Yesterday

Cast: Hamish Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon

Director: Danny Boyle

Writer: Richard Curtis


In all of these years I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a movie that showed such little interest in such a promising concept. The premise is the actualisation of a fantasy that most of us have had at one time or another. A man wakes up one day to find that that the music of a phenomenally popular band has been erased and that he alone in the entire world remembers them. Armed with that sacred knowledge and a decent enough singing voice to make a go of it as a musician, he resolves to pass the songs off as his own and reap the benefits. It’s a terrific idea for a movie that opens itself up to countless possibilities just begging to be explored. But you see, there’s this girl; she’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry. It’s probably to be expected that Richard Curtis, the patron saint of British rom-coms, should want a quaint romance at the heart of this light-hearted fantasy. Why he felt that such a conventional and familiar story should totally supplant the endless potential of this alternate dimension he created however escapes me. Nearly every opportunity that the premise invites goes woefully unfulfilled to the point that the whole thing feels like nothing more than an afterthought. Instead of being taken away on the magical mystery tour that the movie promises, all we get in the end is a mediocre love story.

At the centre of it all is Jack Malik (Hamish Patel), a struggling musician whose career is going nowhere and who has no other direction or passion in life (he’s a bit of a nowhere man, if you will). For the last ten years since leaving his teaching job, he’s been busking on the same old streets, playing gigs in the same old pubs, and sharing his music with the same old group of friends. After one lousy gig too many, he’s ready to hang his guitar and walk away and it doesn’t look even his best friend, manager and biggest fan Ellie (Lily James) will be able talk him out of it. That is until one fateful night when a worldwide power cut ensues for twelve seconds, causing Jack to be hit by a bus. He wakes up the following morning in the hospital where the ever so winsome Ellie is waiting by his side with a brand new guitar as a get well present. Together they leave to meet their friends and Jack treats them to a rendition of an old favourite, ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles. Only it’s the first time any of them have heard what they assume to be one of his own songs, by far his best one yet. A quick google search reveals to Jack that no such band as The Beatles exists anymore and that he appears to be the only one with any recollection of their music. Thus he finds himself faced with a singular opportunity to become the musician he’s always aspired to be.

You would be hard-pressed to find a group who have done more to influence the course and evolution of popular music in the last half century than The Beatles. They launched the British Invasion, set the template for boy bands, pioneered a movement of sonic and psychedelic experimentation, spoke to a younger, more enlightened generation on radical and taboo topics, and wrote more amazing songs than I can even begin to count. Therefore the idea that The Rolling Stones, Coldplay and Ed Sheeran could exist in a sans-Beatles world (as they all do in this film) is completely unbelievable to me. That might sound a bit pedantic but what it comes down to is the total lack of curiosity the movie has for contemplating a contemporary cultural landscape in a world where The Beatles never existed. The movie makes a couple of token gestures, the best of which is a tour around a Liverpool that never became a European Capital of Culture and the worst of which is a deeply uncomfortable scene in the third act, but for the most part the movie treats its Twilight Zone premise as little more than an obstacle in the rom-com love story it really wants to tell. The question of whether The Beatles would still be The Beatles in a modern world without their legacy is a fascinating one that I wish the movie had done more to explore.

In its presentation of the Fab Four’s songs, all of which are performed as closely to their original forms as a single tenor with an electric guitar can get, the movie is inviting us to listen to them as if for the first time and there are some moments when it works. What bothers me though is how uninterested the film really is in trying to understand what makes the music as great as it is and why it resonates with listeners as strongly as it does. The assumption seems to more or less be that the songs are great because they’re by The Beatles, whom we all love. It appears the film believes (wrongly) that the greatness of any work of art has little bearing on the time and place in which it was made or to its creator. A tune like ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, with its Buddy-Holly-style rhythm and Everly-Brothers-inspired harmonies, doesn’t really work as a new song in 2019 without a modern update of some kind because its electrifying pop sound is no longer as fresh and dynamic as it was in 1963. Yesterday also seems just as unconcerned with what kind of personal connection Jack himself has with these songs. In a scene where he plays ‘In My Life’ on a talk show, Ellie is moved because she thinks the song is about her. Jack in contrast seems to have put almost no thought in what these songs are supposed to mean coming from him (that he doesn’t even stop to think about how weird it is for a man in his late twenties to sing “Well, she was just seventeen, you know what I mean” should at least be worth a raised eyebrow).

