Screening Room: Yesterday, Annabelle Comes Home, Ophelia, Echo in the Canyon

In today’s podcast, George considers doing the whole show with a fake British accent and Hope says no. Also, we cover Yesterday, Annabelle Comes Home, Ophelia and Echo in the Canyon, plus all that’s new in home entertainment.

Listen to the full podcast HERE.

California Dreamin’

Echo in the Canyon

by George Wolf

For a musician and a record executive, it was the look of an old movie that led them down a path toward becoming documentarians.

The movie was 1969’s Model Shop, and to Jakob Dylan (Wallflowers, son of Bob) and Andrew Slater (former president of Columbia Records), that film “looked like a Beach Boys record.”

Inspiration took root, with Echo in the Canyon standing as the sweet fruit of their efforts to research and honor the music that defined the film’s setting: L.A.’s Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s.

With Slater directing and Dylan serving as producer and on screen guide, Echo digs deep into a fertile musical catalog. Mixing interviews and performances—both new and archival—the film effectively bridges the gap between those who created the music and those who continue to be inspired by it.

And, oh, the stories are priceless.

From Tom Petty (shown in one of his final interviews) winning his copy of Pet Sounds from a radio contest, to Dylan’s influence (“You’ll have to be more specific,” Jakob deadpans), to Neil Young wanting to take on some cops (“he’s Canadian!”) the tales keep coming, nearly all of them captivating.

And, of course, so is the music.

Classics from the Byrds, Beatles, Beach Boys, Mamas and the Papas and more are explored from their beginnings, and then reborn. From the studio to the stage, Jakob and assorted guest stars (Fiona Apple, Beck, Cat Power) give the songs new coats of paint, and while this approach casts vanity project shadows on Dylan the younger, the motivations always seem properly reverential.

At 82 minutes, the film does seem like it closes the curtain a bit early, but it gets the point across. By the time Graham Nash gives a near tearful declaration that Laurel Canyon in the 60s will one day stand with Paris in the 30s as a watershed of collaborative art, you’re not apt to argue.

Ghost Writer

Yesterday

by George Wolf

Hey, baby boomers (yes, my hand is up), thanks for still buying CDs!

Now please enjoy the latest installment in your Musical Movie Memories Tour, Yesterday.

We’ve already jammed to Queen and Elton, Bruce is set for August, so how about remembering how much we love the Fab Four by envisioning a world where they never existed?

It’s a conceit so instantly charming director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire) passed on the project, thinking it had already been done. He was convinced otherwise and jumped on board, bringing the script from Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually) to life with a breezy, unabashed fandom.

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, easy to root for) is a struggling musician in Suffolk who’s ready to give up on the dream. His longtime friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) protests, but Jack rides his bicycle off into the English night unsure of his future.

Fate intervenes with a brief worldwide blackout, which brings an accident, a hospital stay, and Jack waking up in a world without his two front teeth.

Or the Beatles.

That second one is pretty advantageous for Jack’s career, though the film is at its most likable early on, when Jack is trying to remember lyrics, getting nowhere on Google and chastising anyone who doesn’t instantly realize how life-changing “his” new songs are.

Of course, his protests only resonate because we’re still in the old world with him. It’s a credit to the simple genius of this premise that Yesterday can tell without showing and still pull us in. And surprise, it’s also a wonderfully organic way to strip down these songs we’ve heard for decades and remind us how truly great they are.

Jack’s star rises with a move to L.A, getting tutelage from Ed Sheehan (nicely self-deprecating as himself) and an apologetically shameless record label rep (perfectly slimy Kate McKinnon). It’s in America where Yesterday starts to drag a bit, wanting from the absence of spunky James and will-they-or-won’t-they rom that balances this com.

How that turns out, you can probably guess.

As for the musical fantasy, credit Curtis and Boyle for avoiding the easy cop out. Buy in and you’ll be rewarded with an entertaining take on life choices that’s fun to sing along with, occasionally slight but often downright fab.

Something Rotten

Ophelia

by Cat McAlpine

You’ve probably seen the painting “Ophelia” by Sir John Everett Millais (1852). It’s one of the most iconic images born from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and one of the most well-known paintings of the 19th century. In it, fair Ophelia floats on her back in a river, surrounded by her red hair, elaborate gown, and a fistful of flowers.

