Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" may look like a sports movie, but the veteran director-actor is again exploring the theme of community, which has shown up in films as widely varied as "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and "Gran Torino."
"Invictus," based on John Carlin's book "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation," tells the story of a South African rugby team that improbably won the world championship a couple years after Nelson Mandela's election as the country's first black president. At that point - despite apartheid being gone - litle had changed. Whites still controlled the economy, and poor blacks, who had been brutalized in the old regime, were expecting faster changes, especially from a president who took office a few years after his release from a 27-year incareration.
Mandela, wily played by Morgan Freeman, spots a way to help pull the country together in the form of a white South African rugby team. The nation is about to host the world championship, but even Mandela's aides are baffled as to why he wants to back the team led by Fran ois Pienaar, played with appropriate reserve by Matt Damon. The two become unlikely allies in a quest to find a common cause for the people of a fragile democracy.
Throughout his career, Eastwood has been famously associated with the idea of revenge, and throughout the film the threat of retaliation hangs in the air. But by focusing on smaller moments, the director efficiently tells a story of uneasy reconciliation. And while most Americans may not know much about rugby, they'll get the picture.
Stars follow their hearts
Almost anyone in Hollywood whose first name began with a J was in Garry Marshall's romantic comedy "Valentine's Day" - Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Jennifer Garner, Jamie Foxx and Julia Roberts.
Throw in Kathy Bates, Bradley Cooper, Eric Dane, Patrick Dempsey, Hector Elizondo, Anne Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher, Queen Latifah, George Lopez, Shirley MacLaine and a few others and you get a hodgepodge of a ensemble piece. Marshall has struck gold with Roberts before ("Pretty Woman," "Runaway Bride"), but America's sweetheart spends most of her time sitting on a plane next to Cooper. Nothing is too romantic or funny in "Valentine's Day," but it's not too painful either. There is one surprise in songstress Taylor Swift, who proves to be a good comic actor.
Harrelson on a mission
Sometimes because of all the goofy roles he plays we forget that Woody Harrelson is a fine actor. In "The Messenger," writer-director Oren Moverman's absorbing drama, the actor got an Oscar nomination portraying a soldier who informs families that their loved ones have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Harrelson's character, Capt. Tony Stone, a veteran of the first Gulf War, has no special skills for such a delicate mission, and for the most part he's baffled by how to handle the reactions.
"The Messenger" has a fine cast, including Ben Foster, Jena Malone and Samantha Morton, who plays a soldier's widow. Moverman - whose writing credits include "I'm Not There," "Married Life" and "Jesus' Son" - gives us a dark but not overly dramatic portrait of the situation that intelligently explores its complexities.
Ford, Fraser team up
"Extraordinary Measures" is partly a medical drama and partly about how medical research is conducted and financed. It involves a mismatched pair - the younger, emotional John Crowley (Brendan Fraser), a biotech executive, and the older, gruffer scientist Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford). Together they attempt to find a cure for a fatal genetic disorder that plagues Crowley's family and threatens his two youngest children.
Directed by Tom Vaughan and loosely based on a true story, "Extraordinary Measures" interestingly balances the emotional pull of the dying children with the political and technological problems that the pair faced in doing their research.
Keep in mind
Nicolas Roeg's 1971 film "Walkabout" is a bit of a forgotten masterpiece. It tells the story of a young sister and brother, abandoned in the harsh Australian outback, who must learn to cope in the natural world with the help of a young Aborigine on his "walkabout," a rite of passage in which adolescent boys are initiated into manhood by journeying into the wilderness alone. The new Criterion version includes a restored high-definition digital transfer approved by Roeg, commentary featuring Roeg and actress Jenny Agutter and video interviews with Agutter and actor Luc Roeg.