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Happiness Is A Warm Gun

The Beatles and Jesse James fight to a draw

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The Beatles gave us a motion picture masterpiece in A Hard Day's Night, yet they also gave us (through no fault of their own) a motion picture disaster in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, that '70s debacle with Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees proving to be poor substitutes for The Fab Four. So what to make of Across the Universe, an ambitious musical that fashions a story around a catalogue of classic Beatles tunes?

Depends on who you ask. According to the Rotten Tomatoes critical compilation Web site, Across the Universe has split the scribes almost equally, with half surrendering to its bliss and the other half deriding its very existence. And it isn't simply a matter of one's age or preference in music, as Beatles fans -- be they baby boomers or Generation X-ers -- can be found on both sides of the critical divide. Whew, a long and winding road, indeed!

For my money, Across the Universe isn't simply a good movie; it's one of the best films of the year. One can nitpick about the thin plot, though it's sturdy enough to function as a support beam to director Julie Taymor's outlandish ideas. What's integral to the movie's success are Taymor's vision, the appeal of the cast, and the channeling of iconic songs into a framework that respects and in some cases amplifies them.

Taking place in the late 1960s, the story, credited to Taymor and the team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (the blokes largely responsible for the smashing Irish R&B flick The Commitments), finds Liverpool laborer Jude (Jim Sturgess) traveling to America, whereupon he finds a best friend in college kid Max (Joe Anderson) and a lover in Max's kid sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Eventually, the three end up in New York, at which point Jude develops his passion for drawing, Max gets drafted into the army, and Lucy finds her political consciousness awakened. The kids experience good times (a cross-country bus trip, chaperoned by Bono's Dr. Robert) and bad times (riots aplenty), yet through it all, they realize that "all you need is love," and that anything is possible "with a little help from my friends."

Sound simplistic? Hardly; instead, the movie takes great care to not only honor the music of The Beatles but also to pay tribute to other musical staples of the period, among them Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival and even the Apple Records logo. Combining the song sampling technique of Moulin Rouge with Forrest Gump's journey through the turbulent '60s (and owing reams to Hair as well), Across the Universe dramatizes the past while also serving notice to the present (the Vietnam War material can't help but stir images of Iraq). Taymor, best known for the Broadway version of The Lion King as well as the Oscar-winning Frida (which explains the Salma Hayek cameo in this new picture), serves up some truly staggering images, achieved through an eye-popping mix of computer graphics, oversized puppets and color-saturated set decorations.

But while there's plenty of hallucinatory material, there's also plenty of heart. The love story between Jude and Lucy is central, but there's also a dalliance between their NYC roommates Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), as well as lesbian longing from lonely Prudence (T.V. Carpio). Although Prudence's story is the most underdeveloped, it also contains one of the movie's best covers of a Beatles song, her lovely rendition of "I Want to Hold Your Hand." In fact, considering how dangerous it is to touch the Mop Tops' music, the versions in this film are for the most part acceptable rehashes, among them Bono's "I Am the Walrus" and Anderson's "Hey, Jude." Clearly, the low point is Eddie Izzard mangling "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," although the circus number that surrounds him is pretty spectacular. And so is the rest of the film, a magical mystery tour with the power to restore one's faith in both movies and music.

SO MUCH FOR all that talk of a troubled production, studio hesitancy (Warner Bros. took forever to nail down an opening date) and a monumental misfire-to-be on the order of Heaven's Gate. While it's unlikely to make any sort of dent at the box office, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is no turkey; on the contrary, it's a sterling example of accomplished filmmaking on a grand scale, wielding a lengthy running time that allows it to explore its themes and characters in satisfying detail.

