Endgame

It’s the late 1980s in South Africa. The most important political prisoner of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela (a miscast Clarke Peters), is being readied for his release as brutal violence and unrest are reaching a boiling point. Realizing that civil war is very bad for its African interests, a powerful English gold trading firm sends a conscientious PR flack (Jonny Lee Miller) to set-up secret negotiations. Will Esterhuyse (William Hurt), a centrist Afrikaner academic, is dragooned into going into those negotiations to act as a spy for the brutal neo-fascist white supremacist apartheid regime. Eventually, however, he finds himself actually forging common ground and heroically comes clean to the leader of the ANC delegation, future South African President Thabo Mbeki (Chiwitel Ejiorfor).

Unfortunately, director Pete Travis (“Vantage Point“) tries to make what actually should be a rather traditional PBS production into an over-amped action thriller, despite the reality that the real “action” of this story amounts to several white guys and black guys sitting around talking. Travis’s disinterest in the actual content of the story, his irritating and pointless reliance on jarring editing and sound effects, and a hideous audio mix which often makes the dialogue impossible to understand without turning up the volume to painful levels, destroys the inherent drama of the story as well as strong performances from some great actors. It’s a crime because, “Invictus” notwithstanding, the story of how apartheid ended without the catastrophic bloodbath the world fully expected still demands to be told on screen.

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Thursday night movie news dump

I usually do this on Friday, but the interesting film related stories have been coming fairly hot and heavy all week and it’s time to play catch up. I’m telling you right now, as long as this post is, whatever the most important and interesting story from this eventful week turns out to be, it’ll be the one I skip.

* When I first heard about the project a week or so back, I was taken by the prospect of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black segueing from a biopic about the first openly gay U.S. politician in “Milk” to one about by far the most powerful closeted gay man in American history, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was the first director of the FBI starting in 1935 and, in a real blow to our democracy, intimidated several presidents into keeping him in the position until his death in 1972, a shocking 37 years later.

An already interesting project got even more interesting, however, a couple of days back when word got out that none other than Clint Eastwood, who will be joining the very smal club of octogenerian directors this May, might choose to helm it. (The Playlist broke the news on the 10th that Eastwood was “set” to direct; yesterday Borys Kit of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that he was merely “eying” the project.).

Taken together with “Invictus,” this would be the second time the right leaning but independent-minded Republican would be taking on subject matter that deals obliquely with a significant moral failure of American conservatism. Nearly all well-known conservatives tacitly supported both the racist and fascist pre-Mandela South African regime and Hoover’s uninterrupted reign.

In the case of “Invictus,” the idea of him doing it turned out to be more interesting than the film. However, for the man who embodied “get tough” law enforcement concepts as Dirty Harry to take on a law enforcement figure who enjoyed getting tough with anyone who dared to espouse politics he deemed radical — but not the mafia — that’s a horse of a potentially very different color. One to watch.

Clint Eastwood will take your question later

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Golden Globes movie nominations: “Up in the Air” leads the way

I’ll start with the facts on the Golden Globe movie nominations, which came out this morning, and move on to just a bit of opining about the awards themselves later on. (Will Harris has his thoughts on who should win among the television Golden Globe nominees down below.)

As the above indicates, Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” collected the most nominations from the awards given annually by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assocation (HFPA) with six nods. Just behind it was most of the other films that are emerging as this year’s awards usual suspects. The Broadway musical adaptation from director Rob Marshall, “Nine,” got five nominations; “Avatar,” and “Inglourious Basterds” received four nominations each. Following with three nominations were “The Hurt Locker,” “Invictus” and “Precious,” as well as two names that are somewhat new to this year’s awards sweepstakes, Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” and the upcoming star driven comedy from Nancy Myers, “It’s Complicated.” (Thanks to Nikki Finke, or her inevitably long-suffering assistant, for providing not only a complete list of nominations, but also a convenient awards tally not only by film, but also by studio and TV network.)

Neither “A Single Man” nor “Invictus” made the cut for “Best Picture – Drama.” Meryl Streep and Matt Damon both got two acting nominations, with Streep competing against herself in the “Best Actress – Comedy” category for “Julie & Julia” and “It’s Complicated.”

One factor that somewhat complicates covering the Globes is that they separate dramas from comedies and musicals. This year, “Up in the Air,” which bills itself as a “dramatic comedy” but which a lot of people seem to see as simply a mature and relatively low-key comedy with topical overtones, was nominated in the drama category. This prompted the AP (via MSNBC) to opine that the nomination in that category could give it more “weight” for the Oscars. I have to say that, while it’s so wrong in some many ways, there may be some truth to that and getting the meme out that the film is more drama than comedy might help Oscar voters to nominate it.

up-in-the-air-movie-review2

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“Princess and the Frog” leaps as expected; “Invictus” is a bit short of the goal line

The Princess and the FrogIf you compare tonight’s post to what I said on Thursday, you’ll see there were no gigantic surprises this week. Disney’s return to traditional cell animation with “”The Princess and the Frog” performed pretty much completely in line with expectations and earned a very nice, though not gigantic, $25 million over its opening weekend. So says ever jolly Carl DiOrio and also the handy dandy Box Office Mojo chart.

