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If movies had faces, I would have wanted to punch Yesterday in its stupid, stupid face for nearly its entire running time. It takes an interesting premise—a world in which the music of the Beatles doesn’t exist—and totally squanders it.

Danny Boyle (127 Hours, 28 Days Later …) directs the story of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a wannabe musician working part-time in a grocery store while also busking on street corners and playing small gigs with his trusty guitar. Jack’s burgeoning music career is managed by Ellie (Lily James), who is fostering a decades-old crush on Jack.

While riding his bike home from a gig, the world suffers some sort of momentary power loss, and Jack gets hit by a bus, knocking out a couple of teeth and sending him to the hospital. Just before his accident, Jack swore to end his music career—a good idea, because he totally sucks.

After the accident, Ellie and some friends give Jack a new guitar and suggest that he bust out a song for them. He goes with “Yesterday” by the Beatles—and the group is moved as if hearing the song for the first time. Well, that’s because they are hearing it for the first time. A quick Google check by Jack confirms the impossible: Somehow, Jack now lives in a parallel world where John, Paul, George and Ringo never came together to make music.

So what does Jack do? Why he plagiarizes the entire Beatles catalog, of course. He plasters notes with their songs all over his room, and starts re-creating their tracks. He struggles with the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby,” but he gets enough right to catch the eyes and ears of agents and producers everywhere. Jack doesn’t really seem like a rock star, but no matter: With the music of the Beatles propelling him, this kid is going places.

This act—stealing the music of the best group in rock history—is a grievous action, is it not? Only a true prick would steal music and try to pass it off as his own, right? Well, this is where the movie goes terribly wrong: Rather than exploring the dark side of plagiarism in a comedic way, Boyle’s movie begs you to love Jack, and to sympathize with him while he tries to figure out his romantic interest in Ellie. This results in a movie that is uncomfortable to watch, because Jack is nothing short of a total dick. Rather than crafting a film that seriously addresses a world without the Beatles, the movie becomes nothing but a lame rom-com. An opportunity for some mind-bending dark comedy becomes nothing but an exercise in whether he will kiss her or not.

The movie does take a stab at something profound with a special appearance by an historical figure late in the film. Beatles fans will cry blasphemy, because the movie simply doesn’t earn this moment. Furthermore, the moment is treated with a strange kind of casual bemusement that struck me as offensive. As for the appearance of Ed Sheeran … I was actually OK with a scene in which the pop star got put in his place because, you know, fuck that guy.

Movies that feature Beatles music can be a great thing. Beyond the films the actual Fab Four participated in, Across the Universe stands as a fine exercise on how to use Beatles music in the modern film era. In contrast, Yesterday is a vapid, unimaginative mess. It has no real reason to exist other than trying to find a way to roll out Beatles music for a new generation of moviegoers.

The film actually had me wincing at the sound of their music, given the film around it. You have to really screw up to make the Beatles boring.

Yesterday is playing at theaters across the valley.

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In what amounts to a much-wordier companion piece to Dunkirk, Gary Oldman disappears into the role of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.

The movie starts shortly before Churchill takes over as prime minister—a controversial choice to lead who is facing a lot of opposition, including a skeptical King George VI (brilliantly played by Ben Mendelsohn). The film chronicles Churchill’s speeches (transcribed by personal secretary Elizabeth Layton, played winningly by Lily James) and his strategizing, leading up to him gaining Parliament’s support in not seeking peace with Hitler—and pledging all-out war.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna) always makes great-looking movies, and this is no exception. Oldman is virtually guaranteed an Oscar nomination as Churchill. It’s not a role you would think he was born to play, but excellent makeup and prosthetics make his transformation completely convincing. This isn’t just a guy working through a bunch of stuff on his face; Oldman inhabits the role in a way that makes you forget the makeup. Kristin Scott Thomas does career-best work in the small but pivotal role of Clemmie, Churchill’s extremely tolerant wife.

Darkest Hour is one of the better-acted films of 2017. Much of the running time deals with behind-the-scenes maneuvering regarding the events at Dunkirk, and it’s because of this that Darkest Hour plays great in a double feature with Christopher Nolan’s action-pic take on the same event.

Darkest Hour is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Geeks like me have been bitching about director Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man exodus for several years now. Wright was hard at work on Ant-Man for the better part of a decade, but left abruptly during production due to “creative differences.”

My initial reaction to that news was: “Farts!”

We wound up getting an OK Ant-Man from director Peyton Reed, while Wright announced his next project would be a car-chase movie, written by himself. The final product is Baby Driver, starring Ansel Elgort as a getaway driver with tinnitus—and it truly is a great time.

It’s a nice antidote to The Fate of the Furious, a movie that made me never want to see a car-chase movie again. The Baby Driver soundtrack is one of the year’s best, and the guy in the title role is a major star in the making.

Elgort plays Baby; we see him in the film’s opening sequence driving the getaway car for a robbery, a kinetic chase choreographed to the great Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms.” The scene snaps with a colorful energy that’s been missing from car-chase films of late.

The best car-chase movie in recent years, Drive, also featured a lonely driver and great vroom-vroom scenes, but the soundtrack and look for that film were more meditative and hazy. (I’m not complaining; it worked beautifully.) Baby Driver opts for a more clear-eyed, zippy approach, and it pays off.

Baby winds up on various crews run by a criminal kingpin played by Kevin Spacey, here reliving the angrier portion of his Glengarry Glen Ross role. Baby owes the man, and he has to drive until he pays him off—at least that’s what he thinks the deal is.

