Yesterday Review

Yesterday mostly wastes an interesting premise telling a largely enjoyable little love story. Sure, it is just as much Boomer nostalgia bait as Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman, but Yesterday tries something slightly interesting. Yesterday plays with an alternate reality concept and a little with the nature of fame. It ends up being just slightly more on the side of a success than a failure.

The high concept premise is that after a worldwide blackout, everyone except struggling musician Jack Malick forgets about the Beatles. Armed with his memory of Beatles songs, he begins to sell their work as his own. There are a lot of fertile story telling ground to go from here, about separating the art from the artist, about the specific circumstances around the Beatles success, about the effect art can have on the world. Yesterday is not interested in any of that. Any other blackout difference are only there for jokes.

Instead, Yesterday focuses on the stillborn romance between Himesh Patel as Jack and Lily James’s Ellie. She has operated as his manager and roadie for him for years, but once he starts to be a success with the Beatles music, their paths diverge and he has to choose between being a rock star and her. He keeps choosing stardom, until the end. There is a lot to criticize about this development, but I found that the love story largely works. It is clear from the beginning that both of the characters love each other, but both are afraid to jeopardize the friendship they have for the romance they might have. It is not a new story. But I find that it works in the context of movie, if only because Lily James is adorable.

A lot of the movie’s humor lands, especially Kate McKinnon as Jack’s new manager/Svengali. She doesn’t have any illusions about being there for anything other than the money, outright telling Jack that she doesn’t care about him, he is a product to her. Also, his incredibly incompetent and drugged out roadie Rocky is a lot of fun as he bumbles though just about everything.

The way the movie deals with the music is also fraught. It just takes that someone showing up with about two thirds of the Beatles’ hits would immediately translate into musical stardom as assumed. It does not acknowledge the passage of time between when The Beatles were popular and now. People would love the music in this alternate reality because they love it now.

There are also some just plain strange turns. Like a late movie encounter with a couple of other people who remember The Beatles and a visit with a man who gives some insight.

I am being somewhat harsh on what is, for the most part, an enjoyable little trifle. Yesterday is an excuse to watch a little romance while hearing a lot of Beatles covers. It succeeds on those very limited terms. Any other implications or insights are completely beyond the scope of the movie, making it feel more disappointing that it is.

***

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Rocketman

There has certainly been a little run of musician biopics lately, with the unaccountably successful Bohemian Rhapsody followed up by Netflix’s trashy, but probably better made despite the music not being as good The Dirt. Now comes Rocketman, a biopic about Elton John. Rocketman is the best of the bunch, but that is damning with faint praise.

The obvious comparison to Rocketman is Bohemian Rhapsody, a comparison that can only make Rocketman look good. Bohemian Rhapsody did a shoddy job telling a good story, but floated along on the good vibes of some truly excellent music. Rocketman attempts a similar trick. However, Rocketman incorporates music into the film fully, turning the biopic into a musical. Characters break out into song and songs replace dramatic moments. That helps hide the fact that otherwise this is a bog standard musical biopic.

I don’t mean to make light of the struggles that the real Elton John faced in his life, but if you were to list musical biopic cliches, this movie hits about all of them. Elton is a musical prodigy who struggles to connect with his parents. His dad seems to hate him, his mother is caught up in her own stuff. He meets up with a musical partner, starts to get famous and really gets into drugs.

Rocketman makes Bohemian Rhapsody’s success feel all the more underserved. This movie almost certainly will not be winning awards like Bohemian Rhapsody inexplicably did, even though it has a better star performance and is simply a better made movie. Bohemian Rhapsody is a pile of shoddy editing (I know it won best editing at the Oscars; inexplicable), inaccuracies, and biopic clichés that are soldered together with fortunately excellent music. I don’t know that Rocketman is accurate, because I don’t know Elton John’s history as well and I knew Queen’s and I didn’t know Queen’s all that well. But otherwise it is better than that previous movie.

