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Across the Universe

Sony Pictures // PG-13 // February 5, 2008
List Price: $28.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted February 5, 2008 | E-mail the Author
In 10 Words or Less
A beautiful piece of art for the eyes and ears

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: Visually inventive films
Likes: Musicals, The Beatles
Dislikes: Actors who think they are singers
Hates: The lack of popularity for films like this

The Movie
Across the Universe is not a movie.

Sure, it was performed by actors and led by a director. Yes, it was captured by cameras and projected in theaters. And now, it is being released on DVD. But it's not a movie.

Across the Universe is a work of art.

Select few endeavours starring actors and projected in theaters are works of art. Most of them can be described at best as "beautiful" or "creative." But once in a rare while, a vision makes it through the filmmaking process and emerges as something truly special, like Moulin Rouge!, Waking Life and The Science of Sleep, or now, Across the Universe. Part of the reason we don't see more movies like this is the lack of viability at the box office, where they have to compete with moron-bait like Meet the Spartans.

The other part of the problem is the nature of art, which naturally divides audiences, as everyone's taste is different. Across the Universe is unlike 99 percent of what you see at the multiplex, putting the emphasis on visuals and song, instead of stars and story. Yes, there is a plot, and a moderately interesting one at that, but this film is not about telling a tale, but evoking feelings, which can make people very nervous when they are used to just sitting back and losing themselves in the screen.

That's not to say that you can't lose yourself in the story of Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen), a pair of star-crossed lovers experiencing the tumultuous '60s in New York City, reflecting the changes in society as a whole. Their tale is intertwined with those of their friends, including Lucy's newly-drafted brother Max (Joe Anderson) and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a tortured soul from Ohio. Combined with bandmates Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and JoJo (Martin Luther), they make up an extremely likable and talented cast, and one you can easily identify with (which is a big help in a movie that's full of trippy madness.)

Honestly though, as good as the actors are in this film, with Sturgess and Anderson impressing greatly, the cast could have been made up of faceless, nameless mannequins and I probably wouldn't have cared. This film is all about the images and the music, which combine to get inside of you and take control of your emotions. You start with the songs, which are culled from The Beatles' strongest and most recognizable creations, and are transformed to paint an aural picture that tells a story better than any dialogue could. The pain and longing in Prudence's performance of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" is incredibly powerful, while the militaristic bootstomp of "I Want You" depicts the horror Max faces in the draft perfectly. Amazingly, the actors are just as talented at singing, and make the songs sound beautiful, yet new, despite being old favorites, aided by new, scene-appropriate arrangements. As good as Wood's take on "If I Fell" and Sturgess's performance of "Something" are, though, the best moments come from outside the main cast. Bono of U2 steps up with a wonderful version of "I am the Walrus" (to go with an excellent acting cameo), while Eddie Izzard busts out a loopy improv "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." But nothing comes close to a heartbreaking gospel "Let it Be" by Carol Woods and Timothy T. Mitchum that turns the film from a fun musical into a thoughtful, introspective rumination on the past.

Of course, if the audio was all you needed, you could just get the CD soundtrack. But with Julie Taymor at the helm, that would certainly be a waste, as the director of Titus and Frida (and the creative mind behind "The Lion King" on Broadway) brings an incredible visual style to this film, making it an exercise in eye candy, but not the kind that just fills the screen with color and quick editing; in those cases, light and fury signifying nothing. Here, every image has a meaning, whether it's rows of bleeding strawberries nailed to a canvas, soldiers lugging the Statue of Liberty across a swampy marsh or a Monty Python-esque storybook freak-out. Through a mix of hues and movement, Taymor creates a sense of momentum that bleeds each scene into the next, keeping you from settling into the story, yet deeply engaged from beginning to end of its lengthy 133-minute run. Taking the best of a stage shows, the advantages of the near-limitless world of film and the heart of two-dimensional art, she created some of the most original imagery I've ever seen captured on film, as one sequence that combines Max's struggles in Vietnam with the angst of Lucy and Jude's strained hearts, scored by "Strawberry Fields Forever," needs to seen by anyone who thinks they've seen everything movies can offer.

In the end, unlike most movies, the story isn't as important as the feelings the images and music stir, just as the words of The Beatles' songs weren't always as important as the sounds they made (and you don't even have to get high to appreciate it.) It's an odd feeling to see the credits roll while you still see the film in your head, but that's just the kind of experience you get with Across the Universe.