Clint Eastwood‘s “Invictus,” on  the other hand, came in third behind the $15.4 million performance of the mega-sleeper “The Blind Side,” to earn a slightly short-of-the-mark $9.1 million. It’s worth noting that the politically-tinged Eastwood film was in a smaller number of theaters and had a very respectable average of $4,275 per screen. That is just a wee bit short of the more commercially successful Sandra Bullock vehicle, which is also a racially themed, fact-based, inspirational sports tale.

Otherwise, recent releases held on in more or less typical ways and there really wasn’t anything too exciting happening. In particular, there where no big break-outs among limited release films. The latest new entry into the late-year Oscar sweepstakes, the festival hit, “A Single Man,” did fine on its opening week in nine theaters earning $216,000, but the directorial debut of clothes designer Tom Ford, based on a book by Christopher Isherwood, will probably need some bigger awards buzz than its currently getting if it’s going to break out of the arthouse ghetto even a little bit.

The Lovely Bones,” however, managed the week’s biggest per-screen average of $38,000. However, that was only at three theaters. Considering the film’s very disappointing critical performance and its dark subject matter, its commercial prospects still seem even dimmer than it’s awards prospects. Indeed, it looks to be eclipsed in every way by the violent little sci-fi flick film co-writer-director Peter Jackson produced earlier this year for award-winning first-timer Neil Blomkamp, “District 9.” Still, a technical nomination or two might help “Bones” to be a less gigantic come down for Peter Jackson.

Saoirse Ronan in

  

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“The Princess and the Frog” to top Clint, Mandela, and that rugby guy

We technically have only major new release this week.  Clint Eastwood‘s “Invictus” is already scoring with critics and will no doubt do well enough initially based largely on the fact that Eastwood is one of the few directorial names that actually means something to the mass audience some of whom may believe he’s actually in it. The appeal of stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon and the now nearly saintly status of Nelson Mandela won’t hurt either, though the name might throw some off the scent. In any case, not even Mandela, movie stars, or the mighty Clint can compete against a Disney princess.

The Princess and the Frog

The Princess and the Frog” has been doing dynamite business playing extremely small and special engagements and will be going out to some 3,434 theaters this weekend as opposed to a relatively modest 2,125 for “Invictus.” It’s probably the final rub that “Princess” actually edges out “Invictus” slightly on the Tomatometer, though both films are well short of the Pixar-plus 90% stratosphere in any case.

Anyhow, it’s an interesting pairing and very much in the zeitgeist of Obama’s America. As Roger Ebert points out, this is the first Disney animated film to feature African-American characters since the Disney-banned “Song of the South.” It even features a once unthinkable more or less interracial romance.

Morgan Freeman in “Invictus” is also interesting racially and politically because it deals with the dismantling of apartheid, a system of injustice that many of Clint Eastwood’s fellow Republicans downplayed or minimized during the Reagan and Bush years, while characterizing Nelson Mandela as  a dangerous terrorist, or at least someone who palled around with Yassir Arafat and assorted communists. (That second part was true; what was also true was that those particular communists were mostly anti-apartheid heroes like Joe Slovo.) To his credit, Eastwood has always marched to his own drummer and few avowedly liberal filmmakers have been as thoughtful or sensitive on ethnic matters, so  he may just be the perfect director to bring the topic to the mainstream.

Reviewers seem to agree that “Invictus” is perhaps as much a political drama along the lines of, say, “The Queen,” as it is an inspirational sports film. On the other hand, it is the very model of the kind of film that gets nominated for, and wins, Academy Awards. Seeing as once promising potential awards-contenders — like ex-critical darling Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones,” which got a somewhat conflicted nod from our own David Medsker but  is getting overall mediocre-to-bad reviews as it stumbles into a very limited release this week — are falling by the wayside, Oscar is once again likely to be Clint Eastwood’s best friend at the box office.

As discussed by jolly Carl DiOrio, who dispensed with his video segment this week, “The Princess and the Frog” is thought likely to make roughly $25 million, it’s first weekend as its grosses will be somewhat moderated by the fact that winter vacation hasn’t started yet for most elementary students, while “Invictus” will likely earn in the $12-14 million range. A surprise is possible, but I see not reason to argue with the gods of tracking this weekend.

  

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