Talking Movies

October 14, 2019

From the Archives: Control

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) becomes the singer for a band he quickly renames Joy Division. The band’s popularity explodes but Curtis becomes suicidal as he develops epilepsy and his marriage to Deborah (Samantha Morton) disintegrates because of his affair with groupie Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara)…

Anton Corbijn’s decision to film in black and white gives Control an unexpected quality. It depicts England in 1973 as almost identical to the society portrayed in the early 1960s kitchen-sink dramas like A Kind of Loving. We see Ian Curtis bored out of his mind in chemistry class in school, doing volunteer social work and, best of all, reciting Wordsworth poems to anyone who’ll listen when not moodily lying on his bed listening to Bowie records. All of which makes Curtis a very relatable figure. But of course this isn’t a kitchen sink drama despite the acute observation of period, at times in the first hour this also feels (to bounce comic book parlance) like we’re watching the Origin Myth of a musical superhero. Interpol are the most prominent of a number of current bands whose sound descends from Joy Division’s trailblazing sound and Curtis’ peculiar vocals in particular. It’s the odd mixture of these two approaches, realistic and mythic, that make the film so individual. A virtuoso long take following Curtis to work (wearing a coat with ‘Hate’ painted on the back) to the strains of Joy Division emphasises the dual life he leads as his normal life is spent working in the Employment Exchange placing people with disabilities into jobs.

His normal life, because of his deep empathy with the people he helps, seems a sight more heroic than his band life especially when he dishonourably succumbs to cliché and cheats on his wife Deborah (Samantha Morton) with Belgian groupie Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara). The life of Joy Division, unlike the portrayal of The Doors by Oliver Stone, is made to seem a lot of fun. The actors warmly flesh out their thinly written roles of nervous guitarist Bernard Sumner and boring drummer Stephen Morris while Joe Anderson, who was so good in last week’s musical release Across the Universe, is wonderful as Hooky the sardonic bass player. Craig Parkinson is an utter joy as the recently deceased Tony Wilson, the flamboyant music mogul who signs Joy Division’s contract with his own blood to prove his dedication while Toby Kebbell hoovers up many of the film’s best lines as their sarky manager Rob Gretton.

Sam Riley channels Ian Curtis with frightening intensity, especially in the thrilling concert scenes. There is though an unsettling resemblance to the similarly motivated Kurt Cobain for the final 30 minutes as Curtis wallows in self-pity, neglects his responsibilities to his infant daughter, and uses his epilepsy as an excuse for suicide. Anton Corbijn deserves high praise for refusing to romanticise the suicide as being some final artistic gesture and for injecting such emotional realism into rock mythology.

4/5

October 2, 2019

From the Archives: Across the Universe

Another rummage through the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers Julie Taymor’s under-watched and under-appreciated Beatles musical featuring the under-appreciated Joe Anderson.

Liverpudlian dock worker Jude (Jim Sturgess) travels to Princeton in the 1960s to find his long lost GI father but moves to New York with Max (Joe Anderson) and falls in love with Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). When Max is sent to Vietnam, Lucy’s political activism tears her away from Jude…

Musicals, like Westerns, seem to be experiencing something of a renaissance. But both genres are nowadays farcically burdened with justifying their conventions and director Julie Taymor never quite establishes whether people are just going to burst into song randomly like in 1950s musicals or in archly contrived scenarios like 2002’s Chicago. Instead she throws both styles together, which works fine for the most part, but this is definitely more Moulin Rouge! than Chicago. Be warned, there’s a good deal of the overt theatricality you’d expect from a director with Godlike status on Broadway. The use of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ is fantastic as Max is accosted by a poster of Uncle Sam and choreographed sergeant majors at his army medical exam before a visual gag far too good to spoil here. However, this use of CGI and wooden masks presages the utter nonsense that begins when Bono arrives to sing ‘I Am the Walrus’. The use of photographic negative and trippy imagery that takes over proceedings quickly becomes very irritating and makes the running time of the film seem grotesquely overlong.

A simpler early sequence best exemplifies the cleverness with which Taymor approaches the songs. The extremely poppy ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ is transformed into a slow minimalist heartbreaker of a song as lesbian cheerleader Prudence (TV Carpio) serenades the lead cheerleader while footballers tackle each other as a tumbling chorus. If you don’t like this sequence then you will hate this film and most probably punch the person behind you who mutters ‘That’s Awesome!!’ Taymor at her best is able to wring unexpected meaning from the over-familiar songs and brings out the sadness implicit in Lennon and McCartney’s fondness for minor key compositions. At her worst she completely loses the realism of the Jude/Lucy love story and the sly wit in making the songs emerge organically from action, indulging instead in symbolical visual zaniness that plays like a bad 1960s Roger Corman exploitation film.

