No pleasure. Only pain.

January 8, 2009
Joy Division in 1979. © Paul Slattery / Retna Ltd.

Joy Division in 1979. © Paul Slattery / Retna Ltd.

I can’t recall what motivated me to buy Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures when I was in high school. I may have been drawn to Peter Saville’s excellent cover art — a stark black and white image that resembled a drawing of dozens of tiny mountain ranges stacked neatly on top of one another — and which in reality were the radio waves of a dying star.

What I do recall is my initial reaction to the music. I was nonplussed. Bewildered. Slightly intrigued, but, more than anything else, terribly disquieted. It was icy, terse, neurotic. It sounded like someone trying, unsuccessfully, to work through a terrible mental illness. I didn’t like it. Not at first, anyway.

Joy Division wasn’t the first band I had to grow into. Another one that mightily challenged my then-virgin ears was the Velvet Underground. But that was a matter of sloppiness and shitty production values more than anything. With Joy Division, it was a matter of the band’s unnervingly canny ability to conjure the demons of its lead singer, Ian Curtis. It was disturbing on a very elemental level. Anthony Wilson, founder of the legendary Factory Records, put it this way: “Punk enabled you to say ‘Fuck you’, but somehow it couldn’t go any further. Sooner or later someone was going to want to say, ‘I’m fucked’, and that was Joy Division.”

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Ian Curtis

Unlink so many goth bands — who always seemed comically melodramatic to me — Joy Division had a bone-chilling directness about it. There was no hiding from the pathological despair. The throbbing bass, metronomic drums and deliberate guitar were each eerie and foreboding in their own ways. But most unsettling of all was Curtis’ voice. Blood-curdling in its austerity, it was the sonic equivalent of black.

I finally got around to watching the Ian Curtis biopic Control last night. My initial reaction to it was similar to this one by Noel Murray at the AV Club. Writes Murray:

What [director Anton] Corbijn doesn’t get is any kind of reasonable explanation for how such a normal-seeming guy and the three moderately talented lads he shared a stage with managed to write and perform songs as shattering as “Disorder,” “She’s Lost Control,” “Transmission,” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Something reached down and touched them. But what?

If you’re a Joy Division fan, whether or not you’ll like Control depends on what you want out of it. If you’re cool with a conventional narrative that humanizes Curtis (the other band members are treated peripherally) while revealing how his epilepsy and an unhappy marriage (in which his own unfaithfulness, the movie suggests, exacerbated his depression) led to his suicide, you’ll find it satisfying. But if you’re looking for insight into how Curtis and his bandmates managed to write such original and devastatingly dark music, don’t bother. Instead, just watch the Youtube clips. Here’s a nice one.

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Nick Cage: The RC Cola of actors.

September 8, 2008

Nicholas Cage is finally ditching subtext completely. In 2009, he stars in “Kick-Ass.”

It’s hard to believe now, but Cage wasn’t always sitting alongside Keanu Reeves and David Caruso in the grand hall of atrocious leading men. There was a time when brainy auteurs like the Coen Brothers and David Lynch recruited him to star in their brainy offbeat movies. And it worked. Cage was great in “Raising Arizona” and wasn’t even too bad in “Wild At Heart.” He was good in “Moonstruck” and “When Peggy Sue Got Married,” too.

But around 1990 Cage began what would become a 5-year lapse in judgment that included roles in “Zandalee,” “Red Rock West” and “Amos & Andrew.” The following five years were a mixed bag at best, with Cage in “Leaving Los Vegas,” “The Rock,” “Con Air” (in what might be one of the most unintentionally funny performances in film history), “Face/Off,” “City of Angels” and “Bringing Out The Dead.”

Since 2000, though, Cage’s career has been one risible misfire after another, each role further cementing his reputation as a hammy, overpaid, undertalented and increasingly physically repulsive hack. The culmination of this: Last weekend saw the release of of the profoundly ridiculous-looking “Bangkok Dangerous” — a movie that critic Nathan Rabin alleges is so plodding and inept that “it can’t even get bad right.” It all makes the inquiring movie consumer wonder: What the hell happened to Cage?

Cage wasn’t just good in “Raising Arizona,” he was great. And lest we forget, he did a more than passable job of playing polar opposite twins in the excellent Charlie Kaufman-penned “Adaptation.”

Is Cage a bad actor, or is he just a savvy businessman who — unlike say George Clooney or Brad Pitt — cares less about critical accolades than a big paycheck? If that is the case, hasn’t his strategy badly backfired? Could you imagine a serious A-list leading man starring in “Bangkok Dangerous?” Or “Ghost Rider?” Or “The Wicker Man?”

The interesting thing is, a quick perusal of IMDB.com reveals Cage to actually have done some decent work recently. “The Weather Man” and “Lord of War” were both well-reviewed. Why doesn’t anybody remember them?

I think it’s because Cage isn’t savvy at all. He jumped feet-first into fun action roles without considering the negative impact they would have on the Nicholas Cage brand — a brand that, believe it or not, was once very strong. But Cage dropped from Coca-Cola status to Royal Crown in a decade. Except that unlike RC, most people won’t even deign to enjoy Cage’s products ironically.


Do Not Go Gently Into that Dark Knight.

September 3, 2008

It was well after I’d endured the 150-minute long “The Dark Knight” before I realized I’d been taken in by the fiendish hype — media-generated, friend-generated and probably even me-generated — and persuaded myself I liked it. A lot.

The truth is, I watched 80 percent of the movie in varying states of mental and physical discomfort thanks largely to its many incomprehensibly kinetic action scenes and earsplitting explosions. Meanwhile, the spectre of Heath-Ledger-as-Joker filled me with a nauseating mix of repulsion and pity. Yet I still walked out afterward singing the movie’s praises. It was as if I was following a script too, mouthing the words I expected myself to say: “Wow!” “Brilliant!” “Profoundly awesome!”

Let me be clear: “The Dark Knight” rocked my world. But not in a way that my world particularly enjoys being rocked. It browbeat me into acknowledging its cinematic verve, superb special effects and audacious storytelling. In the process, though, it forced me to look at a kids’ comic book story as an allegory for the war on terror, and Ledger’s Joker — psychotic, hate-filled, gleefully mendacious — as some kind of clownish Osama Bin Laden. Worse, the American citizenry was banally depicted as just barely capable of not self-destructing out of fear and callow self-interest.

All of this might be forgivable if the film would have been as purely entertaining as promised. It wasn’t. It was lots of other things: Extravagantly disjointed, disturbing, and more than anything, disheartening — and not just due to the unintended consequence of having the dead Heath Ledger play the demented, deeply disturbed arch-villain.

The moment that chaffed me most as I thought about it later: In what can safely be called the most significant moral moment in the movie, “The Dark Knight” made its case for man’s decency by using a shamefully cynical plot twist to coax the audience into feeling a moving sense of admiration for human nature. How? They made Deebo from “Friday” — here playing a seriously vicious-looking black convict (surprise!) — the man who saves humanity. By being willing to sacrifice both his own life and those of his criminal comrades to save a boatload of innocent people, he proves that even the most depraved human individual is capable of redemption.

This in itself is cheap enough, but that they cast a scarred and tattooed black man in this role robs “The Dark Knight” of its moral credibility, which it so obviously covets. It’s not a terrible movie, really, not even bad. It’s worse in a way, though — the kind of action film that pretends, all too well, to be something it’s not — meaningful art.

Disclaimer: I felt misgivings about the movie after coming home the evening after watching it, so I looked up the reliably insightful David Edelstein’s review before writing this, which probably influenced my thinking — and which you can read here.


Bush Jr., Stoned.

July 29, 2008

George Bush: “You want an ass-whooping?”

George Bush Jr.: “Try it old man.”

It’s safe to assume that far more people will watch the trailer for Oliver Stone’s “W.” than the actual movie itself. It’s only a minute and a half of footage, but Bush comes off as more human and likable here than in any real-life TV footage. Josh Brolin as an anti-authority boozer in any other movie would be a must-see.

There’s a wax-museum creepiness to seeing all of these still-living famous politicians — Rumsfeld, Rice, Cheney, Powell, Bush. Sr., — depicted by actors who are just short of being dead ringers for them. It feels kind of like a bad acid trip. Then again, maybe it’s just the subject matter.