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

October 6, 2009

Love Happens

This film is a real oddity. Aaron Eckhart, Martin Sheen and Zodiac’s John Carroll Lynch all seem to think they’re in a serious drama about bereavement and grieving. Everyone else thinks they’re in a sappy rom-com…

The always charismatic Eckhart plays Burke Ryan, a psychologist who has moved from writing practical newspaper columns to an uneasy fame conducting workshops to deal with bereavement on the back of his best-selling book A-Okay (complete with inane hand symbol) about his recovery from the impact of his wife’s violent death at his side in a car-crash. While (against his better judgement) conducting a workshop in Seattle he encounters Manic Pixie Dream Girl,  sorry,  I meant florist, Eloise (Jennifer Aniston), who likes scribbling obscure words like Quidnunc in odd places in hotels. Eloise has a wonderful moment where she pretends to be deaf to avoid Burke’s advances but this film is not a romantic comedy, the only laughs come from Eckhart doing slapstick with a parrot. Instead, though Judy Greer and Dan Fogler give it their all as the archetypal best friends of the leads, this is that rare beast, a romantic drama.

Co-writer/director Brandon Camp started work on this film after his mother’s death, and there is a strong authenticity to much of the material, which he deserves great credit for tackling. Danny Boyle noted in his Sunshine commentary that cinema’s forward momentum makes it nearly impossible to grieve for a character, so this film is one of the very few you will see in mainstream cinema seriously tackling loss. Eckhart has a phenomenal scene when his character is ambushed at the end of one of the first workshop sessions by his father-in-law (Sheen) who lambasts him for exploiting the death of his daughter. Eckhart has no dialogue – we simply watch his completely silent reaction as the façade of confidence crumbles. Following this Burke makes it his mission to save ex-contractor Walter (Lynch) from his cul-de-sac of guilt over his young son’s death on a building site. Some of these scenes are rom-com structural tropes, but filled with such dramatic sizzle that they actually make an impression. But this tension between form and content is never satisfactorily resolved, even a climactic scene between Eckhart and Sheen becomes slightly suspect when obligatory romantic sappiness bleeds into it. There are also cameos by NCIS star Sasha Alexander as a photographer and Joe (charisma to burn) Anderson as Aniston’s unfaithful musician boyfriend that are bizarrely pointless.

This should be the kind of brainless fluff like The Core and No Reservations that Eckhart does to make money (without exercising his brain) to subsidise LaBute plays and films like Thank You For Smoking. Instead it’s a strange beast. Saddled with rom-com clichés and stranded half-way between romantic drama and serious drama it bends its formal structures to breaking point without quite achieving the heights that should come from such a daring imposition of challenging material in a trifling genre. A decent film, just a very confused one.

2.5/5

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