PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Clint Eastwood, 2009, Warner Home Video
Clint Eastwood's Invictus is, like the William Ernest Henley poem (a favorite of Nelson Mandela) that supplies its title, old-fashioned but genuinely inspirational. Bringing to life an extraordinary true story that took place during Mandela's first year as president -- following the 1995 run for glory of the Springboks, South Africa's long-mediocre, mostly white national rugby team, that, backed and encouraged by Mandela, made an improbable charge to the finals of the world cup rugby championship series -- it's a magnificent true-sports and true-politics drama.
It is also a strong, wise and generous movie about national racial reconciliation, a story that cuts to the heart and gladdens the soul. Invictus was based by screenwriter Anthony Peckham on John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation and directed by Eastwood in yet another of his classy gallery of late-career directorial achievements. Starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela -- in a full-bodied, large-souled and spiritually transcendent performance -- it's a memorable portrayal of how competitive sports can unite a once-divided nation, lift the spirits of divergent peoples and purge the poisons of racism from a long-warring culture.
Eastwood's movie has the even temperament, calm skill and understated generosity that marks the director at his best. He and Freeman -- and Matt Damon, who portrays rugged, blocky Francois Pienaar, the South African Springboks rugby team player/manager whom Mandela enlists to unite the country's hostile or fearful citizenry -- don't approach the material with any clichéd uplift or knee-jerk politically correct point-making. Aided by Peckham's well-researched but sometimes properly imaginative script, they try to tell the story and paint the people -- as much as possible in this kind of movie -- as they were. They try to show, in John Ford's words, what really happened.
Morgan Freeman is one of the great contemporary movie actors, precisely because of the gifts he shows here: the ways he can so easily and un-showily slip into Mandela's skin (and his accent) and so fully convey the man's kind heart and understated but powerful charisma. Freeman gets the iconic aspects of Mandela, but even more, he captures the man's everyday humanity. He makes the political hero a lovable, breathing, giving, very reachable person -- a man who could very well incarnate the moral of "Invictus" and win over his erstwhile persecutors.
Eastwood's directorial style here is, as always, lean, crisp, and deliberately low-key and unemphatic -- backed up by his classic team of cinematographer Tom Stern, editor Joel Cox (and Gary Roach), and (a new addition, from Letters from Iwo Jima) production designer James J. Murakami.
We should be happy enough to get C.E. behind the camera again, somebody cool who can lay the tracks for Freeman's truly wonderful Nelson Mandela, in a stirring, inspirational-to-a-fare-thee-well sports saga. Freeman's Mandela and Eastwood's Invictus are a man and a movie bloody but unbowed.
The Messenger (A-)
U.S.; Oren Moverman, 2009, Oscilloscope Laboratories
Director-co-writer Oren Moverman's The Messenger is a powerful look at the Iraq war from the home front; every bit the sleeper it's touted to be. Moverman is a real discovery, good at scripting (here, with Allesandro Camon), good at visuals (he swallows many of his interiors in blackness, keeps the exteriors flat and cool), and especially good with actors.
The cast of The Messenger is tremendous. There are three superb performances here (and several more very fine ones), topped by Ben Foster as Will Montgomery, a somber Iraq hero and "Dear John" victim turned bad news-carrier for surviving families of dead soldiers. Just as strong is Woody Harrelson as cynical, tough, secretly vulnerable Capt. Tony Stone, Will's cuttingly irreverent scapegrace mentor. And so is Samantha Morton as the plain but radiant war widow Olivia. Also, Steve Buscemi has two terrific scenes as a maniacally bereaved father.
A taut, compassionate, eloquently spare look at the wreckage of war, this movie should not be missed by any connoisseur of American indies.
Apocalypse Now Redux
U.S.; Francis Coppola, 2001, Lionsgate
Once Apocalypse Now Redux was Apocalypse Now, Francis Coppola's and writer John Milius' grand, mad Vietnam War epic, inspired by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with Marlon Brando as genius-renegade Colonel Kurtz, who comes face to face with "The Horror! The Horror!" It was the troubled widescreen tale of how Kurtz is hunted, slated to be "terminated with extreme prejudice" by Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) and a boatload of Viet-era Fordian searchers that includes Albert Hall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms and young Larry Fishburne. Aiding them along the way and at its end were spaced-out war photographer Dennis Hopper and surfer-general Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a crazy golden warrior who "loves the smell of napalm in the morning." Released in 1979, toward the end of one of the great, experimental eras of American big studio moviemaking, it was the most ambitious, reckless, wildly creative production of that entire daring era.