Jim Sturgess as Jude can sing but he lacks charisma and Evan Rachel Wood is good as Lucy but not good enough to carry him, she should have really have been playing opposite Joe Anderson who is wonderful as the raffish Max. It takes heroic resolve to overlook Taymor’s wayward psychedelia but she does return to the realism of musicals so that the finale has a nice emotional oomph with the end credits a neat pay off for a gag we’ve been waiting for the whole length of the film. No I’m not going to tell you what it is, go see it yourself.

3/5

August 18, 2011

Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie

Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie is less concert film, featuring most of the cast of Glee performing in character, and more socio-political manifesto by Ryan Murphy.

The film opens with backstage interviews with the Glee cast. Oddly some of them stay in character and some don’t. Their character names then flash up on screen during their on-stage introduction and Artie stays in his wheelchair just to hammer home that they’re performing in character as New Directions, sort of. If the film wants to refer to the performers by character name, I’m happy to oblige and save myself a visit to IMDb. Proceedings begin, of course, with the trademark god-awful cover of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’. The words ‘of course’ apply to most of the numbers. This is a greatest hits package of songs that the show has affixed to particular characters, all of whom get the chance to step up and strut their stuff.

Miss Holliday cameos for one Ce Loo song, but Mr Schuster is conspicuously absent. Puck, Mercedes and Artie all get to show off with solo songs but the most notable turn is Britney’s energetic performance of ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’, which is outrageously sleazy, and leads to the thought that 3-D works well for horror and animation but is perhaps also something that could enhance musicals. Not that it works particularly well here, the choreography is too basic for there to really be anything to show off, but there are moments when it adds something. But while they fail to exploit the third dimension these are good performances – Mike Chang can dance! As indeed can the other secondary characters. But then the lead characters can really sing. Rachel belts out ‘Firework’, and, as Nadine O’Regan has noted, Katy Perry’s lungs resemble those of a blue whale.

Regrettably this is not solely a concert film. There are endless inserts following three Glee fans. Apparently Glee cures Asperger’s, makes dwarves (their term) popular and enables gay students survive high school. Apparently I hallucinated three hilarious pre-Glee seasons of Ugly Betty valorising a hopeless nerd, celebrating difference and positively depicting a fabulous high school student… Lady GaGa’s ‘Born This Way’ is the show-climaxing statement of socio-political intent, but Glee cannot sustain this solving-all-the-world’s-problems-with-a-soft-shoe-shuffle pomposity – what could? Glee is just a TV show with glaring limitations. It’s a blender which flattens all music. Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and Massive Attack’s ‘Inertia Creeps’ would all emerge sounding the same, as deeply over-produced pop. I previously criticised its lack of ambition beside Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, and here Kurt performs ‘I Want to Hold your Hand’ – precisely as Taymor reinterpreted it! Even their innovations are derivative!!

This is a genuinely enjoyable concert, but the documentary segments are actually mildly disturbing…

2/5

(P.S. Stay on after the credits for another signature song…)

December 22, 2010

The Way Back

Australian auteur Peter Weir lethargically releases his first film in seven years. Sadly, it’s not worth rising from your post-Christmas stupor to see…

Weir’s laziness is usually matched by the quality of the movies emanating from his sabbaticals (The Truman Show, Master & Commander). But, like a pianist going without practice for too long, Weir’s directing skills have become rusty, and he hits wrong notes everywhere. Across the Universe star Jim Sturgess is our bland Polish hero Janusz, sent to a Siberian gulag in 1939 after the Russians defeat his army. Here he meets imprisoned actor Mark Strong, American immigrant Ed Harris, and Colin Farrell as the hardest of hard chaws, Valka. Farrell steals the film from the anaemic leading man on the showy side, while Ed Harris steals it on the Bogart side, but this miscasting is not the worst of Weir’s blunders.

By the end of this ‘inspiring’ true story it’ll feel as if you have trekked from Siberia to India so colossal is the accumulating boredom. Sam Mendes recreated tedium in trying to depict the effect of tedium on soldiers in Jarhead; Weir makes a film that is endless and gruelling in depicting men on an endless and gruelling trek. The trouble is that it’s hard to care about their hardships as Weir introduces these men so cavalierly. A reprise of Master & Commander’s subtle depiction of an all-male closed-society is abandoned almost instantly as the 7 trekkers escape to freedom in a terrifyingly vague fashion. If you later know for sure the name of the first of the trekkers to ‘poignantly’ die then I take my furry Russian hat off to you. Weir puts his characters in peril, and only then remembers that he was supposed to make us care about them first.

