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Invictus

If mixing politics with religion is meant to be taboo, blending it with sport has seen fruitful collaborations.  Even if some don’t follow any, the most wise politico would know the ‘game of men’ provides a base in which to effectively reach the masses.  Former South African President Nelson Mandela knew this as Invictus explores how rugby became an early tool in delivering hope after decades of Apartheid.
Installed as President and attempting to unite a country, Nelson Mandela’s (Morgan Freeman) task seemed insurmountable.  Inspiration arrived while watching the country’s rugby league team The Springboks.  Derided as reminders of a dark past, their losing streak was keenly felt by their lack of support.  Sensing an opportunity to bring both whites and blacks together, Mandela formed a friendship with its captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon).  Spurring him onto a road towards the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela’s wishes would hinge on the team scoring literal and emotional goals.
Often factual stories prove the most fascinating.  Building a steady career upon this foundation, Clint Eastwood has successfully presented tales otherwise seeming incredible.  Meaning ‘unconquerable’, Invictus suits his style in showing two men determined to succeed against enormous odds.  Pienaar seemed to become the physical embodiment of Mandela’s unification ideal, with the President providing the sage advice needed to ensure Pienaar was displayed equal passion.  Perfectly cast in strong roles, Freeman and Damon provide genuine conviction to their resolute characters.
Although perhaps a little slow in parts, Eastwood’s determination in telling a complete story mostly pays dividends.  Very much a film-maker in the classical sense he allows the threads of racism and the many social problems facing South Africa to slowly percolate.  Invictus isn’t just a sporting film - it’s about a man learning to control a country via peaceful means and to restore order after years of anarchy.  Save for a drawn out finale, it presents a subtle portrait of a man refusing to take the easy option of allowing the country to descend in a quagmire of hatred.
With his acting days apparently finished, it’s pleasing to know that Eastwood’s directing will endure.  Not quite his best, Invictus provides a reasonably stirring vehicle for a man still willing to cast a unique glance over earth’s recent past.
Rating out of 10:  7

Nine

When a movie adaptation of a hit musical is made, the director is often given the chance in picking its choice moments.  Based on Federico Fellini’s film ‘8 and a half’, Nine’s Broadway success would indicate a dearth of memorable sequences.  Unfortunately this fails to transpire with Rob Marshall’s usually steady direction coming unstuck by its insipidly hollow story.
Italian movie director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is in the throes of his latest production. On the comeback trail after a series of flops, his current work promises a return to form.  Sadly his mind is elsewhere as his romantic tribulations stymie his creative energy. With his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) and mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz) vying for attention, his thoughts also turn to his mother (Sophia Loren).  Depressed by his selfish actions, his acceptance of his callous nature becomes the key in unwinding the personal wreckage of his life.
With a cast also including Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman and Kate Hudson, the recipe for a tantalising tale is certainly there.  Especially true given that Lewis’ role is an interesting one as a man unable to move forward.  The loss of his artistic imagination makes him less of a person in his thinking for which he appears to blame women for.  With such an unapproachable character it’s a wonder why women have fallen for him, something which Nine fails to fully make clear.  Sadly this is its biggest problem, as the vague caricatures on display turn a feisty musical into a feeble plod.
This isn’t any fault of the musical numbers, as all are terrific.  Brilliantly costumed and dazzlingly performed, Nine kicks up a notch whenever these surface.  Unfortunately the moments between sink its hard work, as its tonal focus becomes clouded.  At once playing events for laughs and then switching to pure drama, the story does a good job in ensuring you never invest in the characters.  As a consequence it’s difficult to be fully engaged despite some very good acting.  Disappointing given the personnel involved, although the cinematography brings a lushness to the wonderful Italian locations.
After a near thirty year wait to arrive on screen, Nine can only be described as a damp squib.  It looks and sounds great, but the emotional connection needed is missing with the film seemingly only interested in presenting a shallow display of vaudevillian theatrics. 
Rating out of 10:  4