Yet Coppola, whose shooting of the movie became an epic in itself (recounted in Fax Bahr's and George Hickenlooper's 1991 Hearts of Darkness), had more footage, lots of stuff that he didn't use in his 1979 release. And it wasn't because he thought that footage didn't belong. He was afraid, he says, to put in too much stuff (like Heaven's Gate a few years later) and also determined to emphasize the action adventure elements he sensed would save the day and make the publicity damaged "Apocalypse" a big hit. He was right.
But, with the 2001 Redux -- expanding the first release in 1979 from 153 minutes to 197, restoring numerous small scenes and moments, and returning a whole long French plantation sequence with Christian Marquand and Aurore Clement as temporary hosts to Willard and his crew, Coppola has made something grander, madder.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Emma/Shakespeare in Love/Proof (B)
U.S.-U.K.; Doug McGrath/John Madden, 1996, 1998, 2005, Miramax
From Miramax's heyday: Three good ones, highly literate and very well cast and acted, all starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
U.S.; Doug McGrath, 1996
A fair stab at Jane Austen, with Gwyneth, Jeremy Northam, Juliet Stevenson, Toni Collette, Greta Scacchi and Ewan McGregor.
Shakespeare in Love (A)
U.S.-U.K.; John Madden, 1998
Lusty tribute to Shakespeare, the theater and Elizabethan high times. It really works. With a great cast: Gwyneth, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Simon Callow, Ben Affleck, Imelda Staunton, Tom Wilkinson and H.R.H. Judi Dench.
U.S.; Madden, 2005
Gwyneth and Anthony Hopkins in an actors' showcase about a an insanity-plagued academic and his caring daughter, co-adapted by David Auburn and Rebecca Miller from his play. With Jake Gyllenhaal, Hope Davis and Roshan Seth.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Valentine's Day (D-)
U.S.; Garry Marshall, 2009, New Line
Valentine's Day is a prime example of the current sad state of big studio Hollywood romantic comedies.
It's a movie that throws two dozen cute, sexy big movie stars of various ages at us, including Jessica Biel, Jessica Alba, Ashton Kutcher, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Anne Hathaway, Queen Latifah, Bradley Cooper, Topher Grace, Julia Roberts, Emma Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Hector Elizondo, Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner -- all in tailor-made (or, in some cases, Taylor-made) roles -- and surrounds them with Valentine's Day icons and prime product placement opportunities in candy stores, sunny beaches, Hollywood cemeteries (with outdoor movies playing), chic stores and a flower shop where everyone runs in and out and hither and yon. Then it scrambles them all up in a Crash-like mish-mash of budding love, ruined engagements, deflowering, secret infidelities, wallflower blossoming, last-minute chases to the airport, heartfelt confessions, pesky triangles and romantic misunderstanding.
Actually, the whole movie seemed to me like a romantic misunderstanding. And a comedy misunderstanding too -- even though director Garry Marshall has spent his entire career, bringing us both or either -- and occasionally hitting the jackpot, as in "Pretty Woman." This movie might better be subtitled "Pretty Women and Pretty Men in a Pretty City" -- though, truth to tell, Marshall, cinematographer Charles Minsky and production designer Albert Brenner (maybe by design) don't give us a very sexy Los Angeles. The whole movie looks a little smoggy, shaggy and underdressed.
Extraordinary Measures (B-)
U. S.; Tom Vaughan, 2010, Sony
Nothing can break your heart like the spectacle of a loved one with a seemingly incurable disease; few can elevate it like a true story of disease defeated, a life saved, a doom deferred. Witness the stirring medical drama Lorenzo's Oil, with Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon as the determined parents fighting to keep their son from the ravages of adrenoleukodystrophy.
But Extraordinary Measures -- based on the real-life story of a father battling to save his two young children, both afflicted with the incurable, degenerative, fatal Pompe disease, and caught in the cul-de-sacs of the U.S. medical and pharmaceutical establishment and its business protocols -- muffs the opportunity.
As you watch, your heart goes out to the dramatized father here, John Crowley (played with all due earnestness and sincerity by Brendan Fraser). Crowley was a Bristol-Myers Squibb marketing executive, a desperate guy who, trying to save daughter Megan (Meredith Droeger) and son Patrick (Diego Velazquez) from a disease that usually kills victims in childhood, leaves his well-paid job to start up his own tiny pharmaceutical company with an eccentric but brilliant research scientist who may have unlocked the path to a cure. His partner: the fictionalized Dr. Bob Stonehill (played with obvious dedication by the movie's executive producer, Harrison Ford).
It's hard not to root for them, as Crowley performs arduous feats of fund-raising and business-building to get the company going, all the while clashing with the irascible Dr. Stonehill, a surly Nebraska genius who hates all establishment types, picks fights with all his bosses, and likes to work with tapes of the Band and the Grateful Dead blasting from his sound system.
