Across the Universe (2007)

Wrote this awhile back, and it’s a passable enough musical, deducted half a point because my Beatles love has increased.

While I’ve never been a huge fan of The Beatles (I have become at the very least, super interested in The Beatles since), I certainly do recognise their influence on pop culture the entire world ’round since their debut over 40 years ago. To say that they changed things would be a very large understatement. I’m also not super-familiar with their entire song catalogue, which is why when I saw the trailers for Across the Universe a couple months back, I had no idea that the song “I’ve Just Seen a Face” was a Beatles tune. I thought it was a super-catchy ditty, and the visual spectacle that unfolded throughout the trailer definitely made me want to see the movie, whenever it finally came out. Just from that trailer, I could tell that it was Moulin Rouge!-esque, but minus the almost freakishly odd Baz Luhrmann.

Screenplay writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais take a less anachronistic approach to incorporating Beatles songs into a full-blown musical feature film, placing the time period and characters of the film in the exact place where The Beatles became world famous. Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a young dock worker from Liverpool, heading off to the bright lights of America to find his father (Robert Clohessy) and seek out a change from the drearyness of his everyday life. Soon after arriving, Jude befriends Max (Joe Anderson) and meets Max’s younger sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), and all three of them eventually make their way to New York. Once there, they meet other like-minded individuals in the Janis Joplin-esque singe Sadie (Dana Fuchs), the shy introverted Prudence (T.V. Carpio), and the talented guitarist JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy). The film then follows these core characters as they deal with love, rock ‘n roll, drugs and the Vietnam War, all the while expressing themselves through the songs of The Beatles.

Apparently these characters are living in a world that has never known The Beatles, since none of the non-singing characters ever comes right out and says “Hey, why are you singing that Beatles tune?” Musicals are a strange beast to adapt to the screen, since the entire genre pretty much requires the biggest suspension of disbelief imaginable in films. It’s one thing to see an explosive action film and point out all the ridiculous contrivancies that pop up, it’s another to just accept that people are bursting into song as a means of communicating their inner emotions to others. That being said, Taymor finds a way to make it successful at least half of the time. Sometimes it comes across as forced, sometimes painfully predictable/on the nose, sometimes happily predictable, but there’s no way the structure of the film is going to please everybody.

This is a film that will garner more than a few Oscar nominations (it received only one in Costume Design), though more than likely only in the technical and costuming categories, not in the high prestige acting categories. That isn’t to say that the acting isn’t top notch, because all around the cast does a passable job with their performances. It’s hard to really quantify them as “acting” per se, since most of their work is simply singing the works of The Beatles. Still, the emotions, inflections and reinterpretations the cast puts into their vocal stylings are quite stirring and could conceivably jog a few tears from people, particularly T.V. Carpio’s nearly-heart-wrenching performance as Prudence. Taymor doesn’t put much into the development of the characters, so you take what you can get from the singing bits.

There are some simply wonderful and beautiful scenes throughout Across the Universe, but as a full-length feature film, it works better as a wondrous trailer. It’s definitely worth giving a view if you have the chance, or if you’re a diehard Beatles fan I suppose. Keep an eye peeled for a couple of fun celebrity cameos from the likes of Eddie Izzard, Joe Cocker and Salma Hayek. And Bono too I guess. As a complete package, the film is a bit lacking in the emotional resonance department and there’s a bit of dragging throughout, but otherwise is a relatively enjoyable way to spend a couple hours.

2.5 / 5

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This Movie Is Broken (2010)

Today is Canada Day, and what better way to celebrate that then by posting a review of a distinctly Canadian movie.  This Movie Is Broken is a sort of live concert movie with a very loose romance story taking place during the performances.  It was written by Don McKellar and directed by Bruce McDonald, both notable Canadian filmmakers that are pretty much unknown throughout the rest of the world.  It’s not that they’re not talented (although I hated haaaaaated McDonald’s The Tracey Fragments), it’s just that the world doesn’t seem to want that much of their particular Canadian perspectives.  What do I know though, I’m just seeing this from inside Canada.

The stars of the film are Broken Social Scene, an amazing Canadian band that I had been resisting listening to for years because I didn’t want to fall into that hipster garbage and how dumb was I for that?  Their songs are anthems, powerful collections of musical collaborations between many of their FIFTEEN members.  Their creativity blows me away.  The other two stars of the movie are Greg Calderone and the breathtakingly gorgeous Georgina Reilly, playing two people that have known each other since childhood.  Bruno (Calderone) has been carrying a torch for Caroline (Reilly) since then, and now, fifteen years later, they wake up after spending the night together.

The entire movie takes place on that day, a day when BSS is giving a free concert in Toronto, leading to Caroline and Bruno enjoying said concert.  The dialogue is natural, improvised, and generally takes a back seat to the songs.  I’d say it was guerrilla film making, but it’s actually more impassioned than that.  McDonald gets the shots he needs, tells the story, and the band provides a gorgeous background for the whole tale.

