The Wrestler (2008)

2015 #143
Darren Aronofsky | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-robbed performance is the primary draw of this drama about a washed-up pro wrestler struggling to make ends meet. As ill health threatens his ability to continue performing on the miserable, brutal ex-pro circuit, he ties to connect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and woo a kindly stripper with personal issues of her own (Marisa Tomei, in another Oscar-worthy turn).

Unsurprisingly, the director of Requiem for a Dream doesn’t dole out easy happy endings, but does bring a note of ambiguity that is especially effective at the end of a tale which finds mundanity in a strange world and generates unexpected respect for the ‘art’ of wrestling.

5 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Rush (2013)

2015 #83
Ron Howard | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK, USA & Germany / English & German | 15 / R

Screenwriter Peter Morgan (of The Queen and Frost/Nixon) and director Ron Howard (of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, as the trailer is keen to remind us, rather than, say, The Da Vinci Code) tell the story of the rivalry between racing drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) as they vie for the 1976 Formula 1 championship, a true story so full of twists and turns that (as Howard seems fond of saying in the special features) you wouldn’t accept it if it were fiction.

Appropriately, the racing sequences are the best part. Those were the days when F1 was a little wild and uncontrolled, which the film does a good job of conveying, and also of using to its advantage to create tense and exciting set pieces. Kudos to every element of production here, not only the brilliant camerawork and editing, and the array of special effects required to tie it together, but also the production design that makes the one or two tracks they filmed on look like circuits all around the world.

Unfortunately, the film stalls in the personal relationship scenes, an equally-weighted part of the narrative. They’re an undercooked mess of clunky dialogue and characters so sketchily drawn they barely resemble stick figures. Lauda’s story is the less objectionable of the two primary threads, because his lack of skill at social engagement at least makes it moderately unusual, and it goes somewhere when he has the accident. Hunt’s stuff is just noise. And he learns nothing from it — he doesn’t change — so there’s no arc. I presume the point of engaging with their personal lives away from the track was to add depth; to make sure it was a two-hander, rather than just about one or other of the drivers, and to ensure Hunt wasn’t just two-dimensional. However, without any growth on his part, or even some kind of active change, he’s just as flat, only now the star of some pointless scenes.

Considering the amount of unwarranted time spent on Hunt, it’s as if Morgan and Howard feel they have to lure us in by making the film about the English guy, then once they’ve got us it can transition to being about the real story, which is the Austrian fella. A “Lauda edit” would make for a better movie: strip out all the BS about Hunt’s personal life; focus right in on the 1976 season, including losing a good chunk of the first 45 minutes, which is so much preamble. The movie would focus more on what it’s really about, not have such a slow start, and feel all the better for it. Interestingly, of the ten-or-so minutes of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, many are Lauda-focused and from early in the film. Would it have been more balanced to include them? However, a quick scan suggests they weren’t bad deletions, so maybe Hunt’s scenes should’ve been cut back in a similar fashion. Considering his general acclaim as a writer, it’s a little surprising that Morgan’s screenplay is so frequently the weak link.

Similarly, some have criticised Rush for being a bit of a rote, clichéd sports movie. That’s a slightly tricky one to address. I mean, it’s a true story; it happened. If that narrative fits snuggly into familiar plot beats, what are you meant to do? Change the truth to make it less like fiction? That’d be a first. Saying that, I’m taking it on faith (based on comments in the making-of) that the true story was so perfect you wouldn’t believe it if it had been fiction. Maybe they did streamline it. But assuming it’s real… well, it’s not the filmmakers’ fault if life imitates art.

One thing the film doesn’t do, to everyone’s credit, is fall into the stereotypical good guy/bad guy rivalry story. Each of the pair has his pros and his cons, and during the final race it’s genuinely hard to call who you want to win (I guess some will have their favourites regardless, but I know I’m not the only person who didn’t know who to root for). I’d argue that, when it comes to sports movies, you don’t get much less rote-genre-cliché than that.

The two leads give strong performances, particularly Brühl, because he has so much more to work with. Others are less well served. Olivia Wilde’s English accent is faultless, not glaringly over-egged like most yanks playing Brits, and that’s about the most I can say of her. Her mirror image, Alexandra Maria Lara, gets to inject some humanity into the Lauda story, and is pretty much the best supporting actor in a film full of roles but with few of significance. For example, for some reason Natalie Dormer has been shafted with a teeny tiny part. Were her scenes cut? Is it just because she’s mostly a TV actress? Surely she deserves better roles than this. And I didn’t even see Tom Wlaschiha, who is apparently in it too.

All in all, I’m a little surprised how well-liked Rush is. I mean, as of posting it’s at #162 on the IMDb Top 250. That’s a pretty solid placement for the kind of film I’d expect to have a score in the mid- to high 7s on IMDb, enjoyed by some but dismissed by others, not be an 8.2 Top 250er. It is a good film with much going for it, the action scenes in particular, but there also plenty of times when I felt it dropped the ball — I didn’t buy Hunt’s storyline as good moviemaking at all. One of the 250 best movies ever made? No, probably not. There’s a lot to like, but don’t get carried away by the hype.

4 out of 5

I’ve just noticed that three of my last four reviews have been sport-related true stories. Weird, random coincidence.

Foxcatcher (2014)

2015 #136
Bennett Miller | 135 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The director of Capote returns with another true-crime tale. Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) feels overshadowed professionally by his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), so when John Du Pont (Steve Carrell), heir of the richest family in America, offers his support in the run up to the 1988 Olympic Games, Mark eagerly accepts. Moving to special facilities constructed on the Du Ponts’ Foxcatcher estate, Mark soon finds himself in an odd symbiotic relationship with John, which turns increasingly sour when Dave is finally persuaded to join their team.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m British or because I was too young to be cognisant of events surrounding an Olympic Games held 27 years ago (the story’s climactic events actually occurred a few years later, but still), but I didn’t know what striking event happened at the end of Foxcatcher, just that something did. That tension — knowing something significant happens, but not what it is — lends the film a little air of the thriller. However, that angle is something entirely brought by myself (and anyone else who doesn’t know the story). The film itself is ‘just’ a character drama.

Fortunately, it has three leads who are up to carrying a narrative of that nature. In a rare dramatic role, and lumbered with a hefty prosthetic noise, Carrell’s John Du Pont almost feels like a caricature rather than a plausible human being… but apparently the film has actually toned down how odd the man was, so what are you gonna do? It’s a memorable performance none the less. Tatum is an understated lead, demonstrating he’s a better actor than you might expect as he displays emotional complexities in a man who doesn’t seem especially emotionally complex. Showing a character struggling with feelings he probably doesn’t quite understand is quite a feat, especially when it’s not explicitly conveyed in dialogue, so applause for Tatum there. Ruffalo, meanwhile, provides typically strong support, embodying a wrestler — right down to a very specific, unusual way of carrying himself — from the guy who plays Bruce Banner rather than the Hulk.

Unfortunately, for all their effort, the film is a little lacking in insight. Reading up some afterwards, it seems no one knows the true motivations behind the aforementioned surprising events, so it’s left to screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, and director Bennett Miller (for whom this story was something of a passion project), to posit any explanations. They do this subtly, leaving it up to the viewer to read what they want — or can — into everyone’s actions. However, it’s an issue that some facts have been bent to make for a more succinct narrative, making one wonder if anything the film may suggest is consequently wide of the mark.

As it finally shakes out, Foxcatcher is a solid movie, and certainly worth a look, but only really for the performances and the passing interest of finding out what happened, if you don’t already know.

4 out of 5

Raging Bull (1980)

2015 #88
Martin Scorsese | 124 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

It would be boring if we all liked the same stuff, wouldn’t it? I’m sure there’s at least one ‘universally’-loved classic that we each dislike. Heck, tends to be every ‘universally’-loved classic has at least one Proper Critic that dislikes it. The flip side of this is that, in my opinion, if you don’t like something that everyone else does, there’s a fair chance it’s you who’s missing something. That’s a rule I apply to others, naturally, but I also try to bear it in mind myself (and, at the risk of sounding terribly arrogant, I think a few more people could do with thinking the same).

