On Second Thought... Across the Universe

Allow me to introduce a recurring column- ON SECOND THOUGHT, wherein I futilely attempt to give movies I did not like (but for reasons not entirely clear) a second chance.

Right from the start of Across the Universe, I was naggingly reminded of another fairly recent musical: Moulin Rouge. How could I not be? In retrospect, the comparison holds up; the films have a substantial amount of similarities. I might even go so far as to call them cinematic soul sistah-s. Both films attempt to use the bewitching allure of pop music to ensnare audiences in a storyline built around the songs they feature. Moulin Rouge used a kitchen sink hodge-podge of everything: Bowie, Elton John, Madonna.. even Nirvana made a casual appearance. Across the Universe is one act only, and if you had to pick any pop group from whom to cull a selection of story-ready song snippets, you could hardly do better than The Beatles.

Furthermore, the two male leads are practically replicas, both in character and in singing voice (in Universe's opening image, of Jim Sturgess staring into the camera and starting into the melancholy lyrics of "Girl," sounds so much like Ewan MacGregor that I seriously wondered if maybe one might have doubled the other's vocal performances.) Both films are romantic, both are set in the past, and, curiously, both films feature Bono (...) in some capacity. A final similarity; upon exiting the theater after my initial viewing of each, I was way underwhelmed. In fact, in the case of Moulin Rouge, I was downright pissy.

I went back to Moulin Rouge when it came out on video, and, after countless viewings in the wee hours of many an empty video store, it has grown on me immensely. Armed with the memory of this revelation, and with an eye toward my general love of musicals, I set out to give Across the Universe another shot. Here, sadly, the similarities end.

Julie Taymor is a sometime filmmaker (this is her third in 8 years,) but she made her reputation as a stage director, and in Across the Universe it shows. That being said, I'm not even sure this would have made a good stage musical. I think the fans of this film were simply too easily seduced by the barrage of in-jokes, references and the memory-triggering songs, which to me feel alternately cutesy or just too easy.

The major problem of the film (and of most contemporary musicals, i.e. Sweeney Todd, Rent, et al.) is that the songs just don't have the required emotional attachment. Even the best scenes in the movie, such as when Jude angrily shouts "Revolution" in decry of Lucy's new-found role as anti-war activist, play almost too gently. This would seem to be Taymor's misdoing. On stage, it is often enough simply to perform the music. The audience cannot connect as directly with the performer as in a film. They can't make out faces. You back the songs up with the dances, the costumes, the big hair and all that. In a musical movie, the audience must truly believe the characters are singing, and WOULD sing this song for this reason at this moment. You have to see it in their eyes. At the very least, you have to fake it, but Taymor seems unconcerned, happy to dole out parcels of Fab Four favorites with little more than a wink to the audience, then move on. Here's half of "I've Just Seen a Face," she says. Pretty good, huh? Well, no..

The Beatles immense catalog lends Taymor plenty of quick-hits; musical jabs, too convenient and disposable to amount to much. The songs are too easy to spot to even constitute some kind of "Where's Ringo" game, and I'm not playing anyway. It's the kind of geeky shit that sends internet fanatics into a fit, tallying up and cataloging the films slimy little in-jokes.

There are further problems. Too much world-hopping (to be fair, it is called Across the Universe..) A little focus would be nice, or a slightly more linear approach. Also, the bevy of stars lining up to cameo is just plain stupid. Why bother? Sure, Joe Cocker can sing, but he's not very cinematic. He just stands there.

The side characters are unruly and inconsistent, with the at first Hendrix-like guitar player transforming into a Marvin Gaye look-alike at a convenient moment to sing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Even thought the movie never goes for "Sexy Sadie," "Maxwell Silverhammer," or "Lucy in the Sky" (which is played over the end credits,) Taymor can't resist the lilting lines of "Dear Prudence" or "Hey Jude," paying off the assumption that the characters were built around the emotional waves of the song, not the other way around. Correctly, and thankfully, Taymor avoids any explicit references to the actual Beatles.

In the end, Across the Universe remains a somewhat inscrutable failure. Yes, it is impossible not to smile at "In My Life," "Blackbird," or the myriad of other Beatles hits (there are over thirty in total) that the film features, and not every moment is completely unconvincing. But with such a wealth of built in emotional baggage already built into The Beatles's music, the forgettable nature of the film is inexcusable.

Taymor should have saved the big costumes and the broadway production antics for the stage version she obviously had in mind. With no less than 6 feature films already in existance chronicling the Beatles music (4 of which starring the Beatles themselves,) one more bite at the Apple catalog was bound to seem rotten.


LOG: There Will Be Blood

I am reminded of Bill Cosby's joke of how his son was "in charge of running touchdowns." Daniel Day-Lewis is clearly in charge of winning Oscars. The films he appears in automatically assume the status of events, and the scripts and directors he chooses earn (or further cement) their importance by their association to Him.
Lewis' performance here should then be surprising to none. As a P. T. Anderson movie, Blood is huge news for anyone who might have doubted that the director could go the distance. For all it's unproven (if suspected) faults, Blood clearly indicates that Anderson will have more important work in him.

The music had me thinking about cringing in a few spots, but more often than not it worked in jarring contrast with the hyper-real images of Robert Elswit, who announced himself with Anderson's Boogie Nights, and has since gone on to be, for my money, one of the top five American DPs in the game. He has since worked with the likes of Mamet and Scorsese, and this got him his well-deserved first Oscar trophy.

As has been noted, the import and staying power of There Will Be Blood will reveal itself in time, so I will reserve any judgment. Suffice it to say, Paul Dano sticks out like a a throbbing sore thumb against the aggro perfection of Lewis, and his casting may eventually be revealed as one of the films major weaknesses. This is completely corroborated by the report that Dano was originally cast only in the small role of Paul Sunday, not of both Paul and Eli.

That being said, as ever, Lewis' movie is Lewis' show, and he never, ever dissapoints. And, by virtue of Lewis' blessing, Anderson makes a quantum leap in style and substance from upstart indie quirk to proud, American spectacle, lavish, grand and reveling in tragic, simmering emotional heft. Next time out, Anderson will no longer have Lewis as his crutch, and his film's thrust will once again have to be born out of his own self. Then, there will be judgment.


Never Judge a Flick By It's Trailer: Redbelt

Mamet does sports. Fighting sports, no less. How has this not happened yet? And why did it surprise me at first that he would be a fan of mixed martial arts? My favorite writer, hands down, and one of my favorite directors as well. He shits gold. Great to see Mantegna rejoining the Mamet fold. He has appeared in three separate Mamet-written productions (The Water Engine, Lakeboat, and Edmond) but has not technically been on screen under Mamet's own direction since Homicide in 1991. Perhaps they mutually agreed on this, as Mantegna was the lead in Mamet's first three films (with House of Games and Things Change.) Also, Tim Allen. Yes, Tim Allen. Lest we forget what Mamet has done with Ed O'Neill on multiple occasions.

His best thing since "Heist" and maybe my favorite movie of the year.



No Country For Old Men

No Country for Old Men has yearned patiently for years to become a film...

Two of them, to be exact.

The book was written in 2005. Even before this film's recent Oscar roundup, the trumpets had officially been sounded, and the Cormac McCarthy stampede was upon us. Ridley Scott will film McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," and "The Road" (an Oprah Book Club Selection!) will star Viggo Mortenson and Guy Pearce. And so we exclaim: Who is this guy, anyway?? It's OK. You may be forgiven for not caring.

I have always kept Joel and Ethan Coen (to their best friends, "The Coen Brothers") on my unofficial list of "directors to watch," which means, if nothing else, that I watch their films. Admittedly, the experience of watching No Country For Old Men was joyous. I was rapt and smiling, savoring the very thing that had got me into the theater in the first place: a Coen's film. I was happy and content to take it at face value, seeing what the directors would do with what I was sure was heaping dose of standard 1970's western pulp. However, as "The Academy" has seen fit to anoint the film it's Best Picture, a bit of further examination is required.

No Country's cast is one of it's most enjoyable strengths (if we excuse the lazy choice of Beth Grant doing a crappy imitation of an aging southern belle as Kelly Macdonald's mother.) Tommy Lee Jones in particular, ostensibly as the "Old Man" of the looming title, now seems to prove his immense value with every role. Hollywood is suffering the loss of many once-prolific 60-something actors from the drawing pool (*COUGH Gene Hackman COUGH,*) and the more wrinkly and deliberate Jones gets, the more important he is. He is also the closest thing that this decade has to a bona fide Western star.

But No Country isn't a western exactly, despite the double-wides and pick-up trucks and cact.. i. The praising of Javier Bardem (as the villain Chigurh) is warranted. Chigurh excretes the mania of serial killer brain disease with solitary, passionless precision, and I haven't been this tense in a theater since "Zodiac." People are killed in gruesome ways, in motels and on the freeway, all across the state. For what? A stolen suitcase of cash, of course, death following it like bloodthirsty dog. And here we find an apt place to draw our first (of many) comparisons to Fargo. Both films involve the pursuit of money, with an old-fashioned product of the town (the local Sheriff) giving casual chase.

