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Happiness Is A Warm Gun 

The Beatles and Jesse James fight to a draw

The Beatles gave us a motion picture masterpiece in A Hard Day's Night, yet they also gave us (through no fault of their own) a motion picture disaster in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, that '70s debacle with Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees proving to be poor substitutes for The Fab Four. So what to make of Across the Universe, an ambitious musical that fashions a story around a catalogue of classic Beatles tunes?

Depends on who you ask. According to the Rotten Tomatoes critical compilation Web site, Across the Universe has split the scribes almost equally, with half surrendering to its bliss and the other half deriding its very existence. And it isn't simply a matter of one's age or preference in music, as Beatles fans -- be they baby boomers or Generation X-ers -- can be found on both sides of the critical divide. Whew, a long and winding road, indeed!

For my money, Across the Universe isn't simply a good movie; it's one of the best films of the year. One can nitpick about the thin plot, though it's sturdy enough to function as a support beam to director Julie Taymor's outlandish ideas. What's integral to the movie's success are Taymor's vision, the appeal of the cast, and the channeling of iconic songs into a framework that respects and in some cases amplifies them.

Taking place in the late 1960s, the story, credited to Taymor and the team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (the blokes largely responsible for the smashing Irish R&B flick The Commitments), finds Liverpool laborer Jude (Jim Sturgess) traveling to America, whereupon he finds a best friend in college kid Max (Joe Anderson) and a lover in Max's kid sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Eventually, the three end up in New York, at which point Jude develops his passion for drawing, Max gets drafted into the army, and Lucy finds her political consciousness awakened. The kids experience good times (a cross-country bus trip, chaperoned by Bono's Dr. Robert) and bad times (riots aplenty), yet through it all, they realize that "all you need is love," and that anything is possible "with a little help from my friends."

Sound simplistic? Hardly; instead, the movie takes great care to not only honor the music of The Beatles but also to pay tribute to other musical staples of the period, among them Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival and even the Apple Records logo. Combining the song sampling technique of Moulin Rouge with Forrest Gump's journey through the turbulent '60s (and owing reams to Hair as well), Across the Universe dramatizes the past while also serving notice to the present (the Vietnam War material can't help but stir images of Iraq). Taymor, best known for the Broadway version of The Lion King as well as the Oscar-winning Frida (which explains the Salma Hayek cameo in this new picture), serves up some truly staggering images, achieved through an eye-popping mix of computer graphics, oversized puppets and color-saturated set decorations.

But while there's plenty of hallucinatory material, there's also plenty of heart. The love story between Jude and Lucy is central, but there's also a dalliance between their NYC roommates Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), as well as lesbian longing from lonely Prudence (T.V. Carpio). Although Prudence's story is the most underdeveloped, it also contains one of the movie's best covers of a Beatles song, her lovely rendition of "I Want to Hold Your Hand." In fact, considering how dangerous it is to touch the Mop Tops' music, the versions in this film are for the most part acceptable rehashes, among them Bono's "I Am the Walrus" and Anderson's "Hey, Jude." Clearly, the low point is Eddie Izzard mangling "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," although the circus number that surrounds him is pretty spectacular. And so is the rest of the film, a magical mystery tour with the power to restore one's faith in both movies and music.

SO MUCH FOR all that talk of a troubled production, studio hesitancy (Warner Bros. took forever to nail down an opening date) and a monumental misfire-to-be on the order of Heaven's Gate. While it's unlikely to make any sort of dent at the box office, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is no turkey; on the contrary, it's a sterling example of accomplished filmmaking on a grand scale, wielding a lengthy running time that allows it to explore its themes and characters in satisfying detail.

Adapted from Ron Hansen's novel by writer-director Andrew Dominik, the story focuses on the tail end of Jesse James' (Brad Pitt) run as a notorious outlaw. Planning one last heist, he and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) enlist the aid of a motley crew, given that all of their regular cohorts in crime are either dead or in prison. Among the newcomers is Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a 19-year-old kid who grew up idolizing the Jesse James found in dime-store novels. Robert initially follows Jesse around like a groupie -- or a stalker -- finally leading the bandit to ask, "Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"

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