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Last Chance: The Damned United and Trucker

Strong Performances Featured in Two Films

Dealing with two film festivals as well as the usual press screenings plus a load of Asian DVDs purchased at the San Diego Asian Film Festival has put me woefully behind and I apologize. But I wanted to highlight two films that you still have a chance to catch tonight: “The Damned United” (opened October 16 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas) and “Trucker” (opened October 16 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters).

“The Damned United” is about British football. Now for some people that’s a passion and no further description of the film is needed to pull them into a theater. But if soccer (as we refer to the sport here in the U.S.) holds no interest for you, don’t dismiss the film yet because it’s also a fascinating character study with another stellar performance by Michael Sheen (who has already played David Frost and Tony Blair on screen). This time around, Sheen plays another real life British figure – football coach Brian Clough.

"The Damned United"

Sony Pictures Classics

Above: "The Damned United"

A film about England’s Leeds United team would be akin to making a film in the U.S. about a popular team like the Cowboys or Packers. So to the English, a lot of the material and the outcome of the story may be familiar but to most U.S. audiences the film will play out as an unfamiliar tale. But this is a film that uses football as a backdrop for a story about ambition, rivalry, success, failure, and friendship.

The film again pairs actor Michael Sheen with writer Peter Morgan. The two have successfully collaborated on the feature films “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon,” and on the British TV movie “The Deal.” Morgan provides sharp, intelligent scripts that tend to focus on the dynamics of a prickly relationship or rivalry. So it was the Queen and Tony Blair, David Frost and former President Nixon, and in “The Deal” it was Blair again but this time playing off of political rival Gordon Brown. In “The Damned United,” Sheen plays Clough, a young, cocky coach who thinks he can follow veteran coach Don Revie (Colm Meaney) in managing Leeds United. But the new young coach can’t fight off the specter of the old better-liked coach.

The film’s structure plays two key time periods in Clough’s life against each other. The film opens in 1974 as he takes charge of Leeds United, one of England’s top teams and one poised for possible dynasty. Then it cuts back to the late 60s as Clough is struggling to bring up a lower division team from Derby County. As the film cuts back and forth in time, a portrait of Clough’s coaching skills and his personality develop.

Director Tom Hooper and writer Morgan create some riveting moments, especially in a pair of recreated TV interviews, one that Clough has with Revie sitting right next to him. Hooper avoids most of the clichés of sports movies. There’s very little on the field action so you really don’t need to know much about the sport to appreciate the film or what’s happening. For one game, Hooper shows Clough’s passionate pre-game pep talk and then cuts to a shot of Clough about to enter the field and the humiliating score from the game comes up on screen. We see nothing of the actual game. At another point, we are stuck in a room and all we hear are the sounds of the game outside and the roar of the crowd at each goal – but we don’t know who has scored. This atypical approach to the sport in the film pushes our attention instead to the characters.

Sheen gives a brilliant performance as a man who is intelligent, petty, passionate, charismatic, and arrogant. He’s a fascinating mix and Sheen keeps him complex and makes no apologies for any of his flaws. As his coaching partner Peter Taylor, Timothy Spall is equally good, complementing Sheen’s cockiness and bravura with patience and practicality. Colm Meaney as veteran coach Don Revie doesn’t have a lot of screen time but he establishes a formidable presence from his first scene.

I don’t know enough about British football to determine how accurate a portrait of Clough and his stint as Leeds United coach this film offers. The film is based on David Peace’s book that the author admitted was a mix of fact and fiction about what was going on behind the scenes at Leeds United. But regardless of how much fictionalization has occurred, the film proves entertaining and compelling with Clough as a colorful character.

"Trucker"

Monterey Media

Above: "Trucker"

A less colorful character but an equally compelling performance is at the center of the film “Trucker.” It should come as no surprise that actress Michelle Monaghan serve as one of the producers on the film. Like actresses Reese Witherspoon and Charlize Theron, Monaghan seems to have come to the realization that if she wants a really meaty part, Hollywood is unlikely to give it to her – she’ll have to find it for herself and see it through to completion.

In “Trucker,” Monaghan plays Diane, a woman who years ago left her infant son and husband to pursue a life of her own choosing as an independent truck driver. But now her ex (Benjamin Bratt) has cancer and his new wife (Joey Lauren Adams) is dealing with the passing of her own father and suddenly Diane’s son Peter (Jimmy Bennett) is in need of looking after. This forces Diane to confront her past and her past decisions in a way she’s not quite ready to do.

“Trucker” is not a well-written film. It relies on contrivance and melodrama. I mean really cancer and parental death, and then throw in the complications of an affair with a married man and a sexual assault, and well it piles on the overblown emotions. But what keeps the film centered is Monaghan’s performance. She allows Diane to be flawed, complex, vulnerable, and simply uncertain about where she wants her life to go. Although Diane is not a confident person, Monaghan’s performance is a confident one that keeps the character thoroughly believable even when the script isn’t.

First time feature director and writer James Mottern displays more skill as a director than writer. He directs the film in a straightforward manner without any flashy stylistic gimmicks. He’s smart enough to know that his best asset is Monaghan’s performance so he just steps back and lets her shine.

“Trucker” is rated R for some sexuality, language, brief drug use involving minors, and a sexual assault. “The Damned United” is rated R for language.

Companion viewing for “The Damned United:” “The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Miracle”

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