Lily James

Yesterday

20/06/19

Welcome to Richard Curtis Land – a magical place where famous film stars can fall in love with meek bookshop owners; where smitten young men can write their declarations of love for recently married women on a series of cue cards; and where, in this latest iteration, the Beatles never existed. Yes, that’s right. Imagine if you will, a world where the names John, Paul, George and Ringo mean absolutely zilch.

Aspiring singer/songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is scratching a precarious existence playing a series of dead-end bookings by night, and working at a cash and carry by day. His gigs are arranged for him by his ‘manager,’ Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who works days as a secondary school teacher and who quite clearly fancies the pants off Jack, something he appears to be entirely oblivious to. But, after his last disappointing show, Jack is about ready to give up his dreams and ‘go back to teaching…’

He is blissfully unaware that his career is about to take an unexpected leap in an upward direction. Riding home on his bike one evening, he is struck by a bus, at the same moment a sudden loss of electricity hits the entire world for a full twelve seconds. Once recovered from his accident, Jack discovers that there have been some baffling changes to the world he knows – and when he sings Paul McCartney’s Yesterday to a bunch of friends, they react very strangely. ‘When did you write that?’ asks Ellie, incredulously.

A bit of surfing on the internet reveals the incredible truth. In this new alternate reality, the Beatles have never existed – and yet Jack knows most of their songs! So he starts to perform and record them, passing them off as his own work and – perhaps not surprisingly – after a few false starts, his career shoots upwards into the stratosphere. But we know, don’t we, that there’s always a price to pay for such deceit? And what true happiness can ever be achieved through an act of plagiarism?

Yesterday is a typical Curtis vehicle, amiable, and eminently watchable – but the film is directed by Danny Boyle, who displays none of the distinctive, visual flourishes I’ve come to expect from him, leaving me with the conviction that this could have been directed by just about anybody. While the earlier stretches are surely the funniest (there’s some nice interplay between Jack and his parents, played by Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar), later developments, where Jack falls under the influence of heartless record executive, Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), are not quite as assured.

And… there’s something that this film has in common with Curtis’s earlier effort, About Time: the story’s internal logic doesn’t always add up. Occasionally, I find myself thinking ‘Really?’ as some new revelation comes lurching out of the woodwork. Am I supposed to believe, for instance, that Jack manages to walk around for months without ever noticing that cigarettes no longer exist?

Still, this isn’t meant to be high art. Curtis is a talented storyteller, and for the most part this affable mix of comedy and music is perfectly entertaining. And, naturally, it has a soundtrack to die for. A shame then that it doesn’t give Danny Boyle more of a chance to show off his skills.

That would have been something to make a song and dance about.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

23/07/18

The reviews have been astonishing: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is, we’re told, a glorious piece of feelgood fun; moreover, it has the emotional heft to make us cry. We’re surprised: we’re ABBA fans (because the music is undeniably good, right?) but we both found the first film a sort of okay-watchable-quite-good-nothing-special kind of thing. So what makes it so much better this time?

Sadly, the answer is… nothing. Nothing makes it better, because it isn’t better: it’s worse. It’s weirdly patchy: some genuinely awful sequences interspersed with lovely moments. All together, it’s a mess. Most of it (the prequel section) tells a back story we already know, fleshed out without revealing anything. There are no surprises here. The sequel section fares better, with the multi-talented Amanda Seyfried (Sophie) bringing a much-needed sincerity to proceedings, and wringing every ounce of emotion from the songs (One of Us, which she sings with her estranged husband, Sky (Dominic Cooper), is the highlight of the film for me).

The prequel takes us back to 1979, when Donna (Lily James), freshly graduated from Oxford, unsure of what she wants from life, decides to seek adventure and takes herself off travelling. In Paris, she meets Harry (Hugh Skinner); charmed by his geeky naïvety, she spends the night with him before heading off alone to Greece. En route to the unnamed island idyll that claims her, she meets Stellan Skarsgård’s younger incarnation (Josh Dylan), but he’s off to take part in a boat race, and – while he’s gone – she falls for Sam (Jeremy Irvine), the Pierce Brosnan-a-like, who is absolutely perfect – except for the fiancée he forgets to tell her about. James is a charismatic performer, and her vocal skills are more than up to the challenge (which is more than can be said for poor Hugh Skinner, who has definitely been cast because he resembles Colin Firth, and not because he has any discernible musical ability). Her character is flighty and foolish, making literally no use of that Oxford degree, but she’s engaging and entertaining, and she makes us care about her.

Not much happens in the sequel, which is a shame, because it has all the best songs and all the best actors. I mean, Sophie gets pregnant and feels close to her dead mother, and there’s a party that’s threatened by a storm, but that’s about it. True, Cher is a camp delight, appearing as Sophie’s errant grandmother and stealing the show, and Dancing Queen proves the perfect accompaniment to a lively, animated crowd scene. But honestly, that’s all there is.

There are huge missteps too. I hate the graduation scene where Donna and her friends (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies) sing I Kissed the Teacher to a badly accented Celia Imrie (I think she’s supposed to be Scottish, but I can’t be sure). They’ve changed ‘he’ to ‘she’ in a bid to make the lyrics somehow more palatable, but I can’t see what difference it makes – it’s a good song, but the sentiment is undeniably creepy when filtered through a 2018 lens. It makes me most uncomfortable.

