Invictus


Invictus

Matt Damon doesn't want anyone to know he's really checking out that All-Black player's ass.

(Warner Brothers) Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Julian Lewis Jones, Adjoa Andoh, Marguerite Wheatley, Leleti Khumalo, Patrick Lyster, Penny Downie, McNiel Hendricks, Louis Minaar, Zak Feaunati. Directed by Clint Eastwood

History has a habit of landing turning points in the most unlikely of moments. Years of apartheid in South Africa led to a mistrust and even hatred between the white Afrikaners and native Africans of South Africa once apartheid was dismantled in 1990. Uniting the two separate nations into one would be the task of newly-elected President Nelson Mandela and it wouldn’t be an easy one. Still, who knew that it would all hinge on the outcome of a rugby match?

One of the symbols of apartheid had been the national rugby team, also known as the Springboks. Their symbol of a leaping Springbok (a kind of horned gazelle) and their colors of green and gold were anathema to many South African blacks. Nelson Mandela (Freeman) himself proclaimed that while incarcerated that he and his fellow prisoners would root for “anybody who played against the Springboks” as they were so cherished by the Afrikaners and it would upset his jailers. His fellow oppressed Africans felt much the same.

Times had changed significantly however; apartheid was a thing of the past and Mandela was the newly-elected president of South Africa. Rugby, considered a sport of the whites, is now overseen by the South African Sport Council which is ready to retire the Springbok and change the symbol and colors of the team to the Protean, a South African flower. The new president is against this change, much to the chagrin of his loyal chief of staff Brenda (Andoh). He intuitively – and correctly – understands that abolishing the Springboks would be the kind of thing that would feed the fear of the white Afrikaners who felt their nation was being taken away from them. If there was any hope of reconciliation and unification between both sides, the Springboks would have to be a part of it.

To that end Mandela decided to meet with Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Damon) over tea. While it is explicitly unsaid, the meaning is clear enough; winning the Rugby World Cup, to be hosted by South Africa in 1995, would go a long way towards unifying all South Africans together as one nation.

Pienaar buys in. His parents (Minaar and Downie) are somewhat skeptical, as his girlfriend Nerine (Wheatley) is. So are Mandela’s bodyguards – particularly the stern, by-the-book Jason (Kgoroge) who balks at having former secret policemen like Etienne Feyder (Jones) in his detail. These were, he reasoned quite correctly, the sort of men who dragged his countrymen out of their beds in the middle of the night to take them to jail – or to improvised executions, their bodies to be left for the various fauna of the land to dispose of for them.

The task of winning the World Cup is not an easy one. South Africa had been persona non grata in the sporting world during the era of apartheid and was only just recently becoming integrated back into the world sports arena. The Springboks, once a dominant side, had struggled as they returned to international play. Most pundits picked them to finish near the bottom of the tournement. Pienaar and his mates knew however that they were fighting for more than a cup. They were fighting to keep their nation intact. Even should they prevail against all odds and reach the final, they would be facing a New Zealand All-Blacks club led by Jonah Lomu (Feaunati), the best player in the world.

Eastwood and writer Anthony Peckham (himself a South African who knows the era well) wisely shift the focus from the rugby squad itself to Mandela, allowing Freeman – a personal friend of the South African leader and the only choice to play him, as Freeman has been attempting to get a biography made for decades – to shine. This is one of the best performances for the actor in a distinguished career and has already been nominated for a Golden Globe. He richly deserves an Oscar nomination and should be one of the leading candidates for one when they are announced early next year.

Damon is solid (having also garnered a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor) in a role that requires him to essentially be noble and heroic. The denouement of the movie depicts an event that is widely believed to be a turning point towards the reconciliation of the South African nation.

There are many emotional moments in the movie, from the Springboks going to a black township to teach the children rugby and interacting with the children (after initial resistance on many of the team’s part) to a moment when Pienaar and the rest of his teammates visit the Robben Island penitentiary where Mandela was jailed for 30 years (they use the actual location, including Mandela’s actual cell) in what is called a game-changer.

This is an inspiring movie on every count. Yes, rugby lies at the center of the movie but it is only as a metaphor; knowing or not knowing the rules will make little difference to your enjoyment of the movie (and enough of the game is explained during the teaching sequences that you have at least a light grasp of the sport). Leaving the theater, you feel a sense that anything is possible, and that’s a great feeling to have leaving anything.

Clint Eastwood has hit another home run with this movie and while it isn’t finding extreme box office success, chances are it will be around long enough to gather in enough box office cash to be profitable. In any case, this is definitely one movie likely to be on my year-end list of ten best movies – see it if you possibly can.

REASONS TO GO: Freeman’s Oscar-worthy performance puts a human face on one of the 20th Century’s most iconic figures. Even if you don’t know much about rugby you can still love this movie. A very inspiring two hours.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie gets a bit preachy at times.

FAMILY VALUES: Very suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word “invictus” is Latin for unconquerable and is the root of the word “invincible.” It is the title of a poem written in 1875 by William Ernest Henry, a British poet who was stricken with tuberculosis of the bone at the time and was in the hospital to have his foot amputated due to the disease. Mandela had the poem written on a scrap of paper that he would refer to from time to time during his incarceration for comfort. Although Mandela is portrayed as giving the poem to Pienaar prior to the World Cup finals, it was actually a speech by Theodore Roosevelt that was sent.

HOME OR THEATER: The rugby sequences are definitely better on the big screen to get a sense of proportion for the stadiums the games were played in – otherwise most of the film would fit nicely on the small screen.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill Begins

NOTE: Check back later today as we will have the 2010 Preview up for your enjoyment.

The Blind Side


The Blind Side

Quinton Aaron and Sandra Bullock air out their dirty laundry.

(Warner Brothers) Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Kathy Bates, Lily Collins, Jae Head, Kim Dickens, Adriane Lenox, Catherine Dyer, Andy Stahl, Tom Nowicki, Libby Whitmore, Brian Hollan, Ray McKinnon. Directed by John Lee Hancock

Accidents happen. There are no accidents. Accidentally on purpose. Is anything really random chance, or is there a destiny for all of us?

Michael Oher (Aaron) has very little going for him other than he’s big and athletic. He can barely read and write his own name, his mother is a crack addict and his father is God knows where. The father of a friend of his works as a janitor at an exclusive private school in Memphis and gets the idea to bring the two of them before the football coach to see if he can get them into Wingate one way or another. Salivating at the chance to get the raw talent onto his team, the coach (McKinnon), almost salivating, convinces the school’s trustees to admit the disadvantaged boy.

However his presence on his friend’s couch has put a strain on them, so Michael is left to his own devices. He moves from place to place, silent and sad, a big sorrowful man-child without any hope or any joy. He doesn’t fit in at his new school, and his old neighborhood is becoming increasingly dangerous.

One cold night he is walking on the side of the road, trying to get into the school gym before it is locked so that he can have a warm place to sit for awhile when by chance the Tuohy family drives by. Its matriarch, Leigh Anne (Bullock) orders her husband Sean (McGraw) to stop the car and in her typically abrupt and no-nonsense manner interrogates the boy. Do you have a place to go? Don’t you dare lie to me! Oher admits he has nowhere to sleep and on the spur of the moment, Leigh Anne decides to bring the boy home and put him up for the night.

Her children SJ (Head) and Collins (Collins) range from enthusiastic (SJ) to not so much (Collins) about the new houseguest as one night stretches into several and then into weeks and at last, months. Leigh Anne drives Michael to his old home to pick up some clothes but they find that his mother has been evicted and nobody knows where she is. Instead, Leigh Anne drives Michael to the nearest Big and Tall store where Michael shows signs of life when offered a rugby shirt in his size.

As the days go by, Oher begins to respond to his academic environment although he is unable to learn in the traditional way. Instead, he picks up on what is told to him verbally. Leigh Ann hires a tutor (Bates) to help him get his grades up and soon he gets his average to the point where he can try out for the football team. The coach’s joy turns to disappointment when Oher turns out to be far too soft and unskilled to be much of a force. It is only when Leigh Anne, to whom Michael has become very attatched to, gives him a pep talk that Michael begins to show what he’s capable of and that is becoming an All-American offensive tackle. However, when he makes a choice for his future, the motivations of his family are called into question and the relationship between Michael and his new family becomes imperiled.

Director Hancock is something of a true sports movie expert, with The Rookie to his credit and again he pulls out all the stops with this one. His best move was casting Bullock in the lead role and she nails the role of Leigh Anne who could intimidate Kimbo Slice if she had half a mind to. She’s tough as nails, suffers no fools but is fiercely loyal to her family with a soft spot for underdogs. There are a surprising number of women like her in the South and if the region has any greatness at all to it, it’s because of them.

McGraw, whose easygoing charm translates nicely to the screen, is solid as the dad, a role he has begun to be attractive to casting agents in. While Head is a bit over-the-top in places as SJ the spirited son, he at least has a great smile and a good sense of comic timing for an actor his age. In fact, all of the actors who play the Tuohy family do a good job of creating a believable onscreen family.

If there’s a problem with The Blind Side it has to do with the script. True sports stories have tended to follow a very similar format in recent movies; an underdog gets inspired in the pursuit of a goal and that inspiration leads to overachievement. When the goal is in reach, something happens to jeopardize the achievement of the goal but in the end the team/individual pulls it together at the last minute to triumph over adversity.

Some of the adversity that is shown here feels scripted and not terribly authentic. Just because a movie says it’s based on a true story does it mean that everything in it is true. Something tells me that some incidents were embellished to create dramatic tension and normally I don’t have a problem with that, but in this case it didn’t feel organic. I think it’s possible that we’ve overdosed on the genre since it felt like I’ve seen it all before and in fact I have.

And that’s not to denigrate Michael Oher or his story in any way. I think it could have been handled a bit differently and written better is all I’m saying. Still in all despite my quibbling this is still a solid movie that I can recommend without hesitation. It gets you in all the right places and makes for a fine cathartic afternoon. Still, the best reason to see this is to watch Bullock at her very best.

REASONS TO GO: Bullock does some of the best work of her career. The family dynamic is believable even if S.J. is too cute to be believed.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a bit formula and some of the elements feel scripted instead of true-to-life. Aaron as Oher gives us little insight into his character.

FAMILY VALUES: Some language and some minor violence but otherwise okay for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are cameos from several Southeastern college football colleges playing themselves, including Phil Fullmer, Nick Saban, Lou Holtz and Tommy Tuberville.

HOME OR THEATER: This can easily fit on the small screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Terminator Salvation