This painting seems to be the sole aesthetic for director Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia-centric Hamlet adaptation, as evidenced by a horrible red wig, and the film’s open on a recreation of the painting. Also Ophelia’s quirk is she likes to leave the castle in the middle of the day and just walk into the river?

This iconic imagery is immediately interrupted with a “You may think you know my story…” voice over that immediately dashed all my hopes for Ophelia. The following film was a bizarre infantilizing of a classic heroine, already disadvantaged by her source material. Writers Semi Chellas (adaptation) and Lisa Klein (novel) navigate a series of bizarre Shakespearian fan-service plot twists that only make the story seem less grounded.

You see, Hamlet (a very good George MacKay) fell for Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) because she was quirky. The other girls didn’t like her because she didn’t have money for jewels and didn’t care to learn to dance properly.

This characterization of Ophelia is so cheap that the chemistry between MacKay and Ridley fizzles, further highlighting Hamlet’s unhinged impulses while Ophelia remains a canvas for him to project onto. Ridley surprisingly has more chemistry with charming Devon Terrel (Horatio).

Because this re-telling gets the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead treatment, flourishes to the tale only happen in the margins when Ophelia would be off stage, and the story is still bound to all the events penned by Shakespeare. This means many key plot points seem to fly in from nowhere, even for those familiar with the original play. Out of nowhere Ophelia is awoken and told “Your father is dead. Hamlet accidentally killed him.” And while we’re experiencing events through Ophelia’s lens, we’re still left asking “Wait…what happened?”

Time that could’ve been spent developing Ophelia’s character or deepening her connection to her family (familial relationships being the focus of Hamlet) is instead spent on weird through lines about witchcraft and a secret twin. And while Ophelia ends up somewhere we don’t expect with a final resilient message about valuing yourself, the ending feels almost tacky instead of triumphant.

McCarthy’s film isn’t without merit. There’s some clever weaving of Shakespeare’s text into the dialogue. The costuming is beautifully done and the play-with-a-play performance makes for powerful imagery done in silhouette. The fight choreography is beautiful, fierce, and performed with a great fluidity. In all times, when the film is following the original plot, the fevered intensity of Hamlet shines through.

I hope one day sweet Ophelia gets a good story, a method for her madness, and a resolution for her watery demise. But this isn’t it.

A Different Kind of Toy Story

Annabelle Comes Home

by Hope Madden

The first conflict, first specter of the Conjuring universe was a hideous, braid-wearing doll haunting hip Seventies roommates. Ever wonder what happened after Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, respectively) removed the cursed doll Annabelle from the girls’ apartment?

It was a hell of a ride home, I will tell you that.

Truth is, the Annabelle franchise within the larger Conjuring property hasn’t really impressed. John R. Leonetti’s lackluster 2014 “save the baby” horror that gave the doll its own series fell flat. Three years later, David F. Sandberg’s Annabelle: Creation offered an origin story that knew absolutely nothing at all about its own religious setting, yet offered considerably stronger action, scares and gore than its predecessor.

Writer Gary Dauberman, who’s penned every installment (as well as It, which seriously amplifies his credibility), takes on directing duties for the first time with the third film, Annabelle Comes Home.

Again, this one is a little better than the last one.

Dauberman gives us a spooky fun glimpse into the reasons the Warrens kept the doll locked away back in their room of cursed objects. From that first road trip home—which is a blast straight out of Hammer or Michael Jackson’s Thriller—the film is a spooky fun ode to old fashioned horror.

Back at home—the very home where the Warrens illogically keep demonic objects—their daughter Judy (McKenna Grace, really good in this role) is going through some troubles with schoolmates who think her parents are creepy.

Duh.

So, creepy Ed and Lorraine leave town, likely to cast a demon into a Combat Carl they’ll be adding to the back room toybox, leaving little Judy with a cherubic babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) and her snoopy bestie, Daniela (Katie Sarife).

What does Daniela touch in the off-limits, demon-filled back room?

“Everything.”

All hell breaks loose, naturally.