Ach, I don’t know. It’s just a load of mawkish nonsense, unpalatably sentimental and as silly as can be. Thank you for the music, ABBA – but can we stop filming this fluff?

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

23/04/18

Based on a bestselling novel and handsomely filmed on location by veteran director, Mike Newell, it’s hard to dislike this clunkily-titled romance. It’s handsomely produced and nicely acted by an ensemble cast and, if occasionally it wanders a little into the land of the twee, well, that’s no great hardship, because the story is interesting enough to keep us engaged to the end.

It’s 1946 and the world is recovering from the devastating effects of the second World War. Unfeasibly successful young author, Juliet Ashton (Lily James), already has a best-selling book under her belt, and is being vigorously courted by rich and handsome American, Mark Reynolds (Glen Powell). But then a letter arrives from somebody she has never met. Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) has chanced upon her name and address in a second-hand book by Charles Lamb, and mentions that he is a member of the titular society, hastily formed and named back in 1941, when Guernsey was under Nazi occupation.

After exchanging several letters with Dawsey, Juliet decides to head over to the island to attend the society’s next meeting, much to the consternation of her publisher – and best mate – Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode), who needs her on the mainland to do an extensive book tour. Once on Guernsey, Juliet quickly discovers that the events of the war have left many wounds that have yet to heal and a bit of a mystery that’s desperately in need of a solution. Moreover, when she meets Dawsey in the flesh, she finds herself becoming more and more interested in him…

Okay, so there are no great surprises in the story, but when you have actors of the calibre of Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton in supporting roles, you aren’t going to be disappointed with their efforts – and Katherine Parkinson is a particular delight as the oddly named Isola Pribby, a member of the society who is constantly tipsy on the homemade gin she distils and sells. The parts of the story that deal with the Nazi occupation could doubtless have been handled with a little more abrasiveness but, more than anything else, this feels like a lushly filmed advertisement for the joys of Guernsey itself, with a host of gorgeous locations that are sure to encourage plenty of tourists to pay the place a visit this summer – which is rather ironic when you consider that all the filming was actually done in Devon!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is unlikely to thrill you, but – if you’re a romantic soul who fancies a nice warm hug of a film – I’m sure this is just the ticket.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Baby Driver

28/06/17

I have a lot of respect for writer/director Edgar Wright. From Spaced, through the ‘three Cornettos’ trilogy, even with Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, he’s always managed to deliver something fresh and original – and who knows how Ant Man might have turned out if he hadn’t been unceremoniously dumped and had managed to bring his initial concept to fruition? I’ve heard plenty of good word-of-mouth about Baby Driver but when I saw the the trailer, I thought the film looked decidedly generic and profoundly unexciting.

I needn’t have worried. This is pacy, original and occasionally thrilling stuff, mostly because it has the brio to pursue a simple idea to its logical conclusion. We’ve all had that moment, I’m sure, walking along a busy street with a set of earphones plugged in, imagining that what’s playing in our head is our own personal soundtrack. Wright has taken that idea and stamped down hard on the accelerator. What he serves up here is essentially a series of stylish set-pieces orchestrated by and choreographed to an eclectic mix of rock classics. Little wonder the trailer couldn’t do it justice. To understand exactly how it works, you have to see an entire track play out.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is working as the getaway-driver-of-choice for crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey). A childhood accident means that Baby suffers from constant tinitus, so being plugged into one of his many iPods helps him function on a daily basis. Every heist he takes part in is, therefore, accompanied by a kicking tune, pretty much in its entirety. But we soon learn that he is a reluctant criminal, only working for Doc in order to pay off a long-standing debt and feeling nothing in common with the genuine gangsters he is obliged to work alongside. They include super aggressive Bats (Jamie Foxx) and weird lovebirds, Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eliza Gonzalez). When Baby meets up with young waitress, Deborah (Lily James), he sees a powerful reason to disentangle himself from the clutches of his former employer. But it seems he isn’t going to be allowed to get off the hook quite as easily as he’d hoped…

Car chase movies are two-a-penny, but Baby Driver takes the genre to a whole new level and happily it isn’t only about the car chases. There’s plenty of good humour here and a scene where Baby goes to buy coffee is so beautifully choreographed it’s an absolute delight. Another highlight is a foot-chase set to yodelling oddity Hocus Pocus by the Dutch band, Focus. It shouldn’t work, but it does, effortlessly.

OK, so the film isn’t quite perfect. It sags briefly towards the middle when a gun deal goes wrong and events briefly threaten to tip into Free Fire territory, and there’s that annoying old trope of apparently dead characters coming back for another go once too often – but these are minor niggles in a film that for the most part zips along like the proverbial tigers on vaseline. I also love that this isn’t one of those movies where the protagonists get to drive off into the sunset without any recriminations…

Judging by the sizeable crowd for this early evening screening, Wright has a palpable hit on his hands and that success is well-deserved. Hop aboard this little beauty, buckle in and enjoy the ride.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney