Handyfilm etc

Film reviews and other thoughts

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Sunday, September 16, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

I thought James Mangold’s last movie, Walk the Line, was the best American movie (and best non-documentary from any country) of 2005. Even with a by-the-numbers, fairly ordinary script in a tired genre (showbiz bio), it had the mythic power of a folk tale, anchored by two extraordinary performances. Mangold’s visual style was hard to pin down, but there was some sort of alchemy between the director, the performers, and the material that resulted in rare magic.

I wish I felt that way about Mangold’s new film, a remake of a 1957 western. It’s certainly vivid and suspenseful (and loud!), but in aiming for the tragic grandeur of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, seasoned with a bit of Sergio Leone’s glowering close-ups and ultraviolence, the movie is a chore to sit through. It is, in short, way too solemn, and not much fun.

The photography and editing are fine, the two lead performances by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are first-rate, several members of the supporting cast (especially Ben Foster) are excellent. It’s by no means a terrible movie, just a disappointment. And along with Mangold’s interesting but uneven previous movies, including Girl, Interrupted, Identity, and Cop Land, it makes the achievement of Walk the Line seem more like a fluke and less like the flowering of an important talent. He’s admirably willing to take on genre and melodrama and to try to make them fresh and new. I look forward to seeing what he’ll do next.

Across the Universe

Julie Taymor’s ambitious movie has already divided critics right down the middle, and it may do the same with audiences. (Its 49% on Rotten Tomatoes' "Tomatometer" and 59 rating on Metacritic represent a near-balance of wide-eyed raves and vicious pans from critics around the country.) When I saw it Saturday in Manhattan, at least half a dozen people walked out. Yet there was sustained applause and cheering when the credit “Directed by Julie Taymor” appeared at the end. (In case you don't recognize the name, Taymor is the gifted, innovative director of The Lion King on Broadway, The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera, and two dazzling but uneven movies, Frida and Titus.)

Even my own reaction is somewhat divided. At several points in the movie, I was happily and deliriously transported in a way that is all too rare in recent movies. The music, the hyper-stylized theatricality, the extraordinary visuals provide a direct, hardwire jolt to one’s nervous system and emotions. I wept at the beauty of it more than once. And it’s not surprising that this sort of power is impossible to sustain for 133 minutes. It’s certainly wildly uneven, but the best parts are as amazing as anything you can see at the movies right now.

The conception, which sounded ridiculous to me when I first heard it and may well sound ridiculous to you now, is to tell an iconic love story set in the 1960s in which the characters express themselves by singing Beatles songs. “Iconic” in this case means that the characters are constantly at risk of becoming symbols. There’s little room for depth in this conception, and indeed none would call the results deep on an intellectual, sociological, or political level. The theatrical shorthand used to depict Vietnam, demonstrations, race riots, and other Sixties iconography comes off as shallow and facile in several instances. But it reminded me at times of Milos Forman’s film version of Hair; if you love that movie as I do, you won’t want to miss this one.

Despite its very real weaknesses, in individual scenes the movie can be surprisingly powerful and wonderfully entertaining. There are 29 Beatles songs, which means hardly two or three minutes go by between musical numbers. They are performed by the cast, in simple, straightforward arrangements that are often achingly beautiful. (I am mystified by the critics who have attacked the soundtrack as a Muzak or karaoke bastardization of the original songs. I adore my Beatles records, yet I also enjoyed nearly all of the rearrangements here. Judge for yourself.)

As the two young lovers at the movie’s center, Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood are quite remarkable. Sturgess has a beautiful voice and a vital, charismatic screen presence, and his genuine Liverpudlian accent helps in the dialogue scenes, which are far less effective than the music. Wood is given several early Beatles songs to sing as heartfelt solos, used to express her innocence in the first half of the film; this works startlingly well.

A few highlights stand out for me: The marvelous opening with Sturgess as Jude, sitting alone on a beach, turning to the camera to sing “Girl” (“Is there anybody going to listen to my story/All about the girl who came to stay?”); a startling and moving “Let It Be,” sung by a young boy killed in the Detroit riots, backed by a gospel choir; a ferocious, phantasmagorically violent “Strawberry Fields Forever,” with strawberries dripping blood and smashing gorily against a backdrop of Vietnam battle scenes; “I Want to Hold Your Hand” transformed into a plaintive ballad of longing (in this case, lesbian longing!); the inevitable but beautiful moment when another character begins singing “Hey Jude” to our hero.

The film does run at least 20 or 30 minutes too long. It would probably benefit from losing several numbers (they should have saved them for the DVD). (The walkouts all occurred just before the 2-hour mark. There is a limit to how much of this some people will tolerate, however well done it may be.) But when it works, there’s real magic in it.

If I had to guess, this movie will have a cult following but not a mass one. So catch it quickly when it opens near you. And try to see it on the largest possible screen, with digital projection if you can. The visuals and the sounds of Across the Universe provide some of the year’s great pleasures.