Adapted from Ron Hansen's novel by writer-director Andrew Dominik, the story focuses on the tail end of Jesse James' (Brad Pitt) run as a notorious outlaw. Planning one last heist, he and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) enlist the aid of a motley crew, given that all of their regular cohorts in crime are either dead or in prison. Among the newcomers is Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a 19-year-old kid who grew up idolizing the Jesse James found in dime-store novels. Robert initially follows Jesse around like a groupie -- or a stalker -- finally leading the bandit to ask, "Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"

Robert, a diminutive punk who's been teased his entire life, hopes to prove himself a real man -- as much to Jesse as to himself -- but he finds that goal difficult to accomplish. And as he spends more time with Jesse, he realizes that the notorious gunslinger is less an antihero who marches to his own tune than a paranoid, vicious man who's not above beating up teenage boys or shooting someone in the back. In other words, he can be viewed as much a coward as Robert Ford, who earns his moment of infamy when he guns down the feared outlaw from behind.

This version of Jesse James comes from the same school of Westerns as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Unforgiven and Lawrence Kasdan's underrated Wyatt Earp: Hardly a straight shoot-em-up, it instead serves as a commentary on the manner in which Western fact morphed into Western myth even as the ink was still drying on that particular time in American history. It explores the allure of celebrity, using its powerful final half-hour (after Jesse has been killed) to recount how Robert Ford was vilified while Jesse James was elevated to legendary status, even though both men could be perceived as flip sides of the same coin (the movie also suggests that Jesse's murder by Robert was as predetermined from above as Jesus' betrayal by Judas).

Aided by stunning cinematography courtesy of the excellent lensman Roger Deakins (Fargo, A Beautiful Mind) and a music score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that grows in stature as the film progresses, The Assassination of Jesse James also benefits from Hugh Ross' sturdy narration, which adds depth to a movie already awash in it. Pitt is generous in his capacities both as an actor and one of the film's producers, making his mark via a skillfully etched portrayal but also allowing a strong supporting cast to share in the spotlight (Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner and N.C. School of the Arts grad Paul Schneider are all noteworthy as members of Jesse's gang). Yet top honors go to Casey Affleck, who's as impressive here as he is in Gone Baby Gone. Once a sidekick in movies involving big brother Ben or Gus Van Sant, Casey has graduated with honors to leading man status. Frankly, I didn't even suspect he had it in him.

HOT FROM HELMING last year's After the Wedding (an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film), Danish director Susanne Bier returns with her first film in the English language, Things We Lost In the Fire. But if there was any worry that Bier was "going Hollywood," this somber and mature drama immediately quells that notion.

Bier's steady hand behind the camera is enough to overcome the flaws in Allan Loeb's script, which relates the story of a pair of adults whose lives have been altered by a personal tragedy. Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) has just lost her sweet-natured husband Brian (David Duchovny, seen in extensive flashbacks) in a shooting, while Brian's best friend Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro) has long blown a promising career as a lawyer due to the allure of hard drugs. Audrey has always disliked Jerry, but for various vague reasons -- perhaps to cope with her loneliness, perhaps as a gesture toward her late husband -- she invites him to move into the family's garage. In his new (and nicer) surroundings, Jerry does his best to stay clean, filling up much of his time by bonding with Audrey's two children (Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry). But his presence only seems to rankle Audrey, who remains unable to deal with the death of her husband.

Bier, one of the disciples of the Dogme 95 style of moviemaking (basically, a Danish movement that insists on no employment of movie artifice like special effects and soundtracks and maximum use of natural light, hand-held cameras, etc.), has retained some of her European filmmaking instincts to cut down on the melodrama inherent in Loeb's screenplay. She doesn't always succeed -- for instance, one point in the film finds Audrey ordering Jerry to move out, and then acting genuinely surprised that he's back on the streets shooting heroin -- but for the most part, she keeps the excess in check, which in turn leads to scenes that are even more powerful thanks to their subtlety.

Berry does fine work in a rather difficult (i.e. inconsistent) role, yet it's Del Toro's staggering performance that will have tongues wagging throughout award season. Del Toro's face can be a map of emotions, and he's allowed to unfold it freely as Jerry, a decent man who tries to keep smiling even through all the heartbreak. Del Toro gets to showboat in the scenes where his character comes down hard after his high, but it's the smaller moments -- when Jerry flashes a grin at a child, or furrows his brow as he thinks about his deceased friend -- that really allow us to measure the actor's immense talents.

