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A summertime whimsy arrives from England with “Yesterday,” a comedy-musical with a cute but outlandish premise: provincial musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) awakes from a freak accident: he is riding his bike during a worldwide electrical blackout when he is hit by a bus. He awakes unscathed but, while hanging out with friends --including his “manager” Ellie Appleton (Lily James)--he plays and sings the plaintive “Yesterday” and discovers that none of them know the tune or anything of the Beatles and their music. His scouring of the Internet finds there is no trace of the group.

Jack’s awareness that only he knows the Beatles music leads him to pass off their music as his own, and he and Ellie team up with a local recording studio to promote his new-found song-writing skills. Wracking his memory of the group’s catalogue, he is slowly recognized as a talent, especially by current popstar Ed Sheeran (playing himself), and taken up (in fact, almost swallowed up) by ravenous Hollywood agent Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), and becomes a global phenomenon. Fame, however thrilling, just doesn’t suit Jack, and it distances him from Ellie, so he decides to resolve his dilemma.

The movie’s set-up is both fanciful and clever, allowing for sly jokes throughout, as when Jack’s suggests actual Beatles record titles for his first album--all of which are rejected. Or when he periodically struggles to remember the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby.” Or when his version of “Hey, Jude,” is changed by the current taste-makers to “Hey, Dude.” The general lack of Beatles awareness also makes for smart lines like the one a character offers after first hearing Jack’s “Yesterday:” “Well, that was nice, but it wasn’t Coldplay.” Other sly evidences of the world’s collective amnesia surface, as when he finds out that no one has ever heard of Coca Cola or Harry Potter either.

Cute this all is, but the ingenious premise cannot be sustained, and the concert dénouements (played out back in Jack’s provincial seaside hometown of Lowescroft and at Wembley Stadium) feel soft and tossed-off. It probably too much to ask to bring this sweet fantasy to a satisfying conclusion.

“Yesterday” was directed by Danny Boyle, a versatile English filmmaker who has made a string of distinct and memorable films over 25 years from “Slumdog Millionaire” through “127 Days” to “Steve Jobs.” The picture was written by the light-hearted Richard Curtis, famous for rom-com hits such as “Love Actually,” and “Notting Hill.” His specialty is grin-worthy, if not laugh-out-loud dialogue.

Lead actor Patel is most effective when he is singing Beatles hits. His pleasant, mid-range voice suits most of the Fab Four’s songs, and he is especially successful in delivering their ballads. As a character, however, he is basically one-note, varying visage and demeanor little over the course of the film. Lily James is well-cast as the darling, supportive friend, but her love for Jack from afar seems stretched to the breaking point. Her Ellie could have exhibited more grit. Kate McKinnon is an odd woman out in this film. She comes out raging as the cynical American hustler, as over-the-top as one of her “Saturday Night Live” skit characters and out of tune with the gentler humor of the film.

The best reason to see “Yesterday,” for Beatles’ fans anyway, is to be nostalgically tossed back into the group’s songbook and be tested, as Jack is, to see how many lyrics you can recall.

(The film is rated “PG-13” and runs 116 minutes.)

(July 2019)

The poster shot of Himesh Patel strolling on Abbey Road in “Yesterday, ” from Universal Pictures

Summer Movies

“Summer Movies” means predictable fare for predictable audiences, mainly families, adolescents, and young adults with time on their hands to consume entertainment about which they need not think too much. It means action flicks, super hero sagas, cute animation, and especially, sequels and reworkings of all of the above.

“Summer” came a little early this year with the April release of the blockbuster “The Avengers: Endgame,” the sequel to end 20 other sequels which wrapped up the most bumptious of Hollywood serials. Yet there are other repeats for the kids to savor. There is another “Men in Black,” with two new leads, Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth. There is yet another “Shaft,” with Samuel L. Jackson trolling Harlem again (with Richard Roundtree). There is another “Child’s Play” (the eighth), another “Secret Life of Pets,” another “Angry Birds Movie”, another “Godzilla,” another “Spiderman (Far from Home),” among others.

