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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Views from South Africa: Invictus & District 9

In the past week I've seen two movies about South Africa, Clint Eastwood's political biopic Invictus and first-time filmmaker Neil Blomkamp's sci-fi action movie District 9. One is extremely insightful and thought-provoking while the other is a standard genre movie with some fun moments. Which one is which? Read on to find out.....


Invictus tells the story of the newly elected Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) attempting to unite his country behind the white-dominated rugby team The Springboks, led by their captain Francois Piennar (Matt Damon). The movie begins by showing Mandela's transition to power, and this part of the movie moved a little slow. It takes quite a bit of exposition until we get to the main part of the movie. Once the movie moves into the political machinations of Mandela's decision and its complications, the story is much more engaging. Mandela's message of reconciliation to those who had been bitter enemies is inspiring, and there were several moments in the film where I got a lump in my throat. As inspirational sports movies go, the sports sequences are clear and easy to follow, even though many will be unfamiliar with rugby.

Now on to my qualms about the movie. For all the wonderful messages in the movies it also feels a little dull. Eastwood is a director who is capable of greatness (Unforgiven, Mystic River) and of bland filmmaking (Gran Torino). I think much of his craft depends on his script, and here the script is structured in the most exciting or revelatory way. The story is a good one, but it misses out on more nuanced or deep views of the characters and goes more for standard uplift. At other times, it teeters dangerously close to saying that cheering for the same rugby team truly solved many of the problems of modern South Africa. Morgan Freeman was clearly the right choice to play Mandela. He has his voice nailed down, and he lends him a mischievous spark that marks him as a real person. Still, I think Freeman could have done more with the role. He lacks the depth and perception that Helen Mirren brought to Queen Elizabeth in The Queen, where you truly feel you know something more about the character. Matt Damon is as good as he can be in the thinly-drawn character of Francois.

So there is it. An entertaining movie that hits two well-worn genres (biopic; inspirational sports) with moments the viewer will no doubt enjoy.

Grade: B-

District 9

Now on to the other movie set in South Africa. Director Neil Blomkamp directs the most exciting sci-fi movie of the year. I've seen Star Trek and Avatar, and for my money this is the most cohesive and insightful picture of the bunch. For a sci-fi movie that's mostly action and filled with gross-out moments, it also effortlessly lends itself to political allegory without feeling heavy-handed.

The movie imagines a world where an alien spaceship has been stranded in Johannesburg. Not knowing how to react to the aliens, they are kept in an internment camp called District 9. They have been there 20 years, it's turned into a violent slum, so the humans have decided to relocate them. Leading this effort is mild-mannered and slightly goofy operative Wikus van de Mere (a very good performance by Sharlto Copely). While attempting relocation, Wikus finds himself in a situation where he is wanted by the humans and more connected to the aliens and their fight for liberation.

There are so many things that work about this movie. They give a vision of alien life that feels completely non-cliched. These creatures are not peace-loving utopians (a la Avatar or Close Encounters) or rampaging monsters (War of the Worlds or Independence Day). They are a separate society who feel entrapped when they are entrapped and sometimes turn to violence. I also love the way that Blomkamp shoots action sequences. My problem with many action movies is that they devolve into shoot-outs where you never know who is shooting at who. In this movie, it is always crystal clear what is happening in each sequence, and the action makes sense.

The political allegory is also very insightful. During apartheid, the South African government had forcible evictions of its black residents. This movie imagines all residents, black and white alike, doing the same to the alien visitors. The way the humans devolve in their treatment of the aliens is typical of the selfishness and fear that dominates so many atrocities around the world.

So in the end, District 9 actually made me think more and felt much more insightful about racial politics than an inspirational movie about Nelson Mandela. Its filmmaking was also much more alive and inspired.

Grade: A-

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