Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
Unexpectedly charming, Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe is a wonderful low-key musical comprised solely of Beatles music and set against the backdrop of 1960´s Americana. Jude (Jim Sturgess) leaves his girlfriend in Britain to find his US father; Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) loses her boyfriend to the Vietnam War. Together with Sadie, JoJo, Prudence, etc. (all named after characters from Beatles lyrics) they find themselves in NYC during the height of war protests and drug counterculture.
Throughout everything, 30+ Beatles songs are woven seamlessly into the plot, as the characters sing them with the heartfelt conviction of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; Taymor never exaggerates her direction during the musical interludes, which come complete with song and dance, and the result is something unique – the music never distracts from the story, and eventually, the music defines and becomes the story. Three definitive highlights feature takes by Joe Cocker, Bono, and Eddie Izzard on classic material; Beatles diehards may crow at the liberties taken with the original songs (Izzard´s The Benefit Of Mr. Kite might be particularly difficult to swallow), but they´re handled with love and the tonal shift perfectly suits the film. It´s quite a departure for Taymor, coming off Titus and Frida; but in the end, it´s perhaps her most perfectly-realized film. One might call this a thinking-man´s musical, but there´s enough good here to delight just about anyone.
There was some debate as to whether Robert Zemeckis’ Beowolf should be submitted to the Academy as a live-action or animated feature for awards consideration; entirely unnecessary, as a) this film ain’t winning any awards, and b) there’s no question – it’s animated all the way. And for all the talk of the groundbreaking techniques used here, I see no improvement (from a technical side) from that last you-can’t-tell-it’s-animated film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within; looking at the screen I’m still staring into soulless eyes and stiff characters. What has improved, however, is the directorial approach taken by Zemeckis; instead of throwing faux-realistic animation at us and calling it a day, we’re taken on a journey that couldn’t have been duplicated in a live-action film – long, flowing, sensous ‘camera’ takes, impossible angles, minimal editing. There’s a level of art here sorely missing from most computer-generated animation that I truely appreciated.
Screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary delivers (surprisingly) the most compelling screen version of the classic epic poem yet (not that there’s been much competition). The hideous monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) is attacking the Danish kingdom of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins); hearing of a need for a hero, Beowolf (Ray Winstone) soon turns up to slay the beast and his mother (Angelina Jolie). But, ’tis only the beginning of this tale. I cannot fault the screenplay, direction, or ‘performances’ here. I only fault the animation, which another step in that is-it-real? direction that simply hasn’t been perfected yet. The rotoscoping techniques used by Ralph Bakshi and (later) Richard Linklater were – for my money – more ‘realistic’ than anything I see here, and traditional animation routinely gives us characters with more personality and ‘soul’. I wish this version of Beowolf was filmed using either of those techniques, or even in live-action; the film could have been great. Instead it’s merely good.
Strange mixture of ping pong and Enter the Dragon is never really as funny as it should be but coasts along on oddball charm till it runs out of steam during a protracted and predictable ending. Dan Fogler stars as Randy Daytona, one-time ping pong phenom who lost his desire for the game after losing to East German Karl Wolfschtagg (co-writer Thomas Lennon). Years later, he’s recruited by FBI Agent Ernie Rodriguez (George Lopez) to infiltrate the underground ping pong tournament of mysterious Feng (Christopher Walken), where he might also get a chance to prove himself against his one-time rival. Fogler is quite good as Daytona, bearing the brunt of the film’s jokes but never going overboard or straying out of character; Walken (as expected) steals the show as Feng – his introduction, after a painfully long setup, is particularly funny. The ping pong scenes are also a highlight, with great stuntwork and seamless digital effects providing some ridiculous gameplay. But there’s a point where a film stops becoming a parody and starts becoming a clone, and by the end of this film, with the filmmakers no longer interested in comedy, only in wrapping up a needlessly complicated plot, that point had been reached; if I wanted to watch Enter the Dragon, I’d be watching that film. Still fun for a while.
Rob Zombie´s unwanted remake of John Carpenter´s 1978 horror masterpiece reaches depths previously explored only by Van Sant´s Psycho. First half of the film is an uncomfortable and completely unnecessary look into the childhood of Michael Myers, from his ridiculously dysfunctional family, to his murders at age 10, throughout his 17-year incarceration. After he escapes, film becomes a ramped-up, overclocked, shot-for-shot remake of the original film. Almost every character in the film is so unlikable – spouting dialogue straight from The Jerry Springer Show – that one can only cringe. Lone exception is Dr. Loomis, played by Malcolm McDowell with a confused conviction. Cinematically speaking, the film is garbage; as a curio, it holds some perverse interest due to it´s grotesque non-stop parade of cult film icons (which include Udo Kier, Dee Wallace, Tom Towles, Danny Trejo, Ken Foree, Leslie Easterbrook, Sid Haig, Clint Howard, Bill Mosely, Sybil Danning, Mickey Dolenz(!) and Danielle Harris, who played Myers´ niece in Halloween 4 and 5). 2007´s Halloween is an insult to a classic and influential film and an embarrassment for all involved; and this is coming from someone who liked both of Zombie´s previous films, House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil´s Rejects.
Also opening: Disney’s latest live-action meets animation fairy tale Enchanted (showtimes | IMDb) directed by Kevin Lima and starring Amy Adams, James Marsden, Patrick Dempsey, Susan Sarandon, and Timothy Spall. NOTE: film is currently only screening in a Czech-dubbed version.
And: Persepolis (showtimes | IMDb), from directors Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, an animated film focusing on a young girl’s coming of age in Iran during the Islamic War. Screening in French with Czech subtitles on Prague screens.
And: the Czech dramady Chyťte doktora (showtimes) from director Martin Dolenský starring Iva Janžurová, Karel Janák, Kristýna Nováková, Kryštof Hádek, Luděk Sobota, Michal Malátný, Pavel Landovský, Tatiana Vilhelmová, Vladimír Javorský, and Zuzana Stivínová. Currently playing only in a native Czech version, without subtitles.