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

September 11, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s swansong as a leading man sees him play a German spymaster in Anton Corbijn’s low-key intelligence thriller.

AMWM3

Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) is the harassed spymaster of a clandestine unit of German intelligence. Officially Gunther, his loyal lieutenant Irna (Nina Hoss), and Niki (Vicky Krieps) and Maximilian (Daniel Bruhl in a mystifyingly small part); the youngsters who do the physical side of operations; don’t exist, but they keep post 9/11 Hamburg safe from terrorist cells exploiting its port city porosity. Getting in their way is human rights lawyer Annabel (Rachel McAdams), who is attempting to get Chechen illegal immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) the fortune his despised war-lord father left in the hands of discreet banker Brue (Willem Dafoe). Gunther wants to turn Annabel, and so use both his existing mole Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi) and suspected terrorist Issa to snare the respected Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi); who Gunther suspects of covertly using Islamic charities to fund terrorism. Enter the CIA…

Rock photographer Corbijn’s first two films as director, Control and The American, were visually striking, and A Most Wanted Man has equally interesting work right from the opening when the lapping harbour water Issa emerges from becomes shifting whiskey in Gunther’s glass. Corbijn makes great use of shifting focus in a lengthy interrogation, stages a long-take on a ferry very disconcertingly, and hammers home the paranoia of surveillance with Niki and Maximilian’s constant unobtrusive tailing of suspects. The nitty-gritty procedural approach to intelligence work is always absorbing, and Robin Wright’s cameos as inveigling Company woman Martha Sullivan are nicely done. But the extended breaking of Annabel, even though it’s probably quite realistic, sucks all momentum out of proceedings. And then just when things have got properly tense again with Gunther laying a trap, the trademark le Carre letdown is sprung.

An emotionally devastating twist is casually thrown in, but screenwriter Andrew (Lantana) Bovell cannot salvage the unsatisfactory finale which, in typical le Carre style, ends not with a bang but a whimper. le Carre may have had the inside scoop on the Cold War when he started writing, but it’s been fifty years since Kim Philby blew his cover, and it’s hard to think of a profession less likely to spill new trade secrets to former members of the guild, so this can’t be le Carre giving us the real scoop on how post-9/11 intelligence works so much as le Carre giving us his own bleak weltanschauung. It is one he shares with Cormac McCarthy: storytellers who create protagonists and antagonists, place them in peril, but then, because they have no real interest in storytelling, lose interest in their creations.

A Most Wanted Man is a pretty good leading man send-off for Hoffman; particularly the poignant last image in which Hoffman walks out of shot and our lives; but its ending lets it down.

3/5

July 3, 2014

Trailer Talk: Part II

In another entry in this occasional series I round up some trailers for films opening in the next few months.

2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was extremely successful commercially, but was a curiously mixed bag artistically. Rupert Wyatt’s direction was quite brilliant in some Hitchcockian flourishes and well-staged action sequences. But the script seemed barely written; with James Franco and Frieda Pinto playing ciphers. Andy Serkis (in motion-capture) returns as talking evolved ape leader Caesar. The world’s population having been devastated by the simian flu Caesar faces great hostility from belligerent human leader Gary Oldman, but an ally in Jason Clarke’s family man willing to talk peaceful co-existence. But peaceful co-existence don’t make for a high-stakes apocalyptic blockbuster! The focus of interest must be director Matt Reeves. Cloverfield combined spectacle with devastating emotional impact and his vampire remake Let Me In improved on the Scandinavian original. What will he fashion?

Dutch rock photographer Anton Corbijn’s third film as director seems closer in tone and look to his sophomore effort The American than stark debut Control, as he directs a John Le Carre spy thriller set in Germany. The adaptation of Le Carre’s novel comes from Lantana playwright and screenwriter Andrew Bovell which is almost as much an enticement as the stellar cast: Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead performance. The second coming of Robin Wright really is a phenomenon as worthy of attention as the McConnaissance, and this looks like another compelling performance. The late Hoffman meanwhile seems on fine form as the German spook harassing McAdams’ attorney: “I’m a lawyer” “You’re a social worker for terrorists”. Hopefully this will be better structured than the cavalier Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Yep, the teaser trailer for what will probably be one of the three biggest films of 2014 manages to not mention Katniss Everdeen, show Jennifer Lawrence’s face, or even acknowledge the existence of the previous two films. Intentionally, of course, as it’s a Capitol propaganda film with Donald Sutherland’s kindly old white-bearded President Snow sitting in a white room, flanked by Josh Hutcherson’s kidnapped Peeta, telling the people of Panem how good the Capitol is to them, and expressing bemusement as to why they would ever rebel against him. Arcade Fire’s chilling Soviet style Panem anthem has more or less for me become Donald Sutherland’s personal theme tune at this point, and it suits these words: “But if you resist the system, you starve yourself. If you fight against it, it is you who will bleed…” #OnePanem

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