Disney-Pixar, the reigning studio champion, will not be idle either. The company is currently rummaging through its vault of animated classics to re-boot them as live-action features, with “Dumbo” and “Aladdin” already released. Mid-summer sees their redo of “The Lion King” (opens July 19), with hot young star Donald Glover as the lead voice of Simba. Even more anticipated might be Pixar’s “Toy Story 4” (June 21) which updates the toy crew from its last iteration in 2010. Several new playthings are introduced, and an old colleague of Woody (Tom Hanks), Bo Peep, rejoins the fold.

Distinctive Offerings

For more discerning filmgoers, there are always other summer options that hold out the promise of quality acting and directing in narratives of more adult interest. Take, for example, Cate Blanchett, who graces almost every project she undertakes. She shows up in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (August 16) directed by the Texas master Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”). Bernadette is a renowned Seattle architect, and an agoraphobe, who gives up her promising career to tend to her family of husband (Billy Crudup) and teen-aged daughter. Suddenly, she disappears from that family, who must seek out why and where she has gone. Based on a best-selling novel of 2012, this comedy-mystery also stars Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, and Laurence Fishburne.

For the suspense crowd, this summer offers “Official Secrets” (August 30), a true-life drama starring Keira Knightly as the real-life Katharine Gun, a translator at a British intelligence agency who becomes a major whistleblower when she leaks classified information about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to blackmail UN Security Council members to ensure a vote on the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The film is in good thriller hands with director Gavin Hood, the South African who turned up the tension well in his last opus, “Eye in the Sky.”

Another British film of a very different flavor is “Yesterday” (June 28), a musical comedy with an outlandish premise: provincial musician Jack awakes from a freak bus accident and a global blackout to learn that no one—anywhere—has ever heard of the Beatles and their music. So Jack appropriates their catalogue and becomes a star. Jack is played by newcomer Himesh Patel, and the film is directed by Danny Boyle, who has made a string of distinct and memorable films over 25 years from “Slumdog Millionaire” to “Steve Jobs.” The picture is written by Richard Curtis, famous for rom-com hits such as “Love Actually,” and “Notting Hill.” Lily James and Kate McKinnon also appear.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is another (June 14) indie on a topic rarely treated in feature films: gentrification. Heralded at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and directed by first-timer Joe Talbot, the film introduces Jimmie Fails (playing himself), who dreams of reclaiming the classic “Painted Lady” Victorian home his grandfather (Danny Glover) built years ago in the city by the Bay. Jimmie and his best friend Mont re-discover the house in a search for their place in a rapidly-changing city that seems to have left them and their people behind. Talbot’s aim is a poignant meditation on whether we can, indeed, go home again.

Serious documentaries have entered the big screen mainstream, and this summer sees a couple of pictures about enduring American icons. “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” traces the life of the Nobel Prize novelist, told in interviews with its subject and a parade of literary talking heads discussing the range and importance of her work (June 28). A major aim of the director, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, is to underline the importance of Morrison’s stellar career to both black and female writers over the last decades. Greenfield-Sanders, an important American photographer, here adds to a legacy of documentaries featuring African-American, Latino, and LGBT figures over the years, thus compiling a film catalogue of US minorities.

Another notable film biography is “Mike Wallace is Here” (July 26), an examination of the late “60 Minutes” reporter known for his “killer” interviews over 37 years. Using archive footage from his entire career, Israeli director Avi Belkin covers Wallace from his early days as an announcer, actor, and newscaster with Dumont TV and ABC to his presence as one of the original members of the landmark CBS news magazine in 1968. The movie, in reviewing Wallace’s career, also muses on changes in television journalism over his span and how much he contributed to the practice of investigative journalism.

Among foreign language films, look for “The Fall of the American Empire” (June 7) by the French-Canadian Denys Arcand, a writer/director active since the 1960’s. He surfaced for American filmgoers with “The Decline of the American Empire” (1986) and solidified his reputation 17 years later with “The Barbarian Invasions,” winner of an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Despite the title, his latest is not a sequel to the earlier work but instead a sardonic heist film involving an-overeducated schlub coming upon bags of cash, then agonizing about what to do with them while trying to avoid getting rubbed out by the original thieves. It is the lefty Arcand’s latest (humorous) take on the pitfalls of contemporary capitalism.

