A blowhard’s beautiful game

Image of Nigel Andrews

The Damned United (Tom Hooper)
Tyson (James Toback)
Two Lovers (James Gray)
Genova (Michael Winterbottom)
Knowing (Alex Proyas)
Afghan Star (Havana Marking)

How we love our sporting monsters. Brian Clough, glorious of memory, was a blowhard soccer manager, big of heart and mouth, who transformed two English teams (Derby County and Nottingham Forest) from zeroes into heroes – incredibly pushing Forest to two European Cup victories – with a calamitous entr’acte in which he sent football’s highest fliers (Leeds United) into a fatal tailspin.

Clough was a split personality who never did things by halves. David Peace’s The Damned United, the source novel for Peter (Frost/Nixon) Morgan’s screenplay, was a blistering, expletive-fuelled rant by a Clough imagined as a self-destructive blend of doer and un-doer. Morgan, scanning the book and deciding (perhaps shrewdly) to lighten it up, has fashioned for Michael Sheen (pictured above), the actor formerly known as Tony Blair and David Frost, his best comic role yet.

This Clough is a sirocco of smarm, sarcasm and saviourship. Some of the one-liners are Clough’s own: “I wouldn’t say I’m the best manager, but I’m in the top one.” Others are Morgan specials, such as the northerner’s appalled response to a Brighton trip – “Look where we are, we’re almost in France” – when the Derby-sacked Clough visits a south-coast team wooing him and his assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall).

Was Taylor integral to Clough’s success? Was he Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza? Together at Derby and Forest, the two men were apart at Leeds and Brighton: draw your conclusion. The film sees them as destiny’s buddies, Sheen’s Clough filling the heavens with hot air while Taylor, signing players and shaping grass-roots strategy, tended the terra firma.

The film purls along as a double act. Unfortunately, it takes a purler whenever its 1960s/70s football landscape is populated with more than two or three people. The Leeds United team, in particular, look like a bunch of 10-ton Tessas who have been to a wig sale. In compensation, Colm Meaney is a scary lookalike for Don Revie, the pre-Clough Leeds manager who personified the hard-nosed, unlovely, grinding professionalism to which Clough – for a few mad, fabulous years – was an antidote.

The subject of James Toback’s documentary Tyson is a raging bull who comes on, at times, like a lisping pussy cat. Is this a metamorphosis or a masquerade? Has the ex-champion boxer changed or is he putting on airs for posterity? Mike Tyson, we remember, was the man who spent three years in prison for rape, who bit a piece from an opponent’s ear in a prize bout, who bit another piece from the same ear later in the same fight...

Toback was born to film him, with or without – or rather with and without – the façade of gentility. The director/screenwriter who conceived The Gambler, Fingers and Bugsy loves divided characters. This Tyson is a man with plural personalities, now Jekyll, now Hyde, now the chastened soul of underdog America, now the fist-happy supremacist whose job is to give everyone a bloody nose. The ex-bruiser’s stream of consciousness babbles one moment over impeding rocks (childhood memories, unresolved hates), swells the next with unexpected tears. In split-screen sequences the multiple angles and overlapping Tyson voices are like a dialogue from one man’s inferno. The huis clos that Sartre overlooked: Hell is oneself, seeming to be other people.

It would be foolish to hyperbolise Tyson’s complexity, to see him as a Rodin thinker hulked in eternal, conflicted introspection. This man spent 20 years slamming people’s faces into the ground. But, like Raging Bull, like On the Waterfront, even like Woyzeck (the granddaddy of lumpenprole tragic drama), Toback’s portrait asks us to ransack the human animal to see if there is a soul inside – and if so, of precisely what kind?

Who said “Crime doesn’t pay”? Whoever it was, give him a cigar. In Two Lovers filmmaker James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night) finally junks his penchant for mayhem-and-murder plots, allowing us to sit forward, safe from bullets, to watch two ill-starred lovers try to enact the kind of smash and grab – smashing emotional defences, grabbing hearts – with which we can all identify. Suicidal Joaquin Phoenix, fished from a river, falls for self-destructive party girl Gwyneth Paltrow (pictured with Phoenix). He is Jewish, she gentile. He takes manic depression pills, she takes Es. The consequences are distraught but compelling.

The New York tenements, with their bickering, flickering flames of togetherness (Isabella Rossellini as Phoenix’s possessive mum), are just right. Perhaps Gray is over-keen to cut to the emotional chase, leaving the back-stories light on detail. Phoenix is bipolar: where are the signs? Paltrow is a hophead: how did she become one? But good acting transcends motivational lesions. Before Phoenix, especially, and his raw, real, fumbling neediness we simply say “Yes, we believe”.

Join up the dots in Michael Winterbottom’s new film and you get the outline of a shaggy dog. But if Genova meanders, it has an ensorcelling, even zodiacal charm. Britain’s most unguessable director (Jude, A Cock and Bull Story, Road to Guantánamo) flings a luminous theme-and-variations on Don’t Look Now – that Venice-set tale of a bereavement-haunted family – against a different Italian backdrop. Genoa is the new home for Colin Firth (right) and his two daughters, numbed by the death of wife/mother Hope Davis in a car crash. Older daughter Kelly (Willa Holland) is solaced by the stirrings of first love, or first sex. Younger Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine), guilty at the part she may have played in the crash, enlists the help of Genoa’s time-warped alleys in outwitting her nightmares. Dad juggles a teaching job with the demands of gently repudiating an expat US friend (Catherine Keener) ready to move in on his heart.

Nothing exactly “happens”. There are fleeting disappearances, enigmatic scares, perhaps a ghost. The lines of family connection fizzle, sporadically, like a faulty telephone cable. This is a tale of skewed certainties, imaged in the archaic labyrinths of a skewed city. The climax is masterly – a spaghetti montage of frustrated trysts and converging dangers in a busy city centre – not least because even this scene cheats us of absolute finality. For isn’t the greatest paradox of death, or its greatest consolation, that it always prompts the remark “Life goes on”?

Knowing is written in the stars more literally. Nicolas Cage (pictured), another widowered boffin with child-rearing issues, fishes from his daughter’s hand a 50-year-old sheet of paper scribbled with rows of numbers. Where did it come from? Is it from space? Might it be used to predict the end of the world? Director Alex Proyas (I, Robot) bounces us between front-of-curtain disasters – crashing plane, derailed subway train – while the real stage is being set for Armageddon. Shot in Australia, the US settings sometimes look theoretical rather than actual, not least Cage’s backwoods-Gothic home (Norman Rockwell out of the Addams Family). But the slam-bang set pieces deliver. So, with his spooked features and breathy-orotund voice, does Cage.

The sleeper of the week – or more the wake-up call – is Afghan Star. Havana Marking’s uproarious, awareness-raising documentary tells us more about the title country than a month of newscasts. A Kabul television channel transmitting Afghanistan’s version of Pop Idol has, apparently, electrified the nation. One third of Afghans, huddled over screens in houses, bars, hovels, watched the final of the first series.

The show defies Taliban mission creep in the south (lobbing maledictions at the Kandahar contenders), braves death threats in the west (a Herat girl who dares to dance as well as sing) and generally boxes the compass in bringing freedom to a country shivering in its legacy of intolerance. It should be compulsory viewing for every liberty-lover and indeed liberty-hater. The latter might learn that music, in one boy’s sweet and simple words, “stops people from being sad”.

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