6/16/08: Netflix Reviews – Control, In the Valley of Elah, more
All ratings on a five-star system.
This biopic of Ian Curtis is aesthetically just fine. The decision to use black and white actually makes sense in the confines of the story, since it establishes an ambience to match Curtis’ struggles with depression and the bleak atmosphere in Manchester in the late 70s and early 80s. Unfortunately, there’s two huge problems with this film. The first problem is that if this isn’t the story of Ian Curtis – the lead singer of Joy Division who hung himself at age 23 as the band was still on the upswing in terms of success and popularity – then it’s incredibly dull and holds absolutely no interest to the viewer. The other problem is that the manner in which Curtis is portrayed is baffling. The torment over late onset epilepsy is readily apparent, however we don’t get the sense that it contributed to an overall depression, but that he killed himself because he was truly a despicable human being. Curtis is portrayed by Sam Riley, who has all of Curtis’s cheekbones and none of his charisma. The singer is portrayed as a person who is severely detached during every waking moment, has absolutely no sense of humor, no semblance of a personality, and the worst father in the history of human existence. I suppose I could accept those facts on the surface, however we’re also supposed to believe that this is the same guy who gained a huge cult following and had not one but two women fall madly in love with him during his short life. It’s one thing to accentuate the negative aspects of his life, but Curtis is played off as having absolutely no redeeming qualities to the point where it’s darkly humorous (which is certainly not the intent). This not only prevents the viewer from developing any sort of attachment to the story, but doesn’t lend any believability to the events that transpired. Speaking of believability, you wouldn’t know that Joy Division was the most influential band of the early post-punk era, since the decision was made to have the actors sing and play their own instruments. Joy Division didn’t pride themselves on musicianship, but they didn’t suck like these guys do and there was a definite energy to their performances that just isn’t captured in this film. It’s a great disappointment for Joy Division fans, and an even greater disappointment for those who see the promise in filmmaker Anton Corbijn.
24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE
Though not the greatest film, fans of the Manchester English music scene and even casual observers with no knowledge of the history behind Factory Records will have a blast with this film. As mentioned, “24 Hour Party People” is the story of TV host and Manchester music advocate Tony Wilson’s record label from its inception in 1978 to its demise in 1992 (with only an appropriately brief mention at the end of the film of its attempted revival in the late 1990s). Though the film is only half rooted in fact, it literally tells you this at the onset and has as much fun with the concept as possible. The film also captures the punk, post-punk, and rave cultures of Manchester during this time period and succeeds in putting you there. Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson acts as an omniscient narrator, unashamedly breaking down the fourth wall and not showing any remorse for the hackiness in this manner of storytelling. But it works. It’s also worth noting that Sean Harris portrays Ian Curtis in this film, and while not a central character for the entire duration of the film provides a far more riveting and convincing portrayal of the Joy Division lead singer and the effect he had on the music scene and the lives of everyone around him than the film reviewed above. Even if you’ve never heard a single Joy Division record and hold the belief that the Happy Mondays were nothing more than a practical joke that nobody was in in (not even those executing it), you’ll still get a kick out of this film.
MARGOT AT THE WEDDING
Writer/director Noah Baumbach follows up his fantastic tale of upper-middle-class family dysfunction in “The Squid and the Whale” with…well, upper-middle-class dysfunction in “Margot at the Wedding.” Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Pauline, a woman whose choice of husband (Malcolm; played to great effect by Jack Black who really needs to start accepting more roles that don’t require him to be in 4th gear the entire time) doesn’t sit well with sister Margot, portrayed by Nicole Kidman. To say that Margot is judgmental and trifles is an understatement, though the unintended chaos that’s wrought by her lack of a verbal filter isn’t beaten over the viewer’s head. Baumbach’s genius is in his ability to shape characters who do a lot of emotional damage to those around them (Margot isn’t the only one who does so in this film), but doesn’t do so by having them commit wholly unconscionable acts or put them in a position that’s wholly unsympathetic. At some point Baumbach’s going to have to branch out of the genre of Privileged White People with Problems, but for now he’s doing just fine.
IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH
As Tommy Lee Jones gets older, it gets that much harder to judge films he’s in on their own merit. This isn’t because he chews scenery like a Pacino or a Nicholson, but rather because he’s become so masterful at portraying the tortured stoic that he single-handedly carries films with his acting. There are those who might accuse Jones of not having range or for playing his characters “too simple,” but what they’re missing is the art in forcing these traits on a character and still making them overwhelmingly intriguing. In this he plays Hank Deerfield, an Army veteran and former MP whose youngest son has gone AWOL under suspicious circumstances. There’s an overarching and heavily politicized statement present on the effect the war in Iraq has had on the American psyche, however (perhaps despite the screenwriter’s intentions) it rightfully takes a back seat to Deerfield’s search for truth. The movie’s most glaring fault is that it does get a bit plodding, and I’d argue that it probably would have benefited from being trimmed down a good fifteen to twenty minutes. But it’s still worth watching. Why? “Because Tommy Lee Jones,” that’s why.
I might just have to start giving any film that guy’s in an automatic three to four stars minimum and give that as not only the reason for the rating but also the entirety of its review. For example, let’s say he stars in a film called “Epstein’s Mother” about a truant officer searching for the woman who keeps penning notes excusing absences and tardiness for Juan Epstein, one of Mr. Kotter’s students.
Because Tommy Lee Jones.
See? It works. You already want to see this film and trust me when I say it’s effin’ great.
This’ll probably be the last of these for awhile. Why? Well, the next block of DVDs on the Queue:
* I, Claudius (five-disc series)
* John Adams (three-disc series)
* Five John Ford films that I’ve been meaning to watch for ages (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, “How Green Was My Valley”, “Tobacco Road”, “The Searchers”, and “How the West Was Won”)
I suppose it might be interesting to review both “I, Claudius” and “John Adams” with the justification of them both being historical dramas particularly since the “John Adams” mini-series is fairly recent (and more historically accurate), but for some reason I find it unwieldy to review entire seasons/series of shows/mini-series. And people already either know how great John Ford is or don’t care, so why bother reviewing the five discs I’ll receive after my PBS run?