YESTERDAY. I wouldn't call Danny Boyle one of my favorite directors. He can tend toward narrative overreach, treacly sentimentality and visual excess. Still, he's been showing up and doing the work for oh, 25 years now — at least in the world of features, since he was directing television for a while before the debut of Shallow Grave in 1994. I missed that early work but like so many of my generation was quickly swept up in the bipolar hysteria of Trainspotting (1996), an endlessly inventive demonstration of new ways to place and move a camera within a scene, to use popular music and editing just as forcefully as the images on screen. That movie served to both expand our worldview and announce the arrival of a number of significant talents, Boyle first among them for me, though Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller and Kelly Macdonald are no slouches.
Trainspotting left such an impression (admittedly a perhaps hormonally charged one), that Boyle's subsequent work made me feel as if he had wandered off the path. At the time I wanted more sordid drug movies with dazzling dolly work; lovers on the run scrutinized by angels (A Life Less Ordinary, 1997) didn't really fit the frame into which I had forced him. And so, over the years, I checked in with his work but relatively infrequently. His 28 Days Later ... (2002) did fun new things with the zombie genre (walkers, brain-eaters, whichever. Don't @ me). Slumdog Millionaire (2008) was perhaps over-praised, particularly by the Academy, but I was just as entranced by it on first viewing as everybody else. Ditto 127 Hours (2010). Steve Jobs (2015), I thought, represented some of Boyle's most mature, sophisticated work but seemed to be met with a general shrugging of the shoulders.
Point being, although I admire much of Boyle's work, his sense of adventure, re-invention and willingness to try (and fail), I'm anything but a completist. I've skipped over some of his kids' movies, for example, and T2 Trainspotting (2017) looked too strained to bother with. And therein lies the balance because with daring and comfort with risk comes inevitable failure. And when you're making movies for the global market, those shortcomings play out on a pretty big stage.
And so I approached Yesterday with enthusiasm tempered with trepidation: Not only would this seem to represent Boyle's most anti-Trainspotting impulses, it is also scripted by Richard Curtis, a writer likewise given to sometimes ill-conceived grand gestures and maudlin pap. It's become cool, in recent years, to hate on Curtis' Love Actually. (I get it but I still like it.) And therein lies the tension.
Bring together these two inarguably dynamic creative people and let them loose on perhaps their most deceptively high-concept story to date, one that could slide very easily over the precipice into the chasm of pat cuteness, and what happens? Well, Yesterday happens and I have to admit to enjoying it more than my cynical Trainspotting fan-boy self of those decades past would care to admit. Is it corny and sentimental and generally too much? OF COURSE, IT IS. But it is also well-executed and warm, and I'm getting soft in my old age.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a rather unsuccessful singer-songwriter/glorified busker, decides to give up on the dream of music stardom and return to his day job as a schoolteacher. This much to the chagrin of his "manager" Ellie (Lily James) who happens to be secretly in love with him. For better or worse, on his bicycle ride home on the very night of his fateful decision, Jack gets hit by a bus during a global electrical blackout. He wakes up in the hospital, abraded and missing two teeth; also he is the only one in the world who remembers The Beatles because ... well, just because. Curtis doesn't really specialize in explaining coincidence or newly introduced universal phenomena in his writing. (Coca-Cola and cigarettes also blink out of existence, but those are incidental.)
And so, with little to no hesitation, Jack sets about remembering, playing and recording the songs of the Beatles. He buddies up to Ed Sheeran (playing himself), is brought under the wing of his manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon, devouring the scenery as only she can), leaves Ellie behind and sets out to make himself the biggest pop-star in the history of the known universe. Spoiler alert: There might be a crisis of conscience on the way.
For the most part, Yesterday manages to sidestep most of the innumerable potential pitfalls it creates for itself. Boyle brings his celebration of the medium into play, framing even conventional walk-and-talks with moving Dutch angles, for example. His exuberance behind the camera — and the control of someone who has been exercising that exuberance for decades — enlivens the material even beyond the childlike wonder with which Curtis infuses the writing.
But, of course, this movie is still going to be too sweet for some, too intentionally clever and cute; I'm at least part way in that camp. Also, placing all of the power of The Beatles in the songwriting Yesterday, ignores some of the intangibles about that band, the alchemy of their collaboration, and the warmth and fullness of the sound they created in their recordings. Even though the songwriting is undeniable, I question whether anyone else could really turn the songs in to classics. How many covers of "Blackbird" have you heard? How many of them are actually any good? PG13. 116M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
— John J. Bennett
See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
MIDSOMMAR. A young American couple's (Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor) trip to Sweden goes from folksy festival to trippy murder cult and honestly this is why I don't shop at Ikea. R. 140M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MINOR.
SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME. Peter Parker heads on vacation to inevitably save the world, this time with new superhero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhall). Hold up — they're introducing the multiverse?! Starring Tom Holland and Samuel L. Jackson. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
JAWS (1975). Look into a rubber shark's dead eyes instead of Stephen Miller's for a sec. PG. 124M. BROADWAY.
ALADDIN. Live-action Disney remake with (hopefully) less racism and a hotter Jafar than the original. Starring blue Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott and Marwan Kenzari. PG. 128M. BROADWAY.
ANNABELLE COMES HOME. More scary doll stuff for folks who find Chucky too playful. R. 106M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA MILL CREEK.
AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Back with additional scenes that won't make the time travel any easier to figure out. PG13. 188M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
CHILD'S PLAY. Aubrey Plaza and Mark Hamill take a stab at rebooting the killer doll horror. R. 90M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL. Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth dip out of Asgard to revive the alien-friendly franchise and suit tailoring with Emma Thompson. PG13. 104M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE RIVER AND THE WALL. Documentary about traveling the U.S.-Mexico border and the environmental and human impact of a border wall. NR. 97M. MINIPLEX.
SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2. This sequel lacks the charm, inventiveness and sweetness of the original, despite a strong cast that includes Patton Oswalt, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart and Harrison Ford. PG. 86M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THE SOUVENIR. Tilda Swinton, Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke star in a drama about a young filmmaker's relationship with a sketchy older man. R. 120M. MINIPLEX.
TOY STORY 4. Go ahead, little toys (lights cigarette), see if I have any soul left to crush. Starring Tom Hanks. G. 100M. FORTUNA, MINOR.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill