July 31, 2011
Clint Eastwood, Film, Gran Torino, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, movies, Nelson Mandela, poster, review
For an octogenarian it’s truly admirable how Clint Eastwood continues to churn out film after film, often managing multiple pictures a year. Most of his dramas have proven popular with audiences and a few disappointments aside, have real critical merit. In effect he’s one of those rare few in Hollywood that have managed super-stardom both as an actor and behind the camera as well. To follow up his “Dirty Harry” homage, the much lauded “Gran Torino,” Eastwood turned to a South-African true story for inspiration: Based on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Changed a Nation,” the film tells of the immediate post-Apartheid era and the newly elected president’s efforts to unite his divided country.
Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) sees his triumph in rugby, the Springbock team seen as a symbol of white superiority and something most black South-African’s would be glad to see the back of. As the rugby World Cup is due to take place in the country, Madiba (Mandela’s clan name) is determined not to let an opportunity like this to transcend the racial tensions pass and is eager to see the hitherto underachieving national side triumph. Thus he turns to the team’s captain François Pienaar (Matt Damon), lending him encouragement, inspiration and one or two pieces of sound advice. The film follows their relationship as well as that of the president’s bodyguards that must also learn to look beyond their prejudice and suspicion of their co-workers and collaborate to protect the president at the rugby matches. Considering the choices, there was only ever going to be one man to play Nelson Mandela: Morgan Freeman’s trademark is that of a peaceful-soul with a God-like narrative tones, one he’s been perfecting since “The Shawshank Redemption.” It’s a perfect match and Freeman is the heart and soul of the picture and the subsequent Oscar nomination was well deserved indeed.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Damon’s role even if the acting is not at fault (he too was nominated). It’s the character of Pienaar that remains sorely underdeveloped throughout as he’s given far too little exposition. Instead he’s reduced to giving rather run-of-the-mill pep-talks and a lot of contemplative stares into space. This immediately makes the film falter as Mandela is no longer the focus come the lengthy final match sequence. Some of the sports action is well captured by Eastwood’s lens, the players colliding with full force and the crunching scrums are spectacular but the games lack a narrative arc and ultimately fail to thrill as they should. Some of the spectator shots and a rather out-of-place aeroplane sequence betray some clumsy digital effects wizardry. Sadly, Eastwood’s faithfulness to the events come at a cost and the viewer will yearn simply to hear Freeman’s reassuring overtones again. Those qualms aside, it’s the portrayal of the security guards that succeed in transmitting the eventual reconciliation when the montages threaten to descend into the utterly predictable. The troupe allow Eastwood not only some comic relief but a powerful platform to turn a forced collaboration into friendship and thus the true unification of South Africa.
The music of Clint Eastwood’s films continue to be a matter for debate. An avid jazz fan, Eastwood sometimes composes himself or else hands the duties to his son Kyle Eastwood and collaborator Michael Stevens. As with “Letters From Iwo Jima,” the latter has been the case here but unfortunately the restrained, minimalist style employed by both continues to be the weakest link in the Eastwood cannon. The soundtrack for “Invictus” is largely built around source songs that enhance the African elements of the story, including among others “World in Union ’95” which, based on a melody by Gustav Holst plays over the end credits. What little score there is, gets lost on the album and really contains only one cue of note – Madiba’s Theme – a hymn-based piece fused with humming vocals and Eastwood’s signature lingering piano. In sum, the score simply cannot muster enough inspiration that the film calls for and while blatant heroism isn’t required, there’s no evidence here that a world cup could actually be won. Considering the great “African” scores that Hollywood composers have written, it’s a shame that Eastwood couldn’t simply have hired someone more up to the task.
It’s all too rare (sadly) that a film about Africa can be so uplifting. Of course, because of a rugby game, South Africa did not become a paragon of peaceful co-existence but “Invictus” provides hope. Morgan Freeman is sublime as Mandela and proves once again he is at the very pinnacle of acting prowess. If only the script could have been a little sharper and less predictable, this could have been one of the Clint greats.
What are your personal Eastwood favourites? Please do leave a comment and follow me on Twitter. Thanks for reading and all the best!
September 24, 2010
Action, Epic/Historical, Film, Romance
Armageddon, Ben Affleck, Clint Eastwood, Cuba Gooding Jr., Doris Miller, Empire of the Sun, Faith Hill, Film, film music, Hans Zimmer, James Bond, James Cameron, Jerry Bruckheimer, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Letters from Iwo Jima, Michael Bay, movies, Pearl Harbor, picture, review, score, Titanic, Transformers
One thing that was clear even before “Pearl Harbor” hit cinemas in the summer of 2001 was that super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay were trying to create a “Titanic” clone. In other words they were planting a love-story into a significant historical event and hoping for equally titanic box-office success. And really, that’s pretty much what they managed. With Bay (“Armageddon”, “Transformers”) at the helm nobody could really claim they were expecting plot or characters of Shakespearean quality, nor would the film strive in that direction anyway. Like the ocean-liner epic, this picture follows the lines of a very old-fashioned love story, extending it to a triangle, with an abundance of sappy exposition which is then replaced at some point with all-out action amongst the film’s awesome production values. However, what James Cameron succeeded in doing and where “Pearl Harbor” ultimately falters and even stumbles is in the creation of characters that cling to the teenage hearts for which they are intended.
