Once Upon a Time in Hollywood(7/26/2019)

Review Contains Spoilers

For about as long as I’ve been watching Quentin Tarantino’s career there’s been the specter of its eventual end.  Tarantino announced a while back that he was planning to quit filmmaking after he’d completed ten films, thus locking in a filmography for fear that he’d lose skill with age and have that taint his legacy.  He’s likened it to a boxer knowing he only has so many fights in him.  On some level this seems unnecessarily defeatist, after all Tarantino’s idol Martin Scorsese seems to be more than capable of making exciting and relevant films well into his 70s, but I do kind of see where that instinct comes from.  There have definitely been filmmakers like John Carpenter who seem great but then suddenly become incapable of making good movies once they hit a certain age.  More commonly though directors find themselves in a position where they make their last great movie, then they make four or five mediocrities, and then they end their career without fanfare.  I can see why Tarantino would want to avoid that, but there’s always been a degree of skepticism about this whole scheme.  Tarantino is plainly deeply in love with filmmaking to the point where it’s hard to see him willingly giving it up, so everyone just kind of assumed that plan would go the way of the Vega Brothers spinoff.  But now with the release of his ninth movie (his marketers have been making sure you’re counting) he’s really close to that end goal and if that ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is any indication Tarantino appears to be dead serious about his retirement plans and has been thinking about aging out of relevance someday very carefully.

The film is set in Hollywood during the year 1969.  Our focus is on a pair of fictional characters: a down on his luck star of B-movies and TV westerns named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Booth is a veteran stuntman but there’s been something of a pall over his career because it’s believed (perhaps rightly) that he murdered his wife and got away with it.  In many ways he’s been working as an assistant and driver for Dalton, but Dalton’s career isn’t terribly healthy either.  Dalton became famous as the star of a TV show called “Bounty Law” and he’s made a few grindhouse movies but at this point he’s mostly doing guest appearances as villains on other people’s shows and an agent named Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) is trying to convince him to go to Italy to make a spaghetti western called Nebraska Jim with Sergio Corbucci.  All the while Dalton is kind of unknowingly in the line of historical fire as he resides in a house on Cielo Drive right across the street from the home of Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), which everyone knows would become the sight of the Manson Family’s most infamous murders in the August of that year.

When auteurs on Tarantino’s level make movies you don’t generally go into them like you would a general release.  Like, when I turn on a movie I haven’t seen by Fellini or Ozu or someone like that the last thing that’s on my mind is whether it’s “good” or “bad” in the traditional sense so much as I’m looking to see how they address their usual themes or advancing their aesthetic.  Eventually you have to determine if it’s a major or minor work but unless they’ve really dropped the ball the question of whether the film is even worth seeing is king of beside the point.  So let’s get the mundane consumer advice out of the way upfront.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a good movie, duh.  It’s got a pair of fine performances at its center, some very funny moments along the way, it’s interest in 20th Century pop culture and iconography is impressive, and it leaves you with a lot to think about.  That said, while I am the last person to complain about the runtime of Quentin Tarantino movies even I would have to admit that those criticisms might have a tiny bit of validity this time and that certain parts of the movie worked better than others.  Within Tarantino’s recent oeuvre it lacks the energy and entertainment value of Django Unchained and the visual mastery of The Hateful Eight and certainly isn’t the radical reinvention that Inglourious Basterds was.  Were I to rank his films it would probably be nearer to the bottom than the top, but whatever, the dude’s hardly ever made a movie that was even a little bit bad and being low ranked among his films is like being towards the bottom of a ranking of moon landings.  So, thumbs up, four and a half stars, if you’re trying to decide between seeing this and seeing The Lion King, Stuber, Hobbs and Shaw, or whatever other market-tested product Hollywood is putting out by the time you’re reading this, see this.

Again, Spoilers going forward, last warning.

With that out of the way, let’s look a little deeper into what this movie might be saying and how it fits into Tarantino’s career and into the filmmaking landscape.  This is technically the first movie that Tarantino has made that was released by a major studio, or at least made by a major studio without going through a specialty division.  He made the movie for Columbia/Sony after there were… issues… with the people he’s worked with most of his career.  When it became known that he was shopping this project elsewhere there was actually something of a bidding war to see who he’d begin working with which kind of surprised me given that, well, he doesn’t make movies about superheroes.  He makes R-rated independently spirited original movies that are driven by dialogue and esoteric references rather than CGI effects.  He does have a good sized fan base and he’s certainly proven to have some commercial instincts to reach audiences beyond that, but at the end of the day he still doesn’t exactly embody what Hollywood normally values that strongly these days.  Hell, even back in the 90s he was something of a renegade voice who needed to come through the indie backdoor in order to find a place in “the industry.”  And that’s the thing about Tarantino’s whole retirement plan: had he announced it recently rather than over a decade ago one could easily imagine that it was a reaction to a belief that he and his style of filmmaking were being pushed out by Hollywood, and that anxiety almost certainly fuels Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

