THE DAMNED UNITED: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE DAMNED UNITED (Dir. Tom Hooper, 2009)

Playing Prime Minister Tony Blair in full on damage control mode in THE QUEEN, taking on television journalist David Frost’s striving for a career making spotlight on an impeached President in FROST/NIXON, and now here as the infamous arrogant football manager Brian Clough, Michael Sheen appears to be on a mission to redefine the role of refined British masculinity movie-wise for the new millennium.

It’s not a one man mission as Sheen is the front man for screen writer Peter Morgan’s retellings of pivotal points in UK public relations. Sheen has the fierce focus necessary for these pointed recreations, while the sense that deep down he’s a decent bloke helps their cinematic cause along nicely. So the suave but spineless English archetypes (think Hugh Grant’s inept Prime Minister in LOVE ACTUALLY) now fade into anachronism as history sorts the winners from the losers, with the brashly flawed figures Sheen embodies definitively deemed as winners.

There are many times, however, in THE DAMNED UNITED that Sheen’s Brian Clough doesn’t resemble a winner at all. After taking over Leeds United in 1974, Clough doesn’t quite endear himself to his players when announcing: “the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest fucking dustbin you can find, because you’ve never won any of them fairly. You’ve done it all by bloody cheating!”

The film skips back to 1967 to acquaint us with the long brimming but basically one-sided rivalry between Clough and the previous Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) who had driven the team to win all those medals over the years. Clough’s then team Derby County rose from underdog status to win the Second Division, but still lost the First Division title to the brutal tactics of the Leeds players.

Assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall as one of the most likable and grounded of the films characters) and Derby chairman Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent) shake their heads at Clough’s over confidence and unrestrained bravado, which threatens his friendship with Taylor (“That’s the trouble with you Brian, too much ambition!”) and the financial stability of the team. There’s nothing that can put out the fire burning in Clough – not harsh complaining heard through closed doors, not the icy glares from elder superiors, and most of all, not the 0 scoring loses that Leeds racks up after he assumes their management.

While there is action on the field, sometimes depicted by way of archival footage, this film is primarily concerned with Clough’s back room verbosity. In every acidic line reading and exasperated expression, Sheen captures the intensity of a man who doesn’t have it in his nature to back down even as he’s so plainly pissing in the wind. It’s a tour de force performance that drives the film and is invigorating to behold even if you have no interest in soccer strategies or sports at all. I say this because I sure as Hell don’t.

Though it’s largely Sheen’s show he’s joined by a highly capable and credible cast. Standing out with the previous mentioned Spall, Broadbent, and Meany is the grimacing Stephen Graham as team Captain Billy Bremner, providing a needed dividing edge to Sheen’s abrasive stubbornness.

Marred only by one too many sad fades to black, and some fake looking hair (blame it on period style wigs), this poignantly plotted drama scores another winning shot for Sheen and writer Morgan, whether it indulges in revisionism or not. In the concluding moments there are glimpses of the real Clough surrounded by a crowd of supporters years after the events in the movie – a typical biodoc manuever – and while it’s impossible to see if he was as obnoxiously determined as Sheen’s portrayal made him out to be, the vigorous spirit that this sturdy movie tenaciously touches on is without a doubt on display.

More later…

FROST/NIXON: The Film Babble Blog Review

FROST/NIXON (Dir. Ron Howard, 2008)

Ron Howard’s adaptation of the Tony Award winning stage play moves briskly as it opens with a montage of early ’70s archival footage and period news reports of the Watergate break-in leading to the first impeachment of a sitting President in history.

Seemingly derived from the sweeping intro to Oliver Stone’s JFK, this capsule of video and sound bites gives newcomers to this material ample back story while plunging those who lived through it back into the feeling and tone of the era.

Once that is established, it is summer 1977 – Ex President Richard M. Nixon, disgraced and in self imposed exile in his beach house in San Clemente, CA is approached by ambitious British broadcaster David Frost to make an expensive deal for a series of extended television interviews.

Nixon, portrayed grandly by Frank Langella, sees this as an opportunity to redeem himself in the public’s eye while Frost, given a quirky but still suave demeanor by Michael Sheen, sees opportunity of a different sort – a career breaking, star making spectacle sort, to be exact.

Though it contains nothing but men (and a few women) talking in hotel rooms, cars, and the living room set where the interviews were conducted, this is compelling stuff from start to finish.

Paced like many boxing movies with back and forth training sessions up to the final round in the ring, the momentum never lags. Frost struggles to finance the endeavor, insulted by those who blow him off as a “talk show host” while still allowing time for a new love interest – Rebecca Hall (Vicky from Woody Allens VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA) who doesn’t have much to do except sit on the sidelines looking pretty.

