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Column Fri Dec 11 2009

Invictus, The Princess and the Frog, Me and Orson Welles and Collapse

Invictus

My first thought after viewing director Clint Eastwood's latest noble stab at accumulating more Oscars was "That was a story told." And before I write another word, let me make it clear that I am absolutely recommending Invictus, the story of how recently elected South African President Nelson Mandela found a way to unite all races in his nation using a sport closely identified with the white Afrikaners that oppressed the black population for decades under apartheid. And while there was never any doubt in my mind that Eastwood could tell this inherently interesting story in the manner we have become accustomed from one of America's greatest storytellers, I felt the film was a touch on the dry side to really pull me in the way I wanted to be.

I go back and forth on this point, because there are absolutely times when I was immersed in this true story. Eastwood wisely lets the story unfold organically, with no artificial sweeteners. He's simply too good to ruin a great story with such ploys. And the screenplay from Anthony Peckham (from the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin) is smart in making sure every nuance of Mandela's thinking and the team's playing is examined and made clear. For example, Peckham understands that most Americans don't know a thing about the rules of rugby, so he includes a sequence in which the almost entirely white South African team goes to an all-black township to teach the children the game. And guess who else gets to learn the basic rules of the game as a result of this makeshift rugby camp?

I have an acquaintance who has played rugby most of this adult life, and he has known about this story since it occurred in 1995 and about this movie since Eastwood picked up the gauntlet to direct it. He's given me his copies of rugby magazines with articles about the actual World Cup game and the film, so I was fairly familiar with these events walking into Invictus. And it's all there; Eastwood didn't miss a thing. He begins with Mandela (played to absolute perfection by Morgan Freeman) getting out of prison in 1990, though to his winning the South African presidency in 1991 in the country's first multi-racial election, to his first stepping foot in the presidential offices, to threats of riot in the streets and of assassination aimed at Mandela himself.

The film makes clear what I'd heard for years: Mandela was a man of great intelligence who knew that if he simply took office and turned the country around against white citizens, things would be as bad a when he was in prison. He began by asking the staffers who worked for former President de Klerk to stay in their jobs. He integrated his security detail so that his bodyguards were even numbers of blacks and whites. What a person's feelings about him or black during apartheid didn't matter to him (at least not officially); he focused on moving forward and he did so humbly and without calling a great deal of attention to his efforts.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear other than it seemed like a good idea at the time, Mandela became fixated on the South African national rugby team, the Springboks — a team that every white citizen loved and every black citizen loved to see get beaten by any opponent. The team had been barred from playing in the previous two World Cups (held every four years) as part of a stand against apartheid, but they were set to be eligible to play in the '95 Cup, the finals of which were to be played in South Africa. Mandela saw an opportunity to turn this divisive institution into something the whole nation could support — "One Team, One Nation" was the crew's new motto. Mandela first approached the captain of the struggling squad, Francois Pienaar (a bulked up Matt Damon) in a casual meeting, knowing full well that many of Pienaar's teammates, coaches, even his family were about as racist as they come. But Mandela also counted on Pienaar's gifts as a leader of men and his desire to see his team win the Cup. Together and separately, these two men effectively pulled a nation from the brink of Collapse.

Freeman and Damon are only in a few scenes together, and lest you fear that this is the kind of movie in which a black story is filtered through the eyes of a white man, that is absolutely not the case. (If you want that, feel free to watch The Blind Side.) Quite frankly, the scenes they share are the least interesting in the movie. Both are far more effective when they are doing what their characters do best — lead. There's a sequence in which the Springboks are taken to Robben Island, where Mandela was held for 18 years, and Pienaar stands in Mandela's actual cell, spreading his arms so that his fingers almost touch the walls. It's a gripping scene, and you can almost feel any remaining racial hostility bleed out of the players. Freeman is at his most compelling when he is playing Mandela as a humble man, fully aware that there is so much he needs to learn about rugby and leading a country. We're so used to seeing Freeman play men of reason and authority (both of which Mandela is), but to see him play a version of this man when he was at his most doubtful about his abilities is refreshing, and it reminds us that Freeman is more than just a voice and stoic face; he's terrific actor.

The final 30 minutes of the movie are devoted entirely to the World Cup match against New Zealand. And we've learned enough about everyone involved in that confrontation to understand the importance of Mandela walking into the Ellis Park in Johannesburg. Am I the only one who sees the irony in the New Zealand team's name being called the All Blacks? Anyone who says this film — even the final half hour — is a sports movie is truly missing the point. This is a film about politics, strategy, nation rebuilding, relationships, leaders and, yes, also rugby. I found the final match especially captivating because it was my first chance to test out my newfound knowledge of rugby rules. By this point in the story, we've gotten to know the players a bit, including those who were the last to really give in to Mandela's charms and the feeling they got from having both black and white spectators cheering for them. When the entire team sings the country's new national anthem (something most of them fought against when Pienaar first proposed the idea), it's a moment worthy of tears. There are actually several of those moments in the final act.

For all its spectacle and gravitas, Invictus (the title is taken from a 19th century poem by William Ernest Henley that served as a great inspiration to Mandela while imprisoned) is a film whose story is laid out simply and to the point. I never got the sense that Eastwood was heightening the drama or creating false moments for the sake of the movie. It wasn't necessary. The true story has enough imbedded drama for four movies. I was equally impressed with the two lead performances, although clearly it is Freeman's work that will garner the most attention (and presumably award nominations). But one should never sell Matt Damon short; the guy has given us two truly worthy and vastly different performances in 2009 (the other being in The Informant), and I honestly look forward to watching anything he's in at this point. While I'm calling out great performances, I should mention the best supporting role in Invictus, belonging to Tony Kgoroge as Mandela's chief of security. Kgoroge also did excellent work in the other recent South African-made movie Skin, but here he represents the face and voice of the new, evolving South Africa and someone Mandela looks to for a reality check on more than one occasion.

Invictus is pure and simple filmmaking, and with a story this compelling, that is all that is required. While I was not a fan of Eastwood's 2008 effort Gran Torino (after I only moderately recommended his other '08 effort, Changeling), his latest work is proof that the nearly 80-year-old director remains one of the greatest working today. Maybe this story made it easy on him; all he had to do was not mess it up, and he was golden. But I think there's more to it than that. Invictus is inspiring, rousing, moving and sweeping, all underscored with smart storytelling. I know it's got all the trappings and markings of Oscar bait, but sometimes Oscar bait actually deserves its accolades; Invictus is proof of that.

The Princess and the Frog

As happy as I was to see Disney return to the realm of quality, hand-drawn animation again, I had an unexpected emotional reaction to seeing The Princess and the Frog. If you had told me that the beautifully rendered art in this film had been made in the 1940s, '50s, or '60s, I would have had no problem believing that. The movement is fluid and graceful, the expressions are captivating, and the backdrops of period New Orleans and the backwater swamps of Louisiana are breathtaking. But if you'd asked me before seeing the film if I'd truly missed hand-drawn animation, I probably would have said yes with something resembling conviction. But after seeing the glory of The Princess and the Frog, a wave of nostalgia swept over me that didn't know was inside. The combination of the great music, fine voice acting (no big names in any of the lead roles; John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey and Terrance Howard are featured in supporting roles), and gorgeous animation are braided together in a strange, elegant work of art that I cannot wait to see again.

Even as a young girl, Tiana had aspirations of being a great Cajun chef and owning her own restaurant, something her hard-working father (Howard) was never quite able to make happen, even with the support of his loving wife (Winfrey), who worked for one of New Orleans' most powerful politicians, "Big Daddy" La Bouff (Goodman). La Bouff's daughter Charlotte and Tiana grew up best friends, and while Tiana always wanted to grow up and be a princess, Tiana wanted to save enough money to fulfill her father's restaurant dream. Years go by after this preamble, and we learn that Tiana's father died fairly young, and she has been a waitress saving every nickel and dime for her dream. Tiana is voiced by Anika Noni Rose; she's the Dreamgirl who wasn't Jennifer Hudson or Beyonce; she was also great as the busybody receptionist on HBO's "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency." Tiana has grown into a marvelous cook herself, and is nearly ready to buy a run-down building as the site of her restaurant, when fate and voodoo intercede.

Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) comes to New Orleans to party, and when his arrival is made known to Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), she sets her sites on him. The evil Dr. Facilier (Keith David), who frequently uses his "friends from the other side" to help him with his schemes, concocts a way to get the largely broke Naveen to marry Charlotte (and become a part of her very wealthy family) while Facilier would get all the family money. And his scheme involves turning the arrogant prince into a frog and replacing his human self with that of his schlubish manservant, who is tired of waiting on party boy Naveen hand and foot. Naveen the frog meets Tiana as she is dressing as a princess for a costume party; he assumes she is a real princess and knowing his classic "Frog Prince" literature, he asks her for a kiss, which turns her into a frog as well. Whoops.

The Princess and the Frog follows this unlikely pair through the bayou to find the voodoo princess Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), and along the way they pick up new friends like Ray (Jim Cummings), the aging firefly who knows which direction to go, and Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), a trumpet-playing gator who wants nothing more to become human and join a jazz band. The Princess and the Frog offers up one bizarre character after another, each one with a thicker Cajun accent than the last, and I was loving it.

I was fortunate enough to see this movie at a screening for which a large number of children were in attendance, and nearly every kid was enraptured, attentive and completely entertained. I'm not sure they got what every song by Randy Newman was about, but during those sequences they simply lost themselves in the visuals, an easy thing to do with this movie. Co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements (who also did The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, the game-changing Aladdin, Treasure Planet and Hercules) have made what is arguably their best-looking work, even if the story is a bit predictable. There are a couple of slow segments, including one where the two frogs are nearly captured by redneck hunters for food. But those less-than-stellar moments are few and far between. Most of what is featured here is perfection. Honestly, you can't help but lose yourself in the artistry of The Princess and the Frog. The scary scenes with Dr. Facilier are actually kind of scary; Tiana's feminist stance about putting career before men is ground-breaking for a Disney "princess" movie; and this slightly idealized version of New Orleans is just sleazy enough to keep adults interested while making kids a little curious about this strange and wonderfully musical city full of exotic food. Hell, I'm ready to watch it again. I really did adore this return to form, and I hope Disney continues the upkeep on its hand-drawn animation right along its Pixar work.

To read my exclusive interview with The Princess and the Frog directors Ron Clements and John Musker, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Me and Orson Welles

Sometimes you just watch a movie and wonder why no one has ever made a movie like it before. The subject of director Richard Linklater's latest gem is the move that the newly birthed Mercury Theater (led by rising radio star Orson Welles) made to bring Shakespeare to Broadway in 1937. The story is told through the eyes of 17-year-old would-be actor Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who gutsily approaches the Mercury players while they are congregated outside the theater waiting for their marquee to get turned on. Welles (played with uncanny accuracy by British actor Christian McKay) is impressed with the young man's hubris and hires him to play the small role of Lucius opposite Welles' Brutus.

Me and Orson Welles feels like it's not only attempting to capture the period it's set in, but it's also trying to capture the feel of films made in the time period. The rapid-fire dialogue, the classic elements of a backstage drama, and the slightly overplayed performances all perfectly blend into an energetic production whose pure entertainment value cannot be denied, if for no other reason that McKay's performance as Welles is terrifyingly on the money. I forgot in about two minutes that I was watching a movie with someone in it playing Welles; McKay simply becomes Welles, as both a boisterous dictator of a director and a philandering, sensitive soul with an endless arsenal of exactly the right words to get out of or into any situation. He's also an indisputable genius when it comes to directing, especially when it comes to Shakespeare, which (much like his film versions) he boils down to their absolute emotional essentials. The Mercury's 1937 production of Julius Caesar had the Romans in modern-day fascist wear and featured terrible examples of mob rule and political assassination. And Welles knew exactly how to make the play seem ultra-modern as well as timeless.

Even if the rest of the film was terrible, it would still be worth seeing for McKay's work. But fortunately, the rest of Me and Orson Welles is quite good. Transitioning teen idol Efron brings the right balance of enthusiasm and innocence to Richard, who falls in love with office manager Sonja (Claire Danes), who seems like a great catch until we slowly realize she's a slave to her ambition to turn this thankless job into something more prominent. Sonja might be the most complex character in the film, and Danes holds back just enough in her portrayal to keep us wondering what Sonja will do next and with whom. Also doing fine work is Ben Chaplin as actor George Coulouris (Welles' Mark Antony), one of the few professionally trained actors in the production, and one of the most anxious. Zoe Kazan, who had such a great supporting part in Revolutionary Road, plays Gretta, a young woman Efron meets in a record store, and keeps running into at just the right moments in his life and hers. Eddie Marsan plays John Houseman, who runs the day-to-day operations of the theater and ends up doing most of the apologizing on Welles' behalf. I was charmed by James Tupper's role as actor Joseph Cotten (Publius), who befriends Richard as much to guide him through the minefield that is Welles' personality as anything.

Sure the love story between Richard and Sonja is cute and interesting, but really all I cared about is watching Welles pull his show together in an impossible timeframe. He rips apart scenes that don't work, he cuts superfluous words with hardly a second thought, and he fires or threatens to fire actors who disagree with him. As he puts it, "It's my store." One begins to believe Welles thought that about the entire world — or at least those who were brave/foolish enough to step in his line of sight while he's working. Me and Orson Welles is a coming-of-age story about both Richard and about the Mercury Theater players, who went own to help Welles make Citizen Kane four years later. Welles was a man of mischief — as can be seen by a sequence in which he does a guest spot on a radio play and ends up improvising dialogue from the novel The Magnificent Ambersons, which Welles went on to direct a film version of after Kane — and he was a man who knew how to instill strength and confidence in others even if he had to use deceit to make that happen. This is the kind of film that is easy to get lost watching. From the sharp script by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. (from the Robert Kaplow novel) to the rich directing by Linklater and the performances that never stop giving, Me and Orson Welles is a great combination of fiction and history that is difficult to forget and so easy to love.

Collapse

Critics are practically tripping over themselves trying to tell you just how scary this documentary of a man sitting in a chair, talking and smoking, really is. And the most bizarre thing about the subject of Collapse, one Mr. Michael Ruppert, is that he's either one of the few human beings on the planet who has connected all the dots of the latter part of the 20th century and the first few years of the new one, or he's an alarmist conspiracy theorist, or perhaps he's both. The particular reason that his analysis of the world and America is so scary is that he's predicted several events accurately both in terms of what happened and how severely. For example, he predicted our current economic crisis, and the invasion of Iraq (his reasoning for both is sound and made me very anxious, as in, full of anxiety), and he has forecast some even scarier shit having to do with the end of the oil supply, population growth, and the eventual end of civilization as we know it. Now read that last part very carefully. Ruppert isn't saying we're all going to die; he's saying that literally civilization is going to evolve when oil runs out or become unaffordable. If this happens, how could it not? So all of those critics I mentioned earlier, the ones trying to tell you that what Ruppert has to say is like walking through an intellectual house of horrors? They were right.

Chris Smith (American Movie, The Yes Men) is one of my favorite documentary filimmakers, and he's basically entering into territory that Errol Morris typically tackles. Even the style of the film is similar, with a haunting, almost-constant dark musical underscore and simply having Ruppert address the camera, while stock news footage is interspersed to illustrate his points. The cumulative effect is undeniable and nerve-wracking. While even one of Ruppert's ideas can give you reason to bite your nails, listening to him go from one paranoid outlook to another is almost more than our brains can process, and I suppose that's the point.

Ruppert dares us to question his deductions or results to date, but as we get deeper into his history (he was an LA cop who uncovered a CIA plot to sell drugs in American ghettos), we realize the amid all the gloom and doom, Ruppert also has an unflinching belief that Americans have the capacity to change the direction the country is going. But as he systematically goes through every conceivable kind of alternative energy source and essentially says that it takes more energy to produce them, thus making them useless, I almost find his optimism as difficult to believe as some of his predictions.

So here's the thing, if even 25 percent of what he's saying turns out to be accurate, we're in for a heap of bad times in the very near future. Ruppert makes it clear that he is not a conspiracy theorist, because his conspiracies are based on fact, and frankly it's tough to disprove a lot of what he's saying. His words could be elaborate scare tactics or they could be the blueprints for the biggest preventable holocaust the world has ever seen (his words). Either way, in an age where we get small handfuls of scary docs every year, Collapse might be the one that keeps you in bed under the covers for weeks. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre, with director Chris Smith doing a post-screening Q&A after the 7:20pm show. Also, the film is currently available on Time Warner and Comcast cable Movies On Demand channels.

 
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