In the past Tarantino has rather snarkily said his whole retirement plan was in place because he didn’t want to find himself making “old man” movies, which is ironic because Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is absolutely an “old man movie.”  It’s loaded to the brim with references to obscure nostalgic ephemera that no one under fifty is going to recognize (it makes “Mad Men” look downright lazy in its period detail), it completely ignores the filmmaking trends of its time, and most importantly it’s quite literally about old (well, Hollywood “old”) men not knowing how to react to “the kids” these days.  The selection of 1969 as a year for Tarantino to set a movie about overtly about movies in is certainly not a coincidence.  Anyone who knows film history knows that the late 60s was a tumultuous time for Hollywood where a new generation was rejecting the style of filmmaking that had been working since the Golden Age and new mediums like color television were increasingly acting as competition for the cinema and clearly Rick Dalton sees himself as a potential casualty of this transition.  It also definitely isn’t a coincidence that Dalton’s genre of choice is the western because that is also genre which even at its height was all about generational change and hardened pioneers being replaced by the “civilized” world they helped to usher in (the movie rather pointedly has a character saying he wants to connect 1969 with 1869).

That said, one shouldn’t view Dalton as a complete stand-in for Tarantino himself and the film should not be mistaken as a work that’s entirely on his side.  For one thing, Dalton does not appear to have ever been as accomplished as an actor as Tarantino is as a filmmaker.  He appears to have been something of a second rate talent and we’re given ever reason to believe his self destructive tendencies have as much to do with his professional shortcomings as changing tastes.  A very uncharitable reading of him is that he’s exactly the kind of mediocre white man that is going to be the first one to be threatened by more tolerant hiring practices.  More successful actors like the real Steve McQueen (who Dalton is established as a second rate non-union replacement for) are shown to fit in fairly well with the new generation and other members of the younger generation like Sharon Tate and the eight year old girl that Dalton has a breakdown in front of seem to be worthy replacements for the likes of Dalton.  So in many ways it feels like the work of someone coming to terms with his own irrelevance in a changing world in which two flawed heroes from a dying world are set up to, like in the westerns of yore, go on one last great hurrah before leaving the world to the next generation… and then the Manson family shows up and everything goes crazy.

If the pricklier aspects of Dalton and Booth are meant to represent why this change may be necessary, the Mansons are meant to represent everything that’s shitty about the next generation.  The real Manson Family was of course a perverse funhouse mirror reflection of the hippie flower power movement; they were people who discarded all the values of a the previous generation and rather than replacing them with new and better values they replaced them with Charles Manson’s insane bullshit and became monsters without honor or humanity.  Given their propensity to spout hollow slogans of radical consciousness they barely seem to understand one could maybe see them as a stand-in for the kind of woke twitter trolls who may be inclined to “cancel” Quentin Tarantino, especially given a speech delivered by Susan Atkins right before the murders where she accuses screen violence for the Vietnam war.  However, I think the bigger statement Tarantino is trying to make about Manson has less to do with modern political discourse and more to do with the effect that the Manson murders are said to have had on the American psyche.

The cultural narrative has long been that the Manson murders shocked the nation in such a way that it kind of killed off the very notion of flower power and ushered in the end of the sixties.  That way of viewing things is, of course, kind of ridiculous.  Cultural evolution does not happen that cleanly, but when the legend becomes fact print the legend.  So when Dalton and Booth inadvertently re-route history so that Manson’s minions are the ones massacred that day rather than Tate and her friends they are, for all intents and purposes, fighting the future and keeping the groovy sixties going on past the expiration date in our history books.  On a more personal level this ending can also be viewed as a moment where the old dogs like Tarantino rage against the dying of the light, use their old world toughness to protect the innocent, and not only fight back against the people who would replace them but incinerate the motherfuckers with a damn flamethrower.  So in many ways this ending would seem to be in contradiction with the resignation with the future and obsolescence we saw earlier in the film and which Tarantino seems to be advocating in the real world… but does it?

This is of course not the first time that Tarantino has dared to re-write history with one of his films.  In Inglourious Basterds he killed Hitler and burned the Nazi regime to the ground and in Django Unchained he had a black man fight back against the slave holding south and blow up a plantation and metaphorically the debased society that built it.  In both cases these are meant to be richly deserved cathartic retributions against debased philosophies which would usher in more enlightened ages more rapidly than in the real world.  Here we’re certainly supposed to be happy that Sharron Tate has been saved but otherwise the revisionist history at play this time around seems to be something of a different beast.  For one thing, Charles Manson is no Adolf Hitler and his idiot goons are no Hans Landa.  We actually don’t see a lot of Manson himself in the movie and while we can intuit that the events of the film’s finale would eventually lead police to Spahn Ranch and result in his arrest Tarantino does not seem to view him as an adversary worthy adversary whose philosophy needs to be cathartically dismantled.  Rather, a lot of what happens in that ending kind of feels like overkill.