Dauberman shows some fun instincts when it comes to isolating characters to make the most of his thrill ride setting. The logic comes and goes with ease, however—once the catalyst kicks in, each scene exists simply to trigger a scare, not to make any narrative sense.

But it is fun, with generous writing that does not ask us to root against any of the kids, and performances that are far superior to the content. Plus a couple of real laughs, mostly thanks to a randomly hilarious pizza delivery guy.

Annabelle Comes Home is no masterpiece and it is definitely a tonal shift from the previous installments, but it’s a mindless PG-13 blast of haunted house summer fun.

Best Movies First Half of 2019

By Hope Madden and George Wolf

The year is half over. What?! Stop it right now.

It’s true, and it has already been one hell of a year for film—documentary, in particular.

We’ve seen performances sure to be forgotten by awards season, so let us say right now that Elisabeth Moss (Her Smell), Emma Thompson (Late Night), Robert Pattinson (High Life) and Billie Lourd (Booksmart) top the list of must see acting glory in 2019.

What else? Well, DC finally got a real hit with the delightful Shazam! Meanwhile, MCU continued to make all the money with two really solid, fun and rewarding experiences: Avengers: End Game and Captain Marvel.

Which we all saw, statistically speaking. What did too few people see this year? Smart, funny R-rated comedies. Woefully underappreciated this year were Long Shot, Booksmart and Late Night. Please rectify this situation by the time these are available for home enjoyment.

10. Rocketman

Driven by a wonderfully layered performance from Taron Egerton – who also handles his vocal duties just fine – the film eschews the standard biopic playbook for a splendid rock and roll fantasy.

Writer Lee Hall penned Billy Elliot and Dexter Fletcher is fresh off co-directing Bohemian Rhapsody. Their vision draws from both to land somewhere between the enigmatic Dylan biopic I’m Not There and the effervescent ABBA glitter bomb Mamma Mia.

In the world of Rocketman, anything is possible. And even with all the eccentric flights of fancy, the film holds true to an ultimately touching honesty about the life story it’s telling.

9. How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

The Hidden World offers so much more than just cute, and more than enough substance to solidify the entire Dragon saga as a top tier film trilogy.

This franchise has delivered true visual wonder since the original film’s opening frame, and part 3, taking natural advantage of enhanced technology, ups the ante. The aerial gymnastics and high seas swashbuckling are propelled by animation that is deep and rich, while new details in the dragons’ faces bring wonderful nuance and expression.

There is real tension here, along with warm humor, thrilling action pieces and resonant themes backed by genuine emotion. Packed with excitement, sincerity and visual amazeballs, The Hidden World ties a can’t-miss ribbon on a wonderful trilogy.

8. The Souvenir

The Souvenir rests at the hypnotic intersection of art and inspiration, an almost shockingly self-aware narrative from filmmaker Joanna Hogg that dares you to label its high level of artistry as pretense.

In her first major role, Honor Swinton Byrne is tremendously effective (which, given her lineage as Tilda Swinton’s daughter, should not be that surprising). In her hands, Hogg’s personal reflections are at turns predictable, foolish and frustrating, yet always sympathetic and achingly real.

The Souvenir is finely crafted as a different kind of gain from pain, one that benefits both filmmaker and audience. It is artful and cinematic in its love for art and cinema, honest and forgiving in its acceptance, and beautifully appreciative of how life shapes us.

7. Little Woods

Nia DaCosta’s feature directorial debut, which she also wrote, is an independent drama of the most unusual sort—the sort that situates itself unapologetically inside American poverty.

This is less a film about the complicated pull of illegal activity and more a film about the obstacles the American poor face—many of them created by a healthcare system that serves anyone but our own ill and injured.

But politically savvy filmmaking is not the main reason to see Little Woods. See it because Tessa Thompson and Lily James are amazing, or because the story is stirring and unpredictable.

See it because it’s what America actually looks like.

6. Us

Even as writer/director Jordan Peele lulls us with familiar surroundings and visual quotes from The Lost Boys, Jaws, then Funny Games, then The Strangers and Night of the Living Dead and beyond, Us is far more than a riff on some old favorites. A masterful storyteller, Peele weaves together these moments of inspiration not simply to homage greatness but to illustrate a larger, deeper nightmare. It’s as if Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland turned into a plague on humanity.