Frost’s team includes Sam Rockwell as passionate anti-Nixon author James Reston Jr. and Oliver Platt as journalist Bob Zelnick who together provide considerable comic relief. Nixon’s corner is dominated by Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s fiercely over-protective post Presidential chief of staff, who both turns in one of his best performances while narrowing down the number degrees of separation between him and everybody else in show business.

“Even Richard Nixon has got soul”, Neil Young once sang and the final third of this movie seems to suggest just that. First presented as a shady money grubbing player disguised as an elder statesman, Langella’s Nixon betrays hidden levels of dark conscience in his home stretch showdown with Frost which would make even Hunter S. Thompson tear up for the man.

If Langella isn’t nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award I’ll be royally shocked. Howard thankfully retained both Langella and Sheen, from the 2006 stage play written by Peter Morgan. Sheen, who had played British Prime Minister Tony Blair in THE QUEEN (also written by Morgan), has the definitive “deer caught in the headlights” look when first sitting down with Tricky Dick but over time assumes the prize fighter Rocky’s “eye of the tiger” – to bring the boxing analogy back into it.
FROST/NIXON is a tightly focused and deeply pleasing film, certainly one of Ron Howard’s best as director. Whether or not Nixon was redeemable or remorseful doesnt matter; layered reflective takes on history like this make for the best art regardless (see Shakespeare).

More later…

Film Babble Blog’s Year-End Blogtastic Festivus!

Now it’s time for:


Now I ain’t claiming to be any fancy pants seen-it-all babbler – I’m just a writer who works at a movie theater and mostly sees and blogs about what I’m intersted in so no big summation of the year’s offerings here. I mean it’s pointless to make a top ten list of the year’s best at this point – many lauded big-time studio features (like LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, CHILDREN OF MEN, THE GOOD SHEPHERD, etc.) aren’t gonna be in my area ’til January or later so I’m just gonna blab blurbs ’bout a bunch o’ flicks I have seen since my last post. Such as :

THE QUEEN (Dir. Stephen Frears) Definitely one of the year’s best and most likely the definitive ‘walking on eggshells’ movie. Helen Mirren’s dead-on portrayal of her Majesty and her reaction (or at first non-reaction) to former Princess Diana’s death and Tony Blair’s (Michael Sheen) touching and funny attempts to smooth it all over with the peeved off public all plays perfectly. Not a wasted moment – this deserves every Oscar it will get.

SHUT UP & SING (Dir. Barbara Kopple, Cecilia Peck) Like THE QUEEN this is very much about public relations. As I’m fairly sure my readers know The Dixie Chicks made history when Natalie Maines made a fiercely anti-Bush comment between songs at a London concert at the dawn of the Iraq war. The snowballing firestorm (I don’t care if that’s a glaring contradiction) that ensued makes up the bulk of this documentary. Less a cinematic statement on the state of free speech in America than truly a sharp music doc ’bout a band dealing with backlash from a controversial quote and how that affects their touring and recording – the bit that has Bush’s response from a Tom Brokow interview – “They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out … Freedom is a two-way street” – then Maines reply to that – “what a dumbfuck. He’s a dumbfuck” – yep that bit alone makes this whole deal essential viewing.

(Dir. Edward Zwick) Way too long with awfully written dialogue throughout – “In America, it’s bling bling. But out here it’s bling bang”. The scenes between Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly are TV-movie bad. Still there’s some great photography and worthwhile story elements – just unfortunate that when the dust settles it is just a big noisy empty bling bang.

CASINO ROYALE (Dir. Martin Campbell) The return of Bond – in a reboot of the series going back to the original 1953 Ian Fleming novel – yeah yeah yeah we all know the details. Daniel Craig is the new beefy blond Bond with blood on his hands, face and mind at all times. And that’s fine. Really it is. I enjoyed the movie. Grittier and harsher than the last Brosnan Bonds, sure, but…where were the babes?!!? In just about every one of the 20 Bond movies the man beds 4-5 ladies but he only has one here – okay he woos and almost does another but c’mon! I knew I was in trouble in the opening title sequence – usually a reliable orgy of nude female silouettes embracing a fully clothed Bond silhouette aiming his gun at some off screen villain was this time out a bunch of silhouetted fight sequences with playing card imagery. I mean I liked it – Craig is a good focused actor and the tone is right but next time out 007 better go to Babe Island or something.

Next time out – DVD reviews and more when filmbabble enters a brand new year!

This post is dedicated to the
Godfather of Soul

James Brown

RIP JB 1933-2006

More later…