Across the Universe and Control

If you’re in the mood for music-based movies this fall, I’ve got two wholly different but wholly watchable films to consider. Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe is a romance musical set to the backdrop of the Vietnam War and features a Beatles-only soundtrack. Though the acting is thin, lines are forced and the sequences contrived, much about this film is actually worth watching.

Thirteen’s Evan Rachel Wood is all grown up and blossoming into her own. While her character was underwritten and her acting flops, she makes for a captivating leading lady any day. British newcomer Jim Sturgess plays Wood’s love interest and he cements himself as a viable contender for promising new heartthrob. The rest of the cast is, to put it frankly, utterly useless. This film would have done better with just Wood and Sturgess stealing all the screen time. 

The plot centers around Jude (Sturgess) who leaves a British shipyard and his girlfriend for America to track down his father, a janitor at Princeton University. While on the Princeton campus he runs into Max, a troublemaker and slacker, who takes Jude under his wing and invites him home for Thanksgiving, where Jude meets Max’s sister Lucy and the sparks start flying. When Max drops out of Princeton and moves to Manhattan, Jude comes along. They take up shelter in an apartment with an emerging soul diva named Sadie, who is not only nice on the eyes but boasts incredible vocal range. It’s at this point in the film where it feels like everyone is trying too hard and the movie begins to act like a wanna-be version of the Broadway play Rent. 

Aside from being their landlord, Sadie’s role in the film is tired, overwritten and utterly useless. A Detroit guitarist (who bares a crazy resemblance to Jimi Hendrix) flees his hometown’s race riots and heads to New York where he hooks up with Sadie’s band. What this has to do with Jude and Lucy, I have no clue. Why it’s even in the film leaves a lot to the imagination. Soon thereafter Max is sent off to Vietnam (in an astounding boot camp scene that serves as one the film’s high points). Then things get messy. 

On paper, this appears to be enough to be a winner, but the acting and dialogue are so paper-thin that the film loses any sense of drama from the very beginning. After a slow-starting 30 minutes, the film does manage to hits its stride but that’s mostly in part because of the songs, a series of stunning visuals, flashy dance numbers and mind-bending aesthetics. Notice I never mentioned the acting. Therein lies the problem. 

With a running time of two-and-a-half hours Across the Universe a bit long but the two dozen Beatles songs that serve as the focal point make the film worth watching. Also note an all-too-short cameo from Bono who performs a powerhouse version of “I Am the Walrus.” Taymor’s cinematic masterpiece, Frida, was astounding and while Across the Universe isn’t exactly a powerhouse, it’s a bold and enriching film that combines the artistry of Frida , the sweeping grandeur of Moulin Rouge, the Broadway theatrics of Rent, and the overwrought acting of Dawson’s Creek. 

Quite the opposite to Across the Universe is celebrity photographer Anton Corbjin’sControl a black-and-white biopic about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis. Brilliantly played by British newcomer Sam Riley, Control chronicles Curtis’ marriage, infidelity, battles with epilepsy, and Joy Division’s ascending fame. Samantha Morton as Riley’s wife is phenomenal and Toby Kebbell as Joy Division’s manager Rob Gretton is also memorable. Aesthetically, Corbjin’s masterwork with the lens is on full display. 

At a few minutes over two hours the film is quite manageable and satisfying. Even if you’re not a fan of the 70’s punk soundtrack, there is enough going on amongst the characters that the film makes its point. Whereas bigger budget biopics like Ray and Walk the Linegloss over details and have some turns of corniness, Control lacks all of that. It’s all killer, no filler, to quote Sum41. Whereas Across the Universe is grandiose and vibrant, Control is stark, bare and controlled. 

Bolstered by Curtis’s widow, Deborah, who served as producer and supplied her memoir for the screenplay, Control ccurately conveys all of Curtis’ intricacies, flaws and charms and Riley and Corbjin definitely deserve the highest of accolades. Perhaps Taymor should take a cue from them and realize that sometimes less is indeed more.

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