Do the evil twins in the story represent the darkest parts of ourselves that we fight to keep hidden? The fragile nature of identity? “One nation” bitterly divided?

You could make a case for these and more, but when Peele unveils his coup de grace moment (which would make Rod Serling proud), it ultimately feels like an open-ended invitation to revisit and discuss, much like he undoubtedly did for so many genre classics.

While it’s fun to be scared stiff, scared smart is even better, a fact Jordan Peele has clearly known for years.

Guess who he’s reminding now?

5. Shadow

Yimou Zhang rebounds from The Great Wall with a rapturous wuxia wonder, one nearly bursting with visual amazements and endlessly engrossing storytelling.

Taking us to ancient China’s “Three Kingdoms” era, director/co-writer Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern) creates a tale of martial artistry, lethal umbrellas and political intrigue gloriously anchored in the philosophy of yin and yang.

While the tragedies and backstabbings recall Shakespeare, Dickens and Dumas, Zhang rolls out hypnotic tapestries filled with lavish costumes, rich set pieces and thrilling sound design, all perfectly balanced to support the film’s dualistic anchor.

Working mainly in shades of charcoal grey with effectively deliberate splashes of color, Zhang creates visual storytelling of the grandest spectacle and most vivid style. There’s little doubt this film could be enjoyed even without benefit of subtitles, while the intricate writing and emotional performances combine for an experience that entertains and enthralls.

https://youtu.be/ySgN82k20xQ

4. Apollo 11

A majestic and inspirational marriage of the historic and the cutting edge, Apollo 11 is a monumental achievement from director Todd Douglas Miller, one full of startling immediacy and stirring heroics.

There is no flowery writing or voiceover narration, just the words and pictures of July 1969, when Americans walked on the moon and returned home safely.

This is living, breathing history you’re soaking in. And damn is it thrilling.

From the capsule “home movies” of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, to the mission control checklists and ticking event countdowns, Apollo 11 immerses you in moments that will elicit breathlessness for the drama, pride for the science, respect for the heroism and awe for the wonder.

3. Amazing Grace

Already a living legend in January of 1972, Aretha Franklin wanted her next album to be a return to her gospel roots. Over two nights at the New Temple Baptist Church in Los Angeles, Aretha recorded live with the Reverend James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir as director Sydney Pollack rolled cameras for a possible TV special.

While it resulted in the biggest-selling gospel album in history, problems with syncing the music to the film kept the footage shelved for decades. Armed with the latest tech wizardry, producer/co-director Alan Elliot finally brings Amazing Grace to a glorious finish line.

To see Franklin here is to see her at the absolute apex of her powers. taking that voice-of-a-lifetime wherever she pleases with an ease that simply astounds. Even with the recording session stop/starts that Elliot includes for proper context, Aretha’s hold on the congregation (which include the Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts) is a come-to-Jesus revelation.

So is the film. It’s a thrilling, absolute can’t-miss testament to soul personified.

2. They Shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson may bring us as close to comprehending war as any director has, not by dramatizing the horror or by reenacting it, but by revisiting it.

The Oscar winning director and noted World War I fanatic sifted through hundreds of hours of decomposing footage, restoring the material with a craftsmanship and integrity almost as unfathomable as war itself.

Over this he layered audio from interviews with WWI veterans into a cohesive whole, taking us from the wide-eyed patriotism that drew teenagers to volunteer, through their training and then—with a Wizard of Oz-esque moment of color, depth and clarity—into battle.

The fact that this immersion pulls you 100 years into the past is beyond impressive, but the real achievement is in the intimacy and human connection it engenders.

The clarity of the faces, the tremor in the voices, the camaraderie and filth and death—all of it vivid as life. It’s as informative as it is enthralling, an equally amazing achievement in filmmaking and in education.

1. Toy Story 4

Josh Cooley (who co-wrote Inside Out) makes his feature directorial debut with this installment. He also contributes, along with a pool of eight, to a story finalized by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton (his credits include the three previous Toy Story films) and relative newcomer Stephany Folsom. 

