2009 and America’s 44th President took office, who came to be known Internationally as “The Nice One That We In Other Countries Really Liked”. This led to America being reclassified as “Not Racist and Not Full of Idiots Who Vote The Wrong Way”…. at least for the next eight years.
The word phenomenon is one that’s thrown around way too freely with regards to films (although not by me as I find it really difficult to spell or pronounce). However 2009 saw a film reach cinemas with a wild hype train that promised was so spectacular, was unlike anything we had seen before. A breakthrough movie from James Cameron that had not only pushed film making technology to it’s limits when making it, but would utilise movie theatres to provide a viewing experience unlike any other.
When critics and the always well informed movie fan forums saw clips of Avatar and it’s CGI blue skinned cast, there were sniggers and boasts that this was going to be Cameron’s comeuppance and a boxoffice loser of mega proportions. When it had finished in theatres Avatar had taken 2.79 Billion worldwide, more than the 2nd, 3rd and 4th placed earners in 2009 combined (even more impressive when you consider the three were from the still very healthy Harry Potter, Ice Age and Transformers) and it took Avengers: Endgame to barely edged past it and take it’s number biggest Box Office spot of all time.
To this day there are still debates on why the film drew so much money. While analysts point out the higher prices the public paid on 3D and Imax tickets to see the film in all it’s intended glory helped push up the box office, it doesn’t take away the massive audiences and the unheard of only 10% drop between the first weeks release and the third (audiences for blockbusters tend to drop by 50% from the first and second week).
Avatar may have been criticised for it’s derivative story (and naturally like everything that has ever made these days has been labelled by exhausting types as “problematic”), but it created a sense of spectacle that instilled in audiences a need to see in theatres type of event. And right now it’s the sort of magic we could do with to inspire audiences to get off streaming movies onto a six inch phone screen here in 2020.
But my three choices for the films that struck a cord with me in 2009, combined wouldn’t have made enough money to cover Avatar’s coffee tab.
Damned United (director: Tom Hooper)
The legendary Brian Clough is the surprise appointment to take over from his despised rival Don Revive as manager of Leeds United. Spoiler: it doesn’t go well.
I love football, but I can’t deny that nowadays footballers and especially managers are dull as shit. Post match interviews are generally bland and while it may be mocked I look back with fondness on Kevin Keegan’s 1996 meltdown and “I’d love it if we beat them, love it,” speech that brought a bit of heart on the sleeve passion and genuine sense of rivalry back into the game.
So if you want to find a football figure with the charisma and controversy worthy of building a film around, you need to go back to the 70’s to the greatest England manager we never got. The man is Brian Clough, a manager who’s amazing accomplishments in the games (his first division title win with Derby and European Cup win with Nottingham Forest were the stuff of miracles) were rivalled only by his mouth and ability to get himself into conflict with football’s powers that be.
Damned United focuses on the Clough’s tumultuous 44 day stint as manager of Leeds United in 1974, a post ridden with impossibly personal implications as his bitter rivalry with the previous manager Don Revie had made him a hated figure by the Leeds players and fans. The film also uses flashbacks to detail this rivalry, as well as Clough’s relationship with his long time assistant Peter Taylor.
Damned United is a story of big personalities and the film rests on the incredible performances of it’s cast. The unenviable task of portraying the charismatic Clough fell to Michael Sheen who by now had a reputation for practically blending into renditions of famous figures such as Tony Blair (in no less than three films) and David Frost. Sheen captures the eccentric nature of Clough, but his performance goes beyond a mere impression, drawing on his driven but stubborn, sometimes arrogant nature. Timothy Spall provides a stirring contrast as the level headed, frustrated Peter Taylor, while Colm Meany is spookily accurate as the stern Don Revie.
A great sport movie can never be about the sport alone. It has to be about something below the surface, a human and personal story. In Damned United, the story is one of obsession and being trapped in an all consuming rivalry. Clough is driven by a perceived slight by Revie before a Derby-Leeds FA Cup match (which Clough never mentioned so doubtful ever really happened) and his career is focused on the need to beat Revie and exceed all his achievements. There are even hints in a clash with Clough and the Leeds board that his motivation for taking the job is to manage the club better than he did. However it’s clear that the shadow of Revie and his jealousy of him drives Clough to the point of breakdown.
When Clough arrives at Elland Road at Leeds, the ground is filmed as a dark, foreboding, fortress. Just as sinister is the shadowy first glimpse of the Leeds players, watching Clough arrive from a distance atop a hill, their moody glares stating they will never accept his leadership. Their disdainful silence except to praise Revie and slumped body language show Clough’s inability to break the barriers with his Leed’s players, contrasted with flashbacks to the reverence shown back when he managed Derby. All the time, it’s the obsession with Revie that hurts him the most. The respect shown to Revie by Billy Bremner at Wembley clearly rankles Clough and when Leeds start to lose matches it’s Revie that drunkenly telephones to rant at.
