[Two Mediocre Features from People Who Should Know Better]

…and which I like less the more I think about them.

* Conviction is the true story of the Waters siblings: Kenny, who was wrongfully sentenced to life for murder, and Betty Anne, who became a lawyer (including finally getting her undergraduate degree) so she could represent him. The cast is excellent, of course: Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell as the sister and brother, and Minnie Driver as Betty Anne’s friend in law school (their relationship being the best part of the movie), several notable supporting roles (Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo). The child actors were strong as well, particularly Conor Donovan who first impressed me in Twelve and Holding.

However. The film is oddly paced and the story tension is basically nonexistent. Betty Anne has to get her GED & then suddenly she’s in law school, her husband is there and then he’s gone, and though I expect in real life money was an issue, there was no mention of it in the film. We know how the story ends, and there’s only about a half a second when we ever doubt it’ll get there. Basically, it’s a TV movie with an Oscar cast.

* Hereafter is essentially three stories, dully told, and pulled together by a third-act coincidence that exceeded my ability to suspend disbelief. It’s particularly disappointing coming from usually-excellent screenwriter Peter Morgan (Tony Blair trilogy, of which The Queen is the best known feature, also Frost/Nixon & The Last King of Scotland). A French woman has a near death experience, a boy in London suffers the death of his brother, & Matt Damon decides he’d like to stop talking to dead people and start taking cooking classes. They all meander in the direction of a plot, never really arriving anywhere, and there are a few strange technical things: lighting choices, disparate senses of time between the stories.

A gentleman in my row kept falling asleep. He had my sympathies.

[Invictus]

I can’t seem to get excited about writing up Invictus. On the way out, one of the fellows in front of me called it “brilliant”. “Best movie of the year”, another fellow concurred. Me, I think they should see more films. (Though perhaps not the two we got trailers for — The Book of Eli, where even in two minutes the slow motion shots of Denzel Washington got hilariously repetitive, and Edge of Darkness, where Mel Gibson’s daughter is killed in order to provide him with a motive.)

Anyway. Invictus is a solid but simplistic telling of a slice of history: the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s efforts to use the sport to unite the country post apartheid. It’s basically another movie by white people to make them feel good about themselves. Mandela takes office, white people are suspicious, the rugby team does well, everyone is all hugs and smiles. And look, I am American, which means I barely know United States history, let alone history outside our borders, but I am pretty sure the situation in South Africa was and is a bit more complicated than that.

Sports-wise, I still don’t get rugby. Of course, I once saw a four hour movie about cricket & I don’t understand it either. You never even get really excited about the matches because you basically know how it’s going to go, and at the end of a slightly overlong movie, repeated slow motion takes are just not a good idea.

I read that Eastwood arrived in South Africa for the first time about two days before he started shooting, and finished the film ahead of schedule. It shows. If you want to see a film about South Africa, rent Tsotsi. It’s directed by a white guy too, but a South African one, not an American blowing into town for a few weeks and back out again. I respect that Eastwood understands he doesn’t have a lot of time left. I wish he’d spend it telling his own stories.

Things it does well: Morgan Freeman’s performance (as if there were any question), avoiding drawing parallels to Barack Obama, Damon fitting in on the pitch as another rough-and-tumble bulky rugby guy, the all-cgi stadium crowds, some of the security guys (Tony Kgoroge is great). But overall, it’s just too tame a telling.

[DVD roundup]

Once the film festival ended, I reactivated my Netflix account. Oh, you lucky people!

* Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Not my favorite of the Apatovian genre, but these two things I much adored: Paul Rudd being decidedly not typical Paul Rudd, and the puppet vampire musical. I swear, if people had told me earlier about the musical, I would have seen the damn thing in the theater. This probably says too much about me.

* Old Joy. Two old friends reunite for a road trip to a hot springs in the Cascades. Humpday totally lifted these character types, making Old Joy the interesting & awkward, reconnecting-masculine-friendship part of Humpday without the angry-making trading on straight privilege in pursuit of ‘art’. I actually got it because it’s from the same director as Wendy & Lucy, which is one of my favorite films so far this year. Old Joy is good, but Wendy & Lucy is better. (No, I am not just saying this because I love Michelle Williams.)

* Gran Torino is a difficult movie to pin down. It was extremely effective storytelling (also, which no one has mentioned, gorgeous cinematography), but I finished it with a lot of complicated feelings about the racial politics of it, a problem regarding which others have spoken better than I could manage in general, let alone in a capsule post.

* The Wrestler. I missed an opportunity to see this for free before it came out, and I am glad I did. I think the fighting scenes in particular would have been too intense, but at home on the TV the impact was lessened to some extent. Still compelling, though.

* Nothing but the Truth. I think this went straight to video, which is unfortunate. It’s a solid film with a stronge ensemble including the always-worth-watching Vera Farmiga, story inspired by the Valerie Plame case. Good stuff.