Movie Review: Across the Universe

across_the-universeRevolution is arguably the worst movie studio in history. Their catalog stuffed to the gills with movies so bad that it would make Ed Wood blush. Two “xXx” movies, “Daddy Day Care,” “White Chicks,” “Little Man,” “Christmas with the Kranks,” “America’s Sweethearts” (the last two were actually directed by Roth), “Zoom,” “The Master of Disguise,” “Next” and “The Animal” are but a handful of the movies they’ve inflicted on an undeserving public. They’re also responsible for three of this year’s worst movies: “Daddy Day Camp,” “The Brothers Solomon” and “Perfect Stranger,” the last of which has the most preposterous ending you will see in a movie from this or any other year. Revolution, by and large, specializes in dumb. C-A-T dumb, as my friend Mark would say.

So how on earth were they the studio that wound up making “Across the Universe”? Julie Taymor’s wildly ambitious reinterpretation of the Beatles songbook is the absolute last thing you’d expect a studio like Revolution to be interested in, yet “Across the Universe” has more guts than the rest of Revolution’s catalog combined. Pity, then, that it runs aground in the third act, because up until that point, Taymor’s weirdo blend of “Moulin Rouge” and “Hair” is just the right mix of whimsical and crazy.

The movie begins in the early ‘60s, and follows the lives of several people in various parts of the world. Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a dockworker from Liverpool who leaves for the U.S. to track down his father, whom he thinks is a professor at Princeton. Once he arrives he befriends a rich slacker student named Max (Joe Armstrong), and ultimately becomes smitten with Max’s little sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Max and Jude move to New York and wind up sharing a flat with soul singer named Sadie (Dana Fuchs). Lucy visits them after graduating high school, and falls in love with Jude. Max is soon drafted by the Army to serve in Vietnam, which causes Lucy to become an anti-war activist, much to Jude’s chagrin. Rounding out the story is a former cheerleader named Prudence, a Hendrix-ish guitarist named Jojo, a psychedelics expert fittingly named Dr. Robert, and, of course, Mr. Kite.

I must give props to soundtrack producer T. Bone Burnett for knowing when to keep it simple and knowing when to have some fun, not to mention acknowledging some of the better Beatles cover versions along the way. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” here, is an aching acoustic ballad, “With a Little Help from My Friends” is half-Beatles, half-Joe Cocker, and “A Day in the Life” owes more to Jeff Beck’s version than the sprawling Beatles opus. Additionally, it appears that they went out of their way to use as few songs from the Bee Gees’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” soundtrack as they could. Very smart. S-M-R-T, as noted scholar Homer Simpson would say.

What is not so smart, however, is the heavy-handedness of the war subplot. Uncle Sam reaching out of the poster on the wall and telling Max, “I want you”? Clever. Max and a group of soldiers carrying the Statue of Liberty on their backs through the Vietnam jungles, singing “She’s so heavy”? Painful. Ironically, this subtle-as-a-sledgehammer moment is as anti-establishment as the movie gets; the predominant message throughout the movie seems to be ‘The Man always wins,’ which cannot possibly be what Taymor intended. I also found it strangely easy to stop caring when things between Jude and Lucy went sour. In fact, I can’t say that any of the characters made much of an impact, to be honest. The music, in the end, is the star.

We can only hope that Revolution doesn’t use the box office numbers for “Across the Universe” – which, let’s be frank, is not going to make any money – to determine the movie’s true worth. The movie is ultimately pretty good, but damned if they didn’t aspire for something far greater, which is more than 90% of the movies in their catalog can legitimately claim. The Christmas bonuses at Revolution may be smaller this year, but the employees can take comfort in the fact that they’ve laid the groundwork for saving the souls they sold when they released “The New Guy.”

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

This originally ran October 11, 2007 on Bullz-Eye.com

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Movie Review: 2012

2012When it comes to Roland Emmerich movies, we hold these truths to be self-evident: they will be overlong, not terribly well acted, and loaded with melodrama that has the emotional weight of a Hallmark card. In the plus column, the man can stage one hell of a disaster sequence, and his latest movie “2012,” for better and for worse, is all of these things. It sports a ridiculous run time – two hours and 38 minutes, yikes – and the so-called teary moments fall flat, but the annihilation sequences he assembles are like nothing you’ve ever seen. That leaves the acting as the difference-maker, and surprise, it’s actually better than expected. Not across the board, mind you, but having a better actor than Dennis Quaid at the helm is a good first step.