It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a far better pastiche of scenes than the pretentious wankery of The Tracey Fragments.  There are some scenes that are captured so beautifully that it makes my heart ache, and if I’m being honest, they usually contain the lonely pretty girl, Caroline Rush.  She’s the kind of girl I used to write (probably) bad poetry about, you just want to know her, and I’m going to stop before I start writing “Ode to Caroline Rush” here.

4 / 5

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)

I’ve been sitting here for the last half hour surfing, reading up on George Harrison, and trying to come up with a hook or something introductory for this review.  I think the fact that thanks to stupid Telus Video On Demand, I haven’t seen the last bit of the movie and don’t have closure on it yet.  I will finish it though, and will edit this review in accordance with any changed feelings (Ed. Note: after watching, nothing changed).

Basically, for years I snobbishly dismissed The Beatles as overrated and hippy music and so on, without really listening to them.  Well, by the time that huge 9/9/09 re-release of The Beatles catalogue came about, I was decidedly amped and jazzed to see what I had been missing.  I ended up buying four of the reissues (Abbey Road, Revolver, Rubber Soul, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) over a period of time, and if I would have continued working at hmv, probably would have ended up owning them all by now.  I also ended up buying several Beatles books and just kind of immersed myself in them for a time and it was lovely.

Through those readings and other media (Nowhere Boy was a fairly decent film, Beatles Rock Band great fun), I had developed this new-found appreciation for them, and the members of the band.  I also came to prefer certain members over the others, and truthfully, John Lennon is the tops, followed by George Harrison, and then well it should be Paul McCartney, but his disturbing physical similarity in his old age to Angela Lansbury… well it IS disturbing.  Then Ringo.  I always respected Harrison’s skills and while I might not be the biggest fan of his spiritual side, I also liked that he seemed to not fully embrace his iconic status and actually distanced himself from it in ways following The Beatles success.

Anyways, Martin Scorsese met with Olivia Harrison, George’s widow, about putting together a documentary on the life of George (it would have been awesome if he called it that).  George Harrison had been collecting archival footage of himself for years to protect his legacy and tell his life story, and Scorsese was given access to it and produced a wonderful sorta documentary / biopic with tremendous music and rarely seen footage and it’s wonderful.  It touches on everything in Harrison’s life that I knew about (will have to wait and see if his “Simpsons” appearance is mentioned in the last bit) and not always in a reverential way.

George Harrison was a human being like all of us (I’m assuming you are, though on the Internet nobody knows if you’re a dog) and he lived a life far bigger and greater than 99% of the entirety of mankind ever will, and ultimately, he appeared to be a pretty humble guy about it.

4.5 / 5

We’re the Weakerthans, We’re from Winnipeg (2010)

Going into this write-up I am going to state that I am heavily biased.  The Weakerthans replaced The Watchmen as my favourite Winnipeg band long ago (The Guess Who suck, and the new Jets will be lousy too) and since that point, I’ve gobbled up every bit of Weakerthans material that I could.  Except for, you know, live concerts because real people ew.  So I saw this concert documentary film on the Telus On Demand and since it’s a Canadian film, it seems to not exist on torrent sites.  But you know, I have no problem spending $5 on something that I know is going to be awesome going in.

The film takes place during a cross-country tour, from St. John’s to Yellowknife, which is a massive undertaking because – despite what some WWE DVDs will tell you – Canada is huge.  Vast.  There’s pretty much a song for every venue (to my knowledge, but I think they skipped out on Edmonton because of course why not), and then some wonderful backstage or before/after the show banter with the band members.  Some wonderful scenery shots, interspersed with on the road activities and campfires and it’s very Canadian and just excellent.  One of the band members also shares an awesome campfire treat, the bacon marshmallow which looks like an awesome heart attack and really makes me want to try it.

I have made a vow to Andy the Saint, that should The Weakerthans ever come back to Vancouver Island, I will make every attempt to see them live.  The lead singer/writer John K. Samson just makes everything on stage look so easy and is infinitely mellow and I cannot recommend this movie highly enough.  If you’ve never heard their music, this film should make you a fan.

5 / 5

The Last Play at Shea (2010)

For some reason, even though I cannot stand watching baseball, baseball-themed movies are always high quality and interesting to me.  It’s the absolute opposite of hockey, as I love the sport and love watching games, but 99% of hockey movies just don’t get it or boil it down to the lowest common denominator of goonism.  The Last Play at Shea attracted my attention because I thought at first it was going to be a baseball doc, and I like documentaries greatly so I was intrigued (I don’t think I like baseball and docs enough to watch Ken Burns’ Baseball though).  Turns out, it’s about the last concert ever performed at the legendary Shea Stadium.

The performer of that concert was Billy Joel, and the movie plays out almost as two docs, with events in the lives of Shea Stadium (I know it is not a living thing) and Joel being shown simultaneously er, well, one after the other.  It’s not a split-screen thing.  Interspersed with that is wonderful historical footage narrated by Alec Baldwin, with interesting factoids throughout.  It’s a pretty powerful and emotional journey, I mean the building was around for 40+ years.  Stuff happened there.

Solid doc, probably all the more enjoyable if you’re a big Billy Joel fan, as in ways it is also a live concert movie.

4 / 5