Across the Universe

Posted on February 5, 2008 at 12:11 pm

On the list of movies featuring Beatles songs, this one comes far below A Hard Day’s Night, Yellow Submarine, Let It Be, and Help but slightly above Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, maybe somewhere around Magical Mystery Tour. across%20the%20universe.jpg


Director Julie Taymor is best known for Broadway version of “The Lion King,” which is itself best known for its visual splendor. And least known for its plot. There is visual splendor in this story of characters coping with the 60’s, to the tune of Beatles songs, but not much by way of plot. And the song covers by most of its stars are strictly with Beatles Night on “American Idol.” In one of those early episodes before much elimination.


For people who remember the 60’s, the movie’s look and sound will be poor competition for the kaleidoscopic visual and aural brilliance of the original Beatles creations and the story and characters will be superficial and simplistic compared to the kaleidoscopic upheavals of the era.

Those who know the Beatles’ work will find the movie’s references uninspired recreations rather than re-imaginings or responses. The character names say it all: Jude, Lucy, Max, Sadie, Rita, Prudence, JoJo, Dr. Robert, Mr. Kite, get it? Too on the nose. Max has a hammer. The singer and her band play on the roof until the police come to shut them down. People not familiar with the 60’s will wonder what the fuss was about.


There are some very clever touches in the staging of the musical numbers, as when at an induction physical, the Uncle Sam posters sing “I Want You” or in a couple of scenes where one song is played in sharply contrasting contexts. There are also some brilliant images, especially when the characters experiment with hallucinogens. But the story and characters are thin and so are the singing voices of most of the performers, with Eddie Izzard’s Mr. Kite, Bono’s Dr. Robert, and newcomer Dana Fuchs as a Janis Joplin-eque Sadie as welcome exceptions.


But they are supporting roles with too-brief appearances as the center stage goes to the featherweight story about a romance between blue collar Liverpudlian Jude (Jim Sturgess) and an American suburban princess named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose boyfriend was killed in Viet Nam. Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson) and Jude move into one of those adorably Bohemian, summer of love, starving artist garrets in Greenwich Village, run by Sadie (Fuchs). They are soon joined by Jimi Hendrix-ish JoJo (Martin Luther) and unhappy-in-love Prudence (T.V. Carpio), who came in through the bathroom window, get it? Jude wants to be an artist; Lucy wants to protest the war. And everybody goes on a magical mystery tour and meets Dr. Robert and Mr. Kite.


It is overlong and under-written, visually vibrant but thematically transparent. The characters are more alive in the original Beatles songs than they are on the screen. And that leaves us nowhere, man.

Parents should know that the characters in this movie drink, smoke, and use drugs, including marijuana and hallucinogenics. They briefly use strong language and there are some emotional confrontations. The movie includes battle violence in Viet Nam, police brutality, and an offscreen explosion of a bomb built by protesters against the war. Characters are injured and there are sad offscreen deaths. Images include nudity, some stylized, and non-explicit sexual situations. A strength of the movie is the loyal and supportive relationships between characters of racial, gender, and sexual orientation diversity.


Families who see this movie should discuss some of their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences during the 1960’s. And they should listen to the original versions of the Beatles songs. Why are these songs so enduring and what groups today are producing songs that people will still want to hear in 40 years?


Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy A Hard Day’s Night, Yellow Submarine, Let It Be, and Help, as well as other films about the 60’s like Alice’s Restaurant and Hair.

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Musical Romance

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Posted on February 5, 2008 at 8:00 am

This movie may be about one of the most famous outlaws in the days of the Wild West, but it is not a bang-bang shoot-em-up Western. It is a broody psychological Western, a lot of peering out into endless prairie landscapes, as much Ingmar Bergman as John Ford, with a little bit of Heathcliff thrown in.


Tabloid headlines and general movie star-ness makes it easy to forget how good Brad Pitt really is. His performance here as Jesse James is meticulous and powerful. He shows us James’ charisma, volatility, and disintegration. As the other title character, Casey Affleck has a different kind of volatility. When we first see him, presenting himself to Jesse and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepherd) as something between a groupie and a stalker, it is clear that he is one of those dangerous fans who can switch from over-love to over-hate in an instant. He confuses fame with respect, law-breaking with courage, guns with manhood, and, most fatally, tolerance with acceptance.


The title sets out the movie’s themes. In some Westerns, the man who captures the notorious outlaw is the hero. But two words tell us what this movie’s point of view will be. Jesse James is “assassinated,” not killed or stopped. And the man who kills him is a coward. The usual definition of coward does not include going undercover to spend time with an outlaw who is known to shoot anyone he suspects of disloyalty. So, how does Jesse James come out the sympathetic figure of the title and why is Ford so reviled?


That is very much the focus of this film and we hear at great length from the overly intrusive narrator about how Jesse James continued to be a figure of fascination and even admiration while Ford, even though he spent much of his life literally re-enacting the night he shot James in front of paying audiences, found the fame he sought to be bitter. Somehow, no one thought he was a hero. And too many people thought he was a target. Like some perverse and deadly game of tag, being the man who made his name killing Jesse James made him a man whose death might make some else’s name next.


Strong performances include particularly fine work by Sam Rockwell as Ford’s brother Charley and Paul Schneider as the ladies’ man of the James gang. The narration is ponderous and distracting. But the cinematography by Roger Deakins is breathtaking, the endless, wintry spaces evoking both bleakness and promise. Ultimately, however, the movie undermines its own point by making us, like those who have been enthralled by Jesse James for more than 100 years, wishing we could see the entertaining part of the story instead.

Parents should know that this film has typical Western violence, including shooting. Characters use some strong and crude language, including racial epithets and sexual references.


Families who see this movie should talk about why Jesse James remains an enduringly appealing figure. What is the meaning of the title? In so many Westerns, the bad guy is the one who robs and kills and the good guy is the one who catches or kills him. Why isn’t that true in this story?

Families who would like to see a more conventional (if completely un-factual) movie western about Jesse James should try American Outlaws. Other versions of this legend are in The True Story of Jesse James, or The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. There have been movies about Jesse James since the silent era. One of the most bizarre is Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Families who enjoy this movie will also like to see some de-mythologizing Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or The Gunfighter.

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Drama Epic/Historical Western

Q&A with The Movie Mom

Posted on February 2, 2008 at 8:00 am

More recent questions and answers. Thanks to all who wrote!
I am looking for the title to a movie from late 70s or 80s about a group of US teenagers on field trip to Europe (I think a French class to Paris) that get embroiled in a spy plot where the male protagonist/classmate gets mistaken for an agent and plays the hero’s role– a comedy action film.
Angelinonsf was right on this one — it is “If Looks Could Kill” with Richard Grieco.
The 1985 movie <a href="Gotcha! with Anthony Edwards had him involved with a spy but not mistaken for one. Thanks, Angelinonsf!
I can’t find the name of the TV show or name of the judge that had court cases on tv in the 80’s or early 90’s. He was an older male, bald, and was once a referee in an Evander Holyfield championship boxing match. He himself was once a boxer.
That is Judge Mills Lane. (Thanks to my son the boxing expert for the assist on that one.)
What is the name of the movie with the little boy who writes letters to “his father” who is on a “ship.” His mom answers his letters and mails them back to him. When the ship “his dad is on” is scheduled to dock in their town, the boy gets really excited about meeting his dad. So she puts an ad in the paper to hire someone to pretend to be the boy’s dad for the duration of the ship’s stay. I saw the trailer once and forgot the name. I think it is a couple of years old. Anyhow, she ends up really liking the guy. I don’t know what happens next because I have not seen the movie. Can you help me find out the name of the movie so I can finally rent it?
dear%20frankie.jpgThat lovely movie is <a href="Dear Frankie” with Emily Mortimer and Gerard Butler. Enjoy!
What is the name of the family movie from the 80’s (I think) where a little boy kept seeing bubbles in an old flooded quarry and the “monster” turned out to be an old piece of machinery?
That is a 1986 movie called <a href="The Quest” with Henry Thomas, who was the star of “E.T.”
There was a movie in which some kids attempt to teach a bully a lessen. He drowns by accident and they panic and cover it up he drowns in a river on a boat trip after playing truth or dare, I think.
That movie is Mean Creek (2004). Very sensitively done, with beautiful performances.
What is the name of the movie where a little boy is chasing someone saying “where’s my $2?”
That movie is 1985’s Better Off Dead with John Cusack.

(more…)

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For Your Netflix Queue Q&As

What does “Not Screened for Critics” mean?

Posted on February 1, 2008 at 7:40 am

I hear there is some sort of sporting event going on this weekend. So it makes sense that studios decided it would not be a good time to release big-budget movies with hopes of big box office. If Sunday will be devoted to Superbowl XLII, much of the potential theater-going audience will be at home. I got that.

But I still don’t understand why that means that the studios did not let critics see three of the four new releases in time to write reviews. Movies not screened for critics are called “cold opens” because they open without any reviews, which means no exclamation-point-studded blurbs for ads. Jessica Alba has been everywhere promoting the thriller “The Eye,” but they did not show it to critics. There are ads all over television for the comedy “Strange Wilderness,” starring Steve Zahn, from Adam Sandler’s production company. But no blurbs from critics because no one has seen it. And what possible reason could there be to keep critics (except those from LA and NY) away from the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus concert film? Are they afraid we’ll give away the surprise ending? (She’s both! It’s a wig! And it’s in 3D!) Here is a clip of the concert film, which is more than critics got to see.

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