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Monday, September 17, 2007


ModFab On...Across The Universe

Across The Universe
Director: Julie Taymor
Screenwriters: Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Julie Taymor
Performers: Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy, T.V. Carpio
Visit: Official Site, IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, Soundtrack

For a film that has divided critics so completely between love-it and hate-it, I found myself during the closing credits of Julie Taymor's Beatles-in-the-jukebox musical, Across The Universe, feeling a great deal of ambivalence. There are certainly things to love about it....principally, Taymor's many moments of visual genius, strewn throughout the 1960's romance between artist Jude (Jim Sturgess) and budding activist Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). A superb fantasist, Taymor's sense of magic realism is paralleled in modern cinema only by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge); from a transparent lovers' bed to an oversized puppet circus to bleeding strawberries, the visual metaphors often approach the sublime, showcasing Taymor's wild and untamed imagination. There's also an exquisitely delicate fragility to her work, rare in moviemaking these days.

But images alone do not a movie make, and that's where the ambivalence rears its ugly head. Ultimately, Taymor falls down on the basics. Because film requires a narrative...and musicals, which feature flights of fancy by definition, require coherent storytelling at their core. I've never been a slavish devotee of Taymor (despite her brilliance) because she seems unable to mount a credible structure to hang her metaphors upon. Her strongest work, the Broadway adaptation of The Lion King, came pre-packaged with a strong structure from the original cartoon; her films Titus and Frida, which have occasionally moments of greatness not unlike Universe, frustrate their own potential with meandering diversions and circularity.

In Universe, the thin narrative wobbles like an alcoholic after last call. Glossing shamelessly over major moments of the 60's -- the Detroit riots, Vietnam, the Columbia protests, the King assassination -- the film's transparent trafficking in Baby Boomer nostalgia both oversimplifies and diminishes the events it portrays. The plot isn't really a story unto itself, but a historically cheapening connect-the-dots (with all the sophistication that implies). To add insult to injury, the Beatles songbook is strongarmed into the major plot points with the subtlety of a jackhammer; for every moment where the McCartney-Lennon songwriting add resonance to a scene, there's a disaster like "Strawberry Fields Forever", which incongruously merges with Taymor's montage into complete inscrutability. (Don't get me started on the drug-addled circusmaster scene with Eddie Izzard, the nadir of Taymor's creative career.)

Cameos like those of Izzard, Bono, and Joe Cocker are at least cutesy, though. Much worse are the leading players. As Jude, Sturgess is alterna-adorable but emotionally drab; an occasionally eyebrow lift or scrunched forehead seems to the extent of his range. Wood (Thirteen), who should never be allowed again to pollute a movie with her completely inauthentic acting, seems incapable of playing a scene without soap operatics. Not that there's much beyond cliche and convention for her to play; all you need to know of the supporting cast is that the couple live in a faux commune with Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a thinly-veiled Janis Joplin clone, and JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), a thinly veiled Jimi Hendrix clone...who fall in love and make beautiful music together. Just like Pete Wentz and Ashlee Simpson. Woodstock is dead.

It's times like this, however, that I remember Taymor's beautiful underwater love sequences (yes!) and her glorious, ghostly chorus of Asian women who dramatize the horrors of Vietnam by falling into the sea. They are some of the most powerful, affecting moments in any movie I've seen all year. The fact that they are trapped inside such a stale, overwrought and disappointing effort makes the memory dim, darken, and ultimately sadden me.



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