Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


Newt Scamander is about to make the 20s roar.

Newt Scamander is about to make the 20s roar.

(2016) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo, Dan Hedaya, Jon Voight, Gemma Chan, Ron Perlman, Zoë Kravitz, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Jenn Murray, Peter Bretmeier, Kevin Guthrie, Ronan Raftery, Josh Cowdery, Ellie Haddington, Johnny Depp, Anne Wittman. Directed by David Yates

 

J.K. Rowling is a household name and for all the right reasons. A single mum living on the dole at one time, she wrote a fabulous book about a boy wizard named Harry Potter that while ostensibly for children was also well-written enough that adults got into it too. Seven books later, she was a billionaire and the wealthiest woman in Britain save for the Queen herself. Admirably, she gave much of her wealth away, returning it to the government whose assistance allowed her to survive while she wrote her books. Their investment in her paid off.

One of the textbooks that Harry Potter studied at Hogwart’s was Newt Scamander’s bestselling textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He even had his own Chocolate Frog wizard card. So how did he get to be so famous?

Rowling – who wrote the script as the first of five movies – set this some seventy years before the Potter films and across an ocean. Scamander (Redmayne) arrives at Ellis Island in New York City in 1926 en route to Arizona. Newt is a magizoologist – an expert in magical creatures. He is carrying a ratty old suitcase with him, one with a latch that just won’t stay closed. Inside his TARDIS-like case is a whole ecology where specimens of the various creatures he has collected are residing. Some are being relocated to places where they have a better chance of surviving. None of them are allowed in the United States.

Rather than having a Ministry of Magic, the wizards in the New World are governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America – MACUSA for short. They have recently emerged from a battle with the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Depp) and they are a bit by-the-book these days. When Newt’s case is accidentally switched with the case of Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), an aspiring baker and No-Maj (the American equivalent of a muggle, or person without magical skills), chaos ensues as several creatures escape.

Demoted MACUSA agent Tina Goldstein (Waterston) arrests Newt for being an unregistered wizard but when the case he is carrying is revealed to have baked goods in it, he is released. Tina and Newt end up joining forces to re-capture the beasts with the assistance of Tina’s sister Queenie (Sudol) who has precognitive powers, and Jacob. However, with Chief Auror (magical investigator) Percival Graves (Farrell) hot on their trail, they need to find the creatures quickly.

But that’s not all that’s going on. A malevolent magical force has been wreaking havoc on the city and there is a society of No-Maj activists led by Mary Lou Barebone (Morton) and her abused son Credence (Miller) and daughters Chastity (Murray) and Modesty (Wood-Blagrove) are helping to create an atmosphere in which the magical community is feeling threatened. Keeping the existence of wizards and witches may no longer be possible when Newt’s beasts begin to make their presence felt.

This has been justifiably one of the most hyped movies of the year and certainly one of the most eagerly anticipated. Does it measure up with the Potter franchise? Well, yes and no. From a sheer spectacle standpoint, the beasts themselves are entirely magnificent. Yates has also created a very living and breathing jazz age New York City and in many ways that’s being overlooked by those praising (and a few damning) the film. The environments both magical and real are visually compelling and inviting.

Part of the issue is that while millions are familiar with Hogwart’s and the world of Harry Potter, in essence Rowling is starting from scratch. The Wizarding World is distinct and different from the world being built in the Fantastic Beasts series. Sure, they name-check Albus Dumbledore (and he is due to appear in the second film of the series) and of course Scamander himself is name-checked in the very first Potter film but there is little overlap. Therefore there is a ton of exposition so the movie feels turgid at times.

Fogler as Jacob felt far more sympathetic and heroic to me than Redmayne did. Of course, Scamander is somewhat socially awkward and tends to isolate himself from people and wizards, being more comfortable around animals. Still, Redmayne is rather bland in his portrayal of the wizard and my attention is less on him than on Jacob who has no magical skills but has a ton of heart. His romance with Queenie is sweet and touching and the most emotional moment in the film belongs to Fogler and for my money, that is the moment that will stay with me from this particular movie.

While I’ve been perhaps a little overly critical of the movie, don’t think for a moment that this isn’t sheer entertainment. Yates is a veteran at creating magical spectacles and the movie retains the feel of the later-stage Potter films that Yates directed. Hopefully the succeeding movies won’t need to set up as much backstory and be able to just tell the story at hand.

REASONS TO GO: The fantastic beasts are enchanting as are the special effects. Fogler steals the show. The place and period is nicely captured.
REASONS TO STAY: Redmayne is actually rather vanilla here and doesn’t seem capable of bearing the weight of the franchise on his shoulders as Radcliffe did. There is a ton of exposition here which slows down the pacing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence of a fantasy nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The grey and yellow scarf that Newt wears is a nod to his origins as a member of Hufflepuff house at Hogwart’s.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spiderwick Chronicles
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Loving

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John Carter


 

John Carter

Taylor Kitsch is stunned when Lynn Collins gives him the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Disney) Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church, Rupert Frazer, Nicholas Woodeson, David Schwimmer, Jon Favreau. Directed by Andrew Stanton

 

As a young boy my father introduced me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan books. I read all of them eagerly, but it was the Barsoom series that intrigued me the most. I wasn’t alone in this – notable writers such as Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein were also heavily influenced by the books, as was scientist Carl Sagan. It has taken more than 79 years of development – from a proposed feature length animation – for the book to finally make the screen.

There is good reason for that. Burroughs had a terrific imagination but was not a gifted writer in many ways. His books were more like travelogues, particularly this series and the plot meandered quite a bit. I can imagine potential screenwriters being plenty frustrated by the lack of inertia as they tried to adapt A Princess of Mars, the first book in the series. At last however, they managed to and the result is one of the more anticipated movies of the Spring.

Ned Burroughs (Sabara) is summoned to the home of his Uncle only to find out that he had passed away shortly before Ned arrived. The instructions left for Ned were cryptic; his Uncle wished to be buried in a crypt that could only be opened from the inside, and a journal was entrusted to Ned which was not to be read for two years.

Ned being a compliant sort follows his Uncle’s wishes to the letter and then begins to read the journal. His uncle, John Carter (Kitsch) had been a cavalry officer in the American Civil War and a good one – but his side had lost. Carter had lost a lot more than that however; his wife and daughter perished in a fire while he was away from his Virginia farm and the grief-stricken Carter went West to find his fortune, a cave of gold that would set him up for life.

He finds that cave, but a lot more as well; a strange bald man with an amulet that transports Carter to Mars accidentally. Well, at first he doesn’t realize he’s on Mars; he just thinks he’s in the desert somewhere. Oddly, he is able to leap great distances (owing to the gravity). Carter is found and captured by green men with four arms and tusks who call themselves Tharks. This particular group is led by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe),who spares Carter because of his amazing leaping ability which Tarkas thinks might be useful. Carter, however, isn’t disposed towards fighting for anybody. He is given to Sola (Morton), a Thark who has a somewhat checkered past but like Tarkas, a good heart.

There is a civil war going on here as well, between two city-states – Helium, led by the noble Tardos Mors (Hinds) and Zodanga, led by the bloodthirsty Sab Than (West). The Zodangans have developed a high tech energy beam that is a devastating weapon wiping out most of the navy of Helium. In order to put the war to a halt, Mors offers Sab Than his own daughter in marriage – Dejah Thoris (Collins).

Despite being a princess, Dejah Thoris is also quite the scientist and warrior herself, not to mention having a will of her own. She has her own ideas of what she wants for her life and they don’t include being married to a bloodthirsty tyrant she has no feelings for. So she does the sensible thing – she runs away. Her intended also does the sensible thing – engages in a battle with her floating barge and shoots it down. She is saved by John Carter and his new friends the Tharks. Seeing how strong he is and how high he can jump gives her ideas – ideas that can lead to an end to war but on Helium’s terms.

However, unbeknownst to either of them there are factions within the Tharks who have a vested interest in Carter meeting an untimely end. Also the Zodangans are getting aid by a mysterious group of wizards who mean to maintain the balance on Mars the old-fashioned way – by installing a puppet dictator who will put an end to strife and rule over the dying planet with an iron fist. However, their plans won’t come to fruition if John Carter has anything to do with it.

Stanton is known for his work with animated features at Pixar – he has already directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E, the latter one of my favorite movies of the last few years. This is his first live feature (although given that a good chunk of his cast is CGI as is much of his environment, it isn’t far from an animated feature) and he acquits himself fairly well. He knows how to tell a good story.

The trouble is, A Princess of Mars isn’t a particularly good story. Once you get past the novelty of being transported to Mars, Carter doesn’t really do a whole lot other than fight and give stirring speeches and Thoris is little more than a damsel in distress. At least both characters are better written here, particularly Thoris.

The problem is that Taylor Kitsch, best-known for his work in “Friday Night Lights,” doesn’t carry the character well. Sure he looks good shirtless (which Carter is for most of the movie) but honestly the movie needs a lead who can do more than jump and posture. John Carter needs to inspire confidence and project heroism and Kitsch does neither. Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic characterized him as “generic” and that is a perfect description of his performance.

Collins fares better. She might be guilty of trying too hard sometimes but at least she doesn’t phone her performance in (as others do here). She at least makes her character memorable which is hard to do in a movie like this sort.

Too often these days adventure/action films of this sort place an overreliance on special effects and little or none on character. What point is there to all these pretty images if we don’t care about the characters who inhabit them? Sure, the cities and aircraft of Barsoom (Mars) are amazing to look at. The Tharks are impressively realistic. The interiors are sufficiently alien. The movie looks nice.

The action sequences are pretty fine as well, from an arena scene in which Tars Tarkas, Sola and Carter fight a Martian white ape (which is gigantic, furry and not at all ape-like) to a battle aboard a barge where Carter goes leaping about like the Incredible Hulk. That leaping, by the way, is a little bit distracting – it looks silly in places.

Still, while definitely flawed it’s kind of fun as well. If your expectations are too high you’re bound to be disappointed – and quite frankly being a fan of the original novel, I had hoped for better even though I shouldn’t have. After all, as I said earlier, this isn’t an easy story to film.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing though, and it most certainly is. There is a lot to admire here, from the vistas and cityscapes to the old-fashioned swashbuckling. Yeah, there are ray guns and swords and sorcery and flying ships and bare-chested heroes – I just wish there might have been a bit more to the characters as well.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of swashbuckling action. Some pretty nifty CG effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Little to no substance. Battle sequences often confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, not to mention a good deal of royal blue blood and ichors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in Utah because of its barren landscape with unusual rock formations giving it an otherworldly look. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars on which the movie is based while residing in Utah.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get them.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

DOG LOVERS: You wouldn’t think there would be dogs on Mars but there is an adorable dog-like creature that runs unbelievably fast. Like, autobahn fast.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Thousand Words

New Releases for the Week of March 9, 2012


March 9, 2012

JOHN CARTER

(Disney) Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Haden Church. Directed by Andrew Stanton

A Civil War veteran finds himself inexplicably transported to a strange new world. No, not Bolivia – Mars. He finds himself caught up in a genocidal civil war there, falling in with an unexpected ally, an eight-foot-tall four-armed green man named Tars Tarkas and the beautiful Martian princess (and more human-looking) Dejah Thoris. Carter will have to confront the demons of his past and learn from them if he is to save himself and Mars. From the series of books by “Tarzan” creator Edgar Rice Burroughs.

See the trailer, clips, promos, featurettes and a film short here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D and IMAX 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action)

A Separation

(Sony Classics) Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat. An Iranian woman initiates divorce proceedings to get custody of her daughter and move away from their home which her husband won’t leave because he is caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. The daughter winds up staying and the man hires a maid to help care for his father, but discovers she’s been lying to him and events begin to escalate beyond control.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material)

A Thousand Words

(Paramount) Eddie Murphy, Kerry Washington, Cliff Curtis, Allison Janney. A glib literary agent who prides himself over being able to talk anyone into anything discovers that after failing to get a new age guru for representation that a bodhi tree has miraculously appeared in his yard. For every word the agent speaks, a leaf will fall from the tree and once the tree is bare, both the agent and the tree will die. He will have to use different means of communicating and treasure his words wisely.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual situations including dialogue, language and some drug-related humor)

Deadline

(Roadside Attractions) Eric Roberts, Steve Talley, J.D. Souther, Anna Felix.  An investigative journalist re-opens a case of an African-American boy who had been murdered twenty years earlier. The case had never been properly investigated and thus the murderer had gone uncharged for the crime, let alone punished for it. Inspired by actual events, the movie is based on a novel called “Grievances” by Mark Ethridge.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True-Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, language, some violence and thematic material)

Friends With Kids

(Roadside Attractions) Adam Scott, Jennifer Westfeldt, Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig.  A group of young twenty-somethings who have been friends for awhile have mostly paired off. The last two singles in the group observe the effect of kids on the lives of their friends and decide they want a child of their own – they just don’t want to get married to each other so they decide to have a kid together – and date other people.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for sexual content and language)

Silent House

(Open Road) Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross. A young woman and her father decide to renovate their secluded lake house. While there they are mysteriously sealed in and all contact with the outside world cut off and soon strange and terrifying things begin to occur as they soon realize that their lives are in mortal danger in this silent place. The movie is presented as a single uninterrupted shot taking place in real time and is based on an Uruguayan movie of the same name that was their country’s official Foreign Language Oscar submission last year.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use)

The Messenger


The Messenger

Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster prepare to deliver devastating news.

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Eamonn Walker, Steve Buscemi, Yaya DaCosta. Directed by Oren Moverman

It is a fact of war that soldiers die, and it is a part of the Army’s responsibility to notify the next of kin that their loved one has died. That is perhaps the most difficult assignment any soldier could ever receive. You have to wonder what it does to the people delivering the bad news to family after family.

SSgt. Will Montgomery (Foster) is just back from a tour in Iraq, having been injured in battle. He has three months left on his tour and the Army, rather than sending him back overseas, decides to assign him to the Casualty Notification Service. These are the men who show up at the door in dress uniforms to inform the next of kin that their loved one is dead.

Will is assigned to Capt. Tony Stone (Harrelson), a veteran of the service who has written the book on how to do the job properly; use the prepared verbiage, never hug or touch the NOK (next of kin – the Army is inordinately fond of acronyms) and never, EVER get involved with them. The touch feely stuff is handled by professionals. Their job is to deliver the news nobody wants to hear. Period.

Each assignment is different. Some react with anger and resentment; others with wailing and sobbing. Some, like Olivia (Morton), a new widow hanging out the washing in her front yard, handle it with a strange kind of calm and politeness.

That particular reaction is like catnip to Will, who can’t really figure it out. He finds himself drawn to her, running into her at the mall (accidentally on purpose), fixing her car, helping her get ready to move and so on. That puts some strain on the relationship between Will and Tony, which has deepened into a strange kind of friendship. Both men have deep-seated issues; Tony with alcoholism, Will with the men he left behind. As Will encounters more and more grief, it soon becomes clear that he will need to deal with his own.

This is the first feature for Moverman, who is himself a veteran of the Israeli army. The movie isn’t a technical achievement by any means; he wisely keeps it simple and allows the powerful story and strong performances to captivate the viewer.

The performances are strong indeed. Harrelson was quite justifiably nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and this is one of the best performances of his career. His Tony Stone is a ramrod-straight by-the-book military officer who, if you rub some of the spit and polish off, is terribly wounded and weak in his own way. His last scene is pivotal and one of the highlights of the film.

Morton is not an actress I’m enamored of, but she does solid work here. While I found the relationship between Olivia and Will unlikely, it wasn’t because of Morton. Rather, I thought the situation didn’t ring true; while the grieving process can cause people to act in ways they wouldn’t ordinarily (and certainly in ways that defy logic), it didn’t seem to me that Olivia would lose her heart so quickly. It seemed at odds with the character, although again I acknowledge that grief makes people do funny things.

The movie rests on Foster’s shoulders; it is his performance that will carry or ruin the film. Fortunately, it is the former. Foster has mostly played twitchy villains in his career, but here he plays a twitchy lead. It’s a nuanced performance that really allows us to look at how war can wound in ways that aren’t always visible.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch. It deals with some of the most raw, terrible emotions that humans are capable of feeling. Particularly moving is Buscemi’s performance as a grieving dad, who screams at the soldiers’ departing backs “Why aren’t YOU over there? Why aren’t YOU dead?” It’s compelling stuff, but watching movies this emotionally charged can be very hard on the psyche – which in my opinion is a good thing.

I like that we get to see a part of the armed forces that is overlooked; when our brave warriors make the ultimate sacrifice, it is up to these professionals to deliver the worst news possible to those left behind. It takes the kind of bravery that is equal to that of facing enemy fire on the battlefield.

WHY RENT THIS: The performances of Foster and the Oscar-nominated Harrelson make this memorable. The subject looks into a little-seen aspect of the Army.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too much pathos and the relationship between Will and Olivia seemed a trifle forced to me.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality and a smattering of foul language, but it is the subject matter that makes this a bit too difficult for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sgt. Brian Scott, who served as a technical consultant on the film, was subsequently deployed to Iraq where he was injured by an IED in Baghdad.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Strangely, the DVD contains an interesting documentary on the Casualty Notification and Casualty Assistance offices of the Army that is not present on the Blu-Ray.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage

New Releases for the Week of January 29, 2010


January 29, 2010

Mel Gibson fields one too many questions from the press about the DUI incident of a few years ago.

EDGE OF DARKNESS

(Warner Brothers) Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Shawn Roberts, Bojana Novakovic, Frank Grillo, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Jay O. Sanders, Denis O’Hare. Directed by Martin Campbell

Rough-hewn Boston homicide detective Thomas Craven witnesses the murder of his daughter on his very doorstep. At first, it is assumed that he was the intended target but he quickly comes to believe that those suspicions are erroneous. To find out the truth about his daughter’s death he must first discover the truth about her secret life, and that involves a journey into corporate cover-ups and governmental collusion. As the bodies begin to pile up, he is aided by a shadowy agent whose motives may or may not have Craven’s best interest in mind. Of course, those folks responsible for the mayhem should have learned from the British – you don’t mess with Mel’s kinfolk and expect to survive.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence and language)

Crazy Heart

(Fox Searchlight) Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Sarah Jane Morris. A broken-down country singer by the name of Bad Blake who has had a run of luck that befits his name encounters a young journalist who re-inspires him. It looks like Blake might find the success that has eluded him for so long but he has been his own worst enemy all his life and could torpedo his chances yet again. Bridges has already garnered a Golden Globe and SAG award for his work here and is the odds-on favorite for the Best Actor Oscar come March.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for language and brief sexuality)

The Messenger

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone. An army officer just back from a tour of Iraq is assigned to the Casualty Notification office to inform loved ones of fallen soldiers. He is partnered with a veteran of the office who shows him the proper way to break the terrible news. He also falls for one of the women he has informed of their husband’s death, causing him to lose his emotional detachment and just perhaps helping him to heal from his own wounds. This powerful independent film has attracted notice on the Awards front, particularly for Harrison who has been nominated for a Supporting Actor award for both the Golden Globes and the SAGs.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content/nudity)

When In Rome

(Touchstone) Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel, Will Arnett, Dax Shepard. An ambitious and successful New York woman goes to Rome for her sister’s wedding. Disillusioned by romance in general and her own romantic choices in particular, she decides on a whim to pluck coins from a magic fountain that brings love to whoever tosses coins into it. She discovers, to her horror, that she is being pursued by the men who had tossed the coins into the fountain. When she is also pursued by a handsome reporter whom she has developed feelings for, she is worried that his feelings were generated by the magic of the fountain rather than being genuine. How much do you want to bet that the two wind up together at the end of the movie?

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content)

Control


Sam Riley as Ian Curtis is definitely not in Control.

Sam Riley as Ian Curtis is definitely not in Control.

(Weinstein) Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara, Craig Parkinson, Joe Anderson, James Anthony Pearson, Harry Treadaway, Toby Kebbell. Directed by Anton Corbijn.

One of the most influential bands of the late 1970s was Joy Division. While the name remains unfamiliar to many Americans, the band’s bleak, angular sound would go on to inspire bands around the world and essentially create the alternative rock genre. Their career was brief and ended in tragedy, but their legacy is without question.

Ian Curtis (Riley) is the very picture of disaffected youth in the industrial city of Manchester. He listens to Bowie and Iggy Pop, smokes incessantly and writes not so much poetry but ideas for poems in binders he keeps in his school desk. Deborah (Morton) is his girlfriend, one who shares his enthusiasm for music. They attend a Sex Pistols concert and Ian’s idea of what a rock band should be is transformed.

Ian and Deborah marry as teenagers, a move Ian is clearly not ready for. He is suffused by a Keatsian melancholy that makes Edgar Allen Poe look like Dr. Seuss. He gathers a group of musicians around him – Bernard Sumner (Pearson), Peter Hook (Anderson) and Stephen Morris (Treadaway) and they write songs that carry the punk ethos in a new direction – lacking the aggression that bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash were famous for, but flouting the conventions of the music anyway. More like punk versions of Ian’s heroes Bowie and Bryan Ferry.

The group begins to achieve some notoriety in their performances, attracting the attention of Rob Gretton (Kebbell), who brashly offers to be their manager, and later of Tony Wilson (Parkinson), a television presenter in Manchester who also owns Factory Records, a nascent label that has already achieved a reputation for releasing really good music. The band’s fortunes are most definitely improving.

In the meantime, life is taking a downward spiral for Curtis. He has developed epilepsy, which plagues him with seizures and further depresses him. He quits his civil service job to devote himself to his band, putting financial pressure on his wife Deborah to earn more in her job which puts a strain on their marriage. The couple have a baby, Nicole (the real Nicole Curtis appears in a crowd scene at the Derby Hall sequence in the film) but the final nails in the coffin of the marriage are pounded in when Ian has an affair with Belgian journalist Annik Honore (Lara).

The band is getting ready to tour America and Ian is torn in different directions. Part of him wants to resuscitate his marriage, while another part of him wants to pursue Annik, and the larger part of him wants to be a rock star. However, his seizures are getting worse and his depression correspondingly deepens, until he hangs himself the day before Joy Division is to leave for their American tour.

This story is told not by Hollywood veterans who are painting a picture meant to be entertainment, but by people who knew the real Ian Curtis well. The movie is based on a book written by Deborah Curtis (who also serves as co-producer on the film, as does Tony Wilson who passed away shortly before it’s release) and directed by Anton Corbijn, a Dutch photographer who is closely associated with not only Factory Records but also with Synthpop band Depeche Mode (Corbijn directed many of their videos) and Irish rockers U2, whose  album covers he shot for more than a decade (he also directed their concert film Rattle and Hum).

Corbijn shot the movie in color, but transferred it to black and white in post-production, a very wise move. The movie takes on a more documentary feel, and the stark shadows and grays make it more visually striking than it would have been in full color. With his experience shooting music videos and concert films, the live sequences stand out and are compelling, something that Hollywood rock movies tend to lack.

Riley is a revelation as Curtis. Largely unknown, Riley captures Curtis’ curiously detached vocals and gives him an emotionless air. Curtis was far from being morbid in real life, and Riley avoids the temptation to make him so onscreen. Riley plays him as a tortured individual who was unable to commit to anything but his muse. The movie rides largely on his performance and he does a terrific job here.

I was never a big Joy Division fan, although I adore their last single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” but Control gave me a chance to re-examine their music, and I’m glad I did. While they only were to release two albums in their lifetime, songs like “Atmospheres” and “Transmission” hold up surprisingly well today, nearly 30 years after the fact. The surviving members, along with Morris’ girlfriend Gillian Gilbert, would form New Order, who would achieve commercial success and acclaim but would in many ways always labor under the shadow of Joy Division. While that band is no longer active, they did score the movie.

This is a movie heavily invested in time and place, and Corbijn’s visual sense. It has the courage of presenting the subjects in harsh, unwavering light that doesn’t make any of them appear like saints, yet doesn’t have the epic sense that made Johnny Cash appear more of an archetype than an actual human being in Walk the Line. This is, quite simply, one of the best rock and roll biopics you will ever see.

WHY RENT THIS: A compelling biography of a seminal band that is not well known on this side of the Atlantic, but has influenced bands from U2 to Nirvana to Bloc Party. The acute visual sense of director Anton Corbijn makes this a visual delight.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you are not into alternative music, this may hold no interest for you.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language and the depiction of suicide, although the act itself and the body are never shown.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The actors playing Joy Division actually learned to play the songs and when they are depicted playing live, are actually playing their instruments and singing.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Extended concert sequences that show the actors playing their songs in their entirety, as well as live and promotional material of the original Joy Division, as well as a video of The Killers’ cover of “Shadowplay” that plays over the closing credits.

 FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Watchmen