The chases go off with precision editing, and are filmed in a way that makes you feel like you are in the car. The soundtrack, featuring music ranging from Simon and Garfunkel to Focus to Queen, perfectly complements the scenes.

The supporting cast includes Lily James, who enchants as Baby’s love interest, diner-waitress Debora. (Cue the Beck song.) Jon Hamm gets a chance to go psycho as Buddy, a role that is deceptively laid back until Baby flips his switch. Jamie Foxx has a killer turn as Bats, the hothead of the crew who is equal parts smart and paranoid maniac. In one of the year’s great cameos, the one and only Paul Williams (the man who penned The Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection”!) shows up as a gun dealer. I’m a child of the ’70s, and I love that little guy!

Wright has called the movie an homage to the likes of Reservoir Dogs, Heat and The Blues Brothers. He also cites Point Break, an influence that is evident in the use of Halloween masks during heists, and the presence of Flea as one of the robbers. In a different sort of homage, Elgort sports a jacket that has a Han Solo look to it—perhaps a nod to the fact that he was in the running for the role of young Han Solo last year.

If you plan on seeing Baby Driver in theaters, make sure that theater has a premium sound system. The one I saw it in had sound that was a little too muddy and soft. There was no bass in my theater. I was a little sad.

The summer movie season had stalled out a bit after that Transformers fiasco, but Baby Driver gets things back on track. Does this movie make up for the loss of Wright on Ant-Man? Nah; I’m still going to bitch about that. But it is a nice addition to the Wright movie canon, and proof that the guy can do no wrong.

Baby Driver is playing at theaters across the valley.

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The zombie movie craze hits what I hope to be its low point with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a crap attempt at horror comedy featuring a fairly faithful take on the Jane Austen classic mixed with the undead.

Lily James, so delightful in Cinderella, plays Elizabeth Bennet, one of the esteemed Bennet sisters—and a zombie-hunter. She sets her sights on Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), who thinks she’s pretty and all that, but he must refrain from serious courtship in order to behead some ghouls.

With this film adaptation of the best-selling book, director Burr Steers shoots for a PG-13 rating, which results in much of the action taking place off-screen or in the dark so as to reduce the bloodletting. The movie features so much carnage that it feels incomplete thanks to the soft-shoeing of the yucky stuff.

As for the balance of period romance and comedic bloodletting, Steers never finds a comfortable place. The movie feels uneven and sloppy, with lousy special effects and players who look lost.

As with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter before it, a clever idea got lost in messy direction and lousy scripting. It’s a shame, because Riley and James are much better than this.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Director Kenneth Branagh knows what Disney junkies, young and old, crave in their fairytale movies—and he unabashedly delivers the goods with Cinderella, the latest live-action (non-animated) retelling of a Disney animated classic.

Pixie dust, ornate castles, fireworks, princesses, evil stepmoms and quirky CGI mice abound in this lush and striking new take on the girl with the glass slippers. Of course, any Cinderella movie would be a slog without a good actress playing the title character. Luckily, Branagh has scored a great one with Lily James (TV’s Downton Abbey); she’s one of the most charming actresses to ever occupy a Disney iconic role.

Screenwriter Chris Weitz gives Cinderella a sweet and sad backstory, showing us a young girl (Eloise Webb) living a happy and secure life with her doting parents (Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell). As the fairytale dictates, Cinderella loses her mom, paving the way for the queen of all stepmothers—played here by a spot-on, devilish Cate Blanchett.

Branagh takes a traditionalist approach to the material—but that doesn’t mean his take isn’t original. He brings a lot of class to the Disney universe, and he also respects how beloved the Cinderella storyline has become.

There’s nothing in his and Weitz’s telling that betrays the original material. Cinderella doesn’t bust out an electric guitar or ride a motorcycle while chewing tobacco: This is a relatively straightforward treatment. As with his Shakespearean adaptations, Branagh has a way of making traditionalist approaches original and fresh.

Blanchett and James are so good in their roles, in part because they aren’t trying to break the mold. They embrace their parts as if they know what we have come to expect, and the result is a sort of adorable nostalgia, in the case of Cinderella. She’s a genuinely nice person for whom you can root, as portrayed by James.

As for Blanchett, she’s completely cruel—a conniving, reptilian, selfish person. However, this stepmother also has her charms. She’s a two-sided beast able to convince Cinderella’s affable dad that her moving in is a good idea.

Adding to the charm is Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother. As to be expected, Carter plays the character as joyfully weird and quirky. The “transformation” scene in which the Fairy Godmother gets Cinderella ready for the ball is the best scene in the film. When the pink gown transforms into that glorious blue dress adorning the spinning James, it’s pure movie magic.

It’s all very Disney, with Branagh relishing the chance to show Cinderella immersed in pixie dust, and geese transforming into stagecoach drivers. It’s fun to see Branagh embracing the Disney canon and making it his own.

The film isn’t a musical, although it does contain a wondrous score by Patrick Doyle, and Cinderella does sing one tune deep in the movie. It’s a marked improvement over the animated Disney original, which was never one of my favorites.

Live-action renditions of Disney animated classics seem to be a new trend, and Cinderella is much, much better than the muddled Maleficent. Tim Burton is supposedly in talks to do a live action Dumbo (Huh?), while Jon Favreau is doing the same with The Jungle Book.

Most promisingly, Emma Watson is pegged to play Belle in live-action retelling of Beauty and the Beast, so I have high hopes for that one. Branagh has proven here that remaking Disney cartoons as live action films isn’t such a bad idea after all.

A side note: Frozen lovers will have the pleasure of a cute, brand-new Frozen short before the main feature kicks in.

Cinderella is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews