CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG: Review of Invictus

Invictus is well meaning and sincere, directed and written by people who have no trouble wearing their hearts on their sleeves. The L.A. Times here compared it to such classic biopics as The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola. I agree whole heartedly with the Times, but the problem I had is that the Times considered the comparison a compliment; I’m not so sure. All those films (what I and Jerry, my best friend in Chicago, call a typical Warner Brother’s biopic) are well done, often entertaining, with some great acting, as is Invictus. At the same time, they never really rise above what they are and there’s something a bit safe and stodgy about them as well. By the time this story of Nelson Mandela’s attempts to bring unity to South Africa by championing a rugby team came to an end (a sport only supported by the minority whites while Mandela was imprisoned by aforesaid whites), the only real impact I was left with were the incredible rugby scenes, a series of grueling, cruel gladiatorial matches. Where the rest of the movie got the job done, these scenes went for the juggler and succeeded. Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela. It use to be James Earl Jones who always played God; somewhere along the way when people weren’t looking, the divine torch got passed to Freeman as if they were running for the Olympic Committee. Morgan’s good and one can feel just how tired and weary this man is. Matt Damon as the captain of the rugby team does very well with his South African accent, a distancing effect that seems to help him give one of his better performances. The screenplay by Anthony Peckham (who also penned the new Sherlock Holmes movie) covers all the bases and is a solid enough journeymen script. The direction by Clint Eastwood is the same. All in all, I recommend highly a movie on the same subject that did not get all the hoopla Invictus did: Endgame, a film first shown on BBC Contemporary and then was released to the movie theaters. It’s less ambitious in scope, but more successful in what it tried to do.

THERE’LL ALWAYS BE AN ENGLAND: Reviews of Endgame, The Damned United and Pirate Radio

I first saw Endgame on Masterpiece Theatre Contemporary and was then surprised to see it turn up at a movie theater near you, though it’s certainly good enough to play there. The basic set up is quite fascinating: it’s the 1980’s and apartheid is still in full swing in South Africa. This means that businesses, especially those run by other countries, aren’t doing well due to the country being unsettled (you know, riots, strikes, unrest, those sorts of annoying things). Into the midst of this steps one of those mid-level bureaucrats that England seems to be fascinated with as of late (see Children of Earth, District 9, In the Loop), this time played by Johnny Lee Miller, who works for a major mining company. He has a possible, though decidedly out of the box, solution for his company’s troubles: end apartheid. Who’d a thunk it? The company goes along with him and he sets up secret (or so he thinks) meetings in England between leaders of anti-apartheid groups (most notably one played by Chiwetel Ejiofer) and sympathetic white minority liberals (most notably one played by William Hurt). Meanwhile, President Botha tries to sabotage everything by manipulating imprisoned Nelson Mandella, who won’t be manipulated. It’s a crackerjack piece of historical entertainment excellently written, as only the English often can, by Paula Milne. Though the acting is first rate across the board, perhaps Johnny Lee Miller is the most impressive. Normally this actor radiates an incredible tension and intensity that can make one uncomfortable; here he plays a character that is suppose to blend into the background and he does it by…blending into the background.

The Damned United is a sports movie about a person who has to lose before he can win. The moral of the story is painfully formulaic and insultingly obvious—the execution is anything but. Michael Sheen is again the lead in a movie written by Peter Morgan (they also worked together on The Queen, Frost/Nixon and the Deal—why don’t they get married already). He plays Brian Clough, a soccer (excuse me, football) coach who eventually lead England to two world victories. One would think that would be what the film was about. It’s not. It’s about how Clough had to humiliate himself and lose again and again in order to become a better person so that he could eventually lead England to two world victories. Clough’s downfall before victory begins years earlier with a slight by fellow coach Don Revie, played by Colm Meany, who refuses to have a post game drink with him and cuts him upon entering a stadium. Of such slights are great dramas built. Clough eventually becomes such a great coach he is offered to take over Revie’s first ranked team—and then Clough proceeds to alienate everyone he knows and lose game after game after game. When he comes to accept what a mess he’s made of his life and agrees to get down on his knees and beg forgiveness from Timothy Spall, who plays his assistant, he is forgiven by one and all and eventually works his way back up the ladder (but only in an epilogue printed on the screen at the end). The acting is first rate (keep a look out for Stephen Graham who played Baby Face Nelson in Public Enemies), the story fascinating, the script tight and to the point. Those who aren’t into sports movies, you will be relieved to know you actually see very little football played.

Pirate Radio is a great idea that never really comes together. It’s also based on a true incident (can’t English filmmakers come up with fictional stories anymore). It’s the 1960’s and rock and roll is banned from English radio. So a group of D.J.’s take up residence on a ship in the Atlantic and broadcast from there. Though the script was written by the normally enjoyable Richard Curtis (who also directed and previously wrote and directed Love, Actually), this one only works in fits and starts. It’s not always easy to say why. It might have helped if the story had more cleanly focused on the central character, James (played by Charlie Rowe, who also played Annette Bening’s son in Being Julia where he, well, his character, also lost his virginity as he does here), a teenager sent to live on the ship with his godfather (whom he’s never met) played by Bill Nighy. It’s through James’s eyes that the audience is suppose to experience the story, but this through line is a bit wobbly, made more so every time the story cuts to the government trying to put a stop to these off shore shenanigans. While Charlie’s story is done in a more realistic, though still somewhat stylized style, this second part of the movie has characters played (rather well) by Kenneth Branagh and Jack Davenport (this movie’s mid-level bureaucrat) in a contrasting upper class twit as seen on Monty Python style and feels more distracting than central to the story. In addition, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, one of our finest actors, seems out of place amongst all these Englishmen; again his acting style seems so different than the slightly caricatured actors around him, that the whole thing just gets more wobbly (it might also be that he really doesn’t have that much to do or a real reason for being in the story). Only Bill Nighy, who has the most imaginative line readings of almost anyone working today, rises above the material. The story ends with both a parody of Titanic and Dunkirk; possibly good ideas, though they don’t quite work either. I’m sure the whole thing seemed like a good idea at the time, but it just doesn’t really make it.