Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Movies watched, December 2007

Control, Anton Corbijn, 2007

There are many myths surrounding the story of Joy Division, particularly in the manner in which their singer, Ian Curtis, killed himself. I’ve heard various stories over the years—that he stood on a block of ice and waited for it to melt, that he carved a smiley face over his own with a pen knife, and so on—but it seems that he simply listened to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, wrote a long, rambling note to his wife, and hung himself from a clothes rack in the kitchen. It would have been interesting to explore these untruths in the film, but I like that Control ignores them entirely, achieving as close to realism as you can get in a film such as this one. (Well, I guess they did include the apparently false legend of Tony Wilson signing their record contract in blood—it does make for a pretty amusing scene though.) Based mainly on Curtis’ ex-wife’s memoir, the film’s perspective might be slightly skewed, but Corbijn also spoke to Curtis’ Belgian girlfriend, Annik, for her own insights into their relationship, which seems to provide a bit of a balance.

One of the strongest aspects of the film is the music. The soundtrack includes some greats, like Bowie, the Buzzcocks, and the Velvet Underground. But more importantly, it actually features Joy Division—there’s nothing worse than seeing a film about a band that doesn’t even have the band’s music in it. The live Joy Division shows appear rather authentic, the actors mimicking the band’s onstage motions near-perfectly. If I’m not mistaken, they were taught to play their instruments and actually performed the songs live—an interesting technique, and a testament to the extent of the actors’ efforts.

Filming in black and white was a smart choice, as it effectively conveys the dreariness of the industrial British town from which the band hails. In many ways, Control follows in the long tradition of films about dreary British industrial towns and the angry young men who are dying to escape them, a la The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Look Back in Anger, and so on.

Ian feels trapped in a variety of ways, but often in situations he could remedy, in theory at least. He doesn’t want to be in the band anymore (he could quit), he doesn’t want to be in Macclesfield anymore (he could move), and he doesn’t want to be married anymore (he could get a divorce). The last one might be the most complicated, as he seems emotionally conflicted over leaving Deborah, and yet very much in love with his girlfriend. Perhaps he just wants to be frozen in time, before his band got big, when he was still madly in love with his wife, when he was young and hopeful—and before he was stricken with epilepsy. As for the epilepsy, he is, unfortunately, trapped inside his own mind and body. There’s no escaping the seizures, which most likely were the main driving force that led to his suicide—his life seemed fairly miserable anyway, but that pushed him over the edge, especially since he feared the seizures would intensify over time.

The film’s conclusion is a bit melodramatic, with Deborah discovering Ian’s dead body and running into the street screaming. It’s unnecessary to see this, as it doesn’t shed any light on the situation, doesn’t tell the viewer anything they couldn’t have inferred (I mean, how else would you expect her to react?). The ending could have been made stronger by cutting from the sound of the rope to the wisps of black smoke curling from the chimney as Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” plays into the credits—a rather poetic image to close with, I think.

No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007
This adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel remains very close to the source material, in some cases taking dialogue word for word from the pages of the book. Sometimes this approach does not work—I have no qualms about filmmakers implementing changes to the plot as they adapt it to film, which is often necessary—but here the result is extremely successful, especially as the book is rather cinematic (as I was reading it I remember wondering if it would be made into a movie).

At the heart of the story is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), as close to evil in human form as one might ever encounter. Chigurh has a slow, deliberate way of speaking, one that instills goosebumps in its listener, particularly in his nerve-wrackingly cryptic practice of bargaining with another man over his life with the toss of a coin. His cruel, cold, humorless mannerisms are accentuated by his odd choice of weapon, the cattle gun, which propels a metal cylinder into an object (often a person’s skull) and then sucks the cylinder back inside, and his bizarre 1970s porn haircut (apparently modeled after a photo of a 1979 brothel patron), adds the right amount of weirdness to his appearance.

Bardem’s performance is so strong that his character’s presence is palpable even when he’s not there—in certain instances the viewer can almost feel that the camera has just missed him by a few minutes. Llewelyn Moss, the man who had the misfortune of discovering Chigurh’s money (though he probably feels it is good fortune at the time) is clearly making a mistake by trying to outrun Chigurh, for even if Moss manages to flee from him once, it’s never long before he catches up with him—the man is like a machine, unstoppable. Each narrow escape is thrilling and suspenseful—even for me, and I already knew the story’s outcome.

Margot at the Wedding, Noah Baumbach, 2007
Baumbach’s follow-up to The Squid and the Whale is even darker and more depressing than his last film, with not even a redeeming moment at the end for its characters, who spend their time spitefully bickering, preying on each other’s vulnerabilities. I guess this is what's contributed to its "box office flop" status, but I thought it was one of the best films released in 2007 (maybe right after No Country for Old Men).

