IMAGINE THERE ARE NO BEATLES

What if the Fab Four had never been? That’s the conceit of the recent film written by Richard Curtis and directed by Danny Boyle of Slumdog Millionaire fame. A struggling singer-songwriter named Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is having no luck playing his songs in pubs or to sparse festival audiences. Although assisted by his ever faithful and upbeat manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James), he decides to call it quits. But by a freak accident of fate, he is hit by a bus at the same time that a worldwide power outage happens. After missing the event and recuperating in a hospital, he soon discovers that nobody in the world remembers who the Beatles are. In fact, their music has been eradicated from human history. It is now up to him to leave his old life behind to keep the music alive, which results in a major record deal, procuring a blunt, manipulative agent (Kate McKinnon), and beguiling music superstar Ed Sheeran, who takes Jack out on tour across the world.

What makes Yesterday such a fun movie to watch is the fact that not only does it ponder whether or not the Beatles music would still attract a wide audience today, but it pokes fun at the bland, prefabricated nature of the current music industry. In one scene, music executives laugh off Jack’s ideas for album titles, including Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road. At the same time, Jack must come to terms with feeling like an imposter in spite of his mission.

On top of being a great way to expose a lot of younger people to the music of the Beatles, Yesterday is a clever analysis of current music industry politics and the disposable nature of popular music today. At times the film stumbles. It seems to be pondering which is more important, the artist or the art, but the answer should be both. McKinnon’s agent is a little too blunt and snarky, feeling like a caricature more than a true-to-life representation, and the way the film resolves itself feels a little awkward and leaves some dangling questions. That being said, Patel is quite a talent, having performed the songs himself. There are even bonus clips of him playing three Beatles tunes with a band in Abbey Road Studios. 

It’s far from perfect, but Yesterday is still an unusually fun rock ‘n’ roll fantasy.

KILL YOUR CHILDHOOD

In bonus interviews for The Banana Splits Movie, the director and cast talk about the inherent creepiness of a lot of children’s programming. For the original Banana Splits Adventure Hour (1968) and their subsequent shows into the seventies, creators Sid and Marty Krofft conjured crazy psychedelic imagery but made it palatable for kids. In this twisted take on their first kids show, the 50-year-old series never actually went off the air, and the Splits themselves are animatronic robots who do the bidding of their creator who lurks backstage. When the network’s new head honcho decides to kill the show out of disdain and financial malice, Drooper and the gang aren’t having any of it. Once the taping ends, the body count slowly starts to rise backstage. Caught in the crossfire is a young boy named Harley, his older brother, mother, bullying stepdad, and a school friend.

The idea of taking a late sixties kids show and marrying it to the eighties slasher genre is actually a funny idea, and director Danishka Esterhazy certainly doesn’t pull any punches. She and writers Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas made sure that this incarnation is full of gory, limb-tearing excess. The inherent problem is that the story lags and feels padded. While this movie clocks in at 89 minutes, it easily could’ve been 75 and a lot more entertaining. There was also a chance to make some interesting statements on staying in touch with your inner child—the real victims of this onslaught are adults—and the possibilities of tapping into the darker side of childhood fears of facing a scary world. But those ideas never get fully fleshed out. I know, I’m probably expecting a bit too much from the concept here, but Sid and Marty Krofft came up with very original, “out there” concepts for kids that were highly imaginative and stayed stuck in your brain well into adulthood.

It’s very trendy these days to give everything a horror twist—look at the successful line of Archie Horror comics that have sprung up in the past six years—but this one could have used more fine tuning and a stronger cast. Kudos for trying.

LIFE IS LIKE HIGH SCHOOL

Think your high school years were bad? Try being Sue Ann (Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer), a veterinary assistant in a small Ohio town who secretly starts to throw parties for local teenagers to have a safe place to drink and freedom from their parents. That certainly feels like a desperate and slightly creepy attempt to hold onto her youth. There is definitely a dark underbelly to this situation: Sue Ann’s high school memories are scarred by a traumatizing experience, and many of the people she’s partying with are progeny of old classmates. That might sound like it’s giving away a lot of Ma, but that jig is up early on. It’s how things unfold that matters.

Spencer puts on a good performance as the damaged protagonist, and director Tate Taylor keeps the momentum going. But as happens so often, a film that could have gone deeper into the reality of high school life, and how for many simply continues on into adulthood, never goes far enough. Scotty Landes’ script could have dug a bit deeper into the psyche of not only Sue Ann herself, but the individual teenagers who come off as caricatures that we’ve seen in other teen movies. It’s a common flaw in Hollywood fare—teens or villains (or both) often don’t get enough of a solid backstory or look into their inner world. Many of the kids aren’t given enough character development to make you sympathize more with their plight. Everyone has their own story to tell, and while there are certainly plenty of popular kids who do not deserve sympathy for their scornful treatment of their peers, stories like this are too superficial to be profoundly effective. Ma certainly has its moments, but it feels undercooked.

