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Caught somewhere between 1940s film noir and digitally spiffy contempo fare, “Yesterday Was a Lie” toys with time in story and style, putting a hard-boiled dame at the center of a clunky David Lynchian cosmic mystery as the search for a missing notebook leads to grand (yet underwhelming) revelations about the nature of reality. James Kerwin’s conceptually ambitious low-budget debut offers stunning black-and-white HD cinematography, a sultry jazz score and a refreshingly high-minded script, but feels hopelessly amateurish in the acting department. Micro theatrical release will come and go unnoticed, though niche auds may find it on DVD.

Noteworthy primarily for reimagining the male-dominated detective genre around a female P.I., the pic loses that advantage by miscasting its most critical role. Written as a tough, hard-drinking Kathleen Turner type, Kipleigh Brown’s Hoyle comes across as a soft naif rather than the sort who hangs out in dive bars and drowns her rock-bottom existence in booze.

Yesterday” opens with Hoyle on the couch, describing a dream that features a comely doppelganger (a lounge singer/psychic played by “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s” Chase Masterson) and symbolism-rich visions of Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” — a throwback to Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” perhaps, except that it privileges Jung over Freud. A few convoluted scenes later, we realize the mystery Hoyle is tracking has less to do with the apocryphal notebook or the corpse she and her trenchcoat-clad detective cohort (Mik Scriba) find in a back alley than with a traumatic break-up in her past.

A man named Dudas (John Newton), lurking, Carmen Sandiego-style, just offscreen, has ties to Hoyle’s past and seems to be using some sort of occult means to bend time, leaving philosophical bread crumbs for her to follow (a book of T.S. Eliot poems here, the alchemical/astronomical sign for Mercury there). But closer investigation suggests the culprit may not be Dudas at all.

With scenes shuffled out of order and set in a strange no-man’s-land that’s part Los Angeles, part New York, where vintage pay phones leave messages on state-of-the-art answering machines and detective work is split between basement file systems and Google, “Yesterday Was a Lie” presents a paradoxical version of reality that improves upon second viewing, preferably on DVD. As it turns out, rewatching it on the smallscreen smooths over the pic’s underdressed sets, dearth of extras and too-stiff acting style.

These shortcomings aren’t hard to forgive in a production of such modest means, however. While the casting remains a problem (as in an out-of-place cameo by a shaggy-looking Peter Mayhew, best known as the actor who played Chewbacca in the “Star Wars” series), writer-editor-director Kerwin and d.p. Jason Cochard have created an impressively atmospheric tone for the project. Shooting in color, then meticulously adjusting each shot before desaturating, they arrive at the HD equivalent of the classical Hollywood aesthetic more genuine than such recent retro experiments as “The Good German” or “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.”

Yesterday Was a Lie

  • Production: A Helicon Arts Cooperative presentation. Produced by Chase Masterson. Executive producer, James Kerwin. Co-executive producers, Sarah Nean Bruce, Andrew Deutsch. Co-producers, S.K. Duncan, Steven Hacker, Jay Thames. Directed, written, edited by James Kerwin.
  • Crew: Camera (B&W, Panavision widescreen, HD), Jason Cochard; music, Kristopher Carter; music supervisor, Carter; production designer, Jill Kerwin; costume designer, Sara Curran Ice; sound (Dolby Digital), Stephen Nelson, Ian A. Thompson; sound designer, Sean Grey; special effects supervisor, Dwight Elliott Stone; visual effects supervisor, Tim Carras; associate producers, Daniel Henning, Jill Kerwin, Louis Race; assistant directors, Paul Bogh, Brenda Urquhart; casting, Victoria Anderson, Josh Waters. Reviewed at Laemmle Sunset 5, West Hollywood, Dec. 14, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 88 MIN.
  • With: With: Kipleigh Brown, Chase Masterson, John Newton, Mik Scriba, Nathan Mobley, Warren Davis, Megan Henning, Jennifer Slimko, Robert Siegel, Peter Mayhew.
  • Music By: