THE WEEKEND MARQUEE: ‘Invictus’ Goes For The Gold In A Face-off With Disney’s ‘The Princess And The Frog’
You could choke on the gravitas in the ads for Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, which tells the story of Nelson Mandela‘s campaign to enlist the South African national rugby team to win the Rugby World Cup during his first term in office in 1995. The TV spots boldly announce that it’s, “The movie critics are calling the years best.” When they pull that one out, it usually means that the movie is solemn and serious awards bait of the kind that is best to approach with extreme caution.
I wouldn’t expect anything less from a movie directed by Clint Eastwood after Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and Changeling. What is he going to do, switch to romantic comedies starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds? Not likely when, most of his movies have received plenty of critical acclaim and have also been big moneymakers to boot. Last year’s Gran Torino, far exceeded expectations when it became a huge sleeper hit. Invictus will be facing tough competition from Disney’s The Princess and The Frog, and it remains to be seen whether audiences are ready to give up on The Blind Side, which was still going strong last weekend.
Matt Damon told the Fresno Bee that, with Eastwood directing and Morgan Freeman playing Mandela taking the role was an easy decision. He said,
I didn’t hesitate when I heard I would get to be in a film directed by Clint Eastwood and work with Morgan Freeman.”
Eastwood and Freeman were also excited. To work with each other, that is. In a joint interview with the LA Times, Eastwood said of Freeman,
I liked him as a person the first time I ever met him, because he was a fan of The Outlaw Josey Wales. With Morgan Freeman, it’s just a pleasure to watch every scene, every nuance.”
Freeman responded by saying,
Working with Clint is like every actor’s dream who knows anything at all about what he’s doing. A lot of actors think that they want strong directing. I can never quite figure out what that means. I don’t want strong directing, except from the writer. And then I don’t want the writer writing emotional reactions.”
No word on what they thought of working with Damon, but I guess as the old saying goes, if you don’t have something nice to say, then…
The Buzz: Good. Morgan Freeman’s performance is getting high praise all around and it seems to be the main reason to see the movie.
Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Glieberman wrote,
“It’s thrilling to watch Freeman do his perfect imitation of Mandela’s lordly, formal cadences. That’s because Freeman captures the mind behind the manners: Mandela the crafty persuader who orchestrated his fan worship of the Springboks as an act of high-wire rebellion. Invictus often suggests a spiritual link between Mandela’s cunning and the strategies of Barack Obama, with a rough parallel between the film’s righteously angry black South Africans and the progressives whom Obama won’t appease. The film’s speechifying is at times overexplicit, yet Freeman lets the words breathe, and Damon, as the cautious Afrikaner brought to a higher place by Mandela’s authority, acts with a coolly impassive fervor.”
Time‘s Richard Corliss was impressed all around, especially with the amazing productivity Eastwood has shown in the last few years. He wrote,
Freeman infuses Mandela’s speeches with the same gentleness and gravity he’s brought to his numerous God roles and the Visa Olympics commercials. But the real deity here is Eastwood, still chugging away handsomely in his 80th year. Who’d have thought that old Dirty Harry would, with Letters from Iwo Jima and Invictus, become America’s prime director of international trauma and triumph?”
Disney is hoping that audiences will respond to The Princess and the Frog (which I also wrote about when it went into limited release over Thanksgiving weekend) as they did in the 90s with hits like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
It’s their first attempt at 2D animation in years and also their first animated movie to feature an African American character in the lead role. Co-director Ron Clements told the Associated Press:
“The story really came from an initial idea of doing an American fairy tale, which hadn’t been done at Disney. And setting it in New Orleans, which is John Lasseter‘s favorite city in the world. It was Walt Disney’s favorite city in the world … Out of that, it seemed natural that the heroine would be African-American.”
The Buzz: Pretty Good. Disney may have pulled it off this time. The movie is getting much better reviews than their previous failed attempts at 2D features like Atlantis and Treasure Planet. The Chicago Sun-Times‘ Roger Ebert, seems to have been particularly excited about the back to basics approach, when he wrote,
This is what classic animation once was like! No 3-D! No glasses! No extra ticket charge! No frantic frenzies of meaningless action! And . . . good gravy! A story! Characters! A plot! It’s set in a particular time and place! And it uses (calm me down here) lovingly hand-drawn animation that proceeds at a human pace, instead of racing with odd smoothness. I’m just gonna stand here and let it pour over me.”
Michael Phillips wasn’t as charmed by the old Disney “magic”. He wrote,
It lacks for nothing in setting and atmosphere (New Orleans, mostly in the 1920s, with side trips to bayou country) but comes up short where it counts: the characters. Human, insect or amphibian, their appeal is hard-sell and engineered. I realize times change, but it’s too bad these screenwriters and directors couldn’t revisit The Jungle Book (1967) for reference. That film, with its hep-cats-meet-Kipling insouciance, took its time and has become a classic. The Princess and the Frog never catches its breath.”
Alice Sebold‘s bestselling 2002 novel, The Lovely Bones, about a teenage girl who watches over her family from heaven after being brutally murdered and raped, wasn’t an obvious choice to adapt into a feature film.
However, for Peter Jackson, whose last film was the 2006 blockbuster King Kong, the subject matter presented the opportunity to explore recurring themes in his work such as death and the after life. Themes that he’s touched on stemming back to his earliest movies and his first forays into bigger budget films like Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners. In an interview with Variety, he said,
“Alice Sebold’s novel is one of those great books where you don’t know what to expect; it is a tough, thrilling, emotional story. As a filmmaker, that’s terrifically interesting.”
About the difficulty of adapting the book, he said,
“How do you take Alice’s very intricate, poetic book, which doesn’t in any way scream, ‘I’m a movie,’ and structure it as a film? We became obsessed with how to move the pieces around to tell this story on the screen.”
The Buzz: Bad. Like The Frighteners in 1996, most critics don’t seem all that enthusiastic, with many complaining about the jarring shifts in tone, going from a gentle drama to queasy, blood-spattered horror. The New Yorker‘s David Denby wrote,
The book was brought off with considerable delicacy—it’s really an affectionately detailed portrait of a suburban girl’s life. Literalized in the movie, the material is closer to a high-toned ghost story. Jackson intermingles family goings on with Susie’s gossamer interventions, and some of the brushed-with-ether imagery verges on the uncanny. Yet Jackson has become an undisciplined fabulist: the movie is redundant and undramatic.”
The LA Times Kenneth Turan wrote,
His best move by far was casting young Irish actress, Saoirse Ronan, Oscar-nominated for her compelling role in Atonement, as the murdered Susie Salmon. An enormously gifted performer, Ronan is the only element of the film that is exactly as it should be, bringing naturalness, honesty and radiance to the part of a young woman just on the cusp of life. Other elements, including The Lovely Bones imaginative notion of what Susie’s afterlife looks like, are strong, but everything that’s good is undermined by an overemphasis on one part of the story that is essential but has been allowed to overflow its boundaries.”
Designer Tom Ford is a trendsetter in the fashion world and now he may be starting another trend, that of the fashion designer turned filmmaker. Although I won’t be holding my breath for the Tommy Hilfiger remake of Godard‘s Breathless anytime soon. In that sense, his first film A Single Man, based on the Christopher Isherwood novel of the same name, is a singular accomplishment.
In an interview with the New York Times, Ford talked about the differences between fashion and filmmaking. He said,
“Filmmaking is a totally different expression. Fashion for me is a commercial endeavor. Filmmaking is an artistic endeavor and a commercial endeavor. Working on Single Man was the truest expression of anything I’ve ever created. It had nothing to do with fashion.”
In the film, Colin Firth plays a gay college professor dealing with the death of his lover in 1962 California and the veteran character actor recently talked to Parade magazine about the secret gay life of leading men in Hollywood. He also talked about the movie’s sex quotient and defended the universal appeal of the story, saying,
There’s sex running all the way through the movie, even though we don’t need to see anybody doing it. I think the fact that the man I play is comfortably open about the fact that he is gay is definitely significant. But I think it just reinforces the power of the story, which is about a love between men that has a very accessible, universal quality.”
The Weinstein Company is downplaying the homosexuality in the movie and the poster features Firth glancing to the side while a sexy Julianne Moore stands in the background. The trailer, which doesn’t even feature any dialogue, does the same.
Ford’s largely delicate touch reps a pleasant surprise, especially given his only filmmaking experience hitherto has been overseeing advertising campaigns for Gucci and his own current, self-named line of fashion products. Clearly this is material close to his heart, and the empathy shines through. What’s more impressive is the skill he shows at evoking quietly sensual details, conjuring how, for instance, sniffing a stranger’s dog brings back memories of George’s beloved pet.”
Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek wasn’t as “pleasantly surprised”. She wrote,
All movies are art-directed to one degree or another. But A Single Man, un film de Tom Ford, is all art and no direction — it’s a picture made up of visual choices with almost no filmmaking sandwiched between.