Given that introduction, I guess it’ll come as no surprise that I didn’t get on very well with Raging Bull. We’ve established before that I don’t like boxing (see: Million Dollar Baby, which (I’ll say now) I didn’t like more than Raging Bull, but has a higher score because I was softer back then), but I don’t think that precludes me from enjoying a film set in that world. Anyhow, I wouldn’t say Scorsese’s biopic pitches the sport as an aspirational one full of honour and wonder or something. And indeed, the boxing scenes were some of the bits I liked the most — they’re very well done; immensely effective. Unfortunately, they make up barely ten minutes of the running time, and it was the rest I didn’t care for.

Robert De Niro stars as wannabe-a-contender boxer Jake LaMotta, as he grows in stature — both his reputation and physically — and also grows ridiculously paranoid, which is probably the kind of thing that happens when you spend years being repeatedly punched in the head. This arc seems to unfold through interminable scenes of people mumbling semi-unintelligibly at each other, realised with a style of camerawork, editing, and acting that seems to be aiming for documentary-like realism, which has both pros (realism) and cons (s’boring).

The aforementioned fights, on the other hand, are full-on Cinema, and glorious for it. The make-up is also very good. Relatedly, De Niro’s physical transformation, from lithe boxer to washed-up fatso, is remarkable. Decades before the likes of Christian Bale and his Machinist/Batman Begins flip-flop, De Niro gained a then-record-setting 60lbs.

Mixed technical success aside, I was never sure what the film was really meant to be about. Things turn up and go nowhere — like, what happened with that 14-year-old girl in his club? One second he’s been arrested, then it’s a couple of years later and he’s slumming it as a stand-up in New York; then, just as fast, he’s doing some kind of literature recital to a packed house. I mean, what? I would say that this is a film only of interest to people who are already fans of LaMotta and want to see some of his life on screen, but clearly that’s not the case. That’s certainly how it felt to me, though; and it’s what I would believe too, were it not for 35 years of widespread appreciation that demonstrates I’d be wrong.

Based on where we find him at the end, I guess LaMotta would appreciate a Shakespeare quotation. For all the film’s “greatest of all time” acclaimedness, this is the one that came to my mind:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

You can’t win ’em all, right?

3 out of 5

Raging Bull was meant to be viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, but I missed it. I’ve righted that as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

Real Steel (2011)

2013 #78
Shawn Levy | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & India / English | 12 / PG-13

Real SteelOnce upon a time, Real Steel would have been rated PG, been aimed at 7- to 10-year-old boys, and would probably have been quite the success. In the current Hollywood moviemaking climate, however, it’s rated PG-13, consequently aimed at teenage boys and grown men who still have the tastes of teenage boys, and seems to be regularly slated in online comment sections.

That’s a shame because, despite some corny and cheesy bits, it generally works. It begins by setting out some apparently predictable plots, but then several didn’t play out entirely as I expected (I mean, it’s hardly revolutionary, but it wasn’t quite as blatant as I was expecting it to be when it came to certain resolutions). The fights aren’t the most exciting robot action sequences ever put on film (or digital file), but are suitably punchy for their purpose. The final duel is perhaps not as triumphant as the filmmakers think it is, but I’ve seen worse.

Other bits falter more obviously: there’s some horrendously clunky exposition, and it’s so desperate to be set in the near future that its future-history is practically our present already, which undermines it to an extent. OK, it’s not high on realism, but when someone says, “ah, that’s a Generation 2 robot from 2014,” you just think, “well, this isn’t going to really happen, is it?”

Really steelySome things are also distinctly unresolved: just why was Evil Lady prepared to pay $200,000 for a no-hope junkyard robot? I figured there was going to be some Nasty Secret to come out, especially as there’d been hints of the robot having extra abilities… but no. And what was up with the kid being 11 but Jackman always thinking he was 9? Figured that was going somewhere too. There’s talk now of a sequel — I hope such random bits weren’t intended as elaborate seeding for a follow-up, because that’s just irritating. That said, it would be nice if whoever’s in charge spotted those things and built on them in the sequel’s story.

For all that online moaning I mentioned, to my surprise I haven’t seen anyone complaining about that oft-cited bugbear, product placement. It’s glaringly obvious at frequent intervals… but it’s also pretty well integrated into the world — no “mm, Converse All Stars, vintage 2004!” moments here. (Funnily enough, Dr. Pepper — which is fairly prominent, though not so much as other things — was used with permission, but wasn’t paid for by… whoever makes it. So it’s not product placement. So if you do ever see someone moaning about the product placement of Dr Pepper in Real Steel, you can tell them they’re a moron, or something.)

Feel the steelReal Steel is a good family movie, masquerading as a teenage-focused robot action blockbuster thanks to its 12 and PG-13 certificates. The true best audience for it will be those around the same age as the central kid: they won’t find him as annoying as older viewers will, and the whole robot fighting thing will just seem exciting.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2013. Read more here.

Animalympics (1980)

2013 #16
Steven Lisberger | 75 mins | TV | 16:9* | USA / English | U

AnimalympicsOriginally commissioned as a pair of specials for US TV, Animalympics was dropped by the network when the US pulled out of the Moscow Olympics, then repurposed by its makers as a feature film. You might be able to guess the plot from the title: various animals compete in an Animal Olympics. It’s a series of sketches, essentially, although arranged to provide some narratives throughout.

I’ll confess I’d not heard of this before it turned up on Virgin Media’s PictureBox during their free month earlier this year, but apparently it has a cult following. When you look a the behind-the-scenes line-up, it becomes easy to see how: the small voice cast is led by Billy Crystal and also features Harry Shearer; the music is by 10cc’s Graham Gouldman; and most of the crew went on to create TRON — for those (like me) who don’t immediately spot the connection, Animalympics’ co-writer/director also wrote and directed said Disney computer adventure. Plus one of the animators was a certain Brad Bird, and slightly higher up the chain of command was Roger Allers, who later co-directed The Lion King. (There’s more interesting behind-the-scenes info on Wikipedia.)

But what of this effort? Well, it’s entertaining, holds up pretty well over 30 years on, and at 75 minutes doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s easy to see how it was intended for TV, and where the split was (a Summer Olympics special and a Winter Olympics special, though some judicious editing mixes them together a little), but it’s more than serviceable as a feature. Animal loveAs per anything which is made up of sketches, some bits are funnier than others; and, as American animation, it is primarily aimed at kids, though I thought it was enjoyable enough for grown-ups too. Gouldman’s score is catchy in places, but nothing to rival The Things We Do For Love or Dreadlock Holiday or… I could go on for a few, actually. I’m just going to go listen to some 10cc…

Animalympics isn’t the kind of picture that’s going to break free of its cult status and achieve a widespread popularity, but for fans of those involved, or of a certain era of US animation, it’s good fun. Best watched around the Olympics for full satirical effect, at which times I imagine it could gain an even broader audience. Like me.

4 out of 5

* Made at 1.37:1 (because it was for telly), intended for 1.66:1 (because it was a film by then), the version I saw was either cropped or stretched to a full 16:9. ^

Cars 2 (2011)

2012 #51
John Lasseter | 106 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / G

Cars 2Pixar, oh exalted studio of wondrous excellence, who produce naught but critically-acclaimed and audience-beloved films that may as well just be given the Best Animated Feature Oscar without the need for fellow nominees, dropped the ball with Cars. So why did it become only the second Pixar movie to earn a sequel? As most people know, because of the merchandise. Little boys love toy cars (and grown men too, apparently) and the things sold like hot cakes, and continued to do so for years afterwards. Running out of ways to milk the first movie’s characters, the only solution was to make some new ones — and that involves making a new film.

For what is essentially a near-two-hour toy commercial, Cars 2 fares quite well — it’s better than Batman & Robin anyway. Well, it’s less offensive to one’s sensibilities. Not ruining a great character and a once-great franchise helps. And, despite its lowly Rotten Tomatoes rating (which is flat out appalling, and doubly so for a Pixar movie), there’s a solid argument to be made that it’s better than the first Cars.

The plot is just as predictable though: character arcs are so well-trodden they only seem to bother including them because they push the story along; surely everyone will guess who the ‘surprise’ villain is as soon as he/she/it shows up earlier in the film; and so on. But instead of the stock “slick city guy finds his true self in the country” tale told first time round, Caine, Michael Cainehere we get an international spy movie — much more fun. The espionage stuff is clearly inspired by Bond (the primary secret service is British, for starters), and the opening eight minutes — an action sequence starring the film’s Michael Caine-voiced Bond analogy — is probably the best stuff in either Cars movie. Actors like Caine and Emily Mortimer lend the whole affair some much-needed class.

Mater, voiced by Some Idiot (I believe Larry the Cable Guy is actually his ‘name’) was a mildly irritating character in the first film, but at least there was less of him than the marketing suggested. Clearly he clicked with someone — the pre-pre-teen toy-buying audience, I suppose — and so his role is massively bumped up here. In fact, I don’t think anyone would disagree that he’s the main character, with Owen Wilson’s McQueen relegated to a supporting role. Mater isn’t the most irritatingly stupid animated character ever conceived, but he’s not a huge amount of fun either. Like so much else, his whole schtick is tiresomely predictable fullstop, and depressingly familiar from first time round — and it was barely amusing in the first place.

McQueen, then, may still be front-and-centre in the marketing, but his story — the racing aspect of the movie — gets quickly relegated to a subplot. It’s kind of ironic, as the first film was all about races on boring NASCAR loops, whereas here we getting exciting European street circuits and we barely see them. On the bright side, we all know how race movies pan out — Touristythe back-and-forth battling, the last-minute surge, etc etc — so it’s not really any loss.

There are a raft of cameos — more than the first film, I think — the most obvious being Lewis Hamilton as a black racing car. He’s joined in a sort-of-double-act by some American voice who I presume is also a racing driver. This is the role picked for localisation, getting region-specific racing drivers in France, Germany, Spain, Australia, Russia, Sweden, Latin America and Brazil. I’d wager at least half of those voices would be infinitely more recognisable to a British audience than that yankee bloke they do have in there — I don’t follow racing and I’ve heard of Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Jacques Villeneuve, but I’ve not got the first clue who Jeff Gordon is.

One much-criticised aspect of the first film was its world (who built these cars? where are the humans? etc). It was possible to gloss over it, just about, when the film was doing other things to hold your attention. Here, it’s almost like they don’t want you to forget. It’s plenty exciting and fast-paced enough to leave behind concerns about what’s going on, but then throws in all sorts of unnecessary snatches of dialogue or small details in set design that slap you with a brief remembrance that this world doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. One I didn’t even notice until I was collating pictures for this review: Why is a CAR wearing a HAT?why is the police car wearing a giant hat?!

The technical faults don’t stop there: despite its pedigree, direction is strangely amateurish much of the time. The action sequences occasionally sing, but not always, while the entirety of the dialogue scenes are flatly shot, showing a repetitive choice of boring angles. It doesn’t help that they don’t contain much engaging material, especially the instances when they seem to be literally trotting out all the first film’s characters to deliver a single line each in not-that-quick succession. At times it verges on painful.

The Cars films are really aimed at kids no older than about six. They won’t be familiar enough with movies to see the tired plot points, they won’t question the film’s bizarre world, they’ll probably be enamoured of Mater, they’ll certainly be suckered in by the talking cars and the glossy action sequences… It’s their very lack of familiarity or critical faculties that makes the film easily entertaining. And then they’ll want all the toys, which is why this movie exists.

And one of the reasons people heavily criticise the Cars films in spite of that increasingly obvious fact is because they’re made by Pixar. In themselves, these two films are fine — but that’s all they are. When Pixar can make so many innovative, exciting, emotional, Action!entertaining films, how can they also produce something so uninspired?

Cars 2 still suffers from many of the first film’s faults, being lacklustre in vital departments like character, humour and storyline. But it’s shorter, faster-paced and more exciting, which for my money makes it the lesser of two evils.

3 out of 5

Cars (2006)

2011 #90
John Lasseter | 112 mins | DVD | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / G

CarsSince the creation of the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, only two Pixar features have failed to win: Monsters, Inc., which lost to Shrek — surely a key computer-animated film in anyone’s book — and this, which lost to Happy Feet, which was… well, it was quite good…* Obviously this does nothing to help dismiss Cars‘ reputation as Pixar’s worst film. But then, that reputation doesn’t warrant dismissing.

Much has been criticised by others, but my biggest problem is that it’s a bit predictable, kinda like Pixar/any kids’ movie by numbers. Pixar are usually better than that. There may be one or two slight surprises along the way — mostly in aid of a Good Strong Moral Message for the kiddies — but at times it’s a bit thumb-twiddly as you wait for characters to reach the point they’re inevitably headed for. It goes about these in such a long-winded fashion that it drags in the middle.

In a special feature on the DVD, Lasseter talks about how it was a very personal film, with a story inspired by his own family and past, as well as the Pixar crew’s road trip along Route 66, with events from that directly inspiring elements of the final story. I think this shows on screen, but not in a good way. It’s another reason the film is allowed to be occasionally long-winded and indulgent. No doubt it led to some of the best bits — the sequence where The Girl Car (I forget her name) tells The Main Car (McQueen! I remember that one) Everybody's friendshow the building of the interstate killed off so many small towns is both historically accurate (more or less) and emotional — but I imagine it also explains why the film can feel so long.

This could be alleviated by the characters, but they’re not all that. Every one is lifted from a book of stereotypes, with such unfailing tedium that I can’t be bothered to list them. Some are moderately likable and occasionally they’re nice to spend time with, but it’s not a patch on any other set of Pixar characters — it can’t reach Ratatouille, never mind the Toy Storys.

The races — read: action sequences — are exciting and fluid. But then, would you expect anything less from Pixar? But then, with the film’s other failings, it’s good to see they haven’t lost all the magic.

I’ve often heard people criticise the world of the movie for not making sense but never understood why, because it doesn’t necessarily matter. But it does play on your mind while watching, and because it shouldn’t matter I think it’s indicative of faults elsewhere: if the characters and story were keeping your attention, if the film was consistently funny or exciting or engrossing, you wouldn’t be wondering who built these cars, or where their builders went, or how they reproduce… It’s like a child’s game writ into film: you can imagine a young boy playing with little toy cars, The races are goodhaving them talk to each other and giving them personalities, and it doesn’t need to make sense because his age isn’t even close to double digits and he’s just playing. But does that make it a viable idea for a film?

Aside from being Pixar’s Bad Film, Cars has become best known for the marketing machine it turned into, in particular the masses of high-selling model cars that have been churned out on the back of it. I don’t know how intentional this was — not as intentional as it seemed to be for the sequel, I suspect — but once you know where this ends up it’s reflected back into the film. McQueen sports at least three different paint jobs, for instance — that’s a handful of model cars right there, and if you make them in different sizes… Disney accountants must have been rubbing their hands in glee when these things started selling. It’s disappointing that this seems to have been the motivation for Pixar creating their second franchise, but hey, if the money brought in by a Cars movie’s merchandise every five years allows them to keep pushing (albeit gently) at the boundaries of mass-(Western)-market animation with the likes of WALL-E and Up, then I guess we shouldn’t complain too much.

Cars in loveCars is undoubtedly a below-par Pixar movie. It’s not a bad film — it has funny bits, exciting bits, a good moral message, some nice cameos and references and that kind of thing — but it doesn’t stand comparison to even a regular Pixar outing, never mind the best of their output. But hey, if you can produce 10 features that manage a 90%+ score on Rotten Tomatoes, I think you’re allowed a 74% slip-up.**

3 out of 5

Cars is on BBC Three today at 9pm, and again on Sunday at 7pm.