Plotwise, it’s pretty simple: Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) grow up in Tennessee as best friends and enlist in the U.S. Air Force bound by their eternal love of flying. During this time, Rafe meets and falls in love with beautiful nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a relationship troubled from the outset by the looming World War II, and he eventually leaves her behind to fight with the British in Europe, and subsequently shot down in a dogfight with German planes. Stricken with grief while posted in Hawaii, Evelyn and Danny get ever closer, eventually realising they’re in love. Suddenly however Rafe turns up, only presumed dead. And at about the same time the Japanese forces in the Pacific carry out their planned attack on the titular navy base.
While it’s all very ambitious and visually impressive, one must question why the love story was inserted in such length when Bay really only wants to get to the action sequences. This is of course an inherent flaw in all his films but it stands to reason that the man had better become a second unit director where he could have all the fun with the action and leave the drama to someone else, like what has been done in many James Bond films. Bay is simply not capable of transmitting to the audience a story or characters we can care about. Instead of fleshing out the roots of Rafe and Danny’s friendship or the back-story of the political intrigue, he chooses to create horrible schmaltz next to the Queen Mary liner (a scene Bay wrote himself) and have Affleck smacked bang in the face with a champagne cork. In a film with a running-time of just under three hours, this would have been a real opportunity with plenty of time left over for multiple love stories and plenty of smooching. What’s presented instead are many plot threads which aren’t knotted together at any place. Take for example Cuba Gooding Jr.’s excellent portrayal of Doris Miller, the first African-American to be presented with the Navy Cross for his actions at Pearl Harbor. In itself it’s a very touching story but one which bears no relationship to the main plot whatsoever. A film about his life would have been so much more interesting.
Another irritating point is the portrayal of the Japanese. Every scene, they feature in is extremely beautiful from a visual perspective yet their function is little more than to say exactly what they’re planning to do for the history-illiterates in the audience. No thought (be it negative or otherwise) is invested in the Japanese ideals of honour or what exactly dying on the battlefield meant for these soldiers and pilots. “Empire of the Sun” managed far more in much simpler ways. Needless to say the film was not well received in Japan even after some changes had been made to the final cut that was screened in the country. Not until Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” five years later could western audiences really explore these values. Naturally “Pearl Harbor” is being made from an American and Hollywood viewpoint yet some of the scenes in the final third are so patriotic it’s almost embarrassing. Maybe it’s just something I as a European cannot identify with.
There are some good points. As already alluded to, production design and cinematography are top-notch. Additionally Bay manages to build in some powerful moments during the attack, for example the nurses who had never seen a patient up to now are suddenly thrown right into the centre of the carnage or the destruction of the battleships is pretty realistic. Unfortunately scenes like this are few and far between. As for the climax of the story, well this too could have been handled differently. The action clearly climaxes with the “Pearl Harbor” attack. The love-triangle plot could also have been sorted out neatly here. For some reason the screenplay is extremely reluctant to have characters die at this point and so we are launched into a bombing mission that could have filled another film in itself.
Jerry Bruckheimer has always collaborated with Hans Zimmer or his associates and together they have defined a “blockbuster sound” for the nineties and noughties. For “Pearl Harbor” however Zimmer focuses mainly on writing a melodramatic love theme for the story. In the film this only helps to accentuate the schlocky love-story despite not being period-correct but makes for much better listening on the album. Coupled with the Faith Hill end credits song, it’s surprisingly devoid of Zimmerish action material (although there are volumes of it present in the film). A very recommended album for fans of the German composer.
“Pearl Harbour” is ambitious but overlong, a typical brainless blockbuster that tries to be more and with a bit of effort could have been so much better. In rating the film it’s easy to pass over all it’s redeeming features. I have tried to avoid that but know that it wins one full star for the visuals alone. As expected “Pearl Harbor” became the blockbuster it was meant to be, almost quadrupling it’s $140 million budget but quite frankly, if it’s tales of troubled love in war you seek, you can do a lot better.
Is it just me or are my reviews getting longer? Do you like this or do you prefer things short and sweet? Let me know: Please feel free to leave a comment. Also please follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my E-mail sub. Thank for reading and all the best!
