(2008)1.5Nathan SouthernOccasionally one comes across a theatrical release by a first-time writer-director that finds the multi-hyphenate straining for some level of depth or profundity with disastrous results. Yesterday Was a Lie is exactly that sort of film. But, while other movies in this bracket typically give us some window into the director's intentions, the goals of Yesterday remain murky and unfocused -- it's such an oddball product that we can never quite pinpoint what director James Kerwin was aiming for, which makes the film as alienating as it is pervasively dull.
The story takes place in some unidentifiable realm. Though ostensibly a neo-noir, the reality of this black-and-white film seems to exist in a sort of time warp -- the characters dress, speak and act as if they are in the 1940s Los Angeles world of James M. Cain, but the onscreen presence of technology (such as computers, email, and cell phones) suggests the 21st century, making the movie temporally schizoid. As played by Kipleigh Brown, the main character -- a female detective called Hoyle -- wants to locate some sort of German notebook that contains scientific formulas designed to prove theories of precognition. The book links these formulas, in turn, to the idea that thousands of alternate realities exist around us, all operating on different wavelengths, and the notion that linear time is an illusion. Hoyle is also hot on the trail of an elusive fellow called Dudas (John Newton), who has an uncertain connection to the case.
The film is problematic on the dual levels of content and style. In terms of its actual substance, if a mainstream feature is going to set up concepts involving metaphysics, precognition, and alternate realities, and wants to keep the audience involved, it had better take the time and care to both establish those ideas gracefully enough that we understand the gist of them, and to do so within the framework of a coherent story that thematically justifies the use of those concepts. This film does none of this -- so that by the midway point, we're left swimming in a sea of incomprehensible pseudoscientific babble and characters about whom we couldn't care less, with the cloudiest of narratives. And if the bulk of this content is impenetrable, Kerwin's resolution makes the entire movie feel laughably pretentious.
Stylistically, one of the biggest problems here is that the noir element never finds its footing. If a contemporary director is going to go out on a limb by making a black-and-white movie in the visual style of classic noir, that style should have a reason to exist. (Consider, for example, the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There.) There is no such justification here; the approach feels like a one-dimensional affectation, and, worse, one that Kerwin never takes seriously. The visual element and dialogue are so stylized that the movie almost becomes a parody. The director treats the approach jokingly, with silly exchanges and the stalest of one-liners -- for example, when Hoyle sits down at a bar and orders a brandy, and the bartender asks how she would like it, she responds, "in a glass." Even the names are humorously clever, such as the lead character, Hoyle, an amalgam of "hard" and "boiled." But the biggest problem with the noir-ish conceit of the film is that it exists uneasily alongside the muddled metaphysical ideas at the movie's center. The results are jarring and weird -- like a misguided film school exercise -- rather than revelatory.
What the movie does have -- perhaps its one sole virtue -- is an intriguing lead actress in neophyte Kipleigh Brown, who had done little prior to this other than acting in an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise. With her unusual countenance -- a broad forehead, deep-set, expressive eyes, high cheekbones, and a cleft chin, all framed by long blonde hair -- she projects a wonderful level of intensity that suggests tremendous emotional investment in every scene. Brown's casting is a radical departure away from the sort of conventional, interchangeable Hollywood ingenues who might have been used, and she could be enlisted to wonderful advantage in much better films. What a shame that her performance here is for naught.
Writer/director James Kerwin infuses Raymond Chandler-influenced noir with a metaphysical twist by tracing the story of a female detective who's tough enough to take on even Philip Marlowe in this monochromatic mystery designed to challenge the viewer's very perception of reality. Hoyle (Kipleigh Brown) is a hard-drinking detective whose taste for bourbon betrays her razor-sharp sleuthing skills. Set out on the trail of a reclusive genius (John Newton), however, Hoyle soon finds her life becoming increasingly fragmented and surreal. The only people that Hoyle can trust as she begins to uncover a series of mind-bending cosmological secrets are her loyal partner (Mik Scriba) and a scintillating lounge singer (Chase Masterson). But wherever Hoyle goes, she is shadowed by a mysterious figure (Peter Mayhew) whom she is soon destined to meet, and who may just possess the power to bend reality. In a world of black and white, Hoyle is about to take a bizarre journey into the divine gradients of grey invisible to the naked eye.