Rocketman, at the very least, seems to know that what people came for was the music. So it turns a fairly standard biopic into a straight up music. Not as in that there are scenes of performances, which there are, or montages, also here, but it makes tells the story with music and actually has it characters sing outside of the performances. It works. The movie keeps throwing another Elton John hit at the viewer every 15 minutes or so, helping disguise the most standard musical biopic story since Dewey Cox.

I said up thread that this movie has a better star performance than Bohemian Rhapsody, and no offense to Rami Malek (whose win was less baffling, but no more correct), Taron Edgerton does a better job as John than his all affect turn as Mercury. Plus, Edgerton sings.

Rocketman isn’t a great movie. Again, but for some excellent music there isn’t much here to really recommend. But the music is the reason to make a movie about Elton John. As a delivery vehicle for nostalgia, there are worse ways to go about it.

**1/2

Tomb Raider Movie Review

Tomb Raider clears the very low bar of being the best live action video game movie adaptation. It is very close to being really good and maybe not any good at all. I enjoyed watching it, but even as I did I could see the glaring flaws. Tomb Raider does a good job of translating the game to the screen, pulling in even more from things that influenced the game, such as Indiana Jones.

Tomb Raider starts with Lara Croft living low in London, refusing to have her father, missing for seven years, declared dead and accept her inheritance. Then she stumbles on a clue as to where he father disappeared to and she sets out to find him. She stops in Hong Kong, where she meets the son of man who disappeared with her father and together they set out for an uninhabited island near Japan. There, the adventure kicks into high gear as Lara must solve the mysteries of the island before a group of mercenaries to prevent ancient relics falling into the wrong hands.

The movie is very much Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Lara as Indy and her buddy Lu Ren as Salah/Marian and Walton Goggins playing something of a Belloq. Though it takes a little longer to get going than that movie, since this is determined to be an origin story for Lara Croft. Once Lara is adventuring, it follows a lot of similar beats to Raiders. Not exactly, and as an adventure movie it is going to be similar, but there are several bits that stand out as clearly inspired by that seminal film.

Where this Tomb Raider fails in in is characters. Not the actors; Vikander, Goggins and Daniel Wu are all solid and do good work with the material available. Vikander is especially charming as Lara. The problem is Lara aside, the movie spends a little time sketching out the characters as they are introduced, but does nothing with them from after that. Lara gets the whole first half hour to set up who she is and what her motivations are; it works. Everyone else gets maybe two minutes. The movie seems to set up characters beats to come later, but does nothing to pay them off. It is frustrating. Wu’s Lu Ren joins with some clear unsettled business with his missing father, but once they reach the island he mostly disappears as a character. Walton Goggins does the most he can with the villainous Mathias. Again, in his introduction he is set up to be a interesting inverse of Lara; she headed to the island to find her missing father, Mathias is stuck on the island, wanting nothing more than to get home to his kids. But after giving him that motivation, the movie really does nothing with him or the parallels. That is where the movie really falls apart. The plot exists to string action scenes together and the characters exist only to the extent necessary to keep things movings.

Those action scenes are largely pretty good. Sometimes they feel a little too mindful of being in a movie based on a game, but for the most part they are pretty entertaining. There is a really good, if somewhat pointless, bike chase early on that looks good and most of the the stuff on the island is pretty exhilarating. They do feel lacking somehow, like there is some cohesion that would really make them sing that isn’t there, but they are the movie’s main draw and they hold up their end of the bargain.

The biggest problem with Tomb Raider is how fixable its flaws seem. It isn’t like the movie fails in some obvious, unfixable way. It just feels like some of the stuff that ties everything together ended up on the cutting room floor. The biggest problem is that whole movie feels like it should be better than it is, even though the movie isn’t bad. If this is the start of a Tomb Raider movie franchise, it is a good start. They have laid a good foundation here. Tomb Raider is a good adaptation of a game that turns into a fun, but flawed movie.

***

Game Night

At first glance, Game Night looks like any number of middling comedies that have come out over the last decade. It takes a good high concept and throws together a group entertaining performers in hopes of making something resembling a movie. Game Night, though, actually is really good. It isn’t perfect, but it has some really great performers, a twisty, funny script and it is shot with more care than is usual for comedies.

Game Night stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, who are both a lot of fun, as married couple Max and Annie. Bateman excels at playing the put upon voice of reason and that is mostly where he is here. Here he is competent, but also over competitive. McAdams as great as his similar wife. They play off of each other well. There are joined on their game night by their dimwitted buddy Ryan, his intelligent date, married childhood sweethearts Kevin and Michelle. Those four have their moments, feeling like at least conceivable friends. They are joined by Max’s successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who tries to spice things up. Left out of game night is Max and Annie’s neighbor, the recently divorced Gary, played by Jesse Plemons. Brook’s invites the group to his house, where he has hired actors for a fake kidnapping mystery game. Unbeknownst to the group, that is interrupted by an actual kidnapping. The couples go their separate ways to solve things.

It works surprisingly well. At first they all think it is a game, but eventually they start to realize that things are more real than they thought. The movie does a great job of keeping the viewer in their toes as well, as what seems real might not be as real as they seem or make fake parts aren’t as fake as they seem. All the players do their part, though Bateman’s deadpan and McAdams enthusiasm do a lot of the work in getting jokes across. The best part is Jesse Plemons, who underplays everything as Gary. He come across as genuinely creepy. It is hard to tell if he is just depressed because of his divorce or planning something sinister. It all pays off in the best way.

I’m not an expert on shooting movies, but even I can tell the difference between the usual comedy and what is seen in Game Night. Maybe it’s bad that the movie has shots that stand out, but they stood out to me in a good way, enhancing my enjoyment of the movie. There are a handful of distant establishing shots that almost look like models, like they are all pieces on a gameboard, before the camera zooms in on the action. There is also a chase scene through a mansion that at least looks like an impressive long take as the various characters run up and down stairways. The movie really looks good.

I wouldn’t call Game Night great. There is a decent chance I won’t remember I saw it come the end of the year. But it is better than even my somewhat high hopes had expected. It it definitely worth hitting a matinee for or grabbing from the Redbox in few months.

***1/2

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first movie from Studio Ponoc, a successor to Studio Ghibli.  A few years ago, Studio Ghibli made some announcements that suggested that, with Hayao Miyazaki’s latest retirement, they would cease producing feature films, prompting some of its members to go their own way. This film is their first release and it shows that they are mostly carrying on the spirit of the previous studio.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of Ghibli releases The Secret World of Arietty and When Marnie was There, directed Mary and the Witch’s Flower. It follows in that line of adaptations of children’s books that includes Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Arietty. It ends up feeling a bit like a Studio Ghibli greatest hits. That makes it sound worse than it is, this is frequently a touching and enthralling movie, but it never quite reaches the heights of its inspirations.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower follows Mary, a girl who feels like she is bad at everything, who moves in with her aunt in the country. She fights with a young boy her age and befriends a few stray cats before finding a mysterious flower in the woods. The flower gives her the ability to do magic. She finds a magic broom that whisks her away to a magic school in the sky, where things aren’t exactly what they seem.

I don’t want to spoil much of the movie, but it hits a lot of Ghibli notes. There is a young girl flying on a broom, like Kiki’s Delivery Service; there is a castle in the sky, like Castle in Sky. The movie also has echoes of films from Princess Mononoke to Ponyo.

The only real problem with the movie is that it doesn’t really have a resolution for its villains. They aren’t redeemed at all, but neither are they punished. They kind of learn the error of their ways, but it more that they just sort of fail. It is a real problem, the movie largely lack narrative stakes. It all just sort of happens.

Still, there is a lot to like in Mary and the Witch’s Flower. It ends up feeling much like Arietty; a little slight but otherwise enjoyable. It is a pleasant, enjoyable movie that doesn’t really have anything push it from being good to great.

****

Top 10 Movies of 2017

Making a top 10 list this year has proved pretty difficult. There were a lot of movies I liked, but few movies that I really, absolutely loved. I don’t think anything I saw this year was as good as last year’s The Nice Guys or Love and Friendship, let alone Mad Mad: Fury Road from the year before. But there were a lot of movies that I liked enough to consider for the back half of the list. Also, this year I watched a lot more movies than I have in years past, so I had a lot more to choose from. There are also several that I think I would like that I haven’t had the chance to see, like I, Tonya, Coco, or The Darkest Hour. But I didn’t manage to see them before I made the list, so they aren’t on it. It also might be noted that my review scores don’t match up exactly with how I ranked the movies on the list; I don’t care this is how much I like the movies compared to each other right now.

