To give myself a reward for a job well done, I spent the entire afternoon at the movies yesterday and I saw three very good films. Coincidentally, all three are based on real life stories and none of them have anything to do with one another. I had a splendid time.
1. The Damned United
Peter Morgan writes about the vulnerability of characters to power. This is the story of Brian Clough, a gifted soccer coach whose life mission was to try to humiliate Don Revie, the coach of national champion Leeds and then of the British national team. The movie is a powerful look at the hubris of wounded pride and ambition. The paradox here is that Clough is right, except for his own overblown ego, which ruins everything. He wants Leeds (a terribly dirty team) to win fairly, he is talented and charismatic and yet he self-destroys because of an exaggerated sense of grievance. It's a wonderfully written script (that jumps around back and forth in time a bit much) that would have been better served by a better director.
The super saturated and contrasted color scheme was the work of a cinematographer trying too hard to be cool. That stuff may work for music videos, but not for a dramatic film. Still, Michael Sheen gives an unflinching, energetic performance. He is a very good actor who is always short of hamming. There is something exaggerated about him that works very well for characters such as this one and David Frost, which he played in Frost Nixon (he was so much better in the movie than in the play). He really sinks his teeth into the role and makes you feel the humiliation and the hubris of this man. It's deeply painful, and therefore wonderful. Colm Meaney, excellent as usual, plays the English coach. Meaney doesn't do much but he does it chillingly well. He has an easy aura of power about him, of enormous confidence, and understated arrogance. I love him. Plus, the great, great, great Timothy Spall as Clough's, smart, loyal, unsung partner and the great Jim Broadbent. British Acting Feast!
2. Bright Star.
This is my favorite movie by Jane Campion, who has gone all romantic (real romantic, as in the romantic poets) to tell the tragic love story between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. The movie is gorgeous, the cinematography beautiful and Abbie Cornish is a revelation as Brawne, a smart, beautiful, independent woman in a time when it was very hard to be smart and independent. She falls in love with the ethereal Keats (Ben Whishaw) and it is a short, but intense romance. The movie is about love and loss, and about the ecstasies and miseries of loving. It is also about the constraints of silly societal rules about the honor and usefulness of women, and about poverty. The couple cannot be together because Keats doesn't have a pot to piss on, and in those days women were not supposed to work. Fanny is a gifted seamstress, rather a designer, but she can't do anything for herself with her gifts. She is unfortunately, a modern woman stuck in the 19th century.
The wonderful Kerry Fox plays Brawne's mother and everybody in the cast is excellent, except for the odd choice of Paul Schneider as Keats' best friend, Mr. Brown. Why ask a thoroughly modern American actor, who seems misplaced from California to trip himself with an Irish accent (or Scottish, hard to tell)? Aren't there Australian or British actors who could play the role? But that is a small nitpick on an incredibly beautiful, powerful film.
3. The Informant!
I think Matt Damon gives the performance of his life so far as Mark Whitacre, a bioengineer working for Archer Daniels Midland who decides to blow the whistle on the corrupt practices of his company. As whistleblower movies go, this one's a hoot. Turns out that the turncoat is a handful himself -- crazy as a loon and not exactly driven by the pursuit of justice. Damon creates a totally believable character, funny as hell, and eerily realistic as a person with a crazy head on his shoulders. He is astounding, and not only because he gained many pounds, but because he thoroughly inhabits this poor schmo. He deserves a nomination for this one. The movie is drily funny though it has a rich, broadwayesque score by Marvin Hamlisch, which overpowers the hilarity, as if Steven Soderbergh didn't have enough confidence in the dryness of his humor. I like that it is a satirical poke at the culture of hypocrisy and lying which is business as usual in our corporations and our politicians. A movie where the FBI is too credulous and touchy feely doesn't come around very often.