(Dir. Werner Herzog, 2009)
So is this a remake? A re-imagining?
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
Assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall as one of the most likable and grounded of the film’s 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
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.
BLACK DYNAMITE (Dir. Scott Sanders, 2009)
There have been blaxploitation parodies before, and also many stylistic throwbacks to 70’s cinema, but nothing like this that looks and feels so much like the original artifact that many will mistake it for the real thing. Authenticity is enhanced throughout with grainy saturated film stock, split screen dynamics, and many funk musical cues (every time our smooth hero walks into a room or shows up suddenly his name is sexily sung by a chorus of female soul singers).
That name is “Black Dynamite” (Michael Jai White who also co-wrote with director Sanders) – a
The mysterious death of Black Dynamite’s brother leads him into the underbelly of 1972
To say anymore about the plot, especially to reveal the severe side effect of Anaconda Malt Liquor or who turns out to be the evil mastermind, would be to spoil the fun, and there’s a lot of fun here, so I’ll leave it at that. I laughed more during this movie than any other film this year. It’s a hilarious homage instead of a savage satire but its dead-on attention to detail never lets up and neither do the non-stop laughs.
The amusing aesthetics of actors’ eyes darting to off screen cue cards, visible boom mikes dropping too low into the shot, and not quite timed right edits are much more effective than the fake scratches and bogus missing reels of the more expensive retro exercise GRINDHOUSE, with the mixing in of period footage effectively matching the newly made material. I think we see the same shot of a car driving of a cliff twice but it really doesn’t matter, or it matters absolutely, in the fast pace free for all flow.
There are few familiar faces in BLACK DYNAMITE, but Arsenio Hall, Tommy Davison, Richard Edson, Nicole Sullivan, and Mike Starr all stand out in gloriously stereotyped roles. With its tons of quotable lines, scores of explosive action set pieces, and more jokes per minute than a dozen of current commercial comedies, this has cult film written all over it. That would be nice for the its future, but the film is in limited release right now so it’d be nicer if it got the packed houses it deserves much sooner. The genre may be mostly forgotten by all but die-hard fans and film buffs, but this hysterical yet sturdy tribute brings blaxploitation back with riotous results and should not be missed.
EVERYBODY’S FINE (Dir. Kirk Jones, 2009)
A few months ago when I first saw the trailer there was a brief instance that I thought that this could be Robert De Niro’s ABOUT SCHMIDT – a powerful portrait of an iconic actor in his autumn years. That instance was incredibly brief mind you, because as the preview played out the glossy schmaltz it began to look more like De Niro’s LAST CHANCE HARVEY – a cute though vapid vehicle for a once vital actor in his autumn years. Well, sadly the latter is what we have here.
The opening shots show De Niro vacuuming his carpet, mowing his lawn, getting his grill out of the garage, etc. Watching this I was struck but the question: who wants to go to the movies to see Robert De Niro doing household chores? We even follow him to the grocery store to see him ask a clueless clerk about wine. He’s getting ready for Thanksgiving with his kids he explains, awkwardly clarifying that they’re all grown up and that he’s not actually serving children wine.
That's the type of detail that's meant to endear De Niro to us. His Franke Goode is a recently widowed and retired and without a doubt entering into a very needy zone of existence so when he learns that none of his family is going to make it home for the holiday there's no other course of action but for him to hop aboard buses and trains and go to them. His doctor warns him against the trip, because that's what most movie doctors do, but there's no stopping this strained father Frank.
We learn from his chatting up a fellow passenger on the train to see his son in New York that De Niro had a career in coating telephone wire from coast to coast. This gives the film the excuse to have many shots of telephone polls and cables as we hear the voices of his offspring (Drew Barrymore, Katie Beckinsale, and Sam Rockwell) making calls to one another. They discuss in hushed tones a fourth sibling who is in some unspecified trouble and how they should keep it from Dad.
Since that's the son that De Niro first goes to visit he comes up short in NYC, so then he's off to Chicago to see his advertising exec daughter (Beckinsale). One gimmick the film has is that when he first sees his kids, he sees them as that - kids - so children actors stand in for their older counterparts for a few shots before they embrace. This is certainly making the point that he never dealt with them as grown-ups before but it still comes off as an artsy gimmick.
After an tense dinner with Beckinsale, her husband and son, De Niro heads off to Denver to see his classical musician son (a very reserved Rockwell) who turns out not to be the conductor he told his father he was, but a percussionist. Rockwell doesn't appear to want to spend much time with his father so then we're off to Las Vegas to visit with his dancer daughter (Barrymore) who may not be who she's claimed to be either.
EVERYBODY'S FINE was based on an 1990 Italian film (STANNO TUTTI BENE) which I haven't seen but I bet has a lot more emotional weight than this well meaning but drab adaptation. None of the characters or situations take hold so there's nothing to truly care about. A 3rd act dream sequence involving De Niro confronting his offspring - the children actors mentioned above - tries its damndest to pull on the heart strings but the strings don't seem to be attached to anything. An all too happy ending feels like it was tagged on so the film would match its misguided marketing as a holiday film.
It's been a long time since the New Hollywood era in which De Niro ruled as an electric engaging entity in such landmarks as MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, and RAGING BULL (among others). Of course the man has long mellowed into the mainstream in commercial comedies and forgettable cop dramas but I think most film folks believe he could still bring it if given the right material. Until that happens though I guess we'll have to deal with watching De Niro do the dishes and take out the trash, instead of stalking the streets thanking God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk.