Listen to this article
Halfway through Control, a rockudrama about the 1970s/1980s group Joy Division, directed by photographer-filmmaker Anton Corbijn, my hand scribbled “vampire movie” on my notes. Two things prompted me. First, Control knocks on the coffin of Britain’s pop past and a gruesome if eye-catching spectre rears up. Secondly Corbijn (a name that would be nodded through in Transylvania) has sunk his teeth in the celluloid and sucked out all the colour. Control is all about yesterday; it is in black and white and it is, like any good vampire movie, spookily beguiling.
Joy Division itself had a gothic pedigree, rising from the dark streets of Manchester, naming itself after a Nazi concentration camp brothel and casting wide its spell of missionary miserablism. The lead singer Ian Curtis, a gifted lyricist and troubled soul, completed the Grand Guignol picture by hanging himself. Sam Riley plays him with too little inner darkness: Riley’s unmarked boyish face suggests a sixth-former training up to be a vicar. Yet in performance scenes, that innocence and those pristine ventriloquist’s-doll features lend eeriness to the stomping body movements and the voice crooning its maledictions into the windsock made by hands and microphone.
The monochrome photography makes us think we are in the 1960s, never mind the 1970s/1980s. This could be an acid trip down Memory Lane – to the era when we applauded the birthpangs of a homegrown pop culture on screen and music stage. Samantha Morton, playing Curtis’s betrayed wife Debbie, whose memoirs of a doomed marriage helped inspire Matt Greenhalgh’s script, resembles Rita Tushingham with a drop of Sarah Miles. In this fantasy dimension A Taste of Honey could meet Term of Trial, and A Hard Day’s Night is surely the sacred template being artfully defaced by Corbijn’s minimalism and the anti-Beatle impetus of Joy Division’s antic dirges.
The very gaucherie of some scenes – intentional or not – intensifies their weird enchantment. Tony Wilson, legendary pop impresario (and hero of Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People), moves between scenes like a cut-out on castors, played by an actor who is a dead ringer for the young Peter Cook. Elsewhere there are touchingly awkward love-on-the-dole scenes – “Tell me about Macclesfield” – and a series of tongue-tied tableaux vivants in green rooms that hint at the human vacuum lying in wait, each performing night, for those who enjoy the roar of fame.
The film ends, as it begins and largely unfolds, in a blaze of affectlessness. This is anomie as art. At the close the vampire lifts his teeth; we touch our necks; everything has gone a little numb and feels a little embalmed; but it has been a learning experience and, in its way, a sinisterly captivating one.
The world is back in order and in colour in And When Did You Last See Your Father? The birds sing and the son (Colin Firth) shines. Firth plays Blake Morrison, be-medalled writer and bedevilled child of a Yorkshire doctor (Jim Broadbent) who, as all gods do to favourite mortals, both loved him and drove him mad. Barely back in action after playing the dying Iris Murdoch’s husband, the admirable Broadbent now takes his turn to peg out, poignantly, near a literary flame, over two hours.
Morrison’s memoir asked: at what moment in death’s decline does someone you love cease to be that person? When did he, Blake, last see the father he knew, the round-the-clock jokester, the fussing dad, the philandering spouse? Broadbent and Firth, their chunky width of feature helping us believe in the blood link, express father-son love as only the British can: through gritted bonhomie, hectic matiness and frequent unexplained (to each other) standoffs.
A younger actor, Bradley Johnson, resembling neither Firth nor Broadbent but a spitting likeness of Morrison, comes in for boyhood scenes of parent-child debacle, including a flooded tent on a Cumbrian camping trip (very funny). The film is sweet, simplified and a bit syrupy on the soundtrack. Someone should have held down the composer, Barrington Pheloung, and hissed in his ear: “Less is more.” But the acting is uniformly good and the death scene magicks all the right sniffles from the audience.
The Heartbreak Kid clatters along for an hour like a travelling slapstick comedy show, then falls over a cliff. Anxious to laugh – because the name on the van is Farrelly Brothers (purveyors of Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something about Mary) – we follow along as Ben Stiller’s commitment-needy thirtysomething marries scatty blonde Malin Akerman. He takes her to Mexico for an ill-fated honeymoon. Freaked out by her kookiness, since there is no novelty she won’t sample or essay – he: “Can we try the missionary position?”; she: “What’s that?” – he strays towards another woman (Michelle Monaghan).
Chaos ensues. No joke has any link to another. There are gross-out moments involving humans and animals (though not necessarily at the same time). And the whirring sound you hear is that of Neil Simon, screenwriter of the 1972 film on which this is louchely based, spinning in his retirement. Is the film funny? Funny enough. At least when Ben Stiller is on screen, the many-expressioned face of righteous panic, and – at least until the plot reaches exhaustion point – just ahead of the audience.
In The Kingdom Hollywood goes to Saudi Arabia and the “war on terror” becomes the war for the filmgoer’s wallet. Just when we hoped US cinema had grown up in its treatment of Middle East geopolitics – Three Kings, Syriana, Brian De Palma’s new Iraq war drama Redacted – along comes a large can of macho lunacy.
Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman and Chris Cooper are the four FBI agents dispatched to Riyadh to do some CSI-style sleuthing after a suicide bombing. The initial casting conference must have been simple. Assemble one black stud, one white bimbo, one non-American who can become kidnap fodder (Bateman’s Canadian who falls into jihadi hands) and one – just for the hell of it – human being. Cooper keeps getting that role on screen. With his leathered face, weathered wit and seen-it-all sour credibility he sometimes seems the last real person left in the casting books. His character’s reality alone survives The Kingdom’s blend of hokum, hot-air sermonising and hair’s-breadth scrapes and chases.
Whatever happened to Robert Benton? The Bonnie and Clyde co-writer was once a Hollywood mini-revolutionary. Now he is just a Hollywood mini, tootling round the bends and corners on the Great Soap Opera Backlot. Feast of Love is a set of interconnected tales about small lives in Portland, Oregon: more sweet than bitter, more bromidic than dramatic. Greg Kinnear, Morgan Freeman, Jane Alexander and Radha Mitchell gamely star. The tears, smiles and homilies come on cue. If Raymond Carver had ever filed a last story collection from the Sunny Valley Lobotomy Clinic, it would be just like this.