Set in the turbulent ‘60s each character in Across the Universe represents a different aspect to the unstable times. There’s naïve Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose eyes are opened to the possibilities of life beyond her WASPy sheltered upbringing; adventurous Jude (Jim Sturgess) who breaks away from his Liverpool working-class roots to make it as an artist in New York; and Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson) a college dropout who eventually gets drafted and sent to Vietnam. There’s also Sadie (Dana Fuchs) a Janis Joplin-esque rock singer; her guitar-playing lover Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) who hails from the riot-torn streets of Detroit; and even a burgeoning lesbian named Prudence (T.V. Carpio). They are all soon swept up into the '60s' emerging psychedelic anti-war and counterculture movements while Across the Universe lets the songs from one of the era’s most influential bands tell the story. But what drives the film is Jude and Lucy’s love for each other—and all you need is love right? You know you are in for something different when indie darling Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) is the most recognizable star. Luckily for Across the Universe the cast of unknowns delivers--and then some. Making his film debut newcomer Sturgess is a particular standout looking very much like one of the Beatles boys in their heyday. His earnest performance as the love-struck Jude immediately hits a chord (pun intended) and he makes breaking out into a Beatles tune seem entirely natural. Wood doesn’t seem as comfortable with the vocals but the actress has a lovely voice--and of course handles Lucy’s emotional ups and downs with aplomb. All the rest of the supporting cast does a wonderful job adding their own unique reinterpretations to the songs (and yes both “Hey Jude” and “Dear Prudence” pop up). The big fun with Across the Universe however are the cameo appearances: Eddie Izzard sings “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as a surreal circus ringleader; Joe Cocker sings “Come Together” alternating between a pimp bum and hippie; Salma Hayek takes nursing to a new level in a “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” number; and finally U2’s Bono sings “I Am the Walrus” as the Beat poet/counterculturist Dr. Robert. You haven’t experienced life until you've heard Bono sing “Goo goo g'joob.” In any original musical there is always something a little disconcerting when a character just breaks out into song even if it’s Julie Andrews standing on top of a mountain. But as with Moulin Rouge a character singing a song we all recognize--well that’s a little different. And honestly who doesn’t love Beatles music? Still director Julie Taymor (Frida) took a big chance creating a musical around the legacy that is Beatlemania. It must have been a daunting task searching through the annals of Beatles music to find just the right tunes for just the right moment--but her extremely inventive ways truly pay off. From Uncle Sam screaming “I Want You!” from a poster hanging in an Army recruiting office to Max and his college buddies running around campus belting out “With a Little Help from My Friends ” everything fits taking us on this journey of life love and self-enlightenment. Although Taymor’s forte clearly lies with the very wild and artistic most evident in Across the Universe’s psychedelic acid trips she also expertly highlights the stark reality of a turbulent time. Taymor is a romantic at heart though—a romantic who adores the Beatles. John Lennon would be proud.
Miss Potter is a biopic about Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger)—the literary phenomenon of the early 20th century who created the hugely popular Peter Rabbit books. The film examines how she rose to fame in Victorian England a time when women were only expected to marry and run a home. As the story begins Beatrix 32 is well-adjusted despite being unmarried and living with her well-to-do parents. An accomplished painter she dreams of publishing her pet animal drawings as well as the stories that go with them and in neat small-sized books perfect for children. Of course most publishers scoff but one decides to publish Beatrix’s “bunny book ” as a lark and soon sets in motion a publishing juggernaut. During the process Beatrix also falls in love with her young editor Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) and agrees to marry him much to her mother’s chagrin (he’s a “tradesman ” after all). Basically Miss Potter ends up living the life she wants to lead bucking whatever rigid system put before her. Zellweger is playing yet another English rose but this time without the extra weight. Although not nearly as endearing and quirky as Bridget Jones Zellweger’s Beatrix is still plucky and outspoken willing to stand by her beliefs and forge ahead despite the opposition she faces. In other words Zellweger—who won her Oscar playing a similar part in Cold Mountain—could do this in her sleep. McGregor too seems comfortably fitted for the role of Norman an earnest fellow with good moral fiber a determination to succeed and love in his heart for Miss Potter. Veteran British character actors Barbara Flynn (HBO’s Elizabeth I) and Bill Paterson (Bright Young Things) effectively play Beatrix’s parents with Dad Potter being the more sympathetic and Mom Potter being the uptight battleaxe. And finally Emily Watson who does a nice turn as Norman’s spinster sister Millie. A brash intelligent woman who also speaks her mind Millie thoroughly enjoys life as an unmarried woman and quickly takes Beatrix under her wing. Director Chris Noonan waited a decade after helming the Oscar-nominated Babe before finding his follow-up project setting his sights on Miss Potter. There’s definitely some symmetry to his choice with both beautifully framed films having much of the same sweet-natured sensibilities as well as er animals. Much like Finding Neverland which showed how James Barrie came up with Peter Pan Miss Potter works best when Beatrix is standing up for her rights falling in love and drawing her adorable illustrations her “friends ” as she calls them who come to life and talk to her. Thankfully Noonan and screenwriter Richard Maltby don’t have the animated characters actually speak—only Miss Potter can hear them--but its still a clever device and definitely brings up feelings of hearth and home remembering those stories all over again. Unfortunately the film stalls a bit towards the end when the scenery shifts to England’s the Lake District where the real Beatrix Potter eventually retired to and helped preserve for future generations. Still overall Miss Potter is a charming look at one of the literary world’s more successful authors who was also a feminist and an environmentalist. Pretty amazing lady actually.