May 2, 2010
Adventure, Drama, Epic/Historical, Film, Western
Avatar, Bull durham, Clint Eastwood, Dances With Wolves, Field of Dreams, Film, film music, Graham Greene, Indians, James Bond, John Barry, John Wayne, Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Michael Blake, movies, Open Range, Oscars, picture, review, Rodney A. Grant, score, Sioux, The Last Samurai, Untouchables, Western
Actors turning into directors is always a tricky subject, much like singers turned actors. This is because for every true master like Clint Eastwood who has brought us some wonderful films, there’s always someone who just isn’t built for the job. It is understandable then that Kevin Costner’s decision to both star in and direct “Dances With Wolves” was met with some apprehension. Furthermore there was the subject matter: A western. Didn’t that genre die with John Wayne? The project, it seemed, was destined to fail. However Costner was riding on a wave of successes in the late 80s (“The Untouchables”, “Bull Durham”, “Field of Dreams”) and it soon became apparent that his directorial skills were on par with his onscreen ones.
This was clearly a western of a different type. The screenplay was adapted from his own novel by Michael Blake and tells the story of Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) who, after an apparent act of heroism chooses to be reassigned to the western frontier of America, in search of himself as much as anything else. Finding his post deserted, Dunbar soon comes into contact with a wolf and the local Sioux tribe. However he soon realises that the Indians are far from the thieves many make them out to be but a people of laughter, harmony and peace. Friendships are formed and as Dunbar learns more and more about them and earns their respect he gradually becomes disillusioned with his white kinsmen. The Indians name him Dances With Wolves and as he finds love he decides to shake off the Union soldier altogether. The tale of shedding one’s own values in favour of a culture more spiritually advanced is by no means a new one and has indeed been copied many times since (“The Last Samurai”, “Avatar”).
However what makes this “Dances With Wolves” stand out is in it’s sheer beauty, scale and ultimately its message. Costner has a keen eye for detail, a style some may call simplistic but here it works wonders. The spirit of adventure and the unknown is captured perfectly in the vast spaces of the prairies, a land as of yet undefined by white settlers. It is clear that the nomad culture of the Indians is drawing to a close as ‘civilisation’ encroaches and this gives the picture an idyllic if mournful beauty rarely seen in previous efforts to highlight their struggle for survival. Costner and Blake can do so much more than stage action sequences. But when action is called for boy do they let rip: From the opening firefight emerging from tense waiting to the thrilling Pawnee attack and climatic rescue, the action is every bit on par with the matinee serials of the 50s. The highlight is the spectacular buffalo hunt in the middle of the film. Amazingly (as one of the special features on the DVD reveals) this was done for real with Costner and stuntmen riding among a herd within an enclosure.
It is important to mention however that this isn’t only Costner’s show. With a running time of over three hours – and an even longer directors cut – it is possible for all the characters to be properly fleshed out. It is a joy to encounter the different Indians and their reaction to a white man in their presence from the wild Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) and the wise chief Ten Bears (Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman) to the inexperienced youngster Smiles A Lot, Mary McDonnell’s Stands With A Fist and perhaps the most significantly Kicking Bird played by Graham Greene. He is a thinker keen to understand the white man, eager to learn and becomes Dunbar’s most valuable friend. The fact that much of the dialogue is spoken in Lakota Sioux with subtitles lends the actors an authenticity few other portrayals can match and the inevitably tragic outcome will leave many viewers heartbroken and hopefully reconsidering their stance in relation to present day Indians still living on reservation in the U.S.
Who better to score a tale of romantic adventure than John Barry? Apart from his escapades into the world of James Bond (which launched his career) Barry has become a master of the style and “Dances With Wolves” is in many ways a culmination of all his talents. The sweeping score perfectly captures the expanses of the landscape and the main John Dunbar theme soars whether played as a militaristic trumpet call of as a softer representation of the character. Added to this are two beautiful flute themes “The Wolf Theme” and “Love Theme” and wild percussion and horns to portray the Indians (mainly Pawnee but sometimes Sioux) at their more warlike. On the soundtrack album the best cue is arguably “Journey to Fort Sedgewick.” In any case this is most likely the best score of John Barry’s long career.
Far from being a failure “Dances With Wolves” turned out to be one of the best things about 1990 (OK, I was also born then…) and walked away with seven Oscars, two for Costner (Best Picture and Best Director, although he was also nominated for Best Actor) and one for Barry. If you seek a western that truly explores the meaning of the ‘West’ then this is the one you need to see. Although Costner has taken on other projects (“The Postman” and “Open Range”) he has not yet managed to top this. It’s an absolute masterpiece!
That’s it for another week. Please leave a comment and any feedback is appreciated. Feel free to subscribe to the blog or follow me on Twitter. Until next time.