Margot and her precocious son Claude travel to the Hamptons for her sister Pauline’s wedding to Malcolm, who Margot deems unsuitable (he is unemployed, unstable, and has a hideous mustache that he has grown just to be ironic). One wonders, though, why Margot cares: she hasn’t seen her sister in years (it becomes clear that the only reason she has shown up is because her extramarital lover lives nearby). The source of their squabbling seems not to originate from some singular painful event, but simply because the two sisters are too alike. They have been competing with one another their entire lives, and cannot let the other one win. For instance, Pauline obliquely challenges Margot to climb a tree, and inwardly gloats when the fire department arrives to rescue her from it; later on, Pauline confides in Margot a secret she is hiding from her family, which Margot conveys to Claude, who then spreads the rumor even further (although one wonders why Pauline told Margot in the first place, as she must have known what the outcome would be—perhaps this was her way of telling her family in a roundabout way).

Like The Squid and the Whale, the film is extremely visceral—we see the characters masturbating, examining whether their balls hang lower than their dicks, saving their fingernail clippings, and so on. The characters are human, and all of their disgusting habits, both physical and emotional, are displayed rather nakedly for the viewer.

The Savages, Tamara Jenkins, 2007

I was attracted to The Savages by its title, a bit of a double-entendre referencing the characters’ last name, and even more so by its director, Tamara Jenkins, whose previous credit, Slums of Beverly Hills, is a favorite of mine.

The film opens in Sun City, Arizona, a town that appears to be populated entirely by senior citizens. Golf carts drive down the streets, and old leathery women languorously bob up and down in swimming pools, slowly dying in the sun. This essentially artificial environment is characterized by slow, calm sounds, like that of a tinkling music box, as though the town is a fairyland for the elderly. This is where Ben and Wendy Savage must go to pick up their aging father, after his live-in girlfriend of 20 years dies and her children immediately put the house on the market, to bring him back to Buffalo, New York. The contrast between Buffalo and Sun City is profound: upstate New York is freezing and covered in snow, signifying death for the old man in more ways than one.

The film doesn’t shy away from all the embarrassing and painful experiences that accompany caring for aging parents, providing some squirm-inducing scenes, such as when Wendy’s father’s pants fall around his ankles on the plane, and she has to bend down and lift them back up for him. Ben and Wendy also felt like actual people, rather than characters in a script, dimensionalized with subtle details like Wendy’s flowery thermal shirts that she’s always wearing, and Ben’s perpetually wrinkled, untucked attire (he’s a college professor, and yet he’s not wearing a tweed jacket—incredible!). Their father, however, did not seem fleshed out enough. We know he was once a formidable figure but has since been weakened by old age and dementia—a plotline that we’ve seen countless times in film. We need more specific details about the family dynamic, about their past, because his character is too one-dimensional to pique the viewer’s interest, to indelibly affix itself into our memory.

The film’s momentum dwindles a bit towards the end, which I imagine could have been improved by tightening up the script a bit. In all, I prefer Slums of Beverly Hills to this, but it’s not without its own merits.

Juno, Jason Reitman, 2007
A fairly universal criticism of this movie falls on its first 15 minutes or so, in which the dialogue is way too heavy on the teen slang—do people really say things like “for shizz” these days? Thankfully, the lingo tones down pretty quickly (or maybe I just got used to it—scary). The pop culture references are also a tad excessive, and seem kind of awkward when they occur, maybe even a little unnatural. More importantly, how could someone whose band opened for the Melvins in 1993 not listen to the Stooges? And how can I take such a man seriously?

Speaking of which: the characters of Mark and Vanessa—the childless couple that has agreed to adopt Juno’s unborn child—are not explored nearly enough. How did they end up together, when they seem like such opposites? Their situation is undoubtedly more complicated than is let on, and the film could have provided a few more hints that Mark was unhappy in the relationship. In hindsight, I can see some attempts at doing this via Mark’s awkward initial greeting to Juno and her father, in which he stammers about how he’s excited about one day helping the kid with science projects “and stuff.” But these clues aren’t so much subtle as they are barely there at all; the viewer is so far removed from Mark’s head that his confession to Juno is out of left field, and kind of unbelievable. I found the slow dance scene rather stomach-turning, which is a bit of a disappointment, as up until that point I kind of liked Mark. I could see that Juno reminded him that he wasn’t satisfied, that he sold out with his music, and that his wife kept him on a short leash, but come on, is he really that much of a creep that he’d want to run off with a 16 year old girl?

Despite its flaws, the film was cute and made me wish I were young again (well, except for the whole pregnancy thing—that’s not something I’d like to experience). Some great endearing details include Juno’s and Paul’s matching hamburger phones, Juno’s licorice noose, which she facetiously employs upon discovering that she’s pregnant, and Paulie’s favorite orange tic tacs and car bed with personalized license plate.

I guess my main gripe with the film, which funnily enough occurred to me as more of an afterthought, is this: why does this movie exist in the first place? Why have there been so many “hip” movies popping up lately that seem to advocate carrying unplanned pregnancies to term? It almost feels like some kind of weird way of winning the youth vote on the pro-life issue (almost—I’m not some wacky conspiracy theorist, nor am I a rabid baby killer). But where are the Stacy Hamiltons of today’s teen movies? It would make for a less heartwarming story, but, you know, just sayin…

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