The trait that initially changes the trajectory of the killers is not enlightened heroism but rather an old drunk asshole basically profiling what could have easily been a group of innocent young people under different circumstances and all but telling them to “get off his lawn.”  And the way the Family acolytes are dispatched, while likely justifiable homicides is about as ugly and brutal as the actual killings from history despite being directed at people who ostensibly “have it coming” and the consciously absurd bit with the flamethrower borders on the psychotic.  That the two then react to killing these “damn hippies” with such casualness also stands out, as does Dalton’s general disinterest in the well-being of his new wife.  Are we supposed to feel happy about all this?  I’m not so sure that we are.  Just consider the music cue that’s playing when he walks away from the bloodbath to meet with the recently saved Sharron Tate.  Rather than some triumphant pop song it’s a sparse cue from the movie The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean which almost sounds like something out of Rosemary’s Baby.  And rather than taking a Victory Lap like Django or asserting something to be a masterpiece like Aldo Raine, he just walks out of frame while the camera lingers on the empty driveway.

There’s something ominous about it all and I think that’s Tarantino signaling his own ambivalence about what he’s just done as a re-writer of history.  Viewed as a confrontation between actors and Manson family members this is all a relatively straightforward battle between good and evil but viewed as a confrontation between generations it’s uneasy.  These two jackasses might be in able to claim the moral high ground in relation to the Manson Family but they maybe aren’t in a position to claim superiority over the future they don’t even know they’ve wiped out just because Tarantino loves to live in the past and that’s the big difference here: Django Unchained and Ingourious Basterds were movies where historical revision ushered in a new world but here revisionism is meant to maintain the status quo and Tarantino seems to realize that there’s something kind of problematic about this.  He knows he’s being small “c” conservative and I don’t think he likes that feeling and I think the film is in many ways an expression of that.

Am I reading too much into this?  I don’t know, maybe.  This is actually the second straight Tarantino movie I’ve come out of with a fairly elaborate theory I’ve had to try to back up and while I do stand by my belief that The Hateful Eight is a complex allegory about political division I’m not sure that every granular piece of evidence for this which I found in my first viewing exactly holds.  I’m also not sure I get how every piece here fits together either.  Like, I totally see how Rick Dalton fits in with my little theory but I’m not entirely sure how Cliff Booth does or what Sharon Tate’s exact role is in it all and there are other parts of the movie that I don’t have the same sort of bold reading of.  It’s in many ways a movie of ideas and iconography moreso than a work of storytelling and that makes it feel kind of weird and misshapen and I’m not sure how a lot of people are going to react to that.  However, I think this is going to be looked back at as one of the important keystones of Tarantino’s career and I think his true fans are going to be able to pick up what he’s putting down, and if he does go forward with his plans to retire after his next movie I’ll certainly miss his work but after seeing this I think I finally understand.

****1/2 out of Five

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Spider-Man: Far From Home(7/4/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

The unique business relationship that Sony and Disney are in when it comes to Spider-Man should be something of a disaster.  Honestly I’m kind of surprised either party were willing to do it in the first place.  It was in Marvel’s interest to keep letting Sony flail and make bad Spider-Man movies until they gave up the IP like Fox did with Daredevil and it was in Sony’s interest to make Spider-Man movies on their own in hopes that they could find a way to make it work and keep all the profits.  Instead they came up with a surprisingly user-friendly deal that would have Marvel’s creative team bring Spider-Man into the MCU while having Sony front the bills and distribute the final product.  And somehow it worked.  2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming was a great Spider-Man movie and a solid piece of the MCU puzzle, it was a win for everyone involved.  Of course the downside of the deal is that while the core Spider-Man films with Tom Holland they can also pretty much do whatever they want with the rest of the IP, meaning the market gets to be saturated with Spider-Man product both good (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse) and bad (Venom) and if they’re not careful we could become very sick of this character very quickly.  Fortunately we’re not at that point yet and as such I was still pretty excited for Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Picking up the summer after the events of Avengers: Endgame, the film finds Peter Parker (Tom Holland) mourning the loss of Tony Stark but excited about his upcoming school trip to Europe.  He’s looking forward to this trip firstly because he needs a break and secondly because he has this elaborate plan to woo Mary Jane (Zendaya) out of the friend-zone over the course of the trip, but all those plans get put on hold when he’s contacted by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who wants to use Parker to deal with a situation while he’s on his trip.  Parker is reluctant to help and wants to spend the trip being a normal teenager, but after his tour group is attacked by a water monster he realizes he’s going to be brought in one way or another.  So he goes with Fury and meets Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), a person from an alternate dimension whose world was destroyed by the same elemental monsters that appear to be emerging on Earth now.  Mysterio seems to be a much more conventionally powerful hero than Spider-Man but will their combined powers be enough to do the job?

So, just from looking at that plot description you can probably intuit one of the film’s biggest problems: its first half is largely predicated on the idea that famous supervillain Mysterio is a good guy and the film seems to treat it as a genuine surprise when this turns out not to be the case.  Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Spider-Man’s history will immediately see through this villain’s scheme given that his whole thing has historically been to create illusions to manipulate his foes.  Even people who know nothing about the original character should more or less see this twist coming so it’s a little surprising that the film does bother to treat it like a genuine twist.  That having been said I do like what the film does with the Mysterio character overall.  The guy has style and even though his reveal was predictable the film actually did manage to make the inevitable exposition dump about what he’s been doing sort of work for him.  I also like how they seem to be establishing a continuity of sorts between the spider-man villains in this series by making them people who are disaffected because of the seemingly benevolent corporate actions of Tony Stark whether it’s the displaced small businessman take on The Vulture from the last movie or the disgruntled middle-management level employees who make up Mysterio and his team.

