Wednesday, December 16, 2009

(Golden) Global Affairs

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Looking back on the first entry I wrote to kick off this tear of blogging I've done here at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second in the past month, I notice that I had initially planned on posting merely once a week, as I have tried to do in the past. It's gratifying, then, to see that it's become much more than a weekly thing. I hope all of you who read this are enjoying this barrage, because for once, I'm enjoying throwing this barrage at you all.

First things first, then: I find myself with nothing to say, really, about the Golden Globe nominations announced yesterday; there aren't many noteworthy surprises among the crop that I can see. And it's futile to complain about the Hollywood Foreign Press's legion of snubs (Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker, Tilda Swinton for Julia, the provocative Romanian film Police, Adjective—the list could go on and on), because most likely they're just nominating based on existing trends anyway. So no surprise Up in the Air—which is still on my to-watch list—is getting a lot of love this year; many critics groups have already crowned it as the movie of the year; same for The Hurt Locker (though yeah, I think it's a great film as well). It's all about glamour, artificial drama and horse races, not the art of cinema; in other words, it's showbiz, not art. But I'm sure many of you already knew that. 

Once I see most or all of the nominated films/performances, perhaps I'll have more to say, mostly regarding personal preferences. Also, I don't watch a whole lot of primetime television anymore, so I definitely have next-to-nothing to say about the TV nominations (I still haven't jumped on the "Mad Men" bandwagon yet, for one thing).

In the meantime, a few words on a couple more films, one of them a Golden Globe hopeful.

Invictus (2009; Dir.: Clint Eastwood)

I'm not sure I have much to really say about this one either. Clint Eastwood's latest work is well-intentioned and has a couple of excellent lead performances from Morgan Freeman, as Nelson Mandela, and Matt Damon, as a South African rugby-team leader—but it's also just kind of boring and plodding in spots. It feels less like august contemplation from this 79-year-old American director, and more like merely a lack of urgency. Nevertheless, it doesn't screw up the inspiring true story—a South African rugby team's climb from national ill repute to World Cup contenders in 1995 during Nelson Mandela's presidency—at its heart, and it has at least one intelligent thematic curve to its otherwise predictably told story worth engaging with.

Structurally speaking, Invictus hews fastidiously to the standard underdog-sports-movie formula—no sucker-punch curves in its third act a la Million Dollar Baby—but it turns out not to be so much about whether this particular sports underdog becomes World Cup champions in 1995; if you know the history of the event the film covers, you already know that they succeed. Instead, Invictus—at least, in its more intriguing first half—directly takes on the idea of this rugby team's climb to victory as a consciously manipulative social symbol. Mandela, in his zeal to find a way to close the divide between blacks and whites in post-apartheid South Africa, latches onto the Springboks—a team that has become a denigrated symbol of South Africa's apartheid past—as a symbolic way to unite the nation and bridge that racial divide. What is admittedly refreshing about Invictus is that it doesn't merely accept Mandela's political calculation at face value; it genuinely explores the implications of this move, even questioning, at least a little bit, whether Mandela was perhaps being more politically manipulative than noble.

Once the sports-movie formula starts to really kick in during its last hour or so, Invictus becomes considerably less engaging, as the team's path to World Cup victory merely plays itself out via rather unimaginatively filmed rugby sequences (Eastwood's idea of turning up the suspense during the climactic final match is to turn a whole stretch of it into uniform slow-motion). Nevertheless, Damon's character's burgeoning political awareness, thanks to Mandela's calculation, is sometimes quite affecting; there's one rather beautiful scene in which he stands in the prison Mandela was held in for 27 years and literally imagines his turmoil. And if you consider the whole story in terms of Mandela's strategy of focusing on symbols as a source of national inspiration, then even the by-the-numbers rugby sequences take on a deeper retroactive resonance: It's not so much whether the Springboks win or not, but how their run toward the big prize unites and inspires a nation, at least for the moment—which makes the fact that they do achieve victory perhaps even more inspiring than it might have been otherwise.

Invictus may not necessarily breathe fresh air into this played-out genre, but Eastwood handles things with his usual no-nonsense simplicity—even if, in this particular case, "no-nonsense" means something occasionally didactic and dull.

Loot (2008; Dir.: Darius Marder)

Darius Marder's debut feature—which is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York—follows Lance Larson, an amateur treasure hunter looking for treasure stashed during World War II by a couple of veterans, one in Austria, the other in the Philippines. But his journeys takes him into many unexpected, psychologically fraught areas, one that ultimately becomes less about finding treasure, and more about how the two veterans themselves find ways to deal with their sometimes horrifying memories of war. Lance himself becomes rattled by the personal parallels he finds among these two vets (the vets had 19-year-old sons that were done in by drug overdoses; Lance's 19-year-old son is currently fighting his own addiction). As their journeys draw to their respective conclusions, whether or not the two vets find the closure they seek, Lance seems to have his own worldview and priorities expanded right before our very eyes. In a year in which a lot of excellent films (A Serious Man, You, the Living, Fantastic Mr. Fox—any others you readers can think of along those same lines?) have been, in some ways, about grasping and possibly understanding forces beyond ourselves, Loot is a modest, unexpectedly moving addition to such distinguished company.

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