Some moviesI'm too much the individualist to have heroes as such, but I do greatly admire Nelson Mandela. Most ordinary men, locked away for a third of man's natural span, would find their minds turning to vengeance, but Mandela, equipped with the tools to have his revenge, had a deep well of compassion to draw on, and not only showed forgiveness but taught his nation a lesson in forbearance that may yet be its salvation. Clint Eastwood's Invictus is a slightly odd showcase for Mandela the man and legend, and to be honest, it's a rather mawkish and unsatisfying film, which does not let a button go unpushed, and is somewhat unconvincing in its portrayal of Mandela as born-again rugby fanatic, but it cannot hurt to have such an inspiring man and a genuinely wonderful message play in the cinemas of America and other points West. Matt Damon is terribly miscast as Francois Pienaar but Morgan Freeman is majestic as Mandela, lifting the film above the sea of sentimentality it otherwise drowns in. Mandela truly lived the spirit of the poem that is the centrepiece of the film (which you can read here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invictus). I still remember vividly the day Mandela was released from prison: he strode through the gates, head unbowed, a beacon of courage and honour in a dirty word. There is a better film to be made about him but in any case his life itself is his memorial.
A better setting for Matt Damon's talents is Green zone, a thriller that is reasonably thoughtful but doesn't let itself get bogged down as these films tend to do. Paul Greengrass knows how to crack the whip, so it moves at a fair pace, with plenty of action and the handheld camerawork and snappy editing that Greengrass is famed for. You might occasionally be left wondering what the fuck is going on, and certainly I was a bit confused about how a reasonably lowly soldier was able to wander Baghdad at will, without anyone interfering with stuff like orders or questions about where exactly are you taking that truck? Damon excels, in my view, as this sort of hero: tough without being callous, with a hint of vulnerability and a calmness that comes over as being in control in a crisis. You'd want him by your side in a barfight, put it that way.
Also thrilling, but slower paced, was Girl with the dragon tattoo. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would, yet there's a great deal about it not to like. The eponymous girl is solidly unconvincing, and her hacking talents outrageously unfeasible; the story is a bit meh; nothing happens a lot; the romance is cliched and entirely unnecessary and the ending is like a door slamming on the plot. But it does have a lot of atmosphere, the main guy (sorry, can't remember his name) convinces as a dogged but mostly confused investigator and the villain is delightfully icky.
Also heavy on the atmosphere is Shutter Island, arguably overmuch so. Luckily for me, I don't claim to know a thing about film, so I can happily say that Martin Scorsese's films have in latter days verged on being complete bollocks. The departed in particular was overrated in my view and The Aviator was overlong and dull. The problem with this one is that the story is utter bollocks. Scorsese tries manfully with it but the ending is far too long after the denouement, and the denouement itself is so obvious that there was no real surprise in it. The stormy drama was fun and I'm not one of those people who despises DiCaprio just because Titanic was such laughable shit (although let's face it, he is not the most manly of leading men). No, I dislike him because he so patently cannot act, unless you think acting consists entirely of looking puzzled or frowning, both of which he has mastered. I also strongly dislike Ben Kingsley, who