fells like fan service that is dropped into the movie. Didn’t work at all.

The characters are all thoughtful and well drawn. Javed’s internal conflict is obvious even if it is a bit of a movie trope about rebelliousness. His father isn’t simply an authoritarian figure. He feels like he’s failing his family when he loses his factory job and cannot pay for Javed’s sister’s wedding. Matt is a caricature of ‘80’s Brit-pop, complete with the hair and clothes (think Flock of Seagulls), but he is hurt when his tastes are questioned. Javed’s younger sister seems like the good daughter, but secrets away with friends to cut school and go to a “daytimer” (a party where they literally let down their hair). That is what saves this movie from being ridiculous. You care about the characters, what they want and how they are going to get it.

I am a huge Springsteen fan. I have seen him in concert 10 times, yet that is nothing compared to some of his rabid fans. I would show up for any movie that features his music. The fact that this is based on the real life of Safraz Manzoor made it all the more interesting to me. While it mostly works, there are stylistic choices that take you out of the story. This could have been much better. Bruce sings in The River, “is a dream alive that don’t come true, or is it something worse”. This is a dream that came true, yet it doesn’t feel fully alive. And that is something worse.

YESTERDAY

yesterday

yesterday

By Alan Yudman

YESTERDAY is the definition of suspension of disbelief. The story is about a struggling musician living in Suffolk, England. He’s about ready to give up when he is hit by a bus while riding his bicycle home from a gig one night. When he wakes up, he slowly realizes he’s the only person in the world who has ever heard of The Beatles. He decides to capitalize on this by performing the Lennon/McCartney songs as his own. And when he does, he becomes a wildly successful, overnight sensation.

So, there are two things going on here. A romantic comedy where the struggling Jack (Himesh Patel) and his manager/friend Ellie (Lily James) can’t seem to figure out they are in love… or at least can’t close the deal. The other is how Jack is basically stealing the iconic Beatles songs to make a career for himself. At first, he’s dumbstruck no one knows the songs. Eventually he feels guilty for doing it. I think his motivation is artistic on some level, but that’s not clear in Richard Curtis’ muddled story.

Other things have disappeared with the Beatles. Coca Cola and cigarettes are two examples. But some things still exist that maybe shouldn’t in a world without the Beatles. For example, Coldplay and Ed Sheeran (who is in the movie as himself in a completely forgettable performance). But Curtis has erased Oasis, yet Ellie first falls for Jack when he plays “Wonderwall” when he’s a kid. Huh? How does that work? Like I said, suspension of disbelief.

Both Patel and James are very likeable. Patel does excellent covers of all the songs. He and James are a believable couple, something important in a romantic comedy. Kate McKinnon appears as an agent who signs Jack. I don’t know what movie she was in, but it wasn’t this one. Her performance completely blows everyone off screen when she shows up, and not in a good way. She’s loud, brash. slimy and annoying. I get that’s the agent stereotype, but it’s too over the top. ROCKETMAN did a similar thing in a much subtler and effective way.

YESTERDAY is a nice movie. Nice. Not wonderful. Not amazing. It’s enjoyable and it will renew your love for The Beatles, but it may frustrate you as much as makes you tap your toes to the songs.

 

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

once upon a time in hollywood

by Alan Yudman

If there are two things Quentin Tarantino loves, it’s movies and Hollywood. He wraps his arms around both and gives them a loving squeeze in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

Tarantino’s attention to detail is a thing to behold. Living in Los Angeles, I know many of the locations he features in the film. From Musso & Frank’s Grill to the Spahn Ranch, to simple things like driving down Hollywood Boulevard or through the San Fernando Valley, Tarantino gets the look just right. Even if it isn’t 100% percent period accurate, it FEELS that way. That is very important in this movie. For someone who loves seeing old Hollywood depicted in film, this was full of delightful Easter eggs.

You may have heard this is about the Manson Family and to some extent it is. But it is more than that. It uses that plus the fictional story of Rick Dalton and his stuntman buddy Cliff Booth (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) to show us the end of an era. The old studio system is gone. The innocence has been stripped away.

Dalton is a former TV star who made his name in the Western, BOUNTY LAW, who now can only find work as the heavy. He sees headlights of reality coming at him and it is freaking him out. Booth can’t get work as a stuntman because he’s either pissed off everyone, or people are afraid of the rumors that he killed his wife (a plot point that is sort of explained, but not in any satisfying fashion). Booth is now Dalton’s “man Friday” running errands, fixing things and driving him around town in Dalton’s yellow Cadillac Coupe Deville. Dalton is panicked by his situation, drowning himself in booze and anxiety. He meets an agent played by Al Pacino who advises him to go to Italy to make movies. Dalton feels that is giving up. Before giving in to that advice, he takes a guest starring role on the TV pilot for the western LANCER, as yet another bad guy.

Meantime lurking on the fringes of all this is the Manson Family. Dalton lives on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. His neighbors are Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Booth crosses paths with a Manson follower and goes out to Spahn ranch where he meets Tex Watson, Squeaky Fromme, Gypsy Share and others. Manson even shows up at the Tate/Polanski house looking for his old acquaintance, music producer Terry Melcher. Tate (Margot Robbie) almost literally flits through the film, an apparent angelic figure who has one incredibly vulnerable scene where she goes to watch herself in the Dean Martin movie, THE WRECKING CREW.

All these different plot threads could have wound up being a mess, but Tarantino expertly weaves them together into a completely enthralling story. The acting is sublime. DiCaprio is fantastic, better than his Oscar winning performance in THE REVENANT. Some say only a great singer can intentionally sing badly. Apply that here. When he Rick Dalton is acting in various TV shows, he’s not terrible, merely average. That takes real ability. Julia Butters plays a young girl who is in the LANCER pilot. She has one extended scene with DiCaprio that is truly special. Pitt is at his shaggy best. Robbie is wonderful even in the limited time she is on screen.

Tarantino pays as much loving attention to the soundtrack as he does to the rest of the film. The music adds to the story. And the drop-ins of actual radio DJ’s from the 1960’s just adds to the mood. If you are going to purchase a sountrack album, buy this one. Get in your car, turn it on and drive down the highway. It has the feel of listening to the radio in 1969.

This is one of Tarantino’s most heartfelt films. It feels like a movie that could have been made in 1969. It mostly doesn’t rely on his usual blend of uber violence and weirdness. The Dalton and Manson plots come together in an over the top, bloody ending that was somehow satisfying. Can’t say more because it would be a huge spoiler. Some may see ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD as Tarantino’s revenge fantasy against Manson and a commentary on the end of an era. That is not a far-flung assessment. But it is also among his best work and the Academy will probably notice that come Oscar time.