THE COST OF AIR

Here’s one of those rare birds: A hybrid animation and live action feature alternating between the two in an exercise to turn an arty Japanese anime film into a commercial story for American audiences. As well documented in the informative liner notes and bonus features, the eighties VHS market was flooded early on by any product that indie companies and big studios could make money on, including recut versions of overseas movies, a long-running practice really milked by legendary producer Roger Corman back in the sixties. With regards to In The Aftermath (1988), New World Pictures let budding producer/director/writer Carl Colpaert (a future producer of Gas Food Lodging and Mi Vida Loca) combine footage from the lyrical anime film Angel’s Egg with new live action footage that he shot. The company didn’t think the dream-like anime would find a big enough audience here, so he fashioned a new story and used a voiceover for the animated parts to cross over into the live action material. The original Japanese movie reportedly has little dialogue.

The basic gist of this spliced creation is that there are two angels roaming a gothic, post-apocalyptic landscape (from Angel’s Egg, directed by Mamoru Ishii). One is a young girl who has been tasked by her near adult brother to hold on to a special egg that we learn is to be granted to someone worthy. One possible person is a human roaming an industrial wasteland (in the live action part) who survives a near fatal encounter and is rescued by a female doctor who cares for him in an abandoned hospital. The air on earth is now nearly unbreathable and most water undrinkable, so they are sequestered inside. Before his rescue, the young angel makes a connection with the injured man, who seeks to find her while she must decide if he is worthy of the gift she bears.

The concept behind the film is interesting, even if the execution is flawed. The Angel’s Egg part, which encompasses roughly half of the 72-minute run time, is far more beguiling than the live action material, although the derelict, real-life steel mill that the filmmakers found—Kaiser Steel in Fontana, California—where parts of the Schwarzenegger sci-fi films The Running Man and Terminator 2 were shot—is slowly, horrifically disintegrating and fascinating to gaze upon and be sucked into. It turns out that parts of the site were indeed toxic, and the cast and crew had to steer clear of areas with potential chemical exposure.

In The Aftermath is geared towards hardcore post-apocalyptic fans and cult curio collectors. Beyond the bonus features, the other selling point for its higher price tag: Angel’s Egg is not available in North America (or England), so right now this is your only option to even see part of it. At least what is there is spectacular.

NETFLIX FIX:

MINDHUNTER Season 2 (2019)

I’ve been waiting two years for this popular Netflix series to return, and it has been worth the wait. Based on the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, this show opens a compelling window into the lives of federal agents whose pioneering work into serial killer research leads them to face down horrific criminals and cases.

In the second season, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) have a lot to contend with:they have a new boss (Michael Cerveris), a brewing murder crisis in Atlanta, and Tench’s son is witness to a horrible crime, the aftermath of which threatens his family’s unity. Further, we delve into the secret dating life of their colleague Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv). Many episodes also present prologues with the BTK Killer as his career slowly winds up. Since he was not arrested until 35 years later, one wonders how this scenario plays out in future seasons.

What makes Mindhunter so compelling is the fact that it doesn’t dwell on gory crime scenes but really gets us into the heads of the main agents, their personality conflicts, and how they are coping with such emotionally draining work. Looming over all of these aspects are governmental politics and some unfavorable reactions to their methods. This series is a character-driven slow burn that uses real-life serial killers in plots, although obviously some liberties are taken with certain portrayals. (This season stirred up controversy and anger for some people connected to the real-life Atlanta killing spree that it documents.)

If you’re into true crime or serial killer stories, Mindhunter is definitely for you. Even if you aren’t, it might still grab you.

NETFLIX FIX:

DISENCHANTMENT Season 2 (2019)

Given the time crunch of my packed viewing schedule, I’m only three episodes into the new season of Matt Groening’s fantasy send-up, but so far it’s holding up. Some fans thought the first season was inconsistent, but it did set the tone for the show, which is one that’s equally comedic and dramatic. Season two already has a lot to tackle at the outset: if and how King Zøg can turn his subjects back from stone, how Princess Bean and her demon pal Luci can resurrect Elfo from the dead, and how they all are going to fight back against Bean’s treacherous, newly resurrected mother. Naturally, this involves elves, mermaids, pirates, a journey into Hell (with its Escher-like inner landscape), and everyone’s clashing foibles. Disenchantment is not uproariously funny like classic Simpsons fare, but it does not need to be.

NOTABLE REISSUES

Hellraiser I & II – Arrow’s solo reissues of the first two Pinhead movies are the first and best installments of this long-running franchise. These are the Blu-ray editions originally included in the Scarlet Box trilogy released three years ago, so they are packed with recent and vintage bonus features along with updated versions of the Leviathan: The Story of Hellbound documentary for each movie.

Sleepy Hollow 20th Anniversary Edition – This is still my favorite Tim Burton film, which is an ominous, gothic rendering of the classic Washington Irving tale augmented by gallows humor. The limited edition Digibook release includes previous bonus features along with a spooky new cover and a 40-page booklet presenting the original short story.

Galaxy Quest 20th Anniversary Edition – Dean Parisot’s film has fun lampooning Star Trek and its devout aficionados. It also elicits a surprising amount of poignancy amid a satire in which aliens teleport the faded stars of the titular sci-fi series to their spacecraft to help them battle real-life oppressors. The Limited Collector’s Edition Blu-ray Steelbook includes cast and crew interviews, a look into the special effects, deleted scenes, and “Sigourney Weaver Raps.” FYI: It’s only available at Best Buy.

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