The Damned United (2009)

March 31, 2009

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The Dumbed-down United

I went into this expecting to be underwhelmed and I was underwhelmed.  Aside from Lean’s Great Expectations I can’t remember the last film of a book I have loved that didn’t disappoint me.  It could be argued, on the basis of that evidence, that cinema is the inferior medium but I don’t believe that.  I genuinely and fervently don’t.  Cinema can be the most enriching and human and touching and uplifting of all the arts because it combines the use of vision and sound to entertain or enthrall, where it lacks the spontaneity and sheer interactivity of theatre it is equally not bound by convention nor limitation as there is.  Cinema can move me to laughter and tears simultaneously- just think about that for a moment- it can educate and challenge me, it can be beautiful or ugly or repulsive or charming or all of these things and more, moving between them in an eye-blink.  Cinema can be anything and everything to everyone and anyone, it is a wondrous and limitless gift to humanity.  I love it, I love thinking about it and writing about it and talking about it.  I love reading about it.  But I love nothing more than enjoying it when it is done really well.

Which brings me back nowhere at all near to the film in question, The Damned United.  I just wanted to say all of that to make it clear that what follows is specific and subjective, applicable only to The Damned United and nothing beyond that limitation.  Because The Damned United is a shabby, patronising, condescending, dumbed-down, own goal of a novelization.  It is not by any means the worst film of the year, or probably even of the week.  It is okay.  But it is not at all worthy of the fine novel upon which it is based- notwithstanding the excellence of Michael Sheen, dear old Tim Spall and Jim Broadbent.

The Damned United book- a fictional account of real events- is a tumultous account of a man’s hubris and paranoia and debilitating inner demons.  It takes real-life relationships and contorts them into something strange and unrecognisable, where hate becomes obsessional and from there becomes a strange sort of adoration and admiration.  It takes genuine events and distinguishes the pain and suffering involved from the mundanity, and then it takes that pain and exposes it and records the results.  The book takes great liberties with personalities and memories and real events, it is written by a man (David Peace) who clearly doesn’t give a fuck what people think of him- all he wants to do is to take whatever talent he has and apply it to his craft and create the best fucking book that he possibly can irrespective of the cost.  It is genuinely a fucking magnificent book and what makes it special is that Devil-may-care attitude (common to both the authorship of the novel and its subject) which facilitates the taking of great liberties and the general fuck off which is signalled to anyone who doesn’t agree.  And that I don’t give a fuck-ism is precisely what the film lacks.

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The Damned United film is twee and nice.  Everyone has their foibles but they’re ultimately nice people and their motivation, however selfish or spiteful the act, is always clear and understandable.  That may very well be what real life is like, but it makes for a fucking dull film.  And this turns out to be a fucking dull film based on a gripping real-life story that is still within living memory.  Made by a lot of the people involved in making The Queen it suffers from the same kind of excellent attention to detail at the expense of intrigue or drama.  When I say attention to detail, I mean costumes and sets and cars and so on.  I do not include some of the frankly hilariously bad casting decisions, nor some of the appalling players wigs.  Stephen Graham is a good actor with an excellent range but he is physically incapable of convincing as a footballer of any description, never mind as the wiry Bremner.  Likewise the feller roped in to play Johnny Giles was wisely kept in the background- this may well be because the real Johnny Giles isn’t afraid to go to court but it helps because he is bloody awful in the role.

And so the situation is thus: life throws up a fascinating, bizarre but all-too-predictable scenario; Peace twists and expands it into a dark, compelling work of fiction; the director Tom Hooper takes out all of the darkness and reads the original scenario as a tragi-comic love story between Clough and his assistant.  3/10

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The Queen (2006)

March 3, 2009

I didn’t enjoy this at all.  It was arid and joyless and unengaging.  I found myself thinking, to my shame, that Mirren played her role excellently as did Sheen but I just didn’t care about any of it.  The premise of the film is actually really interesting, though, so I can’t put my finger on what went wrong.   Probably a combination of the dull and turgid dialogue (accurate though it doubtless is) and the styling of the film.  The actual footage used may well give the film an authenticity, but it also highlights the fact that this is a dramatisation and compromises the whole premise.

Interestingly I read Alastair Campbell’s diaries last year and the most vivid chapters concern this period.  The Queen chimes almost exactly with events as Campbell described them meaning that either he is spot on or that, as the only published diaries of one of the prominent players at the time, they are the main source.  If so, they’re far more interesting to read than see- even if the film does offer a better insight from the Monarch’s perspective.

I was also really distracted by Dudley Smith from L.A. Confidential playing Prince Philip (badly).  Mind you any distractions were welcome by the time he appeared.  The only bright spot was Blair’s famous hand-kiss gaffe making it on screen.  Oh I’m bored just writing about it.  2/10, two marks for the performances.  A real wasted opportunity.

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Frost/Nixon (2008)

February 1, 2009

The only blot on my horizon as I entered the screening of Frost/Nixon was the involvement of possibly the world’s most bombastic and unsubtle director Richie ‘Ron Howard’ Cunningham.  There must be a film of his that I liked, but right now I can’t name it!  But I was hopeful that the high quality cast and compelling story would stop the Director ruining a potentially great movie.  And it does- though Richie Cunningham really tried his best.

For a long time during Frost/Nixon I was convinced that Ron Howard was trying to remake Rocky as a political movie.  I realised during the late night phone-call scene that he was actually remaking the more melodramatic Rocky II.  That ‘training montage’ which followed the “win, Rocky win” moment was horribly forced and contrived and threatened to derail what was otherwise a great dramatic movie.  This is a real life David vs Goliath story in its own right and really didn’t need anything extra shoehorned in to spice it up.  At least he didn’t throw in an orphaned child of a Vietnam soldier telling Frost to “get him, get him for me and my Daddy“, I suppose.

But, aside from that, it is a cracking film.  Frank Langella humanises Nixon (although I preferred him as a 2-D monster in many ways) with a performance that can be seen as sympathetic or snide dependent upon your view.  Michael Sheen- one of my favourite current actors- does a great job as Frost, showing his vulnerability and, at times, obsequiousness and panic.  He also provides Langella with a platform in their shared scenes by unselfishly toning down his portrayal of Frost’s many visual and verbal tics and minimising any distractions.  Langella is taking the plaudits, and rightly so, but Sheen’s performance was a thing of understated beauty. In the supporting roles, Sam Rockwell didn’t quite convince and wasn’t quite authentic enough in his passion to ‘get Nixon’ and Oliver Platt crafted a character which grew in depth and importance- he did good, unspectacular work there and I was impressed.  Rebecca Hall, who I saw recently in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, was again competent and beautiful- if a little dull.  I also thought Kevin Bacon was content with a pretty banal reading of his part and didn’t stretch himself as he can- but that this, again, worked in the film’s favour as most of his scenes were alongside Langella.

And so, overall, this was better than I feared but not as great as it could have been.  It is certainly my favourite of the four Best Picture Oscar nominees I’ve seen, but if Ron Howard gets Best Director then I’ll be disappointed. 8/10.