Business as Usual

Back into the "current," back into the flow, back into the rapids.... Across the Universe amounts to a two-and-a-quarter-hour promo for the Beatles without ever mentioning them by name. A generous, even overgenerous sampler of their songs (thirty-three of them, by the count in the press notes, leaving aside the numberless others that are quoted from or alluded to) has been re-recorded, or "covered" as they say in the business, by a fictitious cast of characters plunked down against the billowing backdrop of the Sixties: the war, the draft, the protests, the drugs, the psychedelics, the Sexual Revolution, all that. To link the Beatles with the upheaval makes a certain sense. Unlike, say, the more enduring Rolling Stones or the going-nowhere Dave Clark Five, the Beatles were a group that really did evolve (or, as some would prefer, devolve) swiftly and dramatically, making them a useful weathercock for the winds of change. You are here reminded afresh of their range and their riches; and in new mouths, you hear the songs with new ears. (As one who has never owned a Beatles recording of any length or vintage, I fancied I was hearing a few of them for the first time.) The tremulous, down-tempo rendition, for example, of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" by an Asian-American high-school cheerleader in Ohio (T.V. Carpio) brings the song a new, a renewed feeling, all by itself almost worth the price of admission. This character, evidently a longing lesbian, never develops into much of a presence, except maybe on the cutting-room floor, although she has the honor of literally enacting the line, "She came in through the bathroom window."

The two principals are (Hey) Jude and Lucy (in the Sky with Diamonds), a Liverpudlian working-class would-be artist (Jim Sturgess) and a suburban all-American girl turned antiwar activist (Evan Rachel Wood, surprisingly doing her own singing): "We're in the middle of a revolution, Jude, and what are you doing? -- doodles and cartoons?" These two storm-tossed lovers are reinforced by Jude's friend and Lucy's brother (Joe Anderson), a drop-out draftee, and their Greenwich Village landlady (Dana Fuchs), a Joplinesque belter, plus her Motor City guitarist (Martin Luther McCoy), cultivating a mushrooming Afro. Bono, Eddie Izzard, Joe Cocker, Salma Hayek, of those I recognized, pop up in cameos in the later stages, but by then the inspiration is irreversibly running out of steam en route to a spluttering climax of "All You Need Is Love." (Wearily, now: yeah, yeah, yeah.) Part of the problem is that, as the counterculture gains momentum in the sequence of events, there's a visible increase in music-video vulgarity, ornamental surrealism, Fellini- esque fantasy, all the elements that go into director Julie Taymor's fabled "vision." Another part of the problem may be that the later songs, even though the playlist in the film does not observe a strict chronology, tend to be more turgid. Part, too, may simply be that two-and-a-quarter hours are too long for a promo. What the poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin wrote of the Fab Four's songs early in their career can apply as well here: "Like certain sweets, they seem wonderful until you are suddenly sick."

In the Valley of Elah is a more commendable writing and directing effort from Paul Haggis (writer only on Million Dollar Baby and Flags of Our Fathers, among others) than his hokey Oscar-winner, Crash. More focussed, more concentrated, more self-contained, more consistent: an uncompromisingly mournful murder mystery, and strangled antiwar cry, about a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom (remember when?) who goes missing upon his return to Fort Rudd, New Mexico, and who turns up on the outskirts of the base, stabbed, dismembered, and burned beyond recognition. Say what you will about the filmmaker's political point-making -- and I would say it never clogs up the unrushed flow of the narrative -- he shows a true cinematic eye for tacky Americana, the streets, the stores, the townscapes, etc., so that whenever we go anywhere on screen -- an army barracks, a motel, a public restroom, a strip club, a coffee shop, a "drive-up" bar, a fast-food joint -- we can feel we've really been there, really seen it. (The mood lighting of nauseous green and blanched white is a case of whatever would be the opposite of gilding the lily -- wilting the weed, possibly -- and equally unnecessary.) Tommy Lee Jones, as the victim's father, a retired M.P. and current gravel hauler who presses the investigation forward when the military looks for an easy way out, has just the right amount of starch in his performance, touchingly repressed. Charlize Theron on the other hand, as the beleaguered civilian cop who eventually takes an interest, is perhaps more emotional than you want from a cop, but not more glamorous, with mannish attire, no makeup, and her hair parted in the middle and pulled back as severely as Emily Dickinson's. The rest of the cast has been carefully chosen down to the smallest role, with special mention reserved for Susan Sarandon, Jason Patric, James Franco, Jake McLaughlin, Wes Chatham, Josh Brolin, Barry Corbin, and, nonchalantly topless in her mid-fifties, Frances Fisher.

Trade, an exposé of sex trafficking in the Cyberspace Age, centers on an abducted thirteen-year-old Mexican girl (Paulina Gaitan) and a duped Polish immigrant and single mother (Alicja Bachleda), transported from Mexico City to New Jersey for an Internet auction, and on the ad hoc rescue team composed of the Mexican girl's guilt-ridden brother (Cesar Ramos) and a lone-wolf American cop (Kevin Kline) on the trail of a missing daughter of his own. Based on a nonfiction piece from the New York Times, and directed by the German Marco Kreuzpaintner, the film is slightly, sullyingly educational, but its relationships and conflicts (presumably based on deficient imagination) are rudimentary. Particularly off-putting is the spectacle of the brother setting aside his guilt and striking comical sparks with the gringo (the classical music on the car stereo is torture to him) in an apparent attempt to become the next Diego Luna, Latin cutie-pie.

The Kingdom follows up a remedial history lesson on U.S.-Saudi relations, behind the opening credits, with a hypothetical massacre of a hundred-plus American citizens at an oil-company picnic, the handiwork of an "Osama wannabe." Speedily onto the scene -- where were they on 9/11? -- comes an FBI response team (Jamie Foxx, the take-charge family man; Jennifer Garner, the token superwoman; Chris Cooper, the token good actor; Jason Bateman, the obligatory wiseacre), to take names and kick ass, but first to burn the ears of the local Saudi investigator with their salty Free Speech. (Ashraf Barhom, in the part, is as likable as he is expendable.) Director Peter Berg's bob-and-weave camera, that cliché of immediacy and urgency, is a continual annoyance, and in the climactic action is worse than that. Our inability to follow what's happening can scarcely convince us it's actually happening.

Shoot 'Em Up, if I may come to it so late in its run, dispenses video-game violence accompanied by headbanger heavy metal and leavened (if that's the word) with lead-balloon jokes. Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, and Monica Bellucci, who ought to be ashamed of themselves at any wage, serve as rubber-duck decoys to lure in the unwary. It seems far more honest and honorable to leave this sort of thing to the likes of Jason Statham and Vin Diesel.

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If you loved the Beatles you will love "Across the Universe" a most delightful and throughly entertaining movie of wonder songs, all by the Beatles, sung by the cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Martin Luther, Dana Fuchs, Jim Sturgess, and T.V. Carpio.

Get the DVD, great for the whole family.

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