Monday, February 11, 2008


"Control" contains countless little plusses but a small number of elephant-sized flaws. Overall, it more or less breaks even.

The attention to detail is consistently remarkable. Plenty of camera shots down long Macclesfield streets brilliantly captured the suburb in all it's drab non-glory. The product placement -- old concert posters, music weeklies, etc. -- was very well done. The scene with Joy Division performing in the Granada TV was eerily accurate. They even shot the scene using the odd camera angles that were used in the actual broadcast.

Every major role was well casted and well acted, however nobody really stood out, which is a sizable weakness in a character-driven movie about a man's life falling apart. Tony Kibbell (as Rob Gretton) was awesome in capturing the crassness of the character while also encapsulating the boisterous unprofessionalism of everyone in and around Factory. Samantha Morton has received plenty of praise for her portrayal of Debbie Curtis, and I can see where it's coming from as she's the only character required to show the least bit of genuine human emotion. That's a heavy load to carry, but Debbie Curtis is frankly not an interesting character to begin with. She's a nondescript, shy, awkward girl who gets married too soon and cries a lot. Debbie portrays herself quite honestly in that regard in "Touching From a Distance", and the movie captures that "this is a mistake" feeling almost right from the beginning of her relationship with Ian. She may be genuine, but that doesn't necessarily make for a compelling character that you'd want to see in a movie.

And that's the biggest issue I have with "Control" -- virtually none of the characters themselves are in any way compelling. The drama that unfolds is worth seeing only if you are familiar with most of the details and are jonesing for all those Joy Division photos to animate themselves. The music is prominently featured, but the blossoming of the band's career is vague at best, leaving no reason for a casual viewer to care about who these people were or why they are still revered for doing what they did nearly thirty years after the fact. I had similar criticisms of "24 Hour Party People", but with that film, someone with zero prior knowledge could still harness the key points -- everyone was having a good time, a good number of them were basically nutters, and lot of great music was made. Those are easy concepts to get across in an essentially plotless movie like "24 Hour Party People" that is little more than forty or so unrelated scenes strung together. So, what happens in "Control"? The singer in an underground band is depressed and kills himself. Is this particularly notable?

For example, in a few scenes we see Ian alone in a room with his notebook. Debbie knocks on the door and he ignores her. From "Touching From A Distance", we know that this was Ian's "blue room" (the movie is in black and white so of course the colours don't come across in the film, but that's not really the point). The book explains how important it was for Ian to have a writing space of his own, a place where he could feel comfortable, a place that would relax him and bring out the best in his writing. This is not so unusual -- lots of writers operate in this way. The movie simply portrays a man being an asshole to his wife. The fact that countless legendary Joy Division songs were birthed in this very room is central for understanding the maturation of the band. This is barely even implied in the movie. This doesn't excuse Ian's behaviour, not in the least, but this is one example (of many) of the way the movie short-changes the character by ignoring the band's development.

In "Control", the key witness, so to speak, is dead. The most reliable source of information, his wife Debbie, barely spent any time with him toward the end. The people who actually saw him most of the time, namely his bandmates and manager, have gone on record countless times to say that they didn't suspect anything was wrong with Ian beyond his epilepsy. Ian was partying right along with them, and in any case they were all having too good of a time to notice if anything was wrong. So nobody really knows what thoughts resided in his head, particularly during the last few months of his life, and the movie admirably tries to cover Ian's slow descent by externalizing almost everything. He speaks very little for a character who is nearly every scene, and there is almost nothing in the form of letters or monologues that might offer insight into what he was thinking. Scenes revolve around him but hardly anyone interacts with him, leaving him to pout and stare blankly into space. That virtually sums up the second half of the movie. But when you remove the Joy Division Story and strip everything down to simply the Ian Curtis Story (externalized version), you're left with a movie about an epileptic guy in an unhappy marriage who had fairly unremarkable problems to deal with. There's not much of a movie to be made about a guy with a nagging wife who walks around Macclesfield with a sad face all the time.

We know that depressed people don't walk around looking blue all day long, which has been largely confirmed by the people who were closest to him in the final months. Are we supposed to believe that Sad Face Ian 1980 really existed or was that merely artistic license used by the movie? After all, without Sad Face Ian, and with very little insight into what is inside that character's mind, how would his suicide be at all believable?

It's easy to praise this movie based on the vividness of the scenery, of seeing all of those iconic B&W pictures of Joy Division come to life. I also think that a lot of fans wished they could have been there during Ian's final days, at the very least to see him with their own eyes and to figure out if the signs were there, or if they could have done something. In that way, this movie fulfills many people's longtime wishes by taking them back to a time that they are too young to remember.

If "Control" really is our generation's "La Bamba", then we're lagging far behind. In "La Bamba" you could feel Richie carrying the weight of his family's expectations, struggle along with him as he wrestled with his torchbearing role in the Mexican-American community (a role that was pushed into his lap that he certainly never asked for), and sympathize with both him and his overbearing, well-meaning but profoundly jealous brother. That movie is a rollercoaster, and Richie's death comes off like a major tragedy not least because it's clear that he was on the cusp of something big. It's truly a shame that "Control" portrays Ian Curtis' death as being largely inevitable, and yet gives us so few reasons to care about him.

Minor notes: 1. The character of Peter Hook is billed simply as "Hooky" in the credits. Ha! 2. The Killers' version of "Shadowplay" during the end credits. I like the Killers but the last thing this movie needed was interpretive covers, and this one sucked. 3. If it was my movie, I roll the credits immediately after the sound of the cord pulling taut. Nothing was accomplished in the final two minutes other than Samantha Morton's final pitch for acting accolades. Alternative ending: Ian dies and we see the remaining three band members dicking around in a rehearsal studio a couple of months later. The subtext is that Ian is gone but they've long since decided to carry on. There's a hint of sentimentality but these are essentially the same fiercely creative goons we've been following during the movie. They pick up their instruments and launch into the opening bars of, I don't know, "Dreams Never End". But I guess that wouldn't have left room for one more brief shot of the smoking hot Alexandra Maria Lara and for "Atmosphere" playing over the film's final moments (something that Corbijn quite obviously wanted to do quite desperately).

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