Invictus

December 15, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Sports movies are always going to be a hard thing to pull off. While we love sports, and we love sports stories, a movie about sports takes away probably the best part of sports–the unpredictability. In a film, the fate has been determined. Besides, in most sports stories, you know that the team usually wins–unless that’s not the point. If it’s a movie about a bunch of losers, they will end up winning the big game. If it’s a movie about people coming together, the team can lose the big game and it’s OK. In a film like “Remember the Titans”, you get both scenarios and it carefully balances two stories of a football team coming together, and race relations coming together in a volatile time in this country.

“Invictus” is similar in its approach. It takes place after the apartheid is over in South Africa, and Nelson Mandella (played by Morgan Freeman) has been elected president. Meanwhile, the other central character of the film, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), is the captain of a very bad national rugby team, known as The Springboks. Mandella attends a game, and watches them get brutally outplayed by England; the blacks in the crowd root for England, while the whites root for the Springboks. He notices that the strain of the culture is still very apparent, and he wants to do something about it. It so happens that South Africa will host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, so Mandella mandates to Francois that the Springboks must win the World Cup, in order to bring the country together.

The problem is, half the country abhors the Springboks and everything they stand for. There is a meeting by the Sports Board that wants to get rid of the Springboks name and colors (green & gold), as they represent the apartheid, and the Afrikaans. Mandella tells them to forgive, and that changing the name and colors only makes this about revenge and not forgiveness.

Mandella does not have a lot of support at first. His security is also blended with whites, to the dismay of the blacks who are protecting him. There is no question the film tries to display the intolerance in the country. Meanwhile, the Springboks have gotten a new coach who wants to train them harder, and the team doesn’t agree with these new practices, and thinks that there’s too much pressure put on them. Francois wants them to rise to the occasion.

All of this is a great premise, and the film starts with a lot of promise. The problem, though, is that it never seems to come together. It does illustrate the tensions that the country still has with itself, and it even shows the rugby team improve as most sports movies will display as they get closer to the big game. But it just seems like Clint Eastwood, normally so well at developing characters and atmosphere, is just throwing things onto a canvas and hoping it all sticks. Some if it does, but not enough for it to resonate. I never felt a part of this film. I felt like an outsider, and that’s not how I felt when I watched “Remember the Titans”. I think I know why.

Mandella, in the film, as a character, has no real flaws. Denzel Washington’s character in “Remember the Titans” had things in his own life that provided challenges. Mandella doesn’t have full support, but no one necessarily opposes what he does. His doctor tells him to rest, but nothing really happens when he disobeys. Mandella was a great man at that time, but I’m sure he had his flaws. I think the movie shows him to be too much as a saint. And if he’s your main character, it just doesn’t work. The other central character, Francois, also has no visible flaws. And we don’t get enough “locker room” insight to watch the chemistry of this team grow, and watch them come together to become a greater team. That has to happen in a sports movie.

So that’s primarily the issue. The film doesn’t really have a focus. It does a good job with certain images of what post-apartheid life was like in South Africa. There’s also a very poignant scene in which Francois tours the prison that Mandella spent 27 years of his life in, and envisions Mandella in that cell, and working in the yard, while Mandella recites “Invictus” in his head. But overall, the film just misses and doesn’t bring it all together.

There are a few other issues I had. First, it’s the sport itself. I don’t really understand rugby. This is not a country that really embraces it as a major sport. The scenes displaying the game seem to capture what the game is–but I don’t really know what they’re doing. In that regard, it’s hard to follow whether you’re supposed to get really excited, or really tense. How does the point system work? Or the time? It seems to use a time scheme much like soccer (which I do follow) but the overtime rules went over my head. Also, I still don’t understand the scrum part of the game, and that becomes essential in the climax of the film. I was lost. I think the film could have done us a favor and give us a few scenes of strategy and play that showed exactly how the game worked, from soup to nuts (did I just use corporate speak?).

The other issue is smaller but it really bothered me. The music. Well, not so much the score–that was beautiful. It was the really cheesy songs that just took away from the drama. Usually that doesn’t bother me, but this was not background music. It was distracting, and I thought it just took me out of the mood of the film.

On the bright side, the performances by Freeman and Damon are exceptional. Damon pulls of a South African accent which is probably one of the more difficult ones to pull off. I give him credit for that. Freeman, as usual, is excellent as Mandella.

It’s a bit of a disappointment that this film didn’t hold together as well as I had hoped. Unlike “Remember the Titans”, which just executed better because it stuck to a theme and stuck to its characters and showed them to be human beings as well as heroes, this film comes up short. I can’t believe I’m giving more credit to a Disney movie than a Clint Eastwood film. I never thought that day would come. But I guess anything’s possible.

My rating: :???:

District 9

August 17, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

It’s relieving to know that there are people in Hollywood like Peter Jackson that have some power now. I’ve always believed in the guy, going back to his “Beautiful Creatures” days. I saw “Meet the Feebles” after he had made it bigger (possibly because it wasn’t in DVD rotation until he started making some money) but he’s always had a passion for fantasy, sci-fi, and imaginative storylines. All you have to do is watch one of his films and you’ll know that within the first 10 minutes.

He and his production company put up pretty much all the money for this film directed and co-written by 29 year old Neill Blomkamp, which is about an alien spacecraft that “crash” lands in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the alien occupants become “citizens” of a quarantined area called “District 9?. Pretty much every implication of racism, apartheid, worth of life, and intolerance is explored throughout the narrative and it winds up a fairly clever, fun, and darkly comic fable that–while violent and at times very vulgar, is also charming.

The film’s first twenty-five or so minutes is a bit jarring, in that it flings different POV’s at you at random times, trying to give you an up-to-date idea of what’s going on in “District 9? through a series of interviews and documentary footage. The footage includes talks with Wikus van der Merwe, who eventually is identified as the “hero” of the film, or at least the main character. Wikus is introduced to us as somewhat of a “Company Man”, who is promoted to the head of a group of people to move the aliens out of “District 9? since the human occupants have had enough of them.

A little bit of info on the aliens themselves: they’re creatures that have insect-like qualities, and are extremely ugly. They’re referred to as “prawns”, a derogatory term because they resemble the underwater creatures themselves. There are gangs of these creatures, and they’ve overflowed the city of Johannesburg to the point where they are “sectioned off” and only allowed in certain areas. What does this remind us of? Of course, this is the main theme the film plays with, and it does so fairly well, even if it is a bit obvious.

No one wants these creatures around, and so this group of people have to attempt to get them out of “District 9?–but it’s not so easy, as Wikus learns quickly. Wikus is also married to the daughter of a powerful government official, who was in charge of promoting Wikus to his new position–but he has very little confidence in him, and doesn’t like him. It’s kind of obvious why–he’s an alpha male, and Wikus is a bit spineless. He doesn’t want a violent attack on the creatures while they evict them, but in the course of trying to evict one family, he is exposed to a black liquid that eventually begins to altar his body.

Wikus soon finds that he is becoming one of the creatures. He doesn’t want this to get out, but it eventually does, and he becomes a potential victim of science until he breaks out, and lives as a fugitive in “District 9?. Other things that are going on in District 9 include a group of rogue Nigerians who are buying and collecting the alien weaponry found on the spacecraft–the drawback is that no human can operate it. The Nigerians believe they can use witchcraft and “eat” parts of the aliens to get the power to use it, but to no avail. When Wikus shows up and his ailment is discovered, the Nigerians want him too–well, at least–they want his arm.

Wikus befriends a prawn that he earlier had to evict, and learns that he and his son have hatched a plan to get the spacecraft working again, and go back to their home planet. Wikus also learns that they can cure him and get him to be human again. Once the government learns his whereabouts, and the Nigerians as well, all hell breaks loose and this is where the film turns from an intellectual sci-fi film into balls out action packed shoot-em-up.

To be honest, this didn’t bother me. Much in the way that “Sunshine” devolved into a “slasher film”, the third act didn’t betray the original plot and theme and therefore, I didn’t have a problem with it becoming more of a visual experience rather than a cerebral one. Plus, it is just really cool to see the alien weaponry actually used. If you’re going to set it up, you have to pay it off, and it’s paid off very well.

In fact, the whole movie looks good. This is a credit to the fact that Jackson put up the money–this could’ve been a failed low budget sci-fi film that looked silly; or, it could’ve been a script that sat on a shelf for decades before being picked up by Michael Bay and turned into Transformers 3. Instead, this is a smart film that while it loses itself a bit in action packed violence, never loses itself to the point where you forget how important the theme is in the first place.

This is a movie about tolerance, and it’s executed well enough to be given praise. It deserves a chance to be seen, and I think if you have the right mindset, it may even open your eyes to some of the same problems we face in the real world. Even though these prawns are creatures, in some ways they’re no different than you or I. It promotes the idea of unity rather than segregation; only in this narrative it may be too late for that to happen. There’s been criticism that this film shows Nigerians in a negative light, and that it cheapens the angle of the Apartheid. I think because it’s science fiction, you have to look at it in a more symbolic sense rather than a literal one. As far as vilifying, it depends on how you look at it. I think the entire film gives enough credit to characters where it’s due, and only a few of the “villains” are cartoonish–and the most vile isn’t a Nigerian. Though the film does become more action packed, the film’s climax also leaves ambiguity; but its final scene is incredibly touching.

It’s probably the best movie the summer has to offer, and I have a feeling it will be passed over because of its complexity. But if you’re willing to give it a chance, it delivers.

My rating: :smile: