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 and 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.