REVIEW: Invictus

10 01 2010

Now that the page has turned for the first decade of the new millennium, it can safely be said that Clint Eastwood was one of its definitive filmmakers. His final directorial venture of the era, “Invictus,” tops off a nearly immaculate resumé. While it doesn’t rank with “Mystic River” or “Changeling,” it is a moving portrait of a country caught at a very crucial stage in its history. Despite what the poster would have you believe, this is not a movie about Nelson Mandela, nor is it about the South African rugby team. It is about the triumph of virtue over hatred, and “Invictus” is a truly spirited and fascinating film because of this focus.

The film mostly follows Mandela (Morgan Freeman), starting from his first day as president of South Africa. He faced large racial divisions and dissent among his countrymen, and his decisions were crucial to bring the nation to unity. Rather than eradicate all vestiges of the hateful Apartheid era, he tries to use them as a rallying point, and this surprises and even alienates certain members of his staff. Included in this plan is the revitalization of the Springboks rugby team, the green and gold previously seen as an emblem of white supremacy, and the winning of the 1995 World Cup being held in South Africa. Mandela takes a particular interest in the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), a man who believes has the qualities necessary to lead a team to greatness. It’s an inspirational sports movie, so the math to get the final product isn’t hard. Despite the occasional narrative slowdown, Eastwood manages to keep us very absorbed in the story.

A large part of the movie is dedicated to the racial tension among Mandela’s security. Many detractors point this out as a flaw in the movie, but I found the subplot to be a very nice illustration of the themes Eastwood wished to highlight. The whites and the blacks in the detail initially butt heads, yet they find common ground in their desire to protect the man with the power to change the world. It is particularly rousing to see them playing rugby together towards the end of the movie, and little moments like these are what makes Eastwood’s value of the human spirit shine.

Morgan Freeman is remarkable as Mandela, and it is a performance that reminds us why he has such a revered status among actors. It’s tough to play someone who is as well-known as the ex-President, and he pulls it off with endearment. Freeman is always soft and gentle, but we never doubt that he means business. There is no stand-out powerhouse scene for him because Mandela kept his cool at all times, so it is only through slight but powerful shifts in tone that he communicates the feeling. Damon also projects his authority, although a little bit more sternly. No remnants are left of his blubber from the “The Informant!,” and we not only buy him as a rugby player but as a commanding presence on the field. The urgency with which he sets out to transform rugby into something more than just a game for his team is played with an ardent and admirable intensity. From corporate drone to triumphant athlete, 2009 has reminded us that Damon is one of the most versatile working actors, constantly working to improve his craft.

Eastwood handles the rugby fairly well, and he manages to make it compelling even though most Americans (including myself) had no idea what was happening. Although it may not be as exhilarating as watching a climactic football game, we see the significance of the game, which is what really matters. More importantly, we see the game as merely symbolic of the progress made by a country who sought to overcome hatred. “Invictus” is more than a history lesson, it is a depiction of two fine leaders using their example to brighten the future. A- /

REVIEW: District 9

18 08 2009

In life, we often fear the unknown; with movies, I embrace it.  I saw “District 9” on blind faith, not recognizing the director or actors and knowing virtually nothing about its plot (credit this to the subtle yet effective viral marketing for the film).  I also saw it in spite of the fact that Peter Jackson, who I consider vastly overrated, was giving it a major push.  The element of the unknown only adds to the suspense of “District 9,” which is fresh and exciting to watch unfold.

The less you know about the movie, the more you will enjoy it.  I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but it involves aliens being segregated in Johannesburg’s District 9 that evokes a powerful comparison to South Africa’s Apartheid era.  And Wikus (Sharlto Copley) works closely with the aliens’ situation but will soon get much closer and gain different insight into their presence.

The first half of “District 9” is sublime.  It has power on so many different levels and you will feel it hit you hard in your gut.  The originality and unpredictability is unlike any movie of its kind you have ever seen.  Unfortunately, its second act lapses into your common, banal action flick.  And it is such a shame because it isn’t your run-of-the-mill movie; it is a smart, inventive tale that takes a concept so surreal and makes it completely believable.  Neill Blomkamp’s masterful direction allows us to be so convinced by utilizing a unique narrative voice, but I wish he had stuck to his vision throughout the movie.  But the success of the movie should be equally attributed to star Sharlto Copley, who provides a tender portrayal of Wikus that really hits home.  The film’s visual effects are breathtaking, making the aliens scary and gross, but also allowing the audience to feel some compassion for them.  But what really sets it apart from the plethora of similar movies is its simplicity.  So many science fiction movies feature really elaborate and intricately woven plots, but “District 9” is straightfoward and doesn’t try to hide anything from you.  It lets one event and motivation drive the movie, eliminating a lot of unnecessary confusion and making it quite a bit easier to watch.  Other sci-fi movies that have executed a similar formula to great success are “Alien” and “The Terminator,” and “District 9,” although not a landmark like the aforementioned, is poised to take its rightful place as a classic in the genre.  A- / 3halfstars