Honorable Mentions: Okja and Murder on the Orient Express. Both a lot of fun, but neither quite as good as the rest of the list. Still, I liked them well enough that I had a hard time not putting them on the list at all. Also, Dunkirk, which got bumped off the list just the other day when I saw my #1.

10. Logan Lucky I went into this with little in the way of expectations and I liked it. The further I get away from it, the more and more I like it. It is just a thoroughly enjoyable film.

9. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 It is like the first one, but more. Just more. It also held up better to a rewatch than I expected it to, though it does get pretty shaggy in the middle and I kind of hate the CGI-fest that is large parts of the finale.

8. Thor: Ragnarok A full on delight that I expect will play well on rewatches. I wish it would have pulled back on the humor just a bit so the more epic moments could hit a little harder, but I liked it anyway. It was frequently legitimately funny and had just enough the cosmic stuff to feel worth it.

7. John Wick 2 – The first John Wick movie was about a perfect distillation of everything great about action movies, the sequel is not quite as pure, but it is deeper and had just as great of action scenes. Keanu Reeves has more than cemented his place on the action movie Mt Rushmore, and this is just another feather in his cap.

6. Wonder Woman – This is one of the finest examples of just a straight up superhero movie to come out in long time. And the ending, which I had some problems with in the theater, played really good watching it over the holiday.

5. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – A fascinating, difficult look at not entirely good people in tough circumstances. It is funny and sad and full of great performances.

4. Star Wars The Last Jedi – It moved the new Star Wars movies from being just retreads of the original series and on to being their own thing. It did it while pushing a lot of the themes that the series has been known for.

3. Blade Runner 2049 I’ve honestly never been the biggest fan of the original Blade Runner; it is a mood piece that just never quite connected with me. This sequel, though, is exactly what I wanted to see. It is a thoughtful, intelligent, gorgeous, sci-fi thriller.

2. Baby Driver The Kevin Spacey stuff hangs over this like a pall. I don’t know that I’ll be able to rewatch this anytime soon and not think about that stuff. That doesn’t change the fact that for most of the year this is the best movie I saw in 2017. It isn’t Edgar Wright’s best movie, but it is perfectly fun.

1. The Shape of Water – I caught this a few days after New Years and I immediately fell in love with it. Del Toro spins another phenomenal fairy tale that really gets across his love of the monster in the monster movie. Del Toro makes movies just for me and I am glad of it.

Logan Lucky Review

I’m not a big Steven Soderbergh fan. Not that I don’t like his movies, only that I’ve only seen the Ocean’s trilogy and those, while enjoyable and essentially perfectly crafted, didn’t leave that big of an impression on me. Logan Lucky uses a similar formula, but replaces Ocean’s Vegas glitz with West Virginia grit. It works, with strong performances all around and funny moments from start to finish.

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan; a divorced father who loses his job thanks to an old football injury that causes a liability issue at the same time he finds out his ex is taking their daughter and moving.  He needs money.  So he concocts a plan with his siblings, the one armed Clyde (Adam Driver) and hairdresser Mellie (Riley Keough), to rob a race track.  They recruit another group of siblings, the Bang brothers, to help them.  It is a heist movie, with the characters going through the usual hurdles of a heist movie, like needing to appear to be one place when they are actually somewhere else, before it all comes together.

It is a joy to watch even these largely kind of stupid characters be good at their jobs.  The Logan brothers are especially competent, while Joe Bang, played by a Daniel Craig who appears to be having a blast, MacGyver like knowledge of explosives is delightful.  Soderbergh knows the heist game as well as anybody, and he executes it again here.