But Extraordinary Measures doesn't yield extraordinary results, or even really measure up. Ford's character -- who was concocted to replace the real-life researcher, Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen -- is a little too much of a knee-jerk big-movie hothead. And though Fraser and Ford play their roles with what seems like impassioned commitment, neither rings totally true. (The real-life Crowley has a cameo, as, according to the credits, "Renzer Venture Capitalist 2.")
People who buck the system and triumph despite it, like Crowley (and even fictional composites like Dr. Bob), should be celebrated. But it takes extraordinary dedication and craft to make something like Extraordinary Measures, and make it right. Better luck next time. (Extras: featurettes; interviews; deleted scenes.)
The Spy Next Door (D)
U.S.; Brian Levant, 2010, Lionsgate
55-year-old Jackie Chan is still limber and seemingly stunt-ready. But, at least by the evidence of this stinker of an action family-comedy, he has trouble picking screenplays. The Spy Next Door, very loudly misdirected by Brian Levant, casts him as Bob Ho (Don Ho's cousin?), a karate-happy, gadget-and-weapon-laden retiring CIA troubleshooter, disguised as a mild-mannered pen salesman, to the disgust of two of the three children of Gillian (Amber Valletta), the lady next door whom Ho is trying to woo.
When Gillian leaves for a while, it's Ho's big chance to ingratiate himself with all the kids, a goal sabotaged by his mild manners and also by his amazing ineptitude at household chores. (Couldn't he hire a maid?) And the "Ho-ho-ho-with-Bob-Ho" campaign is also complicated by a Russian plot involving Magnus Scheving, Katherine Boecher, Billy Ray Cyrus and George Lopez -- who look and act less like spies and spooks than, say, some new temp judges on American Idol. Soon, everything you could have predicted is happening -- but not the way you'd want to see it. This movie's end-credits blooper reel is better than the whole picture.
U.S.; Howard McCain, 2010, Vivendi Entertainment
Outlander, a really outlandish movie, takes us deep into the somber Scandinavian forests and rivers of the Age of Iron -- and of the iron-man Vikings. There, accompanied by the eerie sound of exploding clichés, a UFO crashes into a lake, disgorging two alien beings: James Caviezel as the oddly human-looking Kainan, and the Moorwen, an awful blood-crazed dragon-like beast that will soon be wreaking havoc all around the countryside.
Eventually, the monster and Kainan, who learns Old Norse miraculously fast with a Rosetta Stone-ish device he claps on his ear, will have the local Vikings longing for the days when the only things they had to worry about were an occasional massacre, loose ax-blades, snails in the mead and crowd safety at Viking funerals.
Outlander is a visually spectacular but dramatically cheesy sci-fi gorefest with a surprisingly good cast -- headed by Caviezel, Sophia Myles, John Hurt and Ron Perlman -- trapped in an oddball story that dubiously tries to mix up The War of the Worlds-style alien invasion shockers with heroic literary sagas like the Icelandic and Norse epics, and Beowulf.
Aaargh! Raaaargh! What a concept! Monsters from outer space vs. lusty Viking warriors! Fire-breathing extraterrestrials attack carousing, battle-hardened, mead-quaffing sword-slingers! Predator vs. The Vikings! The fort burns up! Wenches scream! Adorable kids hide! Brave Kainan (Caviezel) flirts with feisty wench-princess Freya (Miles), while fighting the blazing outer space marauder, with the aid of hot-tempered Wulfric (Jack Huston, grandson of John), reckless Gunnar (Perlman) and wise old Rothgar (John Hurt, for God's sake).
Isn't that the kind of picture you've been dying to see? Probably only in a moviemaking world where marketing hooks can be more important than scripts, would we end up with something like this.
The Man in the Iron Mask (B)
U.S.; Randall Wallace, 1998, MGM
Leonardo DiCaprio swashbuckles it up, as the twin kings (one evil and enthroned, one masked and imprisoned) in one of the better Dumas-derived movies. With Jeremy Irons, Gerard Depardieu, John Malkovich and Gabriel Byrne as the Three (make that Four) Musketeers, plus Anne Parillaud, Hugh Laurie and Peter Sarsgaard.
Hang 'Em High (B)
U.S.; Ted Post, 1968 (MGM)
Clint Eastwood in a kind of Creamettes Western: his first American big-star, big-time Wild West saga, after his Sergio Leone spaghetti success -- and a good one. They try to hang him. They fail. Bad move. With a dynamite cast: Ed Begley, Pat Hingle, Inger Stevens, Bruce Dern, Ben Johnson, Charles McGraw, Ruth White and that great rebel Dennis Hopper.