His attempts to retrospectively make us care by fleshing out minor characters are sunk by the tragicomic desertion of a star, which leads to the horrifying realisation (much like Speed Racer’s telegraphed story-structure) that we’re only half-way thru the trek, and we still have the guts of a continent to go… Saoirse Ronan tries to keep this section afloat by wringing as much pathos as she can from the weak material but all too often everyone is on auto-cue delivering platitudes. As for pay-off, The Way Back features the dumbest ending imaginable; its level of insight into character psychology heralded by Janus’ Forrest Gump like explanation of how he escaped a Siberian gulag, “I just kept walking”. And keep walking he does, by God, with his ever-ambling shoes super-imposed on a newsreel montage of the Cold War’s flash-points before 2010’s most inane finale.

It may seem harsh as a judgement but only co-producers National Geographic get their money’s worth on this picture. It educationally displays the varied climates and fauna of Asia. Meanwhile you, the paying audience, get less for your money in terms of suspense, action, and emotional involvement than 3 episodes of Bear Grylls’ ever-preposterous adventures back to back provides.

2/5

November 24, 2010

Less than Glee-ful

I’ve finally been provoked into attacking Glee by its Gwyneth Paltrow episode, which showcased many of the reasons I dislike the show.

The endless hype is unbearable. Constant gossipy leaks about what songs will be used in forthcoming episodes and who’s going to appear in what role as a guest star. If a show advertises weekly who’s guest-starring and what they’re doing you would think it’s in trouble ratings-wise. Glee though seems to have made this its paradigm. But it is pathetic. If a show is good I will watch it, week after week. I wouldn’t tune into The Event randomly because they advertised that Bruce Campbell would be guest-starring. You know why? The Event is awful. Glee also cleaves to the approach of the film Chicago in apologising for being a musical. “Oh, it’s okay; they’re only singing because they’re in a choir or because it’s a fantasy sequence,” it seems to say. Well it’s not okay. I like musicals! I want characters to sing because they’re in a musical!! It is as if a gangster film had characters shrug apologetically at the camera every time someone ordered a hit or bribed a cop.

Glee is painfully formulaic. How many episodes wrap up with someone predictably learning a life-lesson through dialogue that you could guess almost from the cold open? Sure there are wincingly off-colour jokes along the way but on the macro level everything is staidly predictable. It’s like putting three drops of vinegar in an old wine bottle. Perhaps you need a different type of container… Even Talking Movies favourite Joss Whedon failed to puncture this bubble of self-satisfied obviousness in the episode he directed. When Matthew Morrison delivered a fatuous line about how much Glee meant to them at school and still meant now, and Neil Patrick Harris groaned and knocked his head against the bar, I waited for a wincing put-down of such sentimental shtick. Instead the god-like NPH merely moaned about missing Glee… Little wonder then that the season 1 finale scaled new peaks of cliché in juxtaposing Quinn’s labour with the rival club’s performance of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, before introducing an ocean of character inconsistency to allow Sue Sylvester ensure a second season before remembering who she was and confirming that she would remain their in-house villain.

Finally the show is an enormous live-action fax machine. Why re-stage David Fincher’s video for Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ shot for shot? Where precisely is the artistic achievement in replicating the ‘Timewarp’ from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or the closing number from Chicago, or the astounding ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ routine from Singin’ in the Rain? I’ve seen a theatrical Rocky Horror Show that gleefully diverged from the film’s over-familiar staging more than Glee ever dreamt of doing. A mere facsimile of an original adds nothing. The Bangles’ ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ pales next to Heathers’ ‘Float On’, which completely re-works that Modest Mouse original. Glee by contrast offers as a ‘re-working’ a ‘Singin’ in the Rain’/‘Umbrella’ mash-up, which ruined both songs. Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe was misfiring, but its sometimes inspired staging and re-working of incredibly familiar Beatles songs expose Glee’s lack of ambition. It begs the question is Glee a mere spark-notes, a substitute for people too lazy to watch the original musicals?

It’s like watching a teenager type out ‘The Dead’ on their laptop. Perfectly re-enacting something that didn’t need re-enacting because it was perfect the first time round will get you no respect. It shouldn’t. It deserves none. Just ask Gus Van Sant…

I can’t wait for people to get tired of this show.

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