Based on the prize-winning novel by Zoe Heller Notes on a Scandal is a case study in obsessive relationships. When Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) joins a London secondary school as the new art teacher fellow teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) who rules her young charges with an iron fist senses a kindred spirit—and perhaps salvation to her lonely existence. But as Barbara notes in her acerbic diary she is not the only one drawn to the luminous Sheba. She soon begins an illicit affair with one of her high school students (Andrew Simpson) and Barbara suddenly becomes the keeper of Sheba’s secret. Barbara could expose Sheba to both her husband (Bill Nighy) and the world but instead Barbara manipulates it for her own nefarious and selfish reasons. And in playing this dangerously compulsive game Barbara’s own secrets come tumbling to the fore exposing the deceptions at the core of each of the women's lives. Dench and Blanchett give tour-de-force performances yet again. Blanchett’s natural effervescence provides the beacon for all the wanted—and unwanted—attention Sheba receives but it’s her fragile emotional state that draws you in. Played like a wounded butterfly Sheba is too weak to either stave off a dalliance with the young gent—played with convincing lustfulness by newcomer Simpson—or tell the stifling Barbara to bugger off despite the consequences. Then there’s Dench as Barbara representing the opposite end of the spectrum as Notes’ driving force. She’s a bull dog whose withering glares stop her students in their tracks and cutting remarks slice her fellow colleagues to bits all punctuated by her caustic running commentary. Still when Barbara turns madly obsessive with her soft underbelly eventually exposed she crumbles with the best of them. And the best part of Notes is watching these two brilliant actress go toe-to-toe for the first time on film. The underrated Nighy also does a fine job ditching his Pirates of the Caribbean’s tentacles to play Sheba’s down-to-earth yet hapless husband. A top-notch cast all around. Director Richard Eyre is no stranger to crafting intimate pro-actor dramas having helmed such films as Stage Beauty and the Oscar-nominated Iris. He understands where to move the camera to best frame his players as they pour their hearts out on screen. And with Notes on a Scandal Eyre knows that besides his two leading ladies the real star of the film is playwright/screenwriter Patrick Marber’s superb adaptation of Heller’s introspective novel. Voice-over narration is always a tricky film device but for Notes on a Scandal it’s absolutely essential and Marber faithfully captures the inner-workings of Barbara’s skewed thoughts which she fervently writes down in her diary in such delectable ways. Then he entwines the twisty events around these two women. Much like his other work including the exquisite Closer Marber hands in another true gem. Combined with all this is another haunting pulse-pounding score from Philip Glass (The Hours) who sets the tone so perfectly. Notes on a Scandal is definitely one for the Academy Awards’ books.
Marber who also wrote the screenplay describes Closer as "a love story. It's about other things [too]--sexual jealousy the male gaze the lies we tell ourselves and those we are most intimate with the ways in which people find themselves through using others. But in the end it's a nice simple love story. And as with most love stories things go wrong…" Boy do they ever. In this case the "love stories" revolve around two couples: Dan (Jude Law) a frustrated novelist who falls for quirky stripper Alice (Natalie Portman) after a chance meeting on a London street and Larry (Clive Owen) a boorish dermatologist who falls for esoteric photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) after a chance meeting in a London aquarium. Through happenstance these four people manage to intermix their relationships falling in and out of love with each other at an alarming and brutal speed over the course of a few years. Giving away who ends up with whom would spoil the fun but one thing's for certain--just like in real life these characters are never quite sure if they are truly happy with the final choices they have made.
This movie is an actor's dream--as most plays-turned-movies are--and all four of Closer's protagonists rise to the occasion. Here Law's streak of mediocre films finally comes to an end and he definitely has saved the best for last. In a switch from Alfie's confident lothario Law's Dan is a bespectacled soft-spoken fellow who wears his heart on his sleeve as his love vacillates between Alice and then Anna. As Anna Roberts is Dan's counterpart bouncing just as impulsively between Dan and Larry but playing it far more reserved and aloof. It's a welcomed departure from Roberts' usual perkiness--and probably her strongest performance to date. It is Portman and Owen however who steal the show. Besides a face that could launch a thousand ships the all-grown up Portman is brilliant as the tough-as-nails stripper who is secretly oh-so-fragile and the most honest of the four while Owen best known to American audiences as King Arthur roars on screen as the self-assured Larry a character so full of passion and bravado it's hard to take your eyes off him. Oscar should come calling.
Backed by a major studio and featuring an all-star cast Closer still manages to maintain that indie unpretentious feel--which is just the way director Mike Nichols who made his name making small powerful gems about human relationships such as The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge likes it. And much like the gritty We Don't Live Here Anymore a similarly themed indie released earlier this year Closer doesn't get sugarcoated. The raw language will more than likely hit a nerve and anyone who has ever been in love will spot a few of their own characteristics and experiences. As Nichols explains "Closer concerns itself with the fact that in love we remember beginnings and endings and tend to edit it out the middles…" Being that the film is based on a play the scenes tend to be over dramatized in parts but each juicy intense moment still holds you completely riveted to your seat as the four characters continue to raise the stakes and keep you guessing who is going to betray who next.