For the many who don’t know the history of football of the 70’s Damned United does an excellent job of keeping it’s audience with the fortunes of the Clough by the simple use of graphics of the league tables and montages of archive footage of matches. This footage helps to convey the 70’s vibe, along with the 70’s fashions and style. The biggest task however was to keep the authenticity when it came to the football. To capture the look and gritty feel of a 70’s football ground most of the football pitch, offices and changing room scenes were filmed at Chesterfield FC as it was a rare ground that hadn’t been altered by modernisation (ie it was still a shithole).
The 70’s vibe is also added to by the recreation of Yorkshire TV interviews with Clough with an interview conducted with his commencement of his job, but also the engaging scene towards the end of the film where Clough after been fired does a live interview alongside his nemesis Revie. In the same way as the Frost/Nixon interviews were altered for the sake of drama, the Clough Revie showdown has been reworked into just as dramatic a scene. It’s a remarkable exchange between Meany and Sheen, that shows Clough at his most arrogant and confrontational, his hatred for Revie showing through and ultimately leaves him a defeated, lonely shell.
Like the novel, Damned United was a controversial film, with many players feeling they were misrepresented (Dave Mackay actually sued over his portrayal). In particular the Clough family were opposed to the film (particularly over the scenes of his drinking which they claimed was not an issue until much later in life) and refused invites to see the film. Indeed the film does take liberties accuracy wise (in a key scene where a match with Leeds leaves the Derby players battered and injured it’s implies they lose their semi final European match because if it, when in fact the Leeds match took place before the quarter final stage which Derby win), however the changes are to the benefit of telling an exciting, engaging story.
Whip It (Director: Drew Barrymore)
A teenage girl struggling to find her identity in life discovers her calling when she enrols in a Roller Derby team. However this brings her into conflict with the wishes of her mother.
From one sport movie to another. And yes, Whip It is a sport movie as I consider Roller Derby a sport, in that I would consider Roller Derby a true, pure sport. I came away with this opinion after attending several matches of the all women team The Sheffield Steel Roller Girls, not only for the action on the track, but for the sheer passion of the players. There was a real punk rock vibe (and dare I say it female empowerment) of engaging in a rebellious, rough sport, (if I remember correctly women’s MMA was only just starting to gain a platform at this time). With adopted names and uniforms that had a punky, burlesque quality, the players raised funds at half time, selling merchandise T-Shirts, badges and home made cakes (writing this I just remembered at one meet I won a raffle and ended up walking home through Sheffield town centre on a Saturday night with a giant cupcake), this was a wonderful sense of comradely amongst outsiders finding purpose and doing something they loved.
There is a movie I’m going to talk about I swear.
Whip It embodies everything positive I saw when I went to those Roller Derby. Here we see a young girl, played wonderfully by Ellen Page, as a young girl feeling unfulfilled by her teenage years. She’s constantly pushed by her Conservative mother into entering beauty pageants which she hates and clearly longs to find her own identity and passion in something. A chance encounter takes her to a Rollerderby game and her eyes open to the loud roughness, the combat and realises in this counter culture community is the purpose that she has been missing.
The game inspires her to acts of rebellion, going behind her mother’s back she tries out for a Roller Derby team, lying about her age and gaining herself a spot on the underdog team the Hurl Scouts and adopts the name and identity of “Babe Ruthless.” Just by joining the team she is a step closer to being more who she wants to be, and her rough and tough competitive streak is given life that was suffocated by the uninspiring blandness she felt in the well to do, “ladylike” pageants.
It’s a real coming of age saga for Page’s Bliss. Away from the track, she has the problems with her parents, falls for a guitarist in a band and is cheated on when he goes on tour and falls out with her best friend. It’s through the Roller Derby that she gains her focus, with a sisterhood of fellow outsiders that supports her on the track as well off it, who come to her aid as she tries to balance what her mother wants for her as well as herself.
Storywise there are all the sporting cliches of the under dog team, striving to win the big game against their rivals the Holy Rollers. In this regards it’s no more original than a typical Mighty Ducks film, but there is so much heart and genuine feelgood moments of inspiration it’s comfortably easy to look past this. It’s helped by a kick ass team of women (all doing their own skating in the Derby scenes) such as Kristen Wiig, Zoe Bell, Eve (who I’m told is a rap star), Juliette Lewis as head of the Holy Rollers and Drew Barrymore who as well as starring also directed (and it’s a damn shame and injustice that she hasn’t directed another movie since). Also standing out is Razor, the long suffering, underachieving team coach, who’s emotional triumph in the film is getting the girls to actually study his team plays.
Whip It, is a wonderful little movie that pushes finding your identity in rebellion and empowering young women without beating it’s audience over the head with it’s message. Above Whip It is a positive movie, it’s of a girl who finds her freedom, but does so with a maturity that means she is able to honour her well meaning mother and new and old friends and discovering who she is.
The Tournament (director: Scott Mann)
(director: Scott Mann)
The world’s best assassins coverage on the streets of the UK for an annual battle to the death, with a ten million cash prize for the sole survivor.
