6 February 2010

Ménage à François

When the news is banal, it's always best to slip into the cinema. As the nation works itself into a lather over where the England football captain's been dipping his wick, Clint Eastwood marries the sport movie with the political biopic in Invictus, the story of the relationship between Nelson Mandela and rugby captain François Pienaar. And if sports and politics aren't for you, another more weedy and pencil-moustached François is available in Michael Cera comedy Youth in Revolt. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

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Invictus finds Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela as he leaves Robben Island prison and becomes President of South Africa. However, the film's focus is much larger. Although apartheid has been abolished, inter-racial tensions are at boiling point. The white South Africans now fear that the black South Africans will treat them with the same contempt they dished out themselves in the years previous. The blacks seem all too happy to meet their expectations, orchestrating a vote to ban the team's largely white rugby team, the Sprinboks. With South Africa due to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela liaises with the Springboks' captain, François Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, in a plan to unite the country by winning the tournament.

Clint Eastwood may never stop. I'm being serious, we need to get some scientists in to project whether or not his career in film will be the first true instance of perpetual motion. At the age of 79, he directs two films a year, which are, almost without exception, distinctive from anything else he's done before. He also acts in some of them, and that the only film he worked on in 2009 turned out to be this year's Invictus is no sign that he's slowing down. Because as with all of his films, it's tremendous. It passes the acid test for all sports films by being more about the story than about whether or not the sports team win, which they usually do. Having no interest in professional sport whatsoever, I still found the film to be irresistibly immersive. Incidentally, Eastwood also swerves the trap that befalls most by biopics- trying to penetrate the psyche of their subject by telling the story of their entire life while also telling the audience what to make of them.

In the pivotal role of Mandela, Eastwood's long-time collaborator Morgan Freeman is really nothing less than brilliant as usual. Instead of spoon-feeding an explanation to their audience, the director and the actor both dally with the personal problems between Mandela and his family, without enlarging them to dominate the film's story. Eastwood has picked the period and the subject for his story, and the film is constrained to the progression of that story rather than anciliary parts of Mandela's life, or Pienaar's. In the latter role, Matt Damon continues to flout the hilarious but unfair portrayal of his acting in Team America, although I wasn't entirely sure about that South African accent. Then again, my frame of reference is Sharlto Copley screeching about "fokkin creatures" in District 9, and I enjoyed Damon's performance on the whole. I'm not sure it's Oscar-worthy, but part of me wonders if that's just the Academy making up for its ignorance elsewhere.

Invictus was hardly snubbed in the Oscar ballots like Gran Torino was last year, and received acting nominations for both Freeman and Damon. I personally don't see any problem with nominating Eastwood for both best director and best picture every year, because he invariably does make the best films. That he's made a film about rugby, a sport largely cannibalised Stateside to become American football, speaks volumes for the scope of his vision. The Blind Side got the Best Picture nomination instead, and I'll be reviewing that when it comes out, but I doubt it's a coincidence that the American football film won out over the rugby film. It's hardly an obscure sport of course, but on a much larger scale, this is a film about overcoming inequality. It may be overly reverent in parts, but Mandela has had an inspiring life. Another tremendous effort from Clint Eastwood.

While Eastwood continues to crank out brilliant film after brilliant film and remain distinct, the much younger Michael Cera is shaking off his typecasting in Youth in Revolt. Nick Twisp is a gawky and awkward young man who doesn't get much luck with the ladies... er, wait a minute. No, he does break that typical Cera role, because after being driven to distraction by his incompetence with Sheeni, the girl of his dreams, he creates a supplementary persona called François Dillinger, also played by Cera. Chaos ensues, as his juvenile delinquency sends him on the run for blowing up half his hometown, all the while trying to win Sheeni's heart.

This film has, for reasons I'm not certain of, been languishing on a shelf for well over a year now, apparently. Now that it's finally found release, its unconventional romance seems less innovative in the wake of last year's (500) Days of Summer. It could have pre-empted it, but instead, it's finally being released after that film proved a hit with audiences and critics, and after Zach Galifianakis, who appears in this briefly, had a huge hit with The Hangover. But in the company of other fare from that genre, I'm not entirely sure Youth in Revolt counts as a romcom- it's really more of an outright comedy, contrary to what the marketing has depicted. The central conceit that you should change everything about yourself in order to attract an otherwise uninterested partner actually seems like it belongs in a much lazier film that this.

It is played mostly for laughs though, with the cooler François spouting suave one-liners like "I'm gonna tickle your belly button... from the inside" like a nebbish Tyler Durden, in contrast with Cera's more mild-mannered screen persona that we all know and were frankly getting a bit sick of. To be fair, I like him as an actor, and he proves here that he's very good when he has a similarly sound script to work from. The real discovery here is Portia Doubleday as Sheeni, who makes the role convincing. She's pretty, but not the traditional porcelain perfect look that some other films have been known to cast as similarly desirable characters. But her acting sells Sheeni as a character for whom Nick/François would go to such extreme lengths. A talented supporting cast includes Steve Buscemi and Fred Willard, but loses points for engaging Ray Liotta to play the exact same character he always does. He just screams asshole in the same way as you immediately know Danny Huston in a suit is the baddy in Edge of Darkness (still playing in cinemas, folks!).

There aren't really many belly laughs in Youth in Revolt, but then it's not Airplane! The humour exists alongside a well executed adaptation of the book it's based on, and it boasts the best performance by Michael Cera since Juno. Admittedly, that wasn't long ago, but some of the dreck he's sleep-walked through since made this a relieving watch. It may be only infrequently hilarious, but that's better than consistently smirkworthy. Laughometer semantics aside, this will be adored by fans of Cera, and this will hopefully find a decent audience after taking so long to make it to cinemas. Having attended a practically sold out screening myself, it looks to be doing alright for itself.

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If you've been to see Invictus or Youth in Revolt, why not share your comments below? Next time will most likely cover Disney's return to 2D animation, The Princess and the Frog, and the much acclaimed and Oscar-nominated crime drama, A Prophet. Never let it be said there's no variety on this here blog.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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