But enough about the film I wish they’d made, what about the film I actually saw? Well, aside from its sci-fi concept that it only occasionally addresses, Yesterday is at its core a love story and a pretty weak one at that. The two leads are charming enough that they are able to generate some little spark between them, he as the sensitive but self-centred artist and she as his kind-hearted and infinitely giving supporter. She carries a torch for him but not only is he entirely clueless about her affections, he doesn’t seem to have the slightest interest in sex or romance in general. It’s not until Ellie confronts him about her unrequited crush at the most awkward moment possible that it even occurs to him to look at this beautiful woman who continuously beckons to his call and worships the ground he walks on with in any kind of romantic light. When Jack makes it big, she falls out of his life partly out of her justified frustration for having been taken for granted for so long and partly because of her commitments as a schoolteacher. When the two reunite and Jack reveals that he does fancy her after all, the most conflict Curtis can conjure to prolong their will-they-won’t-they rapport is the fact that neither one did anything about their feelings before. The lack of any convincing obstacle to keep them apart gets so tiresome and the constant miserable state Jack is in is so off-putting that it didn’t take me long to wonder what it was she even saw in him and to conclude that she’s better off without him anyway.

On the comedy side of things, the movie fares a little better. The premise allows for some humorous moments as when Jack tries to play ‘Let It Be’ for his parents, expecting them to be wowed by one of the most moving songs in the Beatles canon, only for them to keep interrupting him with one distraction after another. There’s also a running joke throughout about Jack discovering that some other facet of modern culture has disappeared including Coca Cola (which presumably required him to reword ‘Come Together’ slightly) and Harry Potter. Ed Sheeran has an unexpectedly amusing role as an exaggerated version of himself who lifts Jack to fame only to be eclipsed by him. I’d have liked to see more of Sheeran as the self-described Salieri to Jack’s Mozart, but he would have had to play a much less affable version of himself to really sell it. I also enjoyed Kate McKinnon’s role as the greedy, soulless music executive intent on signing Jack to her record label, moulding him into the most generic singer/songwriter brand they can possibly market and milking the Beatles’ music for every cent it’s worth. Their satirical take of the music industry is pretty broad (not least because it has to make room for the love story) but McKinnon’s over-the-top expressions and comical line deliveries are always good for some reliable laughs.

It’s a shame to see a film take on such a surreal and inspired concept only to end up with something that feels so sadly generic. The movie leans so heavily on a crutch of clichés that by the time we get to the end and see the romantic payoff it’s all been leading to, Curtis cannot even summon a fraction of the tenderness and feel-good warmth that might have made the hackneyed journey feel worth it. Even with a crap film like Love Actually, he can normally add enough charm and sentimentality that you can go along with the ride and enjoy it for the piece of schmaltz that it is. Whatever vision or style Danny Boyle might have brought as a director is so passive or absent that there is no doubt about Yesterday being a Richard Curtis movie. The movie doesn’t even work as a tribute to The Beatles since, apparently, the world as we know it would have remained virtually the same as it is today, if ever so slightly more melancholic, had they not existed. There are so many more questions I want to ask of this Beatles-less world (Who sang the theme song to Live and Let Die? What stage name did Reginald Dwight end up adopting? Did Eric Clapton ever write ‘Layla’?), but the movie has no interest in so much as entertaining such queries. I could go on but, in the end, I think The Beatles said it best so, to paraphrase: “Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where it’s going to, making all it’s nowhere plans for nobody”.

★★

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T2 Trainspotting

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle

Director: Danny Boyle

Writer: John Hodge


The big dread that comes with revisiting a film of this kind, an iconic, generation-defining film that was such a staple of the time when it was released, is that it won’t be artistically justifiable. Too often filmmakers revive old classics when they should’ve left well enough alone in the interest of cashing on the original’s popularity. Movies like The Godfather Part II, Chinatown and Wall Street all fell victim to this, receiving sequels that, while not necessarily awful, were just not necessary. In all of these cases, so much time had gone by that the sequels turned out to be too far removed from their predecessors. Part of this comes from an inability to recapture what was good about the originals, but part of it also comes from irrelevance. Unless the film is able to age with the audience, it loses any sense of relevance for them, even if they were alive at the time the original was released. This is the reason why T2 Trainspotting succeeds where many others gave failed.

It’s been 20 years since Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) left his friends and made off with the money they made in the drug deal. Now living in Amsterdam, he returns to Edinburgh to reconnect with the people from his past. Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still addicted to heroin, which has now estranged him from Gail Houston (Shirley Henderson) and his son. Simon (or Sick Boy as he was formerly known) (Jonny Lee Miller) is now a cocaine-addicted pub owner scamming rich men with the help of his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is serving a 25-year sentence in prison and has been denied parole due to his volatile temper. As Mark reconnects with the past, he is drawn back into the crazy, chaotic life he’s spent the last two decades trying to escape.

What this sequel captures that so many others have not is that delicate balance between respecting the original film without being defined by it. This is not a remake of Trainspotting because the youthful energy and 90s edginess that it had is something that can never be recaptured, at least not by the same cast and crew that originally made it. They’re all older now and the world is a different place from what it was 20 years ago. They’re not the angsty young guys who lived their days precariously with the fiery rebellious spirit of youth any more. They’re old, wearied men who’ve found themselves in dejected states and are looking into the past, wondering how they got here. The triumph of this film is it takes these wretched, downtrodden characters that the first film did such a great job of portraying and embraces their aged conditions, bringing a strong sense of pathos to their stories. Trainspotting ended with a hopeful prospect, suggesting that things might get better for some of these characters, that Renton might turn his life around and make something worthwhile out of it. Now he’s two decades older and, apart from his sobriety, has nothing to show for it but disappointment, emasculation and disillusionment.

As we are reintroduced to Mark we find that he is certainly healthier than he was twenty years ago, but not much happier. He still feels lost and dissatisfied with the state of the world and now finds himself in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He returns to Edinburgh, whether to find comfort, understanding, or escape isn’t clear, and learns that his old mates aren’t faring much better. His reunion with Spud turns out to be a traumatic one as he walks in on him trying to end his miserable existence with a plastic bag wrapped around his head. His reunion with Simon doesn’t turn out much better as the two come to blows. A reunion with Begbie meanwhile is the last thing in the world that Mark wants, and it is one that promises to be as unpleasant as it is inevitable. Anyway, whatever it is that Mark is looking for by returning home, it isn’t long before he finds himself caught up in a web of blackmail, prostitution and revenge.

The film reunites the original cast and they all assume their roles in fascinatingly compelling ways. McGregor is great in his return to the role that made him a star, playing the recovering addict who finds himself drawn back to his former demons and wondering whether life had actually made more sense back in the day. Miller’s Simon is now a deeply bitter, resentful man, harbouring a grievous grudge against his former best mate whom he blames for his station in life. Carlyle plays the psychopathic Begbie with all the ferocity he brought the first time round, except this time there’s an extra layer of weariness and melancholy, much of it due to being estranged from his son, that makes the character more pathetic, and yet somehow sympathetic, than before. The standout performance however is Bremner as Spud, who emerges as something of a secret protagonist. As the most wretched of the four, Bremner is both comically and tragically fragile and resilient and ends up becoming the emotional centre of the film as he is encouraged to chronicle his life in a memoir, thus becoming the author of his own story. Boyle also returns as the director and does an admirable job of reviving the movie’s style with its frantic cuts and stark colours while still giving it a modern edge.

Although the film frequently features brief flashbacks and nods to the events of the first film, it never feels like an attempt to use that film as a crutch or to score nostalgia points. T2 is very much its own film, one that doesn’t need to rely on its predecessor. The allusions to the past are all there to serve the story and are all properly motivated by what the characters are going through. There’s a scene where Mark is on the run through the streets of Edinburgh and we see a quick glimpse of him sprinting down that very same road as seen in the opening scene of the 1996 film. The flashback works the way a memory might, coming into view for a couple of seconds and then disappearing just as quickly, giving us an idea of some of the thoughts going through Mark’s head and making us all the more aware of how far he has come just to end up in (literally and, in some ways, figuratively) the same place. It is astonishing to me that this film was made at all and, even though it might lack some of the bite of the classic, I found it to be an engrossing watch and entirely worthy as a sequel.

★★★★

Steve Jobs

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogan, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston

Director: Danny Boyle

Writer: Aaron Sorkin


In my review of Burnt I wrote about the concept of the tortured genius and how that particular film had demonstrated a generic example of the idea. Steve Jobs on the other hand demonstrates a tortured genius done right. The Steve Jobs of this film is clearly a brilliant man with a singular mind. His ideas are radical and revolutionary, his thought process is dynamic and rapid, and he is always always always on. His exceptional mind is matched only by his colossal ego. Jobs is arrogant, narcissistic and disdainful. He resents anyone and everyone who cannot keep up with his ideas or doesn’t recognise his brilliance. He demands perfection from his subordinates and anything less is unacceptable and unforgivable. He is a man who simultaneously provokes an exponential amount of admiration and resentment from those around him and will alienate just as quickly as he will inspire. I have absolutely no idea whether this portrait is indeed an accurate reflection of the real Steve Jobs but, even if it isn’t, the subject of this film is nevertheless an endlessly fascinating figure and I very much enjoyed watching the film’s exploration of his psyche.

The film is set backstage at the launches of three products developed by Jobs at different points in his life: the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. All three acts take place in real time as Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) coordinates these events while dealing with the key figures of his life. Amongst them are his assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his loyal confidant whose position compels her to stand up to Jobs when no one else can; Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), the co-founder of Apple and perhaps the only person Jobs considers to be his friend; and John Scully (Jeff Daniels), the CEO of Apple who throws Jobs under the bus and then pays for it. The issues Jobs has to deal with extend to his personal life as well as he must also deal with his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), the mother of his daughter. Each of these figures brings out a different side of Jobs and allow for a comprehensive exploration of the complex figure that has had such a resounding effect on them all.

This film is not so much a biopic as it is a character study. Instead of taking us through the life of Jobs from beginning to end, the film favours a format that allows us to understand him as a character. Watching him at work in real time provides an insight into how he thinks, how he acts and how he interacts with others. He is presented as a man who is incessantly thinking about a million different things as once and who is always on the move and always focused on the task at hand. Anyone who isn’t an asset to him is either an obstacle or is irrelevant, and Jobs doesn’t have any time for either of those things. However, by setting the film in three different time periods, we do see an evolution take place. Each period marks a different point in Jobs’ life as he experiences his optimistic inauguration, his greatest failure and his eventual triumph. Through it all I think it might be a bit too far to say that Jobs changes as a person, but he does learn a few things about himself. His perception does go through a change as he starts to find value in other things besides his ideas, particularly in his daughter. It isn’t a substantial change but it is a significant one.

The real star of this film is Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue. The rapid back-and-forths, the intelligent discourses and the impassioned monologues provide the perfect engine for telling a story of this kind. Through the quick and witty dialogue Jobs is able to establish himself as an exceptionally intelligent and charismatic man who can speak faster than most people can even think. What struck me about this film was how balanced it was in its portrayal of Jobs. While it depicts him as a wholly remarkable genius, it doesn’t let him off the hook for his antagonistic tendencies. Many of the characters resent Jobs and for good reason. The way Sorkin is able to praise Jobs’ greatest qualities while also challenging his worst allows for an intelligent and thoroughly absorbing analysis of a complicated man with a complex mind.

One of the things that makes Steve Jobs such an enjoyable film is that, much like Jobs himself, it never stops moving. It is always going somewhere, it is always saying something and it always doing something interesting. What essentially amounts to 90 minutes of people talking is able to be stimulating, creative and exciting through excellent writing, subtle directing and great acting. Fassbender may not look anything like the real Steve Jobs but his on-screen presence and portrayal of the man’s ingenuity and tyranny is not to be doubted. While the rest of the ensemble is superb, Fassbender nevertheless deserves to be singled out for his stellar performance. Through him Steve Jobs was able to deliver a stunning picture of an extraordinary man whose keen intellect and artistic vision revolutionised computer technology as we know it.

★★★★★