(June 2019)

Photo illustrations, in sequence:
Cate Blanchett stars in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Photo credit: Wilson Webb, courtesy Annapurna Pictures, LLC

The poster shot of Himesh Patel strolling on Abbey Road in “Yesterday, ” from Universal Pictures

Toni Morrison is the subject of the bio-pic “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

All Is True

Sir Kenneth Branagh has had a most varied career since he gained fans in the 1987 television series “Fortunes of War” with then-wife Emma Thompson. After that exposure, he made a splash on the big screen at only 29, directing and performing the lead in a stirring version of “Henry V.” Since then he has taken on (acting and directing) five other major Shakespearean works, from “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993) to “Macbeth” (2013). Now, he has decided to take on the very Bard himself, this time in a fictionalized (though based on real historical facts) speculation on the last years of Will himself, retired from playwrighting and settled back in his manorial house outside Stratford-on-Avon.

We find Shakespeare in 1613, accepting the end of his writing career but content to tend a garden and reacquaint himself with his wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), his older daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson), now married to a clergyman, and his younger daughter Judith, (Kathryn Wilder) a spinster. Most importantly, he mourns for his son, Hamnet, dead in 1595 at 11 years old and, in his father’s eyes, a budding literary genius. We see a most domestic Will, at table and church, gardening and musing, readily leaving his stage world behind. Typical of his musing is when a young man, an evident fan, queries him with “How did you know?” and he says he basically created his vast and complex worlds within his own luxuriant imagination. He then advises: “consider the contents of your soul; whatever you write—all is true.”

The drama of the piece, what there is of it, comes with a revelation that the juvenile verses of Hamnet which he admires come not from the beloved son, but from Judith, the long-neglected daughter. Worse, he learns that his son’s death, for which he was not present, was not caused by “the plague” but by another more sinister means. It’s enough to spur a tirade from the playwright, his only explosive scene, and a departure in tone for a movie that is mostly stately and elegiac.

The most striking scene in “All Is True” comes when two master actors, Branagh and Ian McKellen, as Henry Wriothesley (the 3rd Earl of Southampton), converse at Shakespeare’s manse about their long history. A big fan, the Earl opines that Shakespeare possesses “the finest, most complex mind that ever existed in this world.” It is a masterful set-up, with the two actors in alternate close-up, steady camera capturing their weathered faces softened by firelight as they reminisce about a major sonnet. It is the well-known Sonnet 29, beginning “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s’ eyes...” which whispers of a long ago relationship between the two men, and which both performers get to recite in quiet perfection.

One could question the casting of Dench as Anne, who, though she was eight years older than Will, hardly matches the 25 years or more difference that lies between Dame Judi and Sir Kenneth. It doesn’t much matter, however, the colored wigs and makeup do their work, and Dench comes off fine as the feisty, long-suffering counterpart to the testy genius. One is reminded again of the amazing fact that Anne Hathaway, an illiterate provincial, was the bedrock of the greatest literary figure of the English language.

With “All Is True,” Branagh again tars and directs, but he has worthy collaborators in scenarist Ben Elton, cinematographer Zac Nicholson, and music director Patrick Doyle, who has worked with Branagh since “Henry V.” Elton, a long-time comedy writer in Britain, has assayed Shakespeare most effectively in the lively TV satire “Upstart Crow,” a delightful mock of Will’s career. Here the tone is much more plaintive rather than droll, incorporating touches of wit and wisdom but also serious dramatic episodes. Nicholson pairs sun-splashed garden scenes with somber, even melancholic interiors, lit only by candle light, as Stanley Kubrick did famously years ago in his historical epic “Barry Lyndon.” Doyle contributes a score which is unobtrusive and sober, emulating the music of the period without quoting it.

(The film is rated “PG-13” and runs 101 minutes.)

(May 2019)

Poster art for "All Is True," from Sony Pictures Classics