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Capsule Reviews – Four Movies

January 7th, 2008 by David Kronemyer · 2 Comments

We saw several movies over the holiday season, and I wanted to set forth my opinions about them. Generally speaking I don’t like that many movies, and I have a policy of only going to movies it’s likely I’ll enjoy seeing, based on self-knowledge of my own proclivities and tendencies. While this creates some false negatives (i.e., I miss a few movies I’d probably enjoy), those are more than outweighed by the absence of false positives (i.e., I don’t have to endure movies that I probably wouldn’t like).

Across the Universe – actually we saw it earlier this fall during the one week it was in theaters. Which is too bad, because it was a spectacle. The reason why you go to see a movie is to see something you wouldn’t see in ordinary life. This meets that objective. All of the set pieces are imaginative reworkings of songs from the Beatles canon. Some of them are downright bizarre, in a good way, presenting an exfoliated vision that enhances ones appreciation of the original songs. Some of the “plot” material between musical interludes was contrived and stilted, though no worse than any movie of the period. While the singing generally was good, the sound mix was terrible – flat and one dimensional. Which is too bad for a movie that’s based on songs.

Another irony is that the soundtrack album wasn’t released until weeks after the movie itself had come and gone. Which is a marketing disaster, because (if records are/formerly were released on Tuesdays and movies are/formerly were released on Fridays), the basic rule of thumb is that you want the soundtrack album to be in stores on the Tuesday before the Friday on which the movie is released. That way people can leave the theater saying “wow, what great singing,” and go out and buy the album. This kind of poor synchrony is one of many reasons why both the movie and record businesses are failing.

I’m Not There – another movie of the sort that ought to be encouraged on principle, even though it too was flawed. Mainly because it could have used a good edit to cut its running time down by about a half hour. The conceit of having different actors play Dylan at various phases of his career was well executed. It was disorienting, though, to have them keep popping up out of chronological sequence. What I would have done, had I made the movie, would be to have one character hand off to the next during a transitional scene. This would have given it more propulsion.

A couple of the Dylans were expendable – one of them looked as though he filmed his bit in the space of an afternoon, just staring into the camera and mumbling. The Richard Gere Dylan went on too long, and while his performance may be full of allusions to various what not, most of it was entirely dispensable.

In retrospect, Dylan made about two great albums worth of material – a montage of songs from Bringing It All Back Home through Nashville Skyline – and that’s it as far as I am concerned. I was inspired by the movie to play Blonde on Blonde, which I used to revere, although I haven’t listened to it for years. While two or three songs hold up, most of it’s really grating. I got off the bus right after Nashville Skyline, and I certainly wasn’t motivated by the movie to get back on.

Kate Blanchett was quite fetching as amphetamine Dylan. She was over-acting, though, and her parts also went on too long. She basically was doing the same thing, a one-note Dylan impersonation, which was fine in the beginning, but showed no subsequent depth or modulation.  Because of its duration, I started to notice flaws in her impression, that is, ways in which she failed to emulate the actual Dylan of the period, which certainly was her objective (as opposed to Richard Gere, for instance, who was enacting a more impressionistic take).  This became more and more irritating the longer she was on screen.  I say this not to detract from her remarkable accomplishment, but rather simply to observe that this probably wouldn’t have been noticeable, much less annoying, had her performance been edited to a reasonable length.

Sweeney Todd – has the same gothic creepiness as Sleepy Hollow. As critics have observed, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter turn out to be good singers, and Alan Rickman, who plays Judge Turpin, was amazing. The exception was the young lad and the judge’s ward, both of whom would have trouble succeeding in a junior high school drama class production. The woman who played the young ward was physically unappealing (unlike, e.g., the love interest in Across the Universe, who was attractive, although she too couldn’t sing or act, to speak of).  Sacha Baron Cohen was terrific during his five minutes on screen. If he ever gets tired of being Ali G, or Borat, or whomever, he should stay with this character for a while.

While some people (such as my mother-in-law) thought it was “too bloody,” the scenes of people getting their throats cut mainly were cartoonish. The movie’s biggest problem is that it was boring – musicals are supposed to have some song-and-dance numbers, massed choruses, and the like. This, however, mainly was arias and duets.    Unfortunately the print we saw (on opening weekend) already had fire-burns in it. The cinema chain at the Sherman Oaks Galleria makes a big point of how wonderful it is, if I was Tim Burton I’d be outraged that viewing conditions had deteriorated so rapidly.

There Will Be Blood – incredibly acted by Daniel Day Lewis and whomever it was who played Eli Sunday. While this movie may be about many different things, for me it was about the indomitable force of nature. As emphasized by the futility of trying to harness its resources, and the sudden and unforeseeable violence that entails. Together with the force and violence of human passion, which also can’t be harnessed. Both of them just whoosh up on you, and there’s nothing you can do about it; no amount of planning or foresight will evade its inexorable progress towards resolution.

Oil and fundamentalist religion in 1930s-era California are a wonderful miscegenation. The movie is evocative and redolent of everything from San Simeon to Day of the Locusts to the short-lived (but excellent) HBO series Carnivale. Jonny Greenwood’s score is amazing, creating a lot of tension and momentum. It reminded me of, or seemed to have been inspired by, George Crumb’s “Black Angels.”

In the closing scene – where Mr. Lewis just has bludgeoned Eli Sunday to death with the bowling pin – he says something like, “I’m finished.”  It occurred to me later, he didn’t mean he was “finished” in the sense that now he was ruined, because he had committed murder, or at least what looked like it.  Rather, he was “finished,” in the sense that he had concluded his life’s work – confronting the twin demons of nature and the mind.

As we entered the theater, the nice ticket-taking-person advised us it was one of the best movies he’d seen, and that if it didn’t win a bunch of awards, it’d be a shame. I think he was right!