A WOMAN I VAGUELY know -- for lack of a better term, we'll call her a "professional moviegoer" -- once informed me that, out of the countless free screenings she's attended over the years, the only one from which she's ever walked out was Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. This statement blew my mind. As I reflected on the dozens of truly grotesque movies she's doubtless seen in the past decade alone -- a brain-rotting list that includes Bad Boys II, Christmas With the Kranks and Garfield: The Movie -- I could scarcely believe that this was the only feature deserving of her unadulterated contempt.

Then again, Wes Anderson is that type of filmmaker, the sort of auteur who stirs love-him-or-leave-him vibes in audience members. Which makes my own ambivalence toward him slightly perplexing: I've mildly enjoyed all of his films to date (others include Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums), yet I've never detected that spark of genius that his fans (and many critics) insist he possesses. Anderson's movies are too slight to earn such hefty acclaim, and were they not peopled with strong actors who can punch across his sweet-and-sour declarations (most memorably Gene Hackman in Tenenbaums), they would blow off the screen with the ease of a dandelion caught in a summer breeze.

The Darjeeling Limited is Anderson's most wispish work to date, a road movie in which the road is made of railroad tracks. Carrying over the thematic baggage of most of his previous efforts, this one also concerns itself with familiar discord -- here, Francis (Owen Wilson) invites his younger brothers Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) to India to join him on a spiritual quest. They travel mainly aboard the train The Darjeeling Limited, attempting to communicate (but often just miscommunicating) with each other as they reflect on their relationships with loved ones as well as with each other.

Anderson regular Bill Murray pops up at the very beginning, and his shaggy-dog appearance sets the tone for the remainder of the picture. Working from a script he co-wrote with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, Anderson places the bros in various situations that, despite all the lip service given to spiritual journeys and moments of epiphany, never markedly change them. Their quest feels more like a jest, and even when they encounter death along the way, the three men remain too self-absorbed to fully respond to it. The Darjeeling Limited is a mixed bag of a movie, with some exquisite camera shots and a few clever exchanges not quite enough to overtake the tale's slenderness or the limitations of the three leading characters. But it offers enough modest charms to earn it a mild recommendation -- walking out of it would simply be criminal.

HOW NECESSARY ARE sex scenes to a film's very identity? In some instances, such as Last Tango In Paris and Shortbus, they're integral to our understanding of the characters' psyches. In most cases, they're merely movie decorations, there to entertain us and arouse us and not do much more.

The carnal encounters in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, intimate couplings that earned the film a rare NC-17 rating, are open to debate. Certainly, part of the director's intent is to employ the sex as a means of charting the complex relationship between Wong Chia Chi, a drama student who becomes a spy, and Mr. Yee, a Chinese official who's also a key Japanese collaborator during World War II. At the same time, there's a nagging sense that, having stirred up plenty of controversy with Brokeback Mountain, he's hoping to keep the fires burning by going even further in his exploration of sexuality. The trouble is, Brokeback Mountain truly gave us something unique (at least in American cinema), while the soft-core romps in Lust, Caution can be caught on late-night cable any given weekend.

Expanding a short story by Eileen Chang, Lust, Caution moves back and forth between the war years 1938-1942, with the naive Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) joining a patriotic drama club whose leader (Wang Leehom) decides that in order to truly serve China, its members must get their hands dirty. The outfit sets its sights on Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), who's deemed a traitor by aiding the Japanese during their occupation of Shanghai. It's decided that Wong will pass herself off as a bored wife named Mrs. Mak, gain access into Mr. Yee's inner circle, and engage in an adulterous tryst that will result in him letting his guard down long enough to be assassinated. Mr. Yee is attracted to Wong, but because he trusts no one, it takes a while for him to feel fully comfortable with his mistress. For her part, Wong earns his love but finds herself conflicted when she starts to develop similar feelings toward him.

