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Across The Universe

dir: Julie Taymor
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Julie Taymor, being Julie Taymor, delivers high concept drama-free colour-soaked movies rich in immaculate artistic design and acting little higher up on the relative scale compared to dinner theatre.

In Across the Universe, she delivers a musical using much of the Beatles better known back catalogue, which is more of a homage to the gullibility of audiences seeking a romantic fix mixed with 60s Americana clichés rather than honouring the Liverpudlian larrikins and their music.

Is it entertaining? Eh, if you like polished, sickly sweet musicals and karaoke versions of classic pop songs, then maybe it is. Maybe it is.

But otherwise the clearest thought that came into my mind was that this flick seriously reminded me, as most things remind me, of an episode of The Simpsons where trusty news anchor Kent Brockman starts a news story about the 1960s saying something like “And here’s a 60s montage.” Random cliché scenes of hippies, the National Guard popping skulls at Kent State, civil rights marches and Vietnam protests flick past to the accompaniment of All Along the Watchtower by Hendrix. At the end of the montage, Brockman intones in disgust “What a shrill and pointless decade.”

Well, Kent, feel free to describe this film in a similar fashion.

The film had me up until a particular point, and then lost me. That point, just to go off on another digression, involves someone I don’t really like very much.

In the recent flick Hancock, there’s a main character, Ray, played by Jason Bateman, who works in PR. He’s introduced to a bunch of corporate types, and the person introducing him tells the others that Ray is so good at his job that he’s the Bono of PR.

Ray, rightly, points out that Bono is the Bono of PR. Bono is also the Bono of fucking gratuitous movie cameos, and he appears here screwing up whatever goodwill the preceding hour had engendered, less with his painful cover of I Am The Walrus, and more with his terrible approximation of an LSD guru.

As royally painful as his presence is, it is perhaps the film spinning into psychedelic cliché imagery on its checklist of 60s clichés that possibly irked me more.

Jude (Jim Sturgess), who works in the shipyards in grim and grey Liverpool, travels to the colourful States in order to find his father, who impregnated his mother during the war and then fled like the coward that he was. Jim’s father turns out to be some janitor at a prestigious university, what with fraternities and brownstone bricks and all.

This would be irrelevant if not for the fact that a random encounter with some snooty fratboys leads to a montage of drinking and horseplay to the tune of Get By With a Little Help From My Friends. By montage’s conclusion, Jude and rich pretty boy Max (Joe Anderson), are firm friends. Max has, conveniently enough, a young jailbait hot sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), whose fiancé was recently conveniently killed in a public toilet by drunken homophobes who mistook him for some rough trade.

No, actually, I might be wrong on that front. It’s probably more likely that he died in Vietnam, since that war seems to be on in the timeframe depicted in the film. It seems this so-called “Vietnam War” was a big deal during the 60s. First I’ve heard of it.

For reasons convenient only to making a film more interesting, Max and Jude move to New York. In a Greenwich Village loft, they meet Janis Joplin surrogate Sadie (Dana Fuchs), Jimi Hendrix surrogate Jo Jo (Martin Luther) and a hot lesbian Asian girl called Prudence (T.V. Carpio) only so that the previously mentioned characters can sing Dear Prudence to her as she cowers temporarily in the closet.

Lucy, temporarily distraught over her beau’s untimely death in the jungles (or more accurately, the brothels) of ‘Nam, hooks up with Jude in record time. It begins a whirlwind relationship based solely around singing Beatles songs to each other and looking at each other in a plaintive puppy-dog fashion.

By this point, the movie has essentially become Rent except with Beatles songs and no AIDS references. No triviality or 60s trope goes unused in the movie’s pursuit of making the entirety of the 60s seem like the most emotively mechanistic and vapid decade in human history.

The giddy little set pieces, choreographed and very colourful, I have to admit, only make up a short amount of the actual screen time. When the Jimi Hendrix surrogate is introduced, he walks with difficulty down city streets chock full of business suited automatons, who move with the precision of a school of fish or a flock of birds, which can change direction instantly. It looked impressive, but like many of the flick’s set pieces, it’s few and far between moments that don’t amount to more than the sum of their parts.

Max is drafted and spends time in Vietnam only, it seems, so he can come back disturbed and star in a silly musical number structured around Happiness is a Warm Gun, which I always knew was about heroin. What I wasn’t expecting was a cameo by Salma Hayek as the hottest nurse shooting morphine into willing, bed-bound GIs. Multiple versions of her seductively writhing around in the cutest little black nurses outfit reminded me of little more than the fact that Hayek must feel she still owes Julie Taymor for making that Frida Kahlo biopic all those years ago.

Lucy hooks up with some activists who want to start changing American minds By Any Means Necessary, which bugs Jude less because of the prospect of violence, and more because he fears head activist Paco wants head from Lucy. Cue unnecessary break up facilitated by violence and Jude poorly singing Revolution and punching on, looking like nothing so much as that scene in Taxi Driver where Travis goes berserk at Betsy’s place of work.

Are our lovesick puppies going to get back together amidst the crushing fascist violence of the State unleashed against these crazy, idealistic kids just trying to make a difference in this turvy topsy world? Like it fucking matters.

Though this flick is clearly a romantic tale, it is less a tale and more a collection of film clips set to the music of treasured, beloved and tiresome Beatles songs played to death for decades on greatest hits radio stations. But I guess no-one listens to those stations anymore, what with right-wing talk radio and podcasts in the ascendancy and whatnot. So maybe the film could be bringing this joyous pop music to the attention of new generations.

Who really cares. The acting, dialogue, situations, scenes are adequate at best and painful at worst. Visually, as you must expect from Taymor, there are some nice colours and examples of set design, but if I hate, utterly hate the story going on amidst the lovely sets, what difference does it make to me?

Evan Rachel Wood, who is a decent young actress, doesn’t really have to do much more than look cute throughout. I have to say though, her wholesome and sunny presence is distracting in the sense that I can’t help but look at her and worry about what her current partner, Marilyn Manson, does to the poor girl in the privacy of their own home.

Everyone else in the flick is more than happy enough embodying every loathsome and tiresome cliché relating to the Sixties, and I’m personally fucking sick of it. Even if the film managed to win me back by the end, somewhat, I still dislike it strongly enough to tell other people not to waste their eyeball moisture on such a long, shrill, pointless but colourful film.

6 times I was glad that the obvious transformation of Jo-Jo and Sadie from Jimi and Janis into Ike and Tina Turner didn’t go too domestically far out of 10
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Army Sergeant: Is there any reason you shouldn't be in this man's Army?
Max: I'm a cross-dressing homosexual pacifist with a spot on my lung.
Army Sergeant: As long as you don't have flat feet. – Across the Universe

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