Tuesday, 9 March 2010

What I've Been Watching: Cinema

Directed by Clint Eastwood, Invictus in the story of South Africa's road to winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995. At its centre is the relationship between Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of the Springboks, and Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman).

In many ways the film feels like a normal sports movie. The team in question is in serious trouble at the start of the movie, getting slaughtered by England at home, months before the tournament. Then, as the movie progresses, and after Mandela's interest in the sport increases, the team gets better: standing a real chance of winning the tournament.

However, the story's focus is not on the team or their relationships with one another, rather it's on the people of South Africa and their support/hatred of the Springboks. In that sense it has more in common with Fever Pitch than your average sports movie: looking at the real impact sport has on people's lives.

So the picture we get of Nelson Mandela here, is essentially the one he chooses to show to Pienaar. We do get occasional glimpses of his strained relationship with his family, but essentially we're shown the same Mandela as we normally get on television: charming, inspirational and dignified.

67D36CF8-CF02-466B-B786-6B0A0212D119.jpgThe movie's success, and arguably its failure, is that it does well at reminding the viewer how remarkable the story of the '95 World Cup was. When politics and sport somehow combined successfully to give South Africa a moment that will probably stay with that generation for the rest of the lives. The picture of Mandela and Pienaar standing on the podium together is probably the most significant image for the country since the end of apartheid.

I say failure, because I think the story's so remarkable and well documented it doesn't really need a movie made about it: a movie which, by virtue of its medium, makes the events seem less real than they are. It's my opinion that a documentary would have served the story a lot better, and I'm sure Mandela and Pienaar would have only too happy to oblige. If you need proof of this, watch the documentary When We Were Kings, followed by Will Smith's portrayal in Ali, and tell me which you think told you the story of the boxer's remarkable career and personality better? Also think about what your reaction would be if Man On Wire was to be made into a Hollywood Blockbuster starring, say, Tom Cruise? Not everything needs to be reshot, re-imagined and redone. Sometimes it's best just to show people footage and let them discover an exceptional event for themselves.

5F146744-D1F8-4B22-A746-CFAD64ED1E10.jpgA Single Man
The film for which Colin Firth won a BAFTA, A Single Man centres on someone who's recently lost his boyfriend in a car accident. Firth tries his best to cope with the bereavement when no one recognises the love he shared with his partner. The views of the society he inhabits best surmised by Julianne Moore's character, who describes it as "not a real relationship"

The first film by fashion designer turned director, Tom Ford, the film oozes style from every frame. Like it's main character, each scene has a beauty and attention to detail that's incredibly appealing and means you can on occasion let your eyes and mind be distracted from the heavy subject matter of the narrative.

The film's main success is in its portrayal of bereavement: Firth is scared of everything in his life having lost the man he loved. For him a day survived is a day well spent; every time he leaves the door is a triumph. He seems happy to live his life ignored by those around him, avoiding human contact as much as possible. His memories both comfort and haunt him, and we as an audience are left trying to reach out to someone who may not want rescuing.

A9EEC976-5D71-4C76-8B47-48CBBD4CD11A.jpgI also feel the narrative balanced subtly and clarity beautifully, to bring the audience into Firth's world, without necessarily showing you everything he was thinking and feeling. Like the TV series Mad Men (with whom the film shares a production designer), characters do and say surprising things without us feeling they're acting 'out of character': a juggling act which few films or T.V. shows are able to pull off.

A Single Man then, is a character piece which succeeds on many levels: in portraying a culture, character and period in a very stylish and telling way. A remarkable debut piece from a director whose work I greatly anticipate in the future.

Crazy Heart
50B8D03D-3F4E-4B3C-BEF5-FBA434F2AEF3.jpgThe film which gave Jeff Bridges the oscar The Big Lebowski should have done. Crazy Heart has been rightly compared to the Wrestler: portraying an ageing artist trying to make a living past his prime. Along the way he's supported by a younger woman, (in this case Maggie Gyllenhaal) who encourages him to make contact with his grown-up child.

The main difference between this and Aronofsky's film is the country music, provided by T-Bone Burnett. Bridges performances of these songs allows Bridges' character, Bad Blake, to tell of his woes, troubles and sins in a manner befitting of the genre. The other difference is, it's nowhere near as good.

The problem comes, not from the performances, which are all fantastic, but rather from the central plot which lacks the emotional depth of a film like The Wrestler, or the instant gratification of another similar film, Walk the Line. Instead, we're left with a character we don't feel like we know that well, and are not really given a reason to care that much about. What made him remarkable in his prime? Why is his story worth telling?

81CFC9CF-92EC-45F6-8AD2-77C6BF8F0F4C.jpgInstead, we go through the motions of a journey where he learns a lot about himself through others, and ends up a better person because he was able to face up to his past. A story so old, you imagine cavemen would even have called Crazy Heart cliched.

My only defence for this movie is that as someone who is not a natural fan of country and western, I could see how someone who did enjoy the genre may allow themselves to be swallowed up in the emotion of the music. I know films like Walk the Line, Ray, and even Once all beautifully pace themselves with songs that allow the story to move from one place to the next. Given that those bits in this film were the least engaging for me, perhaps my enjoyment of the movie was tarnished as a result.

In essence, unless you're a truck-driving, beer-guzzling, flannel-shirt wearing, odour-ridden middle aged man called Earl, give it a miss.

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