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Four films are on the agenda this week and only time will tell this early in the sea­son wheth­er they are going to be genu­ine title con­tenders, gritty bat­tle­rs hop­ing for a shot at mid-table obscur­ity or no-hopers doomed to a sea­son of heartache and inev­it­able releg­a­tion. Please excuse the laboured foot­ball meta­phors but the best of this week’s releases is set in the world of 1970s English foot­ball (all fags, booze and Deep Heat) and I let the mud get under my fin­ger­nails a bit.

Based on the 2006 sur­prise hit nov­el by David Peace, The Damned United is about the bizarre 44 days in 1974 when mer­cur­i­al British foot­ball man­ager Brian Clough tried to man­age Leeds United. Opinion is divided about wheth­er the pos­sibly men­tally unbal­anced Clough was actu­ally try­ing to des­troy a team he hated from the inside or wheth­er he had genu­inely let his ambi­tion (and com­pet­it­ive streak) get the bet­ter of his judge­ment. The book suc­cess­fully man­ages to get deep inside the head of a man who is unrav­el­ling under the pres­sure but the film isn’t as ambitious.

Famously mouthy (there’s a moment in the film when even Muhammad Ali tells him to shut up), Clough was a team-builder who had brought Derby County from the bot­tom of Division Two to win­ning the Championship but he couldn’t get anoth­er man’s team to play for him. Leeds were a suc­cess­fully dirty team cre­ated by Don Revie and Clough’s open­ing words to them at the first train­ing ses­sion was to the effect that they should throw all their medals away, they’d nev­er won any of them fairly. How to win friends and influ­ence people.

The film ver­sion of the story is adap­ted by Peter Morgan who is best known for recre­at­ing real life events in films like The Queen and Frost/Nixon and his shap­ing abil­ity hasn’t deser­ted him here while the equally reli­able Michael Sheen (David Frost in Frost/Nixon and Tony Blair in The Queen) pulls off a great imper­son­a­tion of the man and his con­tra­dic­tions. It departs from the book’s dark­er aspects and adds an audience-satisfying coda that allows Clough the tri­umphant third act he got in real life. “I may not have been the best Manager in the busi­ness,” Clough once said. “But I was in the top one.” The Damned United isn’t quite in that league but is a very sat­is­fy­ing 90 minutes.

Fans of 3D will be temp­ted by the fifth instal­ment in the Final Destination series (The Final Destination), where a fresh crop of guile­less American youth dodge a dis­aster but find that Death still has their num­ber. Lazily set-up (the kids behave as if they have seen the ori­gin­al films and know exactly what’s going on) but the impal­ings (impale­ments?) are invent­ive and the extra dimen­sion adds some je né sais quoi to the frights. I’m not quite sure what the mes­sage or mor­al is in these films, if there is one, apart from the slightly depress­ing but oh-so-modern “noth­ing you do really mat­ters or makes a dif­fer­ence, we’re all doomed anyway.”

John Woo (Face/Off, Mission: Impossible 2) has returned to the Chinese main­land after being stuck in Hollywood devel­op­ment hell for a few years and has been giv­en a huge budget to make Red Cliff, an epic his­tor­ic­al war movie set 16 cen­tur­ies ago. Released in two parts domest­ic­ally, it’s a butt-numbing 169 minutes in New Zealand and, while all the money makes it to the screen, there’s not enough char­ac­ter con­tent left for me to warm to it. Plenty of trade­mark slow-motion doves, though, for the Woo fans.

A Pain in the Ass is the best-named film of the year and I can state defin­it­ively that it should nev­er have been released, although the woman at the back of the screen­ing I was at (the only pay­ing cus­tom­er) didn’t seem to mind being the only one in the room laugh­ing. Based on a creaky old stage play, and look­ing like it, A Pain in the Ass is about a hit­man (Richard Berry) holed up in a hotel room over­look­ing a court­house. While wait­ing for his tar­get to arrive he unwit­tingly saves the depressed pho­to­graph­er in the room next door (Patrick Timsit) from sui­cide and makes a friend he neither wants or needs.

Laboured and lame, A Pain in the Ass is mer­ci­fully brief but that’s the sav­ing grace. Avoid.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 21 October, 2009.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: Nothing much to report except that there’s some­thing reas­sur­ing about the con­tin­ued pres­ence of the hot spot in the middle of the screen in Cinema 2 at the Penthouse.