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Movie Review: 1408

1408The phrase “based on a story by Stephen King,” as a general rule, is far scarier than any movie that’s actually based on a story by Stephen King. Fortunately, “1408” is the first movie in years (decades?) to rise above its dubious distinction. It may not be run-to-church-and-repent terrifying, but it is relentless and unsettling, and as a bonus, it turns a Carpenters wedding staple into a murder ballad. That, my friends, takes skill.

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Movie Review: 300: Rise of an Empire

300_empireThere is only one woman who doesn’t end up raped or murdered. The ones who are spared rape – presumably, anyway; for all we know, they were raped before we witness their deaths – are nearly all slaughtered while topless. Far be it from me to sound like a feminist, but there are parts of “300: Rise of an Empire” that are disturbing on a number of levels. Zack Snyder, who opted not to direct the follow-up to his 2006 smash “300” but co-wrote the screenplay, will likely argue that these were dark days, and heinous crimes were committed, and we will not debate either point. However, when all of the naked victims are ‘D’ cups, it sends a mixed message, to say the least.

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Movie Review: 300

300I had an interesting conversation with one of my fellow movie critic friends on the way out of “300.” He was just as excited to see it as I was, but afterwards, the first word he used to describe it was “lame,” that it was nothing but slo-mo swordplay and green screen work. I found this puzzling, since every trailer for the movie shows nothing but slo-mo swordplay and green screen work. Wasn’t the movie, then, exactly what the ads – the very things that got him so excited in the first place – proclaimed it to be? And if so, why was he so disappointed to get exactly what the movie promised?

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Movie Review: 127 Hours

127_hoursThree years ago, the Onion A.V. Club ran a list of great films that are too painful to watch twice. That list has a new Number One. Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” takes a hellish premise that Jigsaw himself would be proud to call his own – mutilate yourself or die! – and turns it into a moving and even amusing testament to what men will do to survive. Best of all, the movie is careful not to paint Ralston as a victim because, well, he’s not. He got himself into this mess, and while his escape makes for a hell of a story, it’s a story that could have been prevented a million different ways.

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Movie Review: 50/50

50_50It is not easy to mix comedy with tragedy. Even Oscar-winning movies like “As Good As It Gets” had difficulty finding the right balance. “50/50” actually bests “As Good As It Gets” in a few respects, but rhythm eludes the movie from the very beginning. It hits all the right emotional chords, but it hits them like they’re targets in a drive-by shooting, fleeing the scene before the audience has had a chance to survey the damage and contemplate what’s just happened. In spite of this, “50/50” is a very entertaining and touching movie. With a different balance of love and death, though, it could have been something special.

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Movie Review: The 33

the_33The story of the Chilean miners who were trapped over 200 stories underground, and their subsequent rescue after a whopping 69 days, is one of humanity’s finest. It is a story of hope, courage, faith, and determination, and it had ‘major motion picture’ written all over it. Unfortunately, the word ‘major’ proves to be the biggest problem with the eventual motion picture. “The 33” had an intimate, claustrophobic film within its grasp, but chose to paint by numbers instead. They even recorded all of the dialogue in English. Ninety-nine percent of the characters are Chilean; this movie has no business being in English.

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Movie Review: 30 Minutes or Less

30_minutes_or_less-bigMovies, unlike albums, don’t have the luxury of being “growers.” They can’t start with the six-minute ambient piece and work their way to the big hit. They’re constructed like Now! compilations, front-loaded with the biggest hits and designed to bombard the viewer into submission. “30 Minutes or Less,” the new comedy from “Zombieland” director Ruben Fleischer, is built like Radiohead’s Kid A (it’s inferior to Kid A, of course, but go with us on this). The overall experience is a satisfying one, but it will try the patience of a saint along the way. Simply put, the first 30 minutes are brutal.

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Movie Review: 28 Weeks Later

28_Weeks_LaterAfter watching “28 Weeks Later,” the only thing I wanted to do was take a shower and watch “American Idol.” Granted, it contained all the elements that these movies need to be effective: it was bloody, disturbing and relentless, but not in a thrilling way. Instead, it was exhausting and bleak, and made me feel dirty just watching it. To gore hounds, that may sound like a good thing. I assure you, it’s not. And yet, the movie has its good points. There is some truly frightful stuff here, but it’s not in a boo-eek way as much as a holy-shit-we’re-really-flawed-as-a-species way. If that gets you off, you are not welcome in my house.

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