Lame plot twist aside I was a bit disengaged by the film’s whole first half, which needed to do a lot to reconcile the post-Avengers: Endgame world from the down to earth perspective of Parker’s high school while also going through the franchises’ established high school shenanigans.  At times during this first half the comedy goes a bit too far; characters make dumb decisions and get into contrived situations to accommodate punchlines, some of the jokes just flat-out don’t work, and there’s generally a feeling of the movie throwing a whole lot at the wall to see what sticks.  You’re still enjoying the proceedings but its sloppy and something just seems off about it.  However, once the film gets the twist out of the way it finally recovers and becomes the MCU Spider-Man adventure that we were waiting for.  Parker is finally given a real goal in all of this and we get to stop pretending that these goofy CGI elemental monsters are a real threat.  The mix of comedy, action, and character gets back on track and the film just generally seems to tighten up and things seem to finally matter again.  So, yeah, despite some early stumbles the movie manages to recover and become another pretty strong piece of studio entertainment from Marvel that manages to be both an effective sequel to the last movie while furthering the overall story, which is something that this studio routinely makes look easy.

***1/2 out of Five

Midsommar(7/2/2019)

I don’t know that I necessarily saw this coming but the “A24 horror film” has somehow become something of a filmgoing institution.  These are horror movies that are noticeably artier and more intelligent than what cinema-goers are normally used to and critics love them.  However, as a byproduct of these being horror enough to play in normal theaters they also bring in a lot of audiences who expect their genre fare to offer simpler pleasures and as a result they end up getting really low “Cinemascores” (which are like these exit-poll things that are done by a research company and are considered important by Hollywood insiders) and end up getting these hilariously clueless user reviews in places like IMDB and RottenTomatoes.  Honestly I think this critic/audience disconnect is a bit overblown, it’s basically just the result of a cadre of people who were never really in these films’ audience in the first place also tagging along and not knowing how to process what they’re being given.  The main movies in this trend have been Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Trey Edward Schults’ It Comes At Night, and Ari Aster’s Hereditary, and while Hereditary was the last of these films to come out its director was the first of the three to have a follow-up come out.  That new film, Midsommar, is opening this week on 2707 screens and should lead to some rather interesting audience responses.

Midsommar begins with something of a prologue set somewhere in the United States during the middle of winter.  Here we’re introduced to Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), a psychology student who’s struggling with a troubled sister and a fairly shaky relationship with her boyfriend Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor).  Christian and his friends are planning a trip to Sweden in the summer to visit the home village of his friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) which lives a traditional lifestyle and still engages in centuries old rituals during festival times, which is of great interest to Christian and his fellow anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper) and of course European decadence is also very much of interest to his other friend Mark (Will Poulter).  After a tragedy occurs Christian decides to invite Dani along to get away from it all, but it could soon become clear that they aren’t exactly sure what they’re in for.

Despite what Cinemascore might suggest I do think Hereditary ended up pleasing standard horror audiences more than some of the other A24 horror films.  It grossed more at the box office than the other two films and I’ve generally heard fewer anecdotes about dumb people being “bored” by it.  I think that’s because, in its last third, the film does start to deliver on some of the more conventional scares that people are looking for.  That in many ways seems to be what may set Ari Aster apart from someone like Robert Eggers; even when he’s making a horror film in his own idiosyncratic ways he does know how to throw the horror audience a bone.  In this film that bone is probably the set of characters he’s assembled, who do roughly fall within the usual trope characters even if they feel richer than usual.  Dani might not be a virgin but she still has plenty of “final girl”-isms, Christian certainly seems like the jock boyfriend who ultimately won’t be able to protect her, Josh is the “smart one” who knows a lot about the sub-theme, and Mark is the boorish party dude who acts as comedy relief.  The film manages to challenge some of these tropes without self-consciously subverting them but it isn’t afraid to exploit them just the same and is surprisingly funny at times in the way it depicts the interplay between some of these guys.

The other big connective tissue between Midsommar and Hereditary is that both films are in many ways movies about mourning and feature characters who are just recovering after experiencing a loss that makes them rather emotionally vulnerable right from the jump.  Also, in much the way Hereditary basically shows the dissolution of a family as a result of both grief and supernatural shenanigans, Midsommar explores the toll of both a loss and horror scenarios on a relationship.  Dani and Christian are two characters who are established as being pretty close to the end of the road already as the movie opens, with Christian’s friends establishing that he’s been planning to break up with her for reasons that seem cruel but understandable.  Dani is shown to have been someone who’s gone through a lot even before her family tragedy and that she’s been a handful and a half and that Christian has been at wits end and that he’s on some level been staying in the relationship out of a sort of uncertain pity.  Christian knows this, the audience knows this, but Dani does not necessarily know this and that kind of establishes for the audience that they’re about to be metaphorically watching a car crash in slow motion and the rest of the movie can almost be viewed as a sort of operatic manifestation of how this kind of breakup can go wrong in the most extreme of ways.

Of course this is a horror movie, or at least it poses as one.  The obvious reference-point for all of this is obviously Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wicker Man, which is about a similarly paganistic commune which may or may not be sinister in its adherence to “the old ways.”  Like that movie it doesn’t necessarily try to be “scary” at all times and instead gains power by exerting a sort of quiet threat at all times.  In fact a lot of what makes the movie so appealing in its paranoia is the way the characters are constantly having their survival instincts over-ridden by the hospitality of these cultists, who have this uniquely Swedish way of seeming completely reasonable and inviting no matter what they’re saying.  Where the film may lose some people is that, outside of a couple of gory moments thrown in, the horror in the film is generally left at an intentional simmer rather than brought to a boil.  Though it goes into some fairly transgressive places towards the end it isn’t necessarily leading to anything as viscerally exciting as the finale of Hereditary.  Rather, the film’s finale is almost more like a really, really, really dark joke rather than a thrilling chase in the dark and that could be a bit polarizing.

At the end of the day, Midsommar is built to be a niche genre movie… the Swedish title probably should have been your first clue there.  It’s a film that’s uncompromising, it’s got a long running time, it takes its time, it will gross out people who come in expecting it to be The Conjuring, and it just generally behaves different from mainstream horror movies (even more so than Hereditary).  That it’s opening wide will maybe lead to the same pattern of critical acclaim and fan backlash that we’ve seen before… but maybe it won’t.  Maybe if A24 keeps putting out interesting product like this the right audience will continue to catch on and the people who aren’t equipped to enjoy them will increasingly stop showing up expecting the wrong thing.  As for this one, well, even as someone very interested in what it was doing I will admit that this is pushing the limits of how long a horror movie can go without really trying to be conventionally scary and as such I probably preferred Hereditary on a whole.  But maybe that’s a sacrifice worth making in order to see what Ari Aster can do when he’s really allowed to just go nuts.

**** out of Five 

Yesterday(6/27/2019)

When the trailer for the new Danny Boyle film Yesterday was first released I had questions.  This trailer was a pretty straightforward bit of advertising that largely existed to explain the film’s high concept: that the film was about a British street musician named Jack Malick (Himesh Patel) who bumps his head and when he wakes up he finds that through some sort of magic The Beatles have been wiped from this history books, appear to have never existed, and are not remembered by anyone except Jack, prompting him to recreate their songs and start a major music career as the ostensible author of all these incredibly catchy pop tunes that no one has heard before.  Not a terrible idea for a movie in theory, but the more I thought about that high concept the more it started to bug me.  As I mulled it over some questions occurred to me, questions like:

  • If The Beatles never existed how can you envision a pop culture landscape where likes of Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, and Pulp still be around?
  • How would someone, even a trained musician, be able to fully recreate an artist’s catalog from scratch? Even a superfan isn’t necessarily going to know every word of “The Long and Winding Road” after all.
  • Would these song still be marketable and impressive if they’re divorced from their historical context and what made them innovative and new when they were released?

In short the movie had a lot to cover but that’s okay, it’s being made by smart people and I looked forward to seeing how they were going to wrestle with these things.  Unfortunately I must say that I found a lot of their answers kind of inadequate, that is when they bothered to give answers at all.  On the issue of how he was able to recreate the songs from memory for example, they do give lip service to the idea, but ultimately don’t wrestle with it.  He’s basically able to come up with the lyrics off screen for the most part and is able to come up with the rest of them after a quick trip to Liverpool in order to reconnect with Eleanor Rigby and Penny Lane.  But whatever, that’s mostly just a nitpick.  The much bigger question is how the movie expects us to believe that, given how important and revolutionary it seems to think The Beatles were, that a pop culture landscape where they never existed would basically be unchanged from what we’re experiencing now.  There’s a throwaway joke about Oasis also not existing given how derivative they were, but you’d think the most popular rock band of all time would have more of a butterfly effect than that, and outside of that one little joke the movie basically never questions how popular music managed to just keep on chugging without the influence of the fab four.  The movie also basically just takes it as a given that because the songs are so good they would automatically be just as popular today as they were in the 60s, that the kids who’ve already experienced The Backstreet Boys would still lose their shit for “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” that someone whose listened to Radiohead’s “OK Computer” would still pop their monocle when they heard “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  That’s not to say the possibility of these songs to resonate would not exist in the modern day but you’d think “Back in the USSR” would maybe mean something a little different in 2019 than it did in 1968.

