Invincible (2006), or Well Meaning, But Empty

23 12 2009

Well, ladies and germs, it’s almost Christmas time, so I suppose it’s time for me to review an uplifting film for a change. I am not keen on watching too many actual Christmas movies, considering that most of them leave a taste in my mouth I could only liken to that of a candy cane found in a dead man’s chest cavity, so I’ll instead opt to just write a review on a movie that is not about murder or bizarre sexual practices. Disney’s Invincible is one of those feel-good movies, a movie that makes you believe that you can do anything if you try hard enough, even if it just isn’t possible in any realistic sensibility. It also tries to remind us that second chances ARE possible, despite our high-minded cynicism. It’s an unreasonably bland affair, other than the message of hope, with not that much to bolster its 90 minute run time besides a plot so hardwired to the tracks that changing the course with original thoughts might just be structurally impossible. But, in this instance, that isn’t such a bad thing.

The plot is based on the true story of the 1976 Philadelphia Football Team With Some Mascot I Can’t Think Of At The Moment. Their team sucks big time, embarrassing the city and all the owners. So, in a desperate bid for success, they try something SO CRAZY THAT IT JUST MIGHT WORK; they actually start open tryouts for people to play on their NFL team. The one guy they cull from the droves of idiots and not-quites is Vince Papale, a 30 year old Philly native who has the drive to win and a burning desire to prove himself. His life has hit the skids since his wife left him, his teaching job fell through, and he was reduced to bartending at a local pub recently to keep himself afloat. He is a long shot, being a little old to start out as a rookie, but that won’t stop him, and maybe nothing will. But desperate coach Dick Vermeil will ride this guy’s ass until he’s ready to quit; can these two take each other to the Playoffs in 1976? Or is Vince too old to start a new career as a guy who gets beat to shit for a living?

There goes my cynicism again! And I JUST finished watching this movie! In spite of my misgivings, it actually is a very inspiring movie. Much like the Disney movies of old, I was moved to go out and do something with myself after I got done with it. The “based on a true story” aspect of it is really the neat part. Someone with a dream and a lot of initiative actually made it into the NFL, beating out all other prospective hopefuls and joining the ranks of legendary football players like (and these are just off the top of my head) Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, um, Babe Ruth, Pelé, and Winston Churchill, I think. It makes you feel like any day could be the day you turn your life around. I think the world needs a little more of that, even if it’s from a predictable football movie.

The movie is really sold by Mark Wahlberg. His Vince Papale is as earnest as can be, and a real charmer to boot. The first part of the film, watching Papale’s life fall apart, wasn’t pretty to watch, and he made us feel it personally with his body language and an impressive failure in his eyes. It is a role that seems to define his later career, that of the put-upon man looking for some sort of redemption. But here he certainly gets it and then some as an actor. Greg Kinnear shines as similarly put-upon coach of the Philadelphia Platypi (is that it?), but he doesn’t fare as well. The problem is that his hard-ass coach role has been filed by so many more impressive performances over the years, like Gene Hackman or Denzel Washington, that this seems sort of an afterthought to have him here. I would have much rather seen Robert Patrick as the hard-ass coach than nonthreatening Greg Kinnear. I could kill Greg Kinnear with my left thigh alone, so watching him coach fully grown large men without a larger-than-life attitude to back it up is a little weak. And Elizabeth Banks shows up as a love interest for Vince to look really pretty. She can’t even really look too HOT, since this is a Disney movie, so her contributions are scanty at best.

Invincible isn’t really a movie to dwell on too much. It’s a sports movie where a guy gets everything he wanted after living a life of poverty and loneliness. We get it, nobody will be surprised at the ideas being put forth, and this will end up as a movie sold at Wal Mart around 3:28 in the morning. But Invincible has a spirit that a lot of movies today have lost in their pessimism. It gently reminds us of a most valuable lesson, that it’s never too late to take your life in your hands and go for it; there are no rules in our hearts, just the limits we build around it. I enjoyed that immensely, even though I thought most everything else was trending towards the mediocre, including the soundtrack, most of the acting, and the incredibly boring direction. All in all, though, Invincible still gets 6 1/2 Philadelphia Platypi out of 10!

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, so I will be very curious as to what I watch! Hopefully it’s something positive and uplifting! Until then!!

The Departed (2006), or Palpable Dupilicity

17 12 2009

A big thanks to the always-delightful Jenni for requesting this movie! And letting me borrow the special edition on DVD! And for being so generous with her time! Thanks for just being Jenni!

Martin Scorcese has made an entire mainstream career out of the crime drama. The life of the criminal is something that has taken a firm grip in his imagination for the past 40 years in the business. From Italian mobsters to turn of the century Irish gang members to Italian mobsters to psychotic rapists to Italian mobsters, Scorcese has examined the ne’er-do-well and put his methods into the public consciousness for generations to come.  Scorcese’s most recent crime film, The Departed, is another classic that deserves to live atop the glittering, gleaming mountain of public adoration that his other movies inhabit. It’s an intense, intricate examination of identity in a cat-and-mouse struggle that does not let up for more than a moment.

Basically a remake of Infernal Affairs, a blazing Asian crime film made in ’02, The Departed changes the setting from Hong Kong to Boston and adds a few Scorcesian twists. Colin Sullivan, growing up in the mean streets of Boston, was always protected by local mob boss Frank Costello. Costello treated him like a father, the way he did with many young men in the neighborhood, grooming them for service in his syndicate. Costello placed so much faith in him that he trained Sullivan to be his mole in the police, so that he would keep tabs on all the cops poking in on his business. Sullivan has done all that has been asked of him by Costello, who he sees as something of a father figure, and it has been easy for him to play both sides. Unfortunately for him, the police have begun to suspect a mole is in their midst, so they send out one of their own. William Costigan, a young cop from a poor Irish Catholic family, is asked to pose as a criminal, gain entry into Costello’s inner circle, and help bring him down. Both of them infiltrate into their assigned organizations, but they both end up arousing suspicions about spies, so they are essentially sent on missions looking for themselves (!!!). Someone has to sniff out someone, though, so it becomes a battle between the two moles to reveal each other before it’s too late. Who will prevail? And how many lives will be lost in the process?

What a captivating concept!!! The Departed takes the innate suspence of lies and recrimination and uses it against us as we are helpless against the drama of it all. Scorcese keeps us rapt in attention as we mysteriously cheer for the sustaining of a lie. Costigan’s situation is such a lose-lose. Much like Nick Nolte’s character from Mother Night, his identity is basically in the hands of one man. Nobody else knows he is undercover, so he has every possibility of being arrested, which would be bad because Sullivan is a police officer!!! It’s very intense, but we are also taken in a bit by the family-man nature of Sullivan. Besides dropping some info here and there to Costello, he’s not a serial killer or some kind of madman. He’s just a man with ties who is trying to cover his ass and his buddy Costello’s ass while he works his sweet desk job. It’s incredibly well-written, and I found myself really involved with these characters and their confusing lives.

Scorcese did not make a shot-for-shot remake by any means. He adds the flair of a director still wanting to try something new. He and his constant cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, creates a Boston that is dirty, frightening, and hopeless. It’s also the most intriguing portrait of the city I have ever seen, so what does that say for the city itself, I wonder… Either way, these characters live in a rough and tumble city, so everybody in this town seems to be as tough as nails. The way they’re shot, the way they talk, and the way they seem to constantly skirt death, all seem to suggest an outward toughness that is only equaled by their hidden, vulnerable interiors. Scorcese really outdid himself here, and while there’s not much to mull over, it doesn’t seem to give us much time to think anyway, so it makes for a good, quality drama that has a lot of stylistic tones to keep us invested.

The cast is superb, as far as big-name Hollywood goes. Jack Nicholson, although somewhat of a Red Herring as far as the story goes, steals the show as Frank Costello. He chews so much scenery I’m surprised he didn’t rip a hole in Boston’s side! His character is so crass and loud and, at times, ridiculous, that it’s like he’s from a different movie. Costello is that character who doesn’t give a fuck anymore because he’s old, but he’d rather die than let anyone disrespect him, so he randomly becomes super-serious and rather scary on a dime, which I suppose is Jack Nicholson’s specialty. What an exceptional character! I love the two moles, though, as well, Sullivan and Costigan, who are played by Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio respectively. These two are intense! They both play essentially the same character under different circumstances, but it’s really interesting how much more you care about DiCaprio’s Costigan despite their similarities. Costigan has it rough, having to pretend to be a street tough and not having much means of fighting back against Sullivan’s trickery. But Sullivan does have the mental anguish to contend with, the nagging sensation that what he’s doing is wrong and that Costello is just using him. Both actors do a fine job, and I’m glad they received the attention they did at the Academy Awards. There are a few good cameos, but my favorite two are Vera Farmiga, whose small role as a psychiatrist who is romantically linked to both moles is the emotional rock of this rough-and-tumble crime saga. She again impresses, just like she did in the shameful horror film Orphan, and makes me connect to this story even more. Mark Wahlberg plays Dignam, one of the only cops aware of Costigan’s identity, and a real bad-ass. No more Mr. Nice Guy here! Marky Mark is willing to fuck some stuff up to get the info he needs and the respect he deserves. Any in-fighting between the cops usually involves him being one step away from pounding someone. He’s great, and I particularly enjoyed his fateful exchange with an FBI goon asking about his contacts, who happens to be his brother, Robert Wahlberg:

Agent Lazio: Do you have anyone in with Costello presently?

Dignam: Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe fuck yourself.

Great stuff!!!!!!

The Departed is a great crime flick about secrets, and how they can be used as a weapon. There are some great performances, some amazing camera work, a decent soundtrack, and some of the best (and at times funniest) dialog in mainstream Hollywood of the decade. In time, it will be a classic, in the vein of Scorcese’s other gems. But for now, it’s a movie that needs to be watched again and again for its amazing quality and succinct storyline. I give The Departed 9 1/2 blind moles out of 10. A high recommendation!

Stay with me, folks, as I continue to write through the night! Later on, I’ll have a review of The Royal Tenenbaums for you! Until then!!!

Blood Diamond (2006), or Zwick On Atrocities

12 12 2009

Director Edward Zwick has taken on many of the pains and triumphs of war in his career. He has covered a number of important battles that have sprung up in our more recent history, and he has certainly has an eye for the vicissitudes of war. In Glory, he bravely covered the Civil War and the trials of the black soldiers fighting in the Union. In Legends of the Fall, he focused on the endurance of family in times of war. Courage Under Fire exposed the Gulf War conflict and the role of women in modern fighting forces. The Last Samurai deals with the American involvement in the Meiji Restoration of the late 1800s in Japan, and one man’s fight against the end of an era and the end of a people. Today’s film, Blood Diamond, is about the most sinister of conflicts occurring in the world today; the war zone that is Northern Africa. So many countries in turmoil and civil unrest, atrocities happening at every turn, and nobody seems to want to intervene. Blood Diamond deals specifically with the exploitation of the Africans during the Sierra Leone Civil War during the late 90s. It’s a harrowing film full of great performances that I think might be Zwick’s best work to date.

Blood Diamond stars Djimon Hounsou as Solomon, a fisherman whose family is taken from him by forces of the Revolutionary United Front, one of many opposing guerrilla military groups rooted in the region of Sierra Leone. His son is taken away to be trained and brainwashed as a member of the group, and he is taken to the diamond mines to dig until he drops. Under the strict leadership of a warlord named Captain Poison, he works day in and day out, ripping the diamonds from the earth. One day, he finds a mysteriously large pink diamond that he keeps and hides for himself. But moments later, there is an attack on the mine by the forces of the ruling government and both he and Captain Poison are taken to a prison. While in jail, he strikes a deal with a Rhodesian mercenary named Archer to help him find his family in exchange for the diamond he found. Archer is a greedy slimeball, and he has his own seedy agenda, but after they’re released from prison and they start looking for Solomon’s family, he undergoes a transformation of sorts, as he begins to look through the world with a new set of eyes. With the help of Maddy Bowen, journalist and generic love interest, can Solomon and Archer make it back to his son before the brainwashing goes too far? Can Archer find peace in himself and become selfless before his greed ruins a friendship and a budding romance? Or will they all be shot to death by crazy militants anyway?

This movie, I believe, captures the dire circumstances of the people living in Sierra Leone during the Civil War. It was a terrible time that most of us, including myself, simply cannot imagine. There were families torn apart, people being brutalized and enslaved, and it is something that we really don’t discuss enough in the Western world. Zwick takes on grueling subject matter, and deals with it in the most sensitive way he can without pulling punches. He gets into the darkest recesses of the dark continent, taking us into the heart of the conflict, which is something as simple as greed. It’s not the kind of greed where a man takes from another man to feed himself and his own; this is the greed of the wealthy, the kind that drags thousands into the mire of conflict to sate. I applaud the director here for finding the hardest-hitting shots and the most evocative angles to bring out the stark reality of the African condition.

The acting is either amazing or off the mark. I swear, Djimon Hounsou, for the first time, makes me sit up and notice him as an actor. As Solomon, he finds a character he can do justice. There is so much emotion that he has to put a voice to, almost as if he were voicing the struggles of an entire generation, and he succeeds almost effortlessly. I hope he continues to make more movies like this, and I think he has it in him as long as they give him the lead (imagine HIM as the lead in Gladiator! Yeah!) DiCaprio is DiCaprio, I should not even have to say any more. He has not disappointed me in over a decade, and I consider him to be one of the best actors of his generation. He invests himself in every role, and as Archer he really branches out to play the greedy white man, which is usually a type he avoids. Michael Sheen again dazzles as a villain, this time playing a corrupt hand in a South African diamond trading company. He is much more subdued this time, opting for the calm, more reserved seat of evil rather than the more obvious, out-there evil he protrayed in New Moon. The only stick in the mud is Jennifer Connelly, who plays maddy Bowen with a wide-eyed mediocrity that can best be described as “I Got Paid $2 Million For This Feature And All They’re Getting Is This Lousy Facial Expression”. ‘Nuff said.

Blood Diamond is a great movie punctuated by powerful performances and scenes that stick with you for a long time after you’ve turned it off. A powerful score enhances this striking drama about greed in Sierra Leone, as does cinematography that does us the service of taking us right into the fray. It’s a great film in the tradition of Zwick’s other war films, and I am very glad to have watched it! Thanks goes to Jenni for recommending this, by the way! I give Blood Diamond 9 corrupt South African diamond trading companies out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I have no idea what I shall watch! Please help me decide with RECOMMENDATIONS!