* Based on its reception, Cars 2 may well be added to this list. Potentially beaten by Happy Feet Two. That’d be kinda funny. ^

** Other review comparison and aggregate websites are available. Does not include Cars 2, which scored 38%. (Ouch.)

The Damned United (2009)

2010 #85
Tom Hooper | 90 mins | download (HD) | 15 / R

The Damned UnitedI have no love for football. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’d certainly never heard of Brian Clough before this film came along. I didn’t even bother to put it on my list of 50 Films I Didn’t See last year, despite its relatively high-profile release (here, anyway) because I wasn’t interested — and I’ve put Twilight and High School Musical 3 on those lists before now. (Which definitely says more about me and my dubious list-compiling criteria than it does about any of the films involved.) I’m not even entirely sure why I wound up watching it, to be honest; a mixture of it being free to download in HD and a couple of recommendations.

But I’m glad I did, because, even though it’s technically about football, The Damned United is a little bit brilliant.

For one thing, it’s not actually about football, not really. It’s about Brian Clough, what he was like, why he behaved the way he did. Of course it operates in the world of clubs and divisions and transfers and training and fan love and fan hatred, but those intricacies don’t really matter in themselves. What matters is how Clough reacts to them, how he uses them, how they motivate him and make him and ruin him. I care no more about football than I did before the film began, but I still enjoyed and engaged with every minute of the film.

The main person to thank for this is Michael Sheen, who, as I’m sure you know, stars as Clough, manager of Derby County and, later, Leeds United. Some have claimed Sheen is just a talented mimic, The Damned Sheenan impressionist who can act a little, due to his penchant for playing real people with unerring accuracy — Kenneth Williams in Fantabulosa!, David Frost in Frost/Nixon, Tony Blair in The Deal, The Queen and The Special Relationship — but those people are wrong. I have no idea if Sheen’s Clough is anything like the real man — though, based on form, I imagine he’s spot on — but it’s an outstanding performance regardless. Effortlessly charming on first encounter, apparently likeable even away from the media spotlight, any flaws are easily overlooked because he seems like a nice bloke. But this isn’t an airbrushed hagiography (unlike the amusing US poster): the cocksure and awkward-to-work-with man beneath the charismatic veneer is gradually revealed.

Of course this is partly down to Peter Morgan’s screenplay, particularly its two-headed structure that plays Clough’s 44 day stint as Leeds’ manager at the same time as the six preceding years that led him there — which initially seems needlessly complex but unveils its reasoning as Clough’s character is simultaneously revealed by each thread — but it’s also unquestionably in Sheen’s performance. There’s no shocking revelation, no big change for the character — he’s not obviously a different man at the start and the end — but the viewer is led to see the reality, the complexity, which comes out by getting to know the man over 90 minutes. The fact Sheen hasn’t, to my knowledge, bagged a single award for the role is testament to either a glut of good performances last year or indifferent bias (such as my own).

The Damned BromanceThough this is Sheen’s show, the rest of the cast give able support. Most notable is Timothy Spall as Clough’s right-hand man, Peter Taylor, the quiet force behind Clough’s showy, mouthy public face. Their relationship is — in nasty modern parlance — a “bromance” (I apologise), a fact only underlined by the final scene. It may not be apparent until late on, but if the film is Clough then his relationship with Taylor is its heart. It’s a subtler role that Spall still manages to pull everything out of. Colm Meaney and Jim Broadbent are also noteworthy, as Clough’s unknowing rival and his increasingly exasperated chairman respectively.

Morgan’s screenplay and Tom Hooper’s direction are mostly very good, with some irritants. Intertitles telling us what’s happening should either have been dramatised or dropped — some are needlessly repetitive, others could easily have been turned into a short scene or a couple of lines of dialogue. “Show don’t tell” and all that. On a related note however, the graphics showing clubs moving up the league table, and displaying full-time scores from key matches on screen, works just fine, and sometimes excellently: the simple statement “Leeds 0 – QPR 1” speaks volumes (yes, even if you don’t like football — it works in context).

Hooper’s primary flaw is to indulge in a form of close-up framing which we’re seeing more and more, particularly in British TV dramas (they did it all the time in Luther, for example, The Damned Fouland I seem to remember it in Red Riding too), and which is frankly irritating. Essentially, it involves placing the actor’s head (or more of the body, should it be a longer shot) in the lower half of the frame, with the top half being completely empty — blank wall, or sky, or whatever. It looks like the 16:9 image has been framed for 2.35:1 and someone forgot to crop it. I don’t know if there’s something I’m missing, but I don’t see the point of it, ever.

