Across the Universe (U.S., 2007) * * *
D: Julie Taymor
Julie Taymor (Titus, Frida), with Across the Universe, has made a musical that is both epic and intensely personal. Epic, in the sense that it tells the (very familiar) story of the 60's through the sounds of the band that dominated the decade, The Beatles. Personal, in that it is Taymor's own Beatles reverie, the sort of story she might have dreamed up while sitting on her sofa with the headphones on; she picks the songs and the images that accompany them, and if she's found a spin to the classic lyrics with which you disagree--that's just your mixtape, man. Jim Sturgess has a star-making turn as Jude, a lad from Liverpool who leaves his homely girl for an odyssey to America. Here he meets fellow student Max (Joe Anderson), and eventually Max's sister, the beautiful Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), whose boyfriend has recently been shipped to Vietnam. Jude and Lucy fall in love, Max gets drafted, Lucy becomes an anti-war activist and flirts with becoming a revolutionary, and as tumultuous 1968 draws near, the friends are torn apart. But there's more: Prudence (T.V. Carpio) harbors a secret crush for Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a Janis Joplin-style rock and roll singer and the gang's landlord, but Sadie is seeing JoJo (Martin Luther), her Jimi Hendrix-styled guitarist. These characters get short shrift, and a longer cut (which reportedly exists) might help. There's a song every couple of minutes, each taken from the Beatles' deep catalog, although the majority are from the '67-'69 period. The characters don't lip-synch the Beatles tunes, but reinterpret them; "I Want to Hold Your Hand" now aches with same-sex longing as Prudence gazes across a football field at a fellow cheerleader; "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" becomes Satanic pro-war sloganeering as Max is processed by a U.S. Army soldier-making factory; "Strawberry Fields Forever" becomes a psychedelic vision of Vietnam with strawberries replacing bombs and blood; most strikingly, "Happiness is a Warm Gun" becomes the tale of vets getting addicted to hospital morphine. These are among the best numbers; I also enjoyed the use of "I've Just Seen a Face," which transforms a bowling alley date into ecstatic grease-slides down the lanes, and particularly loved the sky gazing and skinny dipping set to "Because," which is one of the purest and warmest visualizations of hippie idealism I've ever seen. But for every dazzling setpiece is a moment of awkwardness or head-slapping obviousness. Across the Universe's story deserves a certain wide-eyed naivete, but the literalness of Prudence being sung out of a closet, or the Magical Mystery Tour bus becoming a Ken Kesey one (to "I am the Walrus"), or even the plot itself, which seems not to have been scripted but carbon-copied, all ultimately demonstrate a basic kind of laziness. I also eagerly await the day when the directors of film musicals realize that stage choreography does not necessarily translate to the screen; elaborate choreography is necessary in (static) theater, but on film, the movement of the camera and the energy of the editing can do much of the work (there's a staleness to some of the more "artsy" choreography here, while the more cinematic music scenes, such as "I've Just Seen a Face," are bursting with life). So Taymor's mixtape of a film is spotty, but the high points outweigh the lows, and the film ultimately packs an emotional punch. John, Paul, George, and Ringo deserve some of the credit for that.