I don’t want to explain more of the plot, because the joy is seeing it play out for yourself.  Any plot details, other than the base premise seem to spoil something.  This is a tight movie, with everything working just as it should.  Tatum is the perfect rock for the rest of oddball characters to play off of. He and Driver really manage to feel like brothers, with long standing gripes with each other but no doubt that the two of them always have each other’s backs.

This is the perfect movie to close out a somewhat disappointing summer.  It is just so competent and entertaining.  It isn’t a desperate attempt to set up a franchise or the dying gasp of last decade’s franchise.  Its plot is complex without being convoluted and just so goddamned effortlessly entertaining.

****1/2

The Dark Tower Review

I am disappointed on all fronts with The Dark Tower, as much because it is not especially bad as I am because it is not good.  I am not one, generally, to root against a movie.  I didn’t want The Dark Tower to be bad, but as its release neared and possibility that it would be good seemed ever more remote, I had hoped that it would be truly, spectacularly awful. At least that would have been interesting.  The Dark Tower can’t even manage that. It bungles everything just enough to blandly pointless, not to be terrible enough to get any ironic enjoyment out of it.

Idris Elba, who is awesome as usual, plays Roland, the last of the gunslingers.  I start with him, even though he is not the lead.  That is the young Tom Taylor who plays Jake Chambers, a young boy who has visions of the alternate reality where Roland and his enemy, the Man in Black, live.  The movie follows his story, not Roland’s, for almost the entire first half and the second half is at best even between the two.

Fans of the book will recognize many elements of the movie, but many of them who have been rearranged into new forms. I don’t want to give much away, because spotting call backs to the books is one of the chief pleasures anyone watching this movie will glean from it.

It starts with Jake having visions of the Man in Black and his attacks on the Tower.  The people around Jake think he is crazy, including his step-dad, who wants to send him to some kind of sanitarium.  Just as he is to be sent upstate to visit this facility, which he already knows is connected to the Man in Black and his evil allies.

From there, it is mostly a collection of disinterested clichés.  Roland has given up on his gunslinger calling, but Jake attempts to inspire him to be better while learning about the relationship between various alternate realities.  Idris Elba is really good, but the movie can’t maintain any moment or generate any really interest outside of a few isolated scenes, which leaves him with nothing to do most of the time.

I’ll repeat that it isn’t a disaster.  It feels like a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, which ended up sanding off anything interesting.  It makes sense from a scene to scene basis, though it never really takes the time to explain itself.  It feels less propulsive and more like the connections were edited out. Still, there is hint of something good here that just couldn’t find its way out.

I’m not really a fan of The Dark Tower books. I was at one time, but I really didn’t care for much in the last two books and found the ending somewhat insulting.  I haven’t read the books at all since I finished the 7th just a few days after I got it for Christmas the year if its release.  Watching this movie reminded me of what I once liked about this series, even if it actually delivers very little of that enjoyment.

**1/2

Dunkirk Review

Dunkirk is another of Christopher Nolan’s puzzle box movies. Taking what could have been a very straightforward war movie, he does things with the timeline to make it clearly his own.  Even without the differing timelines, it still would not have been a particularly traditional war movie.  Dunkirk is an intense, impossible to look away from movie that is unlike any I’ve ever seen.

Dunkirk is a war movie, chronicling the escape from the Nazis of the defeated allied army from the beach at Dunkirk. It does this without ever showing an enemy soldier, other than a few planes.  They shoot from off-screen and drop bombs from mostly unseen planes.  It is all about the the soldiers on the beach, the civilians coming over in their own boats to help evacuate and the pilots flying cover for them.

Each of those three segments is also somewhat oddly structured.  For one, the characters are barely named.  We get some names, but we learn almost nothing about the majority of the characters.  We know almost nothing about the soldiers on the beach other than they are soldiers on the beach who want to get off the beach.  We know nothing about the pilots other than that they are pilots.  We do learn a fraction more about the civilians on the boat, but only a fraction.  That is not to say it doesn’t create relatable characters, only that they are largely examined in the present rather than the past.

Then there is how it handles its three different timelines.  Events on the beach take place over the course of a week, while events on the boat take place over the course of one day and events in the plane take place over the course of an hour. So things happen in the planes before we see their effects on the boat or the beach.

I’m not sure the structure, other than being interesting in and of itself, helps the telling of the story.  The story being told is good enough to not need any embellishing.  Each of the three storylines would be enough to support an entire movie in their own right.  There is heroism to be found in each part.

That is where the movie truly succeeds.  Each scene is tense and enthralling.  Whether it is the soldiers trying to escape a sinking ship or the pilots in an intense dogfight, every scene has something to add.  It is too the movie’s credit that each even though it never lets up it also never feels overwhelming.  It manages to make the evacuation seem not like a victory, which it wasn’t, but an achievement.

Dunkirk is easily among the best movies I’ve seen this year.  Nolan is a master craftsman and this movie shows it.  And if I am being honest, when the movie nears its end with Churchill’s address to the nation I teared up a little bit.  Nolan has long since proven himself a master, and Dunkirk is another feather in his cap.

*****

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets is not a movie for everybody. No movie is, but reactions to Luc Besson’s latest science fiction adventure seem to be especially divided.  It does just so happen to be a movie for me.  I loved every insane second of this glorious mess.

The complaints about this, upon reflection, are valid.  The two leads aren’t great.  I think Cara Delevingne does a pretty good job as Laureline, though she is given too little to do.  Dane Dehaan seems completely miscast as Valerian, who from his dialogue appears to be intended to be a seasoned soldier and adventurer while Dehaan looks like a teenager even though he is more than 30.  It seems slightly incongruous, and the awkward dialogue doesn’t help.  The dialogue feels like direct translations of lines written in another language.  Knowing that the movie is an adaptation of a French comic from a screenplay written by its French director leads me to believe that this is the case.  That is no excuse for a movie to sound awkward and stilted in the language all the characters are speaking.  Honestly, it rarely bothered me. Aside from some awkward phrasing, it mostly just added to the otherworldliness of it all.

There are also complaints about the plot, which fills some gaps with cliche and leaves a few other holes open, but it is mostly a straight line mystery that doesn’t do enough to disguise its obvious twists. It isn’t bad so much as episodic, with one set piece leading to another set piece, but not having those connect all that well.

I’ve laid out a pretty good explanation, I think, for why some people didn’t like this movie. Not a one of them bothered me while I was on this rollercoaster.  It starts with a mostly silent scene where a space station becomes a place for the meetings of different cultures, from various Earth based societies to eventually humans meeting alien lifeforms.  Each one builds its own addition to the space station, until it is big enough to disrupt Earth and is shot across the galaxy to find a new home.  It then cuts to an alien world, where we a given a brief look at the life of an alien society for tragedy strikes their planet.  Both of these sequences are wonderful. One is mostly just people shaking hands, but it lays across what is meant by the title so quickly and cleanly.  The other is its own mini-tragedy that is crushing yet visually amazing.

Then we finally get to our protagonists, and some leaden banter, before they go on another visually amazing adventure into another dimensional marketplace to retrieve stolen government property.  This movie runs more than 2 hours, and throughout its runtime it doesn’t go more than 15 minutes without introducing some crazy new thing.  Once they reach Alpha, the space station, Valerian and Laureline jump from section to section so fast it is hard to catch your breath.  The mystery unfolds, but it is pretty obvious who the the villain is from the moment he appears.  The only question is can our two heroes figure things out in time to prevent an inevitable tragedy.  Once the action was rolling, Dehaan’s youthful looks were not a distraction and he and Delevingne proved to be solid real elements to meet the nonsense that the movie threw at them.

There is such a sense of fun here that I was enthralled.  I wanted to see what new madness each segment of this movie could show me. It wasn’t all new, but it was all spectacular.  While it shares a lot in common with Besson’s own The Fifth Element, I also saw shades of John Carter and Flash Gordon.  Not all viewers will take those comparisons as positive things, but I think John Carter is one of the most underrated movies of the last decade and rank Flash Gordon was one of my personal favorite films.  To say that this movie reminded me of them is high praise.  This is almost exactly the kind of movie I want for Summer popcorn fare.  I loved every nonsensical second of it.

****1/2