Yesterday

Posted on June 27, 2019 at 5:30 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and language
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and tipsiness
Violence/ Scariness: Bicycle accident, some graphic injuries
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 28, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 23, 2019

Copyright 2019 Universal Pictures
Yesterday” would have made a cute seven-minute sketch on “Saturday Night Live” (or, as this movie would say, “Thursday Night Live”) but it does not work as a movie. I wish I could say they ran out of ideas in the last third, but it’s worse than that. They had ideas; they just ran out of good ones. There’s a curious disconnect in watching the film between the weakness of the storyline, including a major jump the shark swerve near the end, and the imperishable music of the Beatles. Every time we hear “In My Life” or a rocking “Help!” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand” we say, “That sure is a great song” and forget for a moment that the movie is not very good. Richard Curtis admitted as much in an interview on Morning Joe: “When I type and run out of ideas I just put in ‘The Long and Winding Road.'”

Jack (Himesh Patel) has been trying to make it as a musician for ten years in his small home town on the English coast. His best friend Ellie (Lily James) believes in him and acts as his manager when she isn’t teaching high school math. But he is not making much progress. He is ready to give up when a mysterious worldwide blackout shuts down all power for twelve seconds and he is hit by a bus as he is bicycling home. During that twelve seconds, somehow the world is rebooted in a slightly different form. The Beatles never existed. Some other random cultural touchstones are missing as well, including Coke. Jack, just out of the hospital and still missing two front teeth, thanks his friends for the gift of a new guitar by playing “Yesterday.” Which they have never heard before and think he wrote. And of course they love it, though one of them says it’s not up to the level of Coldplay’s “Fix You.”

Jack starts playing Beatles songs and people like them. Ed Sheeran, charmingly playing a version of himself, invites him to tour as his opening act. In Moscow, Jack plays “Back in the USSR,” which is a huge success with the crowd, even though most of them were not born when their country was the USSR. Ed Sheeran challenges Jack to a songwriting competition, and has to admit defeat. “You’re Mozart and I’m Salieri,” he says.

An agent named Debra (Kate McKinnon in a sizzling performance) arrives to offer Jack “the poison chalice” of fame and money. Jack, who has waited so long for success as a musician and performer, says yes.

This is very much a lesser work from Richard Curtis, the man who wrote “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “Pirate Radio,” and “Love Actually.” There are lovely moments — the first recording session, the fun of the astonishment when people are stunned by songs we all know so well they are a part of us, the fantasy of being adored by worldwide audiences, the hilariousness of playing one of the greatest songs of all time for your parents and their not having a clue. And it is intriguing to see a person of color appropriate white musicians’ work for a change. But the friend zone/romance storyline and a bad swerve at the end show that even the world’s greatest songs cannot prop up a script that outstays its welcome. The songs are all sublime, but these new versions do not add anything special.

George Martin, who worked more closely with the Beatles than anyone else, said that their charm was as important to their early success as their music. That early success gave them a chance to develop and grow and take huge risks and reflect on their experiences, all of which became a part of their endlessly innovative and ground-breaking work.

To have even some of their greatest hits all thrown into what is supposed to be one performer’s series of songs, unrelated to what is going on in the lives of the songwriter or in the world, and, to adapt the title of an ex-Beatle song, imagine there’s no Beatles, gives the music an unearned power, relying on our love for the songs and what they mean in our lives, whether we first heard them in kindergarten, at spin class, or as they first came out. That makes this story empty at its Apple Corps.

Parents should know that this movie includes sexual references and situations and some strong and crude language.

Family discussion: Why did Deborah call what she was offering the poison chalice? What did Jack learn from his meeting with John?

If you like this, try: “Begin Again” and “Across the Universe” and the Beatles movies

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Toy Story 4

Posted on June 18, 2019 at 12:16 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/action peril and violence, character sacrifices a part of his body
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 21, 2019
Date Released to DVD: October 7, 2019

Let’s get right to the big three questions about “Toy Story 4.” Yes, it’s good, yes, you’re going to cry, and yes, you have to stay ALL the way to the end for one final blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that is worth the wait.

The small miracle of the “Toy Story” series is that a film that would have been memorable for its technology alone as the first fully computer-animated feature film, the shiny, plastic toy characters the focus because Pixar had not yet developed the technology to animate hair, fur, or more expressive faces, was smart, heartfelt, and genuinely moving. Woody (Tom Hanks) was a retro cowboy doll with a pull-cord attached to a voice box and said things like “There’s a snake in my boot” and “You’re my favorite deputy!” When their boy Andy was away and the toys came to life, Woody was their natural leader, looked up to by the other toys, including Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead, the T-Rex (Wallace Shawn), the slinky dog, and Bo Peep (Annie Potts).

And then a new toy arrived, a shiny spaceman named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), with flashing lights and pop-out wings, and a digital voice to proclaim, “To infinity and beyond!” But Buzz did not know he was a toy, creating an existential conflict. He thought he really was a space explorer who could really fly. The conflict in the film came from Woody’s jealousy over Andy’s affection for the shiny new toy and his frustration in not being able to persuade Buzz that he was not “real” in the way he thought he was. His purpose was not to explore space and fight the evil Emperor Zurg. His purpose was to be a companion and inspiration and comfort to Andy, a boy we barely glimpse in the film. The excitement comes from the toys’ efforts to escape the mutilations of the boy next door and to be reunited with Andy when they become separated. The heartwarming theme of the film, though, is about the friendship that develops between the rivals and their mutual understanding of the meaning of their existence as Andy’s toys.