One day when I was in the cinema, sometime between 2007 and 2009. a trailer appeared for a forth coming action movie, one that I’d not heard a thing about. It was called The Tournament, starred Ving Rhames, had a simple premise involving a Battle Royale that brought the best assassins and killers in the world to one city and fight to the death for a ten million dollar prize. And it looked fun as fuck.
Action films were enjoying a wild renaissance with films such as Smoking Aces, Crank, Shoot Em Up, that were unashamedly B-Movie level in story but made it for it in pushing the envelope in over the top, relentless action, violence and style. I’d developed a real taste for these fun movies and so The Tournament looked right up my street, especially as this one was going to be set on the streets of the UK. So yeah, this film that had come out of nowhere had me intrigued and was definitely one I wanted to see.
And then nothing. I never heard from The Tournament again, the trailer never showed up at any other films I went to see and if the film got a theatrical release it certainly never appeared at my local multiplex. As time went on the title of the film slipped from my memory and occasionally I’d have vague recollections of that trailer I saw for that really cool action movie and wondered what ever became of it. As it happened a chance comment by a friend of mine a few years back (she somehow used to know The Tournaments first time director Scott Mann), got me to seek out an action film she knew of, and wouldn’t you know it was the DVD of that very same film the trailer of which had wowed me all those years ago.
Incredibly, even some ten years on from seeing this trailer, The Tournament more than lived up to the promise of the excitement, carnage and blistering over the top fun. The film wastes no time in getting into the concept as we’re introduced to the more colourful members of the field of forty assassins and psychopaths, vying to kill each other for the entertainment of an audience of gambling arsehole billionaires watching the action on hacked security cameras. Key players to look out for are favourite and former tournament winner Joshua Harlow (Ving Rhames) who has entered again to find the killer of his wife, Lai Lai Zhen (Kelly Hu) the world’s deadliest female assassin and complete psychopath Miles Slade (Lost’s Ian Somerhalder) and naturally a vicious Russian play by Martial Arts movie star Scott Adkins.
The event is organised by Mr Powers, played with devilishly slime by Game of Thrones’s Liam Cunnigham (Sir Davos) who as well as riling up his audience (“We’re gonna have a blood bath” he announces with glee when a number of combatants descend on a strip club) explains the concept of the tournament and how all the combatants have been implanted with trackers so they and organisers can keep a track of each other. However one sneaky player (a spectacular French freerunner) has found a way to cheat by removing his tracker and placing it into an innocent victim, a down on his luck, alcoholic priest played by Robert Carlyle.
The Tournament is an absolute riot of a movie. With a furious pace, the violence is relentless and runs the gauntlet of action movie elements, each one being pushed to the limits. One minute we’re treated to a loud, explosive gun battle, the next we’re watching vehicles destroyed in a crunching car chase, soon to be followed by a long, exhilarating display of martial arts combat. Nothing is held back in an effort to provide each scene with the maximum thrills and blood, with some cracking gore as there is not one of the combatants who escapes without a bombastic, imaginative kill scene.
While it’s not the most original premise, Scott Mann never wastes a scene and the whole film is done with such obvious passion, something he sorely needed to overcome a long gestation process and an ambitious, complicated shoot not to mention working with a difficult Ving Rhames. Budget was also a problem so much so, that Mann ended up stranded in Bulgaria while editing the movie when the money ran out.
The Tournament is an action genre film that deserves far more a following than what it currently has. It’s so much fun for those who embrace over the top action and has a cracking cast with Rhames full of seething presence and the Miles Slade character a blast of a vicious, cruel psycho (the bastard kills a dog way before it became a thing in John Wick). Stealing the film however is Kelly Hu (you may remember her from X-Men 2) who is utterly convincing as a tough, dangerous assassin but showing a human side when she takes the innocent Priest caught up in the mayhem under her wing.
If there is one film that I hope someone will discover because of my blog it’s The Tournament, not only because it’s so much fun but because of the effort put in my Scott Mann. He followed up his impressive debut with 2015’s Heist (sometimes called the less generic “Bus 657”) starring Jeffery Dean Morgan which had the distinction of putting Dave Bautista in the same film as Robert De Nero. While reviews were poor I personally enjoyed Heist (I’m usually more forgiving of films I discover on streaming that reminds me of the low budget joys of the video rental days), and I also got a kick out of the recent Final Score. Once again Dave Bautsita stared in a gobsmacking Die Hard style premise of terrorists taking control of West Ham’s stadium during a live day (a film worth seeing if only to see Tony Cottee getting shot in the head during a live Sky broadcast).
WTF? Human Centipede
I mean, seriously who he fuck came up with the idea of connecting three people together by sewing their mouths onto each other people’s arses? and more importantly who agreed with this sick fuck’s idea and said “yeah, that sounds fucking great here’s some fucking money.” (I know I could look this up on IMDB but I don’t want references to this sick fucking movie on my browsing history.
And who were the sick fucks who liked this movie so much that it led to not one but two sequels? The last in the trilogy upped the ante of having three people sewn together mouth to anus, by having five hundred people sewn together mouth to anus?
Honestly Barack Obama this happened on your watch.