So, with the movie more or less refusing to engage with these ideas I actually found myself asking even more questions while watching it, questions like:

  • Would these songs sound different if made using modern production techniques and without the input of George Martin? Could Ringo be replaced by an 808?
  • Would a 28 year old singing “she was just seventeen/You know what I mean” get you canceled in a song written in 2019?
  • Would “Happiness is a Warm Gun” fly in an era where there are regular mass shootings?
  • What does it mean for a guy with roots in the Indian subcontinent to take song from a band that rather famously appropriated a whole lot of ideas and music from that region? Is turnabout fair play?
  • Would the psychedelic imagery throughout The Beatles music connect with to a generation of kids who are going up with Molly and Adderall instead of LSD?
  • Shouldn’t he be releasing all this material gradually over time instead of dumping every damn Beatles song ever all at one time.
  • Further if you’re releasing The Beatles catalog from scratch, would it make more sense to introduce audiences to the simpler earlier stuff first or would it make more sense to jump into the more striking and experimental late sixties stuff even if that stuff perhaps has more signposts of its era?
  • Is Mark David Chapman loose in this world? Would our hero have to worry about him showing up almost karmicly?
  • For that matter did the Manson killings happen in this world given that there was no Helter Skelter to misinterpret? If not, would the fact that that wasn’t weighing on the national psyche when it did allow for flower power to go on for longer… or would flower power have even existed in the first place without The Beatles?

Those all seem like fairly interesting directions that the film could have gone down, and the film manages to address basically none of them.  Of all the major musical quandaries that the movie’s premise brings up, the only one it seems to be even a little interested in tackling with any kind of depth is the ethics of essentially plagiarizing other people’s works and becoming famous off of them.  To me that’s probably the most inconsequential of all the questions they could have gotten into, firstly because it’s basically irrelevant to the fact that he needs to reintroduce an old band to the modern era.  Malick have faced basically the same dilemma if he had woken up to find that it was Drake or Imagine Dragons that had been stricken from the record by this magic.  Secondly, it’s kind of the wrong question to be asking simply because, well, stealing from people who seem to no longer exist is kind of a victimless crime.

Ultimately, I think the issue at the center of all of this is that I seem to have put a lot more thought into this concept than the people making the actual movie are.  On some level I maybe should have expected that.  The film was written by a guy named Richard Curtis, who’s famous for writing Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually .  He’s a writer of romantic comedies, not alternate history fanfics, and Yesterday actually is more of a romcom than the trailers make it out to be.  Jack Malick as it turns out has a manager named Ellie (Lily James) with whom he goes back years and their relationship is totally platonic… can’t imagine if that’s going to change over the course of the movie.  The two leads actually have quite a bit of chemistry even though their arc is very predictable and Curtis still seems to have a penchant for slightly creepy grand gestures.  I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who will be happy that this is more of a light rom-com than it is a detailed alternate history fanfic with astute observations about pop culture history.  Obviously I’m not one of those people and while this movie passes the time and isn’t unpleasant to watch it still seems like quite the missed opportunity to me.

**1/2 out of Five

Toy Story 4(6/20/2019)

With only a few recent exceptions I generally only watch Pixar movies on home video but when I do find myself seeing one in theaters it’s a bit of a trip because it means I get exposed to a set of trailers I normally don’t see.  These trailers are usually a window into a world of absolute madness.  At my Toy Story 4 screening I bore witness to one trailer about a pigeon who becomes a secret agent, some bullshit about a fox that wants to be a sled dog, a sequel to an Angry Birds movie I had assumed was a flop, and another sequel about troll dolls which resembled a candy-colored hellscape of noise and terror.  What I’m trying to say is, before you watch one of these Pixar movies you’re immediately reminded of how much worse the rest of the cartoons out there and the way the audience laughs at jokes about butts reminds you that, if they wanted to Pixar could be a lot more pandering and stupid than they are.  Of course Pixar has always set themselves apart from their peers, which is something I wasn’t really taking into account when I was reviewing them all in a marathon session back in 2011 (long story).  That article series was an exercise in comparing Pixar movies to the best that cinema had to offer, but as the years go on and I get a better idea of what contemporary animation is like and start comparing them to that and they start looking a whole lot better.  Still, I have a bit of a quirky relationship to Pixar’s movies, especially their Toy Story franchise, and that made me rather unsure if I wanted a fourth.

Toy Story 4 actually starts with a flashback.  It dramatizes something that is alluded to in the third film: the night when Bo Peep (Annie Potts) leaves the rest of the toys because the family decides to give away the lamp that she’s part of.  We then flash forward to the status quo after the third film, in which the toys we’ve been following have been given away to a new kid named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).  I always found it a little bit strange that this 2010 kid would be so interested in receiving a bunch of hand-me-down toys from the 90s which look like they’re actually from the 50s and as this new film establishes, I may have been right to be suspicious.  As it turns out Bonnie does not actually spend much time playing with Woody (Tom Hanks), and being the vain attention whore that he’s always been he doesn’t exactly react well.  When he learns that Bonnie is about to be going on her first day of kindergarten he sneaks into her backpack under the delusion she needs him and, seeing her distressed on her first day he tosses some scraps up to her table while she’s doing crafts and with them she makes a weird little statue out of a spork, a pipe cleaner, and some fake googly eyes and dubs him “Forky.”  Soon thereafter Forky (Tony Hale) becomes sentient, and sensing that he’s a monstrosity immediately tries to kill himself by jumping into the trashcan.  Woody determines that Bonnie has formed an attachment to Forky and does everything he can to keep Forky alive, which will be challenging because Bonnie’s parents are about to bring her on a road trip with all her toys.