The talents all gel, combining the history and character so beautifully articulated over a quarter century with some really fresh and very funny ideas. Toy Story 4 offers more bust-a-gut laughs than the last three combined, and while it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of TS3 (what does?!), it hits more of those notes than you might expect. 

Characteristic of this franchise, the voice cast is stellar, the peril is thrilling, the visuals glorious, the sight gags hilarious, and the life lessons far more emotionally compelling than what you’ll find in most films this summer. To its endless credit, TS4 finds new ideas to explore and fresh but organic ways to break our hearts.

Screening Room: Toy Story 4, Child’s Play, Anna, The Spy Behind Home Plate

Moviegoers in toyland this week as we run down Toy Story 4, Child’s Play, Anna, The Spy Behind Home Plate and all that’s new and exciting in home entertainment.

Listen to the full podcast HERE.

This Year’s Model

Anna

by George Wolf

After films such as La Femme Nikita and Lucy, writer/director Luc Besson is no stranger to the “beautiful killing machine” genre, but it seems the sexual treachery of Red Sparrow and the ass-kickery of Atomic Blonde have inspired him to get back in that familiar saddle.

His Anna is built on the same sexy Russian assassin blueprint, then adds layers of confusing time shifts, obvious fake outs, and misguided feminist ambitions, all wrapped in a constantly leering camera gaze.

Anna (Sasha Luss, back with Besson after Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) is plucked from Russian poverty by agent Alex (Luke Evans) and groomed for the spy game by the humorless Olga (Helen Mirren).

Anna’s cover is her job as a high fashion model, and guess what is this season’s hottest accessory?

Big silencers, slowly screwed on big guns that are framed just so against Anna’s lingerie-clad pelvic region. Subtle.

Check that, it really is, next to the roommate (Lera Abova) whose only purpose is to ask Anna for girl on girl action, and the CIA agent (Cillian Murphy) whose code name must be Dog in Heat.

And yet through all the bad writing and contrivance, Anna’s true ambition never wavers. She asks only for a freedom she has never known, freedom from a world that only uses and objectifies her at every turn.

And then pot and kettle lived happily ever after.

Friends to the End

Child’s Play

by Hope Madden

You have to give it to the marketing team saddled with Lars Klevberg’s reboot of Child’s Play.

First came the trailers. You couldn’t see the doll, but you heard that old TV theme song, “People let me tell you ‘bout my best friend! He’s a warm boy, cuddly toy, my up, my down, my pride and joy…”

Creepy.

And then the posters. You know, still no Chucky doll in the frame, but a ripped-to-shreds cowboy doll splayed across the ground.

Well, pardner, Sheriff Woody’s got the last laugh because Child’s Play the film is not 1/10th as inspired as its marketing. It’s a tedious time waster uninterested in plumbing any of its possible themes—single parenthood, poverty, loneliness, tech—for terror. Instead it goes for the obvious prey and hopes star power will blind you to its ordinariness.

Discount those straight-to-video installments in the series if you will (and honestly, you probably should), but at least they each tried to do something different. At some point they embraced the ridiculousness of this itty, bitty freckle-faced problem and just ran with it.

Not this time. Nope, what we have here is one deadly serious and wildly unimaginative reboot. Hell, the doll doesn’t even look good!

And yet, Aubrey Plaza, Brian Tyree Henry and Mark Hamill all signed on to star in what amounts to the 8th Chucky film.

Why?

It’s not the concept. The possessed doll conceit has been updated from the soul of a serial killer to modern technology. Imagine if google home required a super creepy doll in bib overalls to work. Admittedly, there are all sorts of Terminator/Maximum Overdrive/Demon Seed possibilities here, all of which are left entirely unmined.

Instead it’s just a defective AI doll (voiced by Hamill himself), birthday gift from a department store clerk (Plaza) to her lonely but clearly too old for the toy son, Andy (Gabriel Bateman, quite good, actually).

They’re all good, especially Henry. Too bad the film doesn’t deserve it. Aside from one kill inspired by Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (nice!), and performances that are all better than the material, the new Child’s Play is a pretty tedious affair.