Friday 19 June 2009

Monday Night Film Club - Chick Flicks and Football Films

Our last two ventures to the cinema have been about as different as can be. First up is something we missed the first time round: The Damned United. Now, on paper this isn't my kind of film: it's about football and football holds about as much interest to me as does the current state of Peter Andre and Katie Price's relationship (that is to say none whatsoever).

However, this film is different. Firstly, my brother, who has even less interest in football than I do, recommended it. Secondly, the screenplay is by Peter Morgan, the pen behind Frost/Nixon and stars Michael Sheen, who played Frost. That made it an attractive prospect.

It helps that, for the most part, it's principally not actually about football, it could be said that the football is largely incidental. It tells the story of Brain Clough (Sheen)'s turbulent forty-four days as manager of Leeds United in the mid seventies, the events that led there and the aftermath, and that makes for fascinating and compelling viewing.

We see his earlier career at Derby County, brining the team from obscurity to the top of the first division. We also see an unhealthy rivalry develop between him and Don Revie, the successful Leeds manager (played by Colm Meaney, playing the role he always plays, but he does it well). Clough is aided by right hand man Peter Taylor (superbly played by Timothy Spall). Things go awry when Clough's ego leads to the end of their Derby career, and thence to the destruction of their friendship, he is thus alone when he goes to Leeds. His determination to get them playing cleaner football gives him a start that you can see ending badly from the off, and yet at the same time you still feel sympathy for him and where's coming from: I genuinely cared about his desire to see Leeds play cleaner football.

Initially I was struck by how different these two performances by Sheen were. However, there is a lot in common: Clough and Frost had huge egos and were largely driven by them (at least so far as the films are concerned).

There are other things I like about it to - I like the way it jumps back and forth in time, gradually building the picture up for us. This sort of structure will not appeal to everyone, but I love it. Then there's Jim Broadbent's fine turn as Derby owner Sam Longson

As with Frost/Nixon, there is a question mark as to the accuracy of events depicted (and Clough's family are reportedly unhappy, though I would argue the film portrays him pretty positively).

So Morgan has done the near impossible and made me love a film about football. Actually, it isn't entirely without precedent: the great Aaron Sorkin beat him to it with his superb TV dramedy Sports Night, which I love despite it being about television sports anchors. We must therefore give Morgan an award, as we sometimes do: the Aaron Sorkin Award for Writing a Script That Makes Sport Compelling to People Who Couldn't Usually Care Less About It.

Things were very different in Last Chance Harvey. Now, I hadn't really been mad keen to see it to start with, but then part of the appeal of Monday Night Film Club is that we go and see whatever is on at the Cameo and that often means things I wouldn't otherwise bother with. In this case, though, I rather wish I hadn't. The trailer was one of those where you felt you'd already watched the whole film by the time it was over; sure enough, the ninety minute version of this predictable romantic comedy added little. The film tells of Harvey Shine (an uninspiring Dustin Hoffman). He portrays a washed up composer of advertising jingles who's is headed to for London for his daughter's wedding and is also losing his job. His job, incidentally, contains the one gem of the film: his boss has as bad a script as everyone else, but Richard Schiff (Toby in The West Wing) is a member of that class of actors who could read the phone book and still be absolutely compelling.

Once in London he eventually hooks up with Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), though that takes its time to happen, and given they've told us that's what the plot is in the trailer, the delay is frustrating. Prior to this, Harvey attends the wedding and rehearsal dinner with a mildly comic moment of having the security tag still attached to his new jacket. It's not a bad joke, but compare it to the opening scene of Four Weddings and Funeral as they race to get to the ceremony in time, accompanied by some brilliantly judged use of the f-word. Writter/director Joel Hopkins just isn't in the same league.

Having been rejected by his daughter in favour of her step-father to give her away, he skips the reception and leaps in a cab to Heathrow (the small fortune he must have spent on taxis is a little implausible given what he does for a living). Despite her initial rejection, he persuades her to spend the afternoon and evening with him.

In an ever more saccharine tale, he mends his dysfunctional relationships, culminating with his boss inexplicably begging him to return. However, there came a point midway through when I really started to hate this film, not merely be bored by it: following the reception Harvey and Kate wind up by a picturesque fountain and he makes her agree to meet there tomorrow. To recap, two people have a chance meeting, spend a day together, become romantically involved and then agree to meet up again. If this sounds familiar it's because it's the plot of the incomparable Before Sunrise, except that's good, nay a work of genius. To rip off such a masterpiece so blatantly is bad enough, to do it so badly is in excusable. It's frankly enough to blacklist Hopkins.

The gags never rise above mildly amusing. The plot concerning Kate's mother's obsession with the neighbour she suspects of murder (where, oh where, can he have got that idea from) is as unfunny as it is predictable.

Then there are all the little annoyance I could mention if I put my pedant's hat on: he flies to Heathrow, but several scenes are clearly shot at Stansted, why does Walker's creative writing class take place in the National Theatre foyer (and how is he able to be waiting for her when she comes out a floor up and round the corner from where she went in).

It short, it's one to avoid. Unless you're female. As I said above, I'm not inherently opposed to romantic comedies and there are a number I like very much. However, while I loathed this, it has to be said that rest of the part liked it, and it so happens they were all women. (Note, to avoid the risk of appearing sexist, I should point out it's entirely possible there are men who like it too.)

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