Unlike The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, which wears its identical 160-minute running time with greater ease, Lust, Caution is fatally overlong, with much of the story's inherent tension drained through protracted setups and select sequences that extend rather than deepen the storyline. Still, the spy-game maneuverings provide some dramatic heft, and Tang Wei is a luminous actress who, if she plays her cards right, could end up being the next Gong Li -- or at least Zhang Ziyi.

ONE LOOK AT the coming attraction preview for Dan In Real Life reveals that here's a movie that's going to try to milk audience emotions for all they're worth. You'll laugh! You'll cry! You'll sing! You'll reflect! You'll hug the moviegoer sitting next to you, even if he smells like an NFL wide receiver's socks after a particularly grueling Sunday match-up!

The trailer doesn't lie: Dan In Real Life wants to offer it all -- a fine sentiment when a movie can pull it off, an example of trying too hard when it doesn't. This one falls somewhere in the middle: There are individual scenes that work nicely, even if the finished product doesn't produce the flood of emotions one might have reasonably expected.

Writer-director Peter Hedges, whose past scripts (including About a Boy and Pieces of April) were far more fine-tuned to the give-and-take dynamics of testy relationships between people, soft-pedals this material, offering a warm and fuzzy tale of a popular newspaper writer (Steve Carell) whose column, "Dan In Real Life," offers practical advice that he can't seem to apply to his own life. A widower with three daughters, Dan travels to Rhode Island for the annual family get-together with his parents (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney), his siblings and their significant others. He falls for Marie (Juliette Binoche), a Frenchwoman he meets in a book store, only to be devastated when he learns that she's the present girlfriend of his brother Mitch (Dane Cook). As Marie tries to sort out her feelings and Dan suffers in silence, the other family members parade through the story offering their own nuggets of advice to the downtrodden columnist.

It's nice to see this normal a family on screen, but the movie pays a price for its politeness, since there's never any sense that feelings might be hurt or egos bruised -- this is especially true at the conclusion, which basically ignores conflicts that have already been established in order to send everyone home smiling. Dan In Real Life is the equivalent of a glass of warm milk, and that's meant neither as a compliment nor a criticism, merely a stated fact.

RAY MCKINNON ISN'T one of those pampered Hollywood suits who makes faux-Southern pictures like The Dukes of Hazzard and Sweet Home Alabama; a Georgia native, he followed his 2001 film The Accountant (which won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short) with the impressive but little-seen 2004 drama Chrystal, with Billy Bob Thornton and Lisa Blount (McKinnon's wife and producing partner) as an estranged Ozarkian couple mourning the loss of their child. Deep-fried in Southern heritage, it evoked a specific landscape and its people, and only the participation of an A-list star like Thornton prevented it from completely qualifying as an example of low-budget regional filmmaking.

This is why Randy and the Mob comes off as such a disappointment. Arch in a way that his previous feature was honest, it's a clumsy attempt to lay an overcoat of forced cornpone whimsy on a drab storyline involving mobsters. I didn't buy a minute of its sit-com set-ups.

McKinnon plays two roles: Randy, an irresponsible good-ole-boy stereotype, and Cecil, his flaming twin brother. As the title hints, Randy owes a large sum to buffoonish gangsters, who decide to work out a deal by sending one of their enforcers, Tino (Walter Goggins), to stay with Randy for a while. Tino, an odd character who speaks with robotic inflections and enjoys dancing and cooking, ends up endearing himself to the residents of this small town, including Randy's depressed wife (Blount) and their young son, who (much to his dad's dismay) prefers sissy soccer over manly football.

Tino is presented as an inspirational life force who's meant to earn our admiration (and our laughs), but he's merely annoying, coming across like a quirky reject from an early draft of a Coen Brothers screenplay. The mob shenanigans seem as artificial as the family dysfunction, and the whole enterprise has the feel of one of those sloppy, homemade films posted on YouTube.

But at least McKinnon had the sense to offer a cameo to the former king of Southern cinema, Burt Reynolds.

(Note: Ray McKinnon will hold an audience Q&A after the 7:20 p.m. show and introduce the 9:30 p.m. show of Randy and the Mob this Saturday, Oct. 27, at the Ballantyne Village Theatre.)


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