These themes continued through the next two films. The second raised the issue of value — the difference between a mint condition toy still in the box that can be sold for a good price and a well-loved toy that might be scuffed and missing some pieces but meant something to a child, even a child who has grown up and has other interests. The third film gracefully and very poignantly saw Andy leave for college but give his toys to the imaginative pre-schooler Bonnie, so they could continue to fulfill their purpose. The first image in the original film was of clouds in a blue sky that turned out to be painted on the ceiling of Andy’s room. The final image of the third one was the real sky, showing that Andy’s world had opened up.

So, how to move on from that perfect ending? With another existential crisis, or maybe two. Woody has always defined himself by being important to a child. But increasingly Bonnie is leaving him in the closet, even taking his sheriff star and pinning it on Jessie (Joan Cusack). When Bonnie is nervous about her first day of kindergarten, Woody sees a chance to be useful and he sneaks into her backpack so he can to with her.

But what comforts Bonnie at school is creating something new. From a plastic spork and a broken popsicle stick she makes a…something she calls “Forky” (Tony Hale). When Woody tells the other toys back at home that Bonnie made a friend at school, he is speaking literally. But, in a parallel to Buzz in the first movie, Forky does not know he’s a toy. He cannot adjust to the notion that he is more than a single-use plastic utensil whose destiny is to be thrown in the trash. He keeps trying to throw himself away. But Woody sees Forky as a chance to be useful to Bonnie. If Woody can’t be important to Bonnie, he can teach Forky how to be.

And once again, the characters are separated from each other and from their child. Bonnie and her family rent an RV and go on a trip that puts the toys in two settings rich with fascinating details, colorful characters, and all kinds of wildly inventive and delightfully treacherous adventures. The first is an antique shop, where Woody glimpses the lamp stand that his old friend — and maybe more — Bo Peep used to be on. He brings Forky inside to look for her, and there they meet Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) a Chatty Cathy-style talking little girl doll with perfect curls and an imperfect voice box and her entourage of identical creepy-looking ventriloquist dummies all called Benson. Note that “Toy Story 2” involved “vintage” toys but now they are antiques. Keanu Reeves all but steals the film as a proudly Canadian Evel Knievel-style stunt rider toy called Duke Caboom.

The other new setting is a carnival, with rides and arcade games, and there we meet two plush toy prizes, Ducky and Bunny, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who have a blast riffing with each other. And it turns out that Bo Peep is there, too, having left her lamp, traveling with the carnival and seeing the world.

There are separations and perilous rescues, many near-misses and close calls, a gasp-inducing sacrifice, and a very sad farewell. The Pixar team is getting older, and they take us with them as they confront their own existential conundrums. You know you’re not going to get out of a Pixar movie without tears, and this one may be more like boo-hoo sobs. But that’s because we care about these characters and we care about the way they care about and for each other. Watch out for another shot of the sky — and for some fun scenes over the credits and, when the long, long list of filmmakers and production babies is over, a just-perfect scene at the very end.

Of course you can now buy a Forky doll. You can even choose between one that talks and one that walks. But I’m guessing that kids who see this movie will want to make something of their own.

Parents should know that this movie has extended action/fantasy-style peril with some scary ventriloquist dummies, and a genuinely shocking moment when a character voluntarily undergoes doll surgery to give up a piece of himself for another toy. Characters use some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Why does Bonnie love Forky? How does Woody change Forky’s mind? Did Woody make the right decisions about Gabby Gabby and Bo Peep?

If you like this, try: The other “Toy Story” films and Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” and “Monsters, Inc.”

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Juliet, Naked

Posted on August 23, 2018 at 3:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to alcoholism and drug abuse, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Medical issues
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 24, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 13, 2018
Copyright 2018 Lionsgate

Nick Hornby understands passionate fans of rock music and the people who create it. His novel High Fidelity and the film starring John Cusack are classics. He also wrote About a Boy, the story of a man who, years after his father’s one novelty hit, is living off the royalties and not doing much else. It became a beloved film starring Hugh Grant and television series. He brought those two ideas together in Juliet, Naked, the story of a passionate fan and a faded rock star who are connected by the woman they both love.

Annie (Rose Byrne) cannot quite figure out how she got where she is and is even less able to figure out how to get anywhere else. When her parents died, she took over her father’s job as curator of a small history museum and raised her younger sister, who now works there with her. She has been living with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), her boyfriend of 15 years, a professor of popular culture who shows his students clips from “The Wire” and who operates a fan site for the elusive Tucker Crowe, a rock star whose disappearance has only increased the interest in his one classic album, called “Juliet” and inspired by a break-up.

Duncan receives some previously unreleased Crowe songs, the original demos of “Juliet,” “naked” because they have no studio sweetening or instruments other than Crowe’s guitar. For a fan who obsessively collects Crowe arcana, this is the ultimate treasure. Annie, irritated with him for his fixation on a musician who has not released any new music in decades, writes a bad review of the new tracks on Duncan’s fan site, calling it a cash grab, and she gets an email from Crowe himself, agreeing with her. This leads to an email correspondence, “You’ve Got Mail”-style. And then to a meeting IRL.

The movie was directed by a real-life rock star, Jesse Peretz of The Lemonheads, and he has a feel for the life of a rock star and the life of a fan. He (and Hornby) have less of a feel for Byrne’s character, and even Byrne’s endless charm and skill cannot make up for an underwritten role. Hawke does better. Crowe is so shaggily rueful about his own failings as a performer, a person, and a father that we almost forget just how irresponsible he has been. It’s a slight story, but it’s a sweet one.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, references to alcoholism and drug abuse, references to irresponsible behavior, and a medical issue.

Family discussion: What makes some people into super-dedicated fans? Was Annie right about the museum exhibit?

If you like this, try: “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity”

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