American Gangster (U.S., 2007) * * *
D: Ridley Scott
It's Superfly versus Serpico in Ridley Scott's classy gangster saga, the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who builds an underworld empire by bribing soldiers of the U.S. Army--then mired in the Vietnam War--to act as a shipping channel to transport 100%-pure grade heroin into the States. Selling a better product (which he cleverly brand-names) cheaper than any of the other dealers in Harlem, Lucas quickly rises to power, and chafes against the Mafia, who wants a piece of the operation, and corrupt cops, who expect a payoff. Part of the fun of American Gangster is watching Washington's mounting management frustration as he sees his perfect business fall slowly to pieces, for reasons mostly beyond his control. Helping everything topple to the ground is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a cop studying to be a lawyer, and seemingly the only guy in the police force who isn't taking bribes. Roberts is granted a small unit of operatives--a kind of Untouchables--to go undercover and trace the heroin ring to the source. He's reluctant to suspect Lucas, and, like many others, suspects Lucas is working for someone else; because how can he get access to so much heroin? This is actually a very standard genre film of the cops-and-gangsters variety, and if it has aspirations to be The Godfather, it's undone by Steve Zaillian's uninspired plotting, which works like a paint-by-numbers for Oscar crime films, providing all the expected scenes without ever being terribly original. Zaillian also has the annoyingly workmanlike method recognizable in all Oscar-winning screenwriters and "script doctors" (he's both)--the urge to fill out every space in the screenplay with unnecessary, often overwrought or cliched character detail. Did we really need the endless scenes of Crowe arguing with his ex-wife in court for custody of his son? Or delivering a speech on the subject when he has a very lame epiphany? Or Washington being confronted by his mother, another irrelevant character? Or even, yes, the scenes of junkies shooting up in squalor, so calculatingly inserted just when we might be glorifying Frank Lucas' profession a bit too much. There must be some rule taught in screenwriting school that not a corner of your film should be free of heavy padding. I long for lean and original filmmaking, and I get excited when I see it; or, as my wife said while we left the theater, "It's not as good as Eastern Promises." What is good about American Gangster, apart from the more pleasurable genre cliches, is the cast, particularly Washington, who relishes being cast against type. One minute he radiates charm, the next he's bashing a guy's head in with a piano. Washington is a real star, and has such magnetism that Crowe is dwarfed in his presence. It's a relief that he's finally getting worthy projects again. Praise also to Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing Washington's brother and closest confidante; both played partners on the other side of the law in Spike Lee's Inside Man, and now I harbor a hope that they'll make a string of films together, like contract players might for a big studio in the 40's. These two are a lot of fun to watch.
The Darjeeling Limited (U.S., 2007) * * * *
D: Wes Anderson
The best film of the year I've seen so far, Wes Anderson's fifth film, The Darjeeling Limited, has predictably received the usual gamut of mixed reviews; it should be recognized by now that his films, for some, require multiple viewings to be appreciated (his older films are now widely loved, while his last, The Life Aquatic, has been quickly building a cult following). I often thought that this phenomenon--that his films need to be seen more than once--is caused by his extremely economical storytelling style. Characters are introduced, and their personal histories and traumas are hinted at, suggested with a line or two of dialogue, then given great resonance at the end of the film if you were alert to the nuance. I expected The Darjeeling Limited to circumvent that problem since it delves more deeply--although still subtly--into the emotional lives of its characters, and also has a more leisurely running time. But digging into the reviews after viewing the film, I was surprised to see so many critics reacting negatively to the idea of three white brothers travelling to India for a spiritual quest, then bumbling through the landscape amidst all those brown-skinned people that either serve them or baffle them--but that is the whole point. This is a satire, and you're attuned to it if you get that you're not supposed to entirely empathize with the characters from the start. (They are, after all, on a long journey, and will become something different from what they were at the beginning.) India, in this film, is given great weight by the characters--particularly Owen Wilson's wide-eyed and overly-enthusiastic sibling, who sees it as part of their journey to enlightenment--and yet while they remain secluded in their cabins on their train, The Darjeeling Limited, they obsess over self-medicating, sex, and material goods, in particular that endless pile of their dead father's luggage, which they carry in a funny visual gag, the perfect representation of their own hang-ups and deadweight. The Indians who figure most prominently in the plot--the train conductor, who carries a book on management skills, and his girlfriend, whom one of the siblings is set on seducing--are the foils. The straight men. The subsequent culture clash is worthy of Preston Sturges. But the story slowly reveals the deep wounds that mark each of the three brothers: Wilson tells them belatedly that they're actually going to see their mother, who's secluded herself as a nun, and did not attend their father's funeral the year before. In one of the most surprising scenes, a flashback which occurs without warning or framing, Wes Anderson finally reveals his intentions by staging a sequence with the mechanics of a comedy but the weight of a tragedy. In this scene--the brothers attempting to retrieve their father's car from the shop in time for his funeral--everything happens at a frenetic clip, with farcical complications that frustrate their efforts; yet the end result is not funny, but strangely bitter and heartbreaking. This is the wound that's kept them reeling. It's also a scene that exists structurally and organically apiece with the rest of this Sturges-style comedy, while providing an emotional springboard for the cathartic payoffs of the final scenes. It's poetic storytelling, and extraordinary filmmaking.