A two-disc set, the film is packed in a standard-width keepcase with a tray, which is inside a holofoil slipcover that repeats the art. The animated anamorphic widescreen menus feature art from the film, though I expected a slightly more impressive presentation, considering how creative the film is. The menu offers a choice to watch the film, select scenes, adjust the audio, select subtitles, check out the special features and see previews. Audio options include English, Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks (though Portuguese isn't listed on the box,) while subtitles are available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Chinese, Korean and Thai (with Korean subtitles for the commentary, and Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai subtitles on the featurettes as well.) Closed captioning is also available.

The Quality
The anamorphic widescreen transfer here is as close to perfect as a standard-definition DVD is going to get, capturing the vivid colors and more subtle hues of the film brilliantly, without any blurring or bleeding, which is impressive considering the rainbow of colors and intense amount of movement in the film. The level of detail is equally high, and there was no noticeable dirt or damage and no digital artifacts. Overall, this is the type of visual presentation the film deserved.

If Sony had mucked up the works in its audio presentation, it wouldn't have been worth releasing this DVD, but they got it right, even though they didn't bring us a DTS track. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio fills the room when the movie intends to, as seen in some of the more bombastic moments (see "Strawberry Fields Forever" for a perfect example) while keeps everything on the straight and narrow when called for ("Something" is understated beauty in sonic form.) Dynamic to the point of beingassaulted , the sound moves all around the room, mimicking the whirlwind visuals on-screen. With a good system, you could induce some serious paranoia in the suggestible.

The Extras
A two-disc set leaves a good amount of room for bonus material, and this set doesn't disappoint, starting with a feature-length audio commentary by Taymor and music producer/composer Elliot Goldenthal. Taymor carries the load throughout, sharing thoughts on all elements of the film, throwing the mic to Goldenthal when he has the answers she's looking for. Free of dead spots, it's a surprisingly active track, considering the length of the film, and there's a great deal to learn from Taymor, as she provides plenty of personal insight.

A couple of bonus performances are included on Disc One, starting with a minute-long deleted scene showcasing Luther singing "And I Love Her." He's a great singer, but it's way too short to mean anything. A better option are two alternate takes by Izzard on "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," which show how he improvised his performance on the song's odd lyrics. The clips are followed by a manual photo gallery broken into three extensive sections: "On the Set," "Behind the Scenes" and "Design." The images could have been larger on the screen, but there are a lot of interesting bits to check out, including a large selection of art created by "Jude."

The disc wraps with 12 previews, but, once again for a Sony film, not one for this movie.

The second disc is packed with five quality featurettes, starting with "Creating the Universe," which spends almost a half-hour looking at the making of the film, via plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew. The material isn't just surface "let's spend a day on set for the EPK" either, as you get to see them actually making the movie, rehearsing and just goofing around. It's almost like a capsule version of a commentary, yet it doesn't repeat the material elsewhere on the disc.

"Stars of Tomorrow" is almost as long, and focuses on the film's mostly unknown leads, serving as a pretty solid profile of the actors. Thankfully, it doesn't feel like they are trying to sell the cast (despite the obnoxious title), and instead really just follows them as they create their roles. Some of that is their singing work, which gets more coverage in "All About the Music," a 15-minute piece that is just that. When you consider how big a part music plays in the film, you'd think it would deserve a half-hour of its own, but they managed to get a good deal of info in anyway, focusing more on the here and now than the songs' famous fathers. The other part of the musical equation, the dancing, is the focus of "Moving Across the Universe," a nine-minute look at the dancing and choreography, featuring practice and on-set footage, which was more interesting than expected.

The one place the DVD comes up short is in examining the beautiful effects work in the movie. All you get is "FX on the Universe," which runs just six and a half minutes. Some pre-effects footage of the big visual scenes, and interviews with Taymor and the F/X crew are appreciated, but it feels like there could have been more time spent on this important facet of the movie. More welcome are the eight extended musical performances, which add up to 35 minutes of pure wonder. Put it on play all and repeat. It's simply good stuff.

The Bottom Line
I realize that Roger Ebert already said something like this in his review of the film, but you could easily pop Across the Universe in at any time and just soak in it, letting the themes of hope and love wash over you. Combine it in a double header with Moulin Rouge! (if you've got half a day to spare) and you get as close to an acid trip as legally possible, without the side effects (unless you count humming amazing songs to yourself for days, a side effect.) Of course, if you don't like musicals, don't like art films or don't like The Beatles, this movie won't do much for you. The DVD presentation is excellent with a gorgeous image and powerful sound (thankfully), and the extras are just what you'd hope for, with the exception of any participation from anyone connected to the Fab Four. But then, the movie is an interpretation and channeling of the power of The Beatles, not a movie about them, so perhaps keeping some distance from them is best. The film is certainly strong enough to stand on its own anyway.

Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.

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*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

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