At The Movies

Unity and diversity at the movies:
“Invictus” and “The Princess and the Frog”

This week we got two anticipated movies: Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” and Disney’s African American heroine in “The Princess and the Frog.”
The first recounts the period after Nelson Mandela’s election as President of South Africa, after decades in prison, and his struggle to unite a divided country. In one bold move, he championed the country’s almost exclusively white rugby team in recognition of the value of shared popular heroes. The second is a return to hand drawn animation for Disney and a bid to recognize diversity with the story of a young African American woman struggling to elevate herself from poverty in a voodoo-rich New Orleans.  

“Invictus” is an inspiring story, very well told, and it benefits from Eastwood’s simple direction and his ear for understated musical themes. It’s surprisingly politics-free in the context of a difficult time as South Africa crawled out from under the apartheid rock and re-entered the world of sports and commerce. Instead we see Mandela as a judge of personalities and motivation as, for example, he encourages the staff from the old administration to stick around and share their expertise with his new government, reassuring them that they won’t be fired because of the color of their skin.

In contrast, “The Princess and the Frog” is workmanlike and solid but somewhat bland, with secondary characters that seem a little familiar. Ray the (animated insult to Cajuns everywhere) firefly is no Jiminy Cricket. It’s hard for me to imagine being a kid and wanting buttons or pillowcases with any of this cast of characters on them. The score and original songs by Randy Newman makes one wonder at an intentional celebration of ethnic diversity told through music written by an old white guy, albeit an extremely talented one.
That might be a relatively harsh criticism in the same column as writing praise for a celebration of African leadership by an even older white guy, but “The Princess and the Frog,” while moderately pleasant to watch and listen to, does sound a bit like a Randy Newman theme album.  Anyway, I’m off to the store to buy a Nelson Mandela and Clint Eastwood matching pillowcase set. I suggest you and Barack Obama watch “Invictus.”

Up in the Air
Directed by Jason Reitman

George Clooney is perhaps at his best when playing a charming but otherwise flawed and fairly ordinary guy – and as Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air” he’s just that. Bingham is a traveling representative for a company that sends out experts in firing employees and, in these hard times, business is booming. On the road almost every day of the year, Bingham’s routine and life are defined by his ability to travel and pass through airports efficiently. His personal goals have begun to revolve around his frequent flier mileage balance. He’s the ultimate traveling bachelor, and his home is so barren it looks like a room he’d never stay in on the road because his points would always earn him an upgrade to something better.  
But it’s his life that’s dearly in need of an upgrade. Solitary and emotionless, he’s barely connected to anybody on a personal basis. It’s a dynamic that people who have lived alone for long periods may find familiar as one convinces oneself of one’s own self-sufficiency over another dinner eaten alone or another holiday spent at the movie theater. Many of us have been there, and this may contribute to the success of the character as depicted, including the changes that force their way into his life, upsetting his equilibrium.  
Clooney is well-supported by Anna Kendrick as a young go-getter in the company, Vera Farmiga as a parallel female road warrior, and Jason Bateman as his boss. Jason Reitman continues his recent positive track record, following “Juno” and “Thank You for Smoking” with another winner.  (Opens Dec 18th)

Me and Orson Welles
Directed by Richard Linklater

It might seem an odd pairing of Richard Linklater (“Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Waking Life”) and Zac Efron (the “High School Musical” series, “Hairspray”) in a period drama about a teen who gets involved in Orson Welles’ first production of Caesar at the Mercury Theater in 1937 – but it works. Much of this is dependent on Christian McKay, who is excellent as Welles, but the whole production has a fresh feel to it. Efron proves that he’s more than just a Disney pretty face, with a natural confidence that’s reminiscent of DiCaprio’s earliest work.

At the heart of the story is the stage production – the play within the film – and this is a film that should appeal greatly to actors and lovers of the theater, as well as cinema.  There’s also a scene of a live radio drama and it was neat to watch it the day after watching the stage show of “The 1940’s Radio Hour” at the Studio Theater in Sacramento (another neat holiday pick).  I heartily recommend them both. (Opens Dec 18th)

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