Still, such niggles pale next to Sheen’s work. I don’t imagine The Damned United will do anything to change anyone’s attitudes about “the beautiful game” (pfft), but that’s irrelevant. Sometimes an outstanding lead performance isn’t enough to make a film — just look at Ray — but other times, it is. Love or loathe football, this is an exceptional character study.

5 out of 5

Speed Racer (2008)

2010 #21
The Wachowski Brothers | 135 mins | Blu-ray | PG / PG

Speed Racer feels like an unfair place to kick off these half-arsed efforts because, despite the critical and commercial apathy it found on release, I really enjoyed it. This close to giving it 5 stars, I was. Still, it’s my oldest unreviewed film (from this year), so…

Firstly, it’s visually astounding. Speed Racer’s blocks of vibrant colour and computer whizzery are a natural fit for the modern digital experience. Action sequences are mind-meltingly fast, but also incredibly thrilling. When CGI is blatantly used in an attempt to fake something real it can leave an action sequence hollow; but here, everything is pushed to the limit — and, probably, beyond — and so it works.

The plot doesn’t have many twists or turns — at least, not any that are genuinely surprising — and yet it rarely feels boring or stale. It’s buoyed by the crazy action sequences, the likeable characters, the unabashed sense of fun that’s poured into every sequence. Little flourishes mark the film out: the Hallelujah moment with the sweets on the plane; Racer X’s delivery of a simple punch amongst a bevy of complex car stunts; numerous others lost to my memory.

Even some of the performances stand out, not something you’d expect from such a (for want of a better word) lightweight tale. Of particular note are Susan Sarandon as Mom and Christina Ricci’s Trixie, whose huge eyes help render her perhaps one of the most perfect live-action versions of an anime character ever seen. Yes, the characters mostly exist to service their place in the plot, but the odd scene or glance or line delivery adds some subtlety here and there.

The mediocre-to-bad reviews Speed Racer received on its initial release seek to chastise you if you happen to like it — look, Ebert’s already informed us why we’re wrong should we even attempt claims of artistic integrity in the Wachowskis’ work. Maybe he’s right — he can list a whole load of commercial tie-ins at the end, after all. Then again, this is the man who gave Phantom Menace half-a-star shy of full marks, a film that was only a little about story and quite a bit about tie-in merchandise if ever there was one (he awarded Revenge of the Sith the same, incidentally, and has included the granddaddy of all film-tie-in-tat, Star Wars itself, in his Great Movies series). And, to specifically rubbish his opinions here, Phantom Menace is praised for being “made to be looked at more than listened to… filled with wonderful visuals” and condemns Speed Racer because “whatever information that passes from your retinas to your brain is conveyed through optical design and not so much through more traditional devices such as dialogue, narrative, performance or characterization… you could look at it with the sound off and it wouldn’t matter.” Not that Film’s unique factor (over novels or radio or what have you) is its visual sense, and a silent film that can be told through image alone, devoid of any intertitles, was once a lofty aim. I’m sure Ebert could readily explain why Phantom Menace’s visual splendour is a good thing and why Speed Racer’s is so terrible, but, on the other hand… pot, meet kettle.

(For a point of clarity, I normally like and agree with Ebert — I’m sure some previous reviews where I’ve cited him will attest to this — which is why I pick on his pair of opinions here rather than those of some lesser critic who can’t be expected to maintain a critical ideology from one film to the next, never mind two that sit almost a decade apart.)

Back to Speed Racer. In every respect it’s like a living cartoon, and it’s the Wachowskis’ commitment to this aesthetic in every single respect that makes it work where others have floundered. It’s not perfect, I suppose. It may run a little long at two-and-a-quarter hours; but then, it so rarely lets up that I didn’t mind a jot. And the kid is often annoying; but then, as annoying little kids in films go, I’ve seen worse. At times I even liked him.

But, all things considered, when the chips are down, with all said and done, and any other clichés you feel like listing for no particular reason, I found this to be a candy-coloured masterpiece.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Speed Racer is on Channel 5 today, Sunday 26th October 2014, at 6:20pm.