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Early July Movie Picks

Yesterday (UK/US 2019
I love the touch of whimsy that director Danny Boyle brings to his movies.  This one centres on Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a young British man of Indian ancestry who’s an aspiring musician but still lives with his parents and has a job stocking store shelves.  A schoolteacher Ellie (Lily James) helps to get him gigs but that’s not working out.  So Jack is ready to quit when a seconds-long global power outage changes everything, wiping out all memory of The Beatles (not to mention cigarettes, coke, and Harry Potter).  At the same moment Jack on a bicycle collides with a bus, yet he alone remembers.  Recovering and searching his brain, he starts singing some of the fab four’s classics, starting with “Yesterday”.  By claiming them as his compositions, he soon becomes a sensation and is introduced to singer-actor Ed Sheeran.  An avaricious L.A.-based promoter grooms him for global superstardom. Except, Jack also meets two older people who recall the songs. With the long and winding road becoming more alternate than across the universe, Jack makes a spiritual visit to Liverpool, and even visits an aging John Lennon lookalike in a remote cottage. This magical mystery tour culminates with Jack deciding to come clean before a huge adoring audience at Wembley stadium.   It helps that Patel is a decent singer and guitar player.  Granted the fantasy premise makes no sense, this matters less since the songs are as great and catchy as I remember them, including the original version of “Hey Jude” (not dude!) over the closing credits. A-
The Souvenir (UK/US 2019
Writer-director Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical drama centres on the relationship between a promising 25-year old film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, the daughter of Tilda Swintom who plays Julie’s brittle mother) and an alluringly posh, albeit elusive, older man Anthony (Tom Burke) whom she falls for. The title is taken from an 18th century painting in an early encounter.   A tentative relationship evolves from co-habitants to something more intimate. This occurs in measured increments at the same time as Honor is learning to explore her art of storytelling through film. The happy conjunction with first love is not to last as Honor comes to terms with the reality that Anthony is a heroin addict, and that his fate is beyond her powers to amend.  This is slow subtle cinema that relies for its emotive power on the finely-tuned performances of Byrne and Burke.  (A “Souvenir: Part II” is currently filming with Robert Pattinson.)  A-
Spider-Man: Far from Home (US 2019
The Marvel universe isn’t content with re-releasing a slightly extended version of Avengers: Endgame to try to overtake Avatar as the all-time top-grossing movie.  So here is another chapter of this superhero franchise raking in a ton of money.  (Adding the two, Marvel is on track for a US$5 billion payday.) British actor Tom Holland (23 playing 16) is an engaging enough Peter Parker, aka spider-man, who accompanies his classmates on a European tour. Spidey is supposed to take up the mantle of the late Tony Stark (Ironman) and there are also roles for Samuel Jackson and a Mysterio character played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Many explosive misadventures ensue in locations ranging from Rome and Venice to Paris and London.   At 129 minutes of sound and fury, only recommended for fans of the genre. C+
While the dross-producing teen-romance comedy genre continues to be popular, could it be that a large aging “boomer” demographic is behind more elderly serendipitous romantic couplings reaching the screen? In 2017 Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren connected in The Leisure Seeker. (That said, the troubles of long-married couples—see, for example, 45 Years, The Wife—still make for superior dramatic moments.)  Writer-director Noble Jones’s feature centres on the pairing of John Lithgow (73) as the retiree Ed, and Blythe Danner (76), as the solitary Ronnie who still works in a shop.  Both are set in their ways: he’s a survivalist, scanning the internet for signs of impending calamity, stocking up for the apocalypse; she’s a hoarder who has lost both her daughter and husband to illness.  The setting for their first encounter is in a supermarket parking lot.  Among Ed’s paranoid delusions is that of a female TV announcer speaking directly to him.  Still Ronnie obliges by listening to him expound, and gradually a friendship develops into something more.  A sub-plot involves Ed’s son’s family leading to a fractious Thanksgiving dinner.  Said son becomes more forgiving when Ed suffers a mini-stroke.  But this is essentially a two-hander that comes to a turning point when Ed dials back his obsession and suggests a joint yard sale to unload their respective accumulations.  Although Ronnie is reluctant, she seems to be coming around. Just then Ed’s doomsday chimera rises on the horizon with them holding hands. Groan. By throwing that curve (and an earlier one about Ed’s tie to the TV personality), the movie loses some of the low-key charm it’s earned from the lonely-hearts playbook.  B     
Echo in the Canyon (US 2018
Musical memory tours have become a hot genre on screen. Director Andrew Slater’s documentary ode to the sixties folk-rock explosion had me from the first chord as a child of that era.  The “canyon” of the title is “Laurel Canyon” in L.A. which had become a bohemian haven for actors, musicians, and arty types. The Beatles’ “British invasion” spurred an incredibly fertile period of musical cross-influences that gave rise to other supergroups, even if most were destined to break up.  Popular music was changed forever by genius compositions, including such iconic albums as The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” (1966) and the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967).  Our quide, narrator and interviewer (the observations of David Crosbie are particularly candid) is Jakob Dylan, who was born at the end of that 60s decade.  Although the son of master singer-songwriter Bob, and a fair musician in his own right (the film has clips of him performing covers of ‘60s songs with other noted contemporary musicians), the elder Bob doesn’t appear anywhere … or was he not into the California dreamin’ vibe?  There’s understandably no mention of the forgettable 2002 drama Laurel Canyon, but “Echo” does hark back to Jacques Demy’s 1969 L.A.-set feature Model Shop which starred Gary Lockwood (looking like a young Glen Campbell), best known for playing a doomed astronaut in Kubrick’s 1968 masterwork 2001: A Space Odyssey.    
            The ‘60s music stars who have survived are definitely showing their age. Most are in their later 70s. Maybe I’m just indulging in nostalgia but I make no apologies for feeling groovy.  A-
Writer-director Ari Aster hit a nerve with his 2018 debut feature Hereditary, hailed by some as a horror masterpiece, but which left me cold.  This 140-minute follow-up offers even crazier chills. The central pairing Christian (Jack Reynor) and Dani (Florence Pugh) play Americans but are Brits (she was memorable in 2016’s Lady Macbeth).  Dani is a fragile psych student traumatized by an apparent family suicide. Diffident boyfriend Christian is a grad student interested in the same topic as friend Josh (William Jackson Harper) who is researching European midsummer rituals.  The title is Swedish for midsummer though the film actually begins in wintry America with shots of a snow-encrusted pine forest. Along with pal Mark (an uncouth Will Poulter), another friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who grew up in a Swedish commune, has invited the guys to come on a trip to sunny summer-solstice Sweden to observe its special ceremonies. (Hint, they won’t need a return ticket.) Dani may be an unwanted fifth wheel but Christian has to invite her along.  So the party of five arrive in the rustic environs of Halsingland (actually the Hungarian countryside), and along with another visiting American couple, get introduced to the locals all wearing white frocks and the women garlands in their hair.  What starts innocently enough as a 90th anniversary 9-day festival of sorts gets strange fast and then increasingly sinister as the pagan cult moves from public elder suicide to murder and human sacrifice, the atmosphere aided by hallucinogens and bizarre rites.  Dani’s instinct is to flee but she gets sucked into becoming the “May queen”.  Christian meanwhile is induced into a scene of wild sexual congress before the culminating consuming conflagration that also involves an eviscerated bear.  Don’t ask. 
            Aster throws in all the horror tropes: spooky menacing music, odd/reverse angles, gross images, dissembling creeping weirdness.  Those nice English-speaking Swedes would give the Manson cult a run for its money!  I don’t think Swedish airlines will be offering this on their in-flight entertainment.  B     


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