INVICTUS - Clint Eastwood knows what he doing as an actor, as dozens of worthy efforts have shown over the years. More impressive, right now: He sure knows his way around a two-shot and a script as director. INVICTUS demonstrates that he is not rosk-averse, either. Under the guise of a sports metaphor using the non-American sport of rugby, Eastwood fashions a suggestive reason for the Mandela mandate success in South Africa. It's the involving, even intense, recounting of South Africa's sea change under Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) through the prism of the Springboks’ clamber up against superior teams. Before Mandela’s leadership puppeteering, the ‘Boks were the Chicago Cubs and Boston White Sox of their venue in Pretoria. This is an uncommonly winning case study in leadership, perhaps a bit lyrical and almost too pristine, still deeply affecting. After his release from 28 years in prison, and entirely absent his murderous evil-wife Winnie, Mandela takes office in 1994. The enmity between the blacks and whites is so entrenched that even the national team, the Springboks, are a det4ested stand-in for apartheid and hate. Mandela romances the leader of the rugby nationals, the Springboks, in the person of Matt Damon, now newly blond, fully hirsute, and buff from his recent film, THE INFORMANT, and seeks to turn a symbol of separation into a sturdy flag of hope. There is no better embodiment of Mandela than the wonderful Freeman - who long sought to play this climactic role. He is by this film’s lights more a saint than Gandhi or Moses could be; he is thoughtful to the meek and the least of his people, kind enough to notice the new haircut of his starchy aide de camp. He is humble to all, ever mindful of his recent incarceration. INVICTUS captures the nuances of his political deftness, but captures also the ready inspiration, as well as the ruggedness and tumble of hardball rugby. Eastwood's extraordinary; every camera angle, every lighting cue, every response of the little child straining to hear the crucial game inside the stadium is spot-perfect. Brief strong language, some ardent South African accent, but, in 132 minutes, a rousing sports clarion to unification and full-out masculine teamwork. Winning. Uplifting. A great film in the evening of Eastwood.

The Lovely Bones - Though it is debuting in the holiday period, and though Alice Sebold’s book sold well for many a month, THE LOVELY BONES, directed by Peter Jackson, is a mishmash that ill suits the festive period. Even with Stanley Tucci as the signature creep perv, Mark Wahlberg as the murdered girl’s caring father, and Rachel Weisz as the (too-young) mother of 14-year-old Saoirse Ronan, what is the entertainment in a murdered teenager looking back on her life from beyond? Really. Visionary as was the astounding LORD OF THE RINGS triptych, this is erotomania is a toughie for goo-goo fantasyland. The dreamscapes and Gee-whiz heaven scenes are intriguing clinically, but so what? You get a toothache from the taffy of the afterlife the heroine traverses. It runs counter to the ugliness of the real story, one that is considerably darker and uglier than the Robin Williams-heavenly Crayola afterlife we are tossed into repeatedly to soften the story. An able cast chronicling the slain character's journey from sweetheart schoolgirl to shattered dead soul stuck in a zone between here and there is relieved only by the hard-drinkin’, heavy-druggin’. profane-funny sloth of Susan Sarandon’s hilarious grandma. Maybe too mature for kids, and not enough fun for adults, the film, notwithstanding Jackson’s pyrotechnics and imagination-stealing stunts, is stuck in its own disturbing netherworld between literature and violence, worthy viewing or DVD afterthought. Even popcorn cannot redeem the unavoidable sleaze of the subject matter, no matter who stars as parents and kinfolk.

 Crazy Heart - One of the best pictures this year, bar none (even the over-hyped, grim and deeply upsetting PRECIOUS, nominated for all those Golden Globes, oh my) is CRAZY HEART, starring the almost triumphal Jeff Bridges (looking by the minute more like Kristofferson than does Kris himself!) and a beautifully cast Maggie Gyllenhaal. Coddling his own ego loss as a once mythic singer and country superstud, er, star, Bridges plays a down and out country singer who plays the bars and bowling alleys that will have him. He picks up the women who remember when he was the best, and he does one-night stands too rubbery to remember names. He’s sloshed on and offstage, drugged up for whatever he can get hold of. Gyllenhaal and her decency almost light the spark that gets Bridges into shape. Colin Farrell does a sexy turn as a younger, soberer version of the talented guitarman, absent the golden touch of lyricism his mentor still retains. Bridges is not to be outdone for a brilliant performance, immersing himself unself-consciously in a role that is catnip to a real actor’s actor. Magic music, Bridges singing a fair piece through the film. A story arc that vectors in real, with a finale that registers as truer than the usual Hollyweird treacle. You can see this one twice.

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORTS OF CALL NEW ORLEANS - Talk about climate change. For his shimmy down the greased ladder of self-indulgence and loss, Bridges reminds one what Nicholas Cage tries to evoke in BAD LIEUTENANT: PORTS OF CALL NEW ORLEANS, a mess of a remake (No! Is NOT a remake, says director Werner Herzog. But he is nicht gerecht. Wrong. The first one, BAD LIEUTENANT [1992], was only 17 years ago, starring the unforgettable [often buck-nekkid] Harvey Keitel as the corrupt cop beyond redemption. Too soon to do that over again). It’s good to see the honky tonk Big Easy after Katrina, maybe, and Eva Mendes as Cage’s floozy with heart and pretensions to the better life is quite the eyeful. But whoa. Cage as a damaged, pharmaceutical-addicted drunken lout in a shaky Southern drawl; iguanas and lizards littering the screen; boozy broads and bad brothers-in-law. Headache time, Herzog. A sometime Olympian director, Werner can be immortalized here for whacked-out death dances and brawling phantasmagorias. He lets slip the reins of realistic films about real people doing real things. If you are a fan, by all means. But don’t say you were not warned.


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