Monday, February 11, 2008

From the Archive: "Across the Universe" DVD Review

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original DVD Review of “Across the Universe”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Across the Universe”
DVD Review originally published February 11th, 2008


How often can you sing along with a musical, without ever seeing the musical before?  Not very.  But in Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, you can sing along with the Beatles-inspired characters as they sing many of our favorite songs, traveling through the American landscape that was the 1960’s. 

While the Vietnam War rages on, and the anti-war movement gains steam, a British boy named Jude travels to America to find the father he never knew.  His father works at a University, but hopes of the man taking Jude in as a son are soon shattered; the man has another family.  But on Campus, Jude also makes a new friend; slacker Max, who drops out of school and goes to New York with Jude.  Jude meets Max’s sister, Lucy, and a romance develops.  But when Max is drafted into the war, Lucy becomes an activist, and she and Jude slowly grow apart.

The film follows these three and a group of other misfits who all are trying to find themselves, and the whole film is set to a collection of some of the Beatle’s best work.

As a general rule, you shouldn’t build a plot around the music you plan to use, but that is the film’s single greatest strength.  It takes the deeper meanings out of many Beatles songs from the era and makes a plot around them; it does this so well that if you somehow didn’t know the music was taken from the Beatles, you’d think it was written for the film.  Each piece fits the scene perfectly, being sincere, heart-wrenching, fun, or sometimes just downright strange.  The best numbers in the film are a fantastic rendition of “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” and a poignant and fun version of “Hey Jude” and the fantastic finale, “All You Need Is Love.”  Other notable pieces include a dark interpretation of “Strawberry Fields,” fun and psychedelic renditions of “I am the Walrus” and “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and an emotionally show-stopping performance of the title song, “Across the Universe.”  Virtually every song in the film is done extremely well.

The actors, all of whom sing their own numbers, do a fantastic job.  An unknown, Jim Sturgess, plays Jude, and his singing voice resembles the Beatles very closely.  When he breaks into song, you know the performance is going to be great.  Evan Rachel Wood portrays Lucy, and, surprisingly, has a lovely singing voice.  Her rendition of “Blackbird” near the end is beautiful, though it only lasts about 30 seconds.  Joe Anderson quite often steals the show as Max, slacker turned (reluctant) soldier, and his performance of “Hey Jude” is one of the film’s best.  I could go on and on about the acting and singing, but it’s great across the board.

The film is set in the backdrop of the 1960’s, and according to my Dad, who was a teenager when all this went on, nails the feeling of it.  Being 15, I of course wasn’t alive during this time, but I could tell it felt accurate because of how real and down to earth it was done.  Many parts of the movie are quite powerful, mostly because of how well they use the songs. 

As the film progresses, the production team uses stranger and stranger ways of portraying the goings-on, using animation, puppetry, psychedelic color schemes, etc. to show how mad the world was getting, and its powerful.  But as the film shows us, in the end, all you need is love.  It’s a simple message that’s been done a thousand times, but it’s powerful, and very well done.

There’s really not much more to say.  The creativity that bursts from every single frame of this film is extremely apparent, and is a joy to watch.  Across the Universe is one of the best (and certainly the most original) movies of 2007.

Film Rating: A-
TOP TEN 07: #7


On DVD, the movie is just as enjoyable.  The video quality is really quite excellent, as we should expect from movies filmed so recently.  The film’s use of colors was really interesting to see in theaters, and the DVD reproduces this very faithfully.  Colors just jump off the screen, and detail is very sharp throughout.  Contrast is a bit off in dark scenes; sometimes, the blacks look more grey, but it’s a small quibble.  This is a very good image.

Obviously, the audio component of this film is extremely important, and thankfully, the DVD delivers the goods in this department.  It doesn’t deliver the same expressive punch as the film’s soundtrack album does, but the musical scenes are well represented.  Most of the time, you can hear all components of the soundtrack quite well.  The singing is never muffled by the music, which sounds clear and undistorted.  Sound effects dance throughout the speakers effectively, creating an all-inclusive atmosphere of sound.  The audio/visual presentation on this disc is top-notch.

Video Rating: 8.5/10
Audio Rating: 9/10


But as good as the A/V is, the extras are where this set really excels..  Oh boy, are the extras on this set great.  Looking on the back of the case, all you see is the message “5 Featurettes,” which looks a bit underwhelming.  But don’t be fooled by that.  Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here.  This is a two-disc set, and on disc one, we’re treated to a very good audio commentary with Director Julie Taymor and Composer Elliot Goldenthal.  They’ve worked together a long time now, and the chemistry is apparent.  Taymor was very, very invested in this project, made obvious in the commentary.  This is definitely worth a listen.

But where the extras really pick up is on disc two, where the DVD producers have come up with the best batch of featurettes I’ve seen in a long, long, long time (excluding the Blade Runner set last year).  There are five of them, and they are made up mostly of on-set footage, which is really cool to see.  You’ll witness actors filming, rehearsing, recording, and goofing off.  There’s a very natural feel to all of it that really makes these featurettes come alive.  All too often today, DVD featurettes are just people sitting in a room talking.  But with this disc, we actually SEE the film being made.  And to put icing on the cake, it’s all in anamorphic widescreen.  Well done indeed.

Starting off the featurettes is the 29-minute Creating the Universe.  This is a basic overview of the production.  They discuss the origins, how they picked songs, how certain effects were achieved, etc.  There’s lots of good discussion from the cast and crew, and we see plenty of great on-set footage.  Next is the 27-minute Stars of Tomorrow, which discusses the cast of the film.  This is really fun to watch, because all these actors have great chemistry together, and obviously love the project.  Seeing them goof around on-set is hilarious, and there’s plenty of good information about how the casting was chosen.

Next is the 15 minute All About the Music, which is primarily hosted by Elliot Goldenthal, the composer/music supervisor.  They talk about adapting and recording the music.  The 9-minute Moving Across the Universe details the choreography, and the 6-minute FX on the Universe tells us about the film’s effects.  This last featurette was a bit disappointing; it only skims over the important details, and I would have liked to see more on this.

So basically, with these five featurettes, you’ve got a fabulous 90 minute documentary on the movie.  Every bit of it is worth watching.  I’m surprised at how well these were done; you don’t see extras this good on major Hollywood releases anymore, so to see this on a relatively small independent film is a treat. 

Finally on disc two, there’s also 35 minutes of extended musical sequences.  They don’t seem terribly extended to me, or maybe I wasn’t watching close enough.  Of course, if you just want to see some of the musical numbers they’re talking about on the featurettes without going to disc one, then they’re here to view. 

Extras and Presentation Rating: 9/10


I have to say, I’m very pleasantly surprised at the sheer quality of this two-disc set.  Considering the film’s strange release schedule last fall, where Sony was seemingly attempting to kill the film, I was guessing we’d be getting a bare-bones DVD with iffy video and audio quality, but the entire package is a home-run.  Across the Universe on DVD gets my very high recommendation.
Overall Rating: 9.5/10

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