You've seen it before, and so have I, but it's probably never been this good. McCarthy's story may be pulp, but it's the kind of pulp you can't resist. The Coens have an unrivaled mastery for recreating irresistible, bygone worlds, both with their words and with their visuals. In this case, their words they are aided by the source novel, and their images are aided by the god-like DP work of Roger Deakins, who has accompanied them through nearly all of their most important films. Where are we off to this time, gentlemen? 70's Texas. How giddily perfect a world for them to inhabit. So, what's not to like, right? Well, almost everything, actually. And No Country for Old Men doesn't care.

This may be the coldest movie ever set in Texas. It's crushingly, coldly bleak. Ice cold. Colder than Marge Gunderson's mittens. That doesn't exactly ratchet up the scores at the test screenings. This movie definitely does not stick around to tuck you in and give you a kiss before it leaves. The lights just go out and the floor is cold and you probably won't be able to sleep, anyway. But it's late as hell.

That being said, the ending is as perfect as can be, and the widespread criticism of it completely fucking baffles me. A beautiful monologue, almost certainly lifted directly from the novel. We return to the closest thing to a good heart that has shown itself in this miserable place, and therein we find pure, aching poetry. The summation of this simple hero's life and his uncertain search for meaning in a world of bleak randomness. It remarks on a fleeting, uncertain possibility of comfort and finality, of mortality, and then the moment's gone.
Our hero quietly pines not for the contents of that suitcase, but for a world which does not value it above all else. He is detached from himself and his work, resigned to a dwindling hope and an aging sense of duty. An odd choice for the Coens, long noted as meticulous, careful craftsmen; the film proves and preaches like a big, blustery Texas minister the sad, lonely, random disintegration of (all?) lives. With No Country For Old Men, the Coens and McCarthy pinpoint and calculatedly manipulate this unhinged randomness into a coherent and thrilling parable of greed. The exercise is as truthful as it is truly breathtaking. But allow yourself a few looong moments to come down off the this breakneck movie's cloud, and you may be a bit surprised at how worked up you got.

Now, with the film's not-surprising near sweep of the Oscars, the Academy cements it's castrated reputation and awards yet ANOTHER mid-career achievement Oscar to a film which, though easily more voter-friendly than nearly all of their previous works (probably excepting Fargo,) feels like a minor addition to their resumes (also see; Scorsese, The Departed.) The Coens seemed acutely aware of this, and it showed in their glaringly unappreciative and defiantly curt acceptance speeches, which seemed poorly disguised as shy and soft-spoken. They quipped about being selective, "only adapting Homer and Cormac McCarthy," perhaps a hefty swat at the author's thus-far unearned reputation as a genre master. But for all of No Country's impressive craftsmanship, it feels rather passionless. Much like the actions of Chigurh, who kills as if he has studied the activity, No Country's motions (and it's conspicuously absent motives) are executed with skill, not flair. With films such as The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Raising Arizona demonstrating such moments of great humor and beauty, the funereal tone of No Country is conspicuous, and Hollywood's embrace of it even more so.

LOG: Once

Taking most of its will-they-or-won't-they cues from Lost in Translation, Once relies too heavily on it's showcase component, the music of Irish singer (and star) Glen Hansard. Marketa Irglova, as the girl, introduces herself like such a would-be Lolita ("fix my vacuum cleaner!") that it's puzzling and off-putting when she withdraws so suddenly, never to fully return. The film seems to enjoy subverting the traditional story roles, but it does it in rather predictable ways. The disapproving, "Jazz Singer"-esque father becomes the supportive, working class Dad, and so on. Yes, the music is very good, and "Falling Slowly" in particular is much deserving of it's popularity and Best Original Song Oscar. But Once might have elevated itself into something much more special and lasting if the film had anything else to rest it's weight on. I have surely seen enough movies about two people, finding each other and breathing life and love into one another as they pick up the lingering pieces of their separate failures.

The unavoidable punctuation mark at the end of the story is that the film couple has reportedly become a real couple, as they now tour the songs from the film together in the U.S. Once still lingers in my mind, held in place mostly by the conviction of Hansard's songs, and the lovely, cautious dance of the two leads, seemingly playing out real-life fancies behind the safety of the camera. But even for all it's elegant moments of authenticity, it still feels like a missed opportunity.