This is a movie that a lot of people were really skeptical about in the run-up to its release because it was believed that Toy Story 3 had a perfect ending and that this would ruin it.  I am a bit of an outlier in that I thought the ending of Toy Story 3 was far from perfect.  Where other people were apparently bawling out their eyes at the sight of Andy giving his toys to Bonnie, I was thinking what the hell kind of seventeen year old gives this much of a damn about old toys he should have thrown out when he turned twelve?  To me the whole thing was an overly sentimental cop out.  Toy Story 3 was basically a retread of the themes established in Toy Story 2 about toys eventually being abandoned by their owners, its one reason to exist was to finally have this calamity to catch up with our characters and force them to face their fate… but the movie didn’t end up having the nerve to finally take the killshot and instead it basically gave its characters a new beginning which more or less set up a new series, so the fact that they’re continuing the franchise isn’t that much of a shock to me.

To me what has made some of the previous Toy Story movies interesting was the world building.  A lot of animated movies build fantastical worlds where with talking animals or objects but the Toy Story movies are at least a little interested in exploring how the worlds they create are actually kind of fucked up.  These movies make being a talking toy seem like a sort of existential hell of slavery and ingratitude… or at least that’s what I get out of them, the movies themselves would hint at all this while never quite having it in them to truly challenge the system they’ve established.  Toy Story 4 is in many ways the Toy Story movie I’ve been waiting for in that the toys in it seem to finally be catching up to my way of seeing things.  Case in point the newest addition to the cast, Forky, is the first toy we’ve really met who seems to view itself as a genuine monstrosity and spends much of the first half of the movie seeking death via trashcan.  That is certainly an interesting approach but what’s really important is that Forky’s attitude does seem to plant a seed of sorts in the mind of some key characters in that he’s one of the first toy characters we’ve seen that doesn’t seem to have an instinctual desire to be played with by children and is decidedly not happy to be asked to do so.  This seed is then watered and sprouted by the re-emergence of Bo Peep, who had been effectively killed off between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 and is now a “lost toy” and happy to be one because she’s free of having to spend all her time making some child happy.

Of course the Toy Story movies have long been meant as a sort of allegory for the relationship of a parent to a child and this fourth movie definitely carries that forward and leans into moments where the characters talk about “having a kid” as if they were parents instead of playthings.  That’s part of why I always found the ending of Toy Story 3 to be kind of inadequate given that the toys don’t move on to a new phase of life after metaphorically letting Andy go but rather end up essentially replacing him and starting all over again.  It’s as if they’re living out the life cycle of some rich dude who ends up impregnating a new trophy wife right as their kid from a previous marriage is going to college.  Toy Story 4, by contrast is more like a movie where the toys (well, Woody anyway) actually do manage to find a new purpose in life after becoming empty nesters.  It’s a notably different outlook from what we’ve seen earlier in the series which were usually populated by toys like Jessie and Lotso who, once removed from “their kids,” basically spend their whole lives feeling bitter and incomplete.  Bo Peep, by contrast, seems to be revitalized through independence and the film at least understands why Forky (who’s maybe a bit of a stand-in for young father who causes an unplanned pregnancy) would not be pumped to be in played with by this kid.

This all isn’t to say that the series has suddenly become entirely Antinatalist.  Plenty of the toys here are still very interested in coming into the possession of a child, like a pair of carnival prizes played by Key and Peele who sort of steal the show as comic relief characters who’ve been waiting three long years for someone to win them in the rigged midway game that’s trapped them.  Then there’s the film’s villain Gabby Gabby, who is a bit of a retread of the “villainous bitter toy” thing that they’ve done in the last two films, but who none the less proves to be a rather sympathetic depiction of what is essentially the pain of infertility given that she’s a toy who was deemed defective from out of the factor and has spent decades in an antique store removed from children.  Nonetheless, this is the Toy Story movie that finally suggests that there are other legitimate ways for these toys to live and in many ways provides some of the characters with an ending that manages to be happy while still making more allegorical sense.  As such I reject the notion I’ve seen floated around that this is some kind of unnecessary cash grab, in fact I’d say that scene for scene it might actually be the best of the series.  It manages to tell a larger and more meaningful story than the first movie, its comedy is a lot better than the second film’s, and it doesn’t wallow in the cheap sentimentality of the third.  Of course this is coming from someone who didn’t grow up with these characters and has a somewhat perverse take on the whole franchise so take that sentiment with a grain of salt.

**** out of Five

Rocketman(6/1/2019)

It’s always been kind of amazing to me that there was a point in history where Elton John was the biggest rock star in the world.  Not because of the music, I certainly see why that would be big, but it’s amazing that for a period of time in the 1970s the picture of rock superstardom was an overweight bespectacled ginger homosexual dude who played piano ballads while wearing strange outfits.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all, in fact it’s sort of a testament to his talents: this was a dude who did not skate by on his looks.  But as far as Elton’s music goes he’s never really been my favorite artist.  When I was a kid he was still sort of around and would show up at strange moments to do stuff like eulogize Princess Diana or perform random duets with Eminem but he was ultimately an oldies act that I didn’t have time for.  I didn’t really get into him when I finally did start exploring classic rock either, and I think that largely has to do with his choice of instrument.  To teenage me rock and roll was defined by one thing: guitars, preferably electric guitars, and the longer the solos were the better.  I could find time for David Bowie, but Elton John was a step too far away from what really seemed like “rock” to me, hell I still haven’t really come around on Billy Joel.  Instead Elton John was someone I only came to like pretty late in life when I really started to expand the music I was into and started putting together just how many of the catchy songs I’d been hearing over the years were by him.  I’m still not a huge fan by any means and some of his songs like “Crocodile Rock” still don’t do it for me, but I am interested enough in him to have been pretty interested in the new biopic Rocketman.

Rocketman begins with a rather surreal scene of Elton John (Taron Egerton) walking into an rehab group therapy session wearing one of his signature wacky costumes and begins to tell his life story to the group.  This acts as something of a framing story throughout and every time we cut back to it he’s stripped off part of his costume.  From there we get a more or less chronological telling of the musician’s life from his childhood struggles with his father (Steven Mackintosh) and mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), to meeting his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), to his becoming a superstar while battling addiction and an emotionally abusive relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden).

This film has the immense benefit of opening less than a year after the worldwide blockbuster success of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.  This is fortunate firstly because it shows the public is primed for a biographical account of a gay British music icon from the 70s and secondly it’s beneficial because its close proximity to that movie invites comparisons between the two and given how lackluster that movie was these comparisons are rather flattering.  Critics hate Bohemian Rhapsody because it’s a movie that flagrantly ignores several decades of advice critics have been giving filmmakers about musical biopics and just shamelessly leans into each and every biopic cliché in the clumsiest way possible (a problem that may be less apparent to the general public, who hasn’t sat through every damn one of these movies).  Rocketman, by contrast, carefully avoids at least some of the pitfalls which that leaped into.  For one thing, the film doesn’t feel sanitized like Rhapsody did.  It isn’t hesitant to show the extent of Elton John’s drug use and to make him look like kind of an asshole at certain points while also exploring what’s leading him to behave that way.  It also isn’t as squeamish about his homosexuality (even if the film’s one sex scene has a Call Me By Your Name style cutaway), and Taron Egerton also sings his own songs and gives a more well-rounded performance than Rami Malek, whose Oscar winning performance did not really impress me beyond the visual imitation of Freddie Mercury.

Of course the film’s most radical difference from Bohemian Rhapsody and musical biopics in general is that it actually takes the format of a jukebox musical rather than a straight biography with various fantasy sequences in which people (and not necessarily just Elton) “burst into song” and perform Elton John songs with thematic similarities to what’s going on.  I say these are fantasy sequences, but in many ways the film doesn’t actually treat them like that.  Director Dexter Fletcher never “snaps back to reality” so to speak after one of these performances are done, they just kind of “magic realism” their way into the movie and aren’t commented upon.  The film also makes no attempt to present any of these songs in their historical chronology.  For instance the film shows Elton John playing “Crocodile Rock” at his first American performance at the Troubadour even though that song was actually from his sixth album and more than likely wasn’t written at that point.  This kind of messing around with facts got Bohemian Rhapsody into a lot of trouble given that it presented itself as a straightforward biography but it feel more natural here given much of the movie is presented as a sort of fantastical musical and that the more salient facts seem to be accurate.

Of course the decision to make this a musical does have a couple of drawbacks.  For one thing the whole conceit seems to be based in the notion that Elton John music reflected his personal life, which would seem to be a rather dubious notion given that he didn’t write his own lyrics and generally seem rather impersonal.  At times the film does seem to be stretching a little to recontextualize some of these songs, like when “Tiny Dancer” is turned into a song about Elton’s loneliness in L.A. while Taupin is off chasing tail and the movie sort of contorts itself at one point to make “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” fit a conversation.  In addition to that, the musical motif is in some ways a bit of a smokescreen.  The usual musical biopic clichés are still there under the seemingly unique wrapping.  This is after all the story of a bright eyed musician who shocks the record company with his talents and shoots to superstardom before almost losing everything to addiction and hedonism until he enters rehab and emerges victorious.  It’s kind of the same story that damn near every rock star has and to an extent cliché is inevitable, but unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, this movie smooths out those edges and flows more naturally.  It actually feels like it’s put some thought behind what the rockstar life is like and isn’t just presenting the material out of some obligation to formula.

I do think that this movie is the beneficiary of lowered expectations to some extent.  It might try a couple of new things but it’s certainly not going full I’m Not There and really innovating with the form.  In fact I suspect that this kind of biopic by way of jukebox musical format is a bit more common on Broadway in shows like “Jersey Boys.”  However, the fact of the matter is that I’ve never really been as allergic to the musical biopic format as some critics and wouldn’t even have been all that mad at Bohemian Rhapsody if not for the fact that people were giving it goddamn Oscars.  So really, taking that usual format and using it in a way that has some actual thought behind it rather than half-assedly going through the motions probably is enough to sell me on a project.  If this had only been about a band or artist that means more to me this might have even been a slam dunk, but as it stands it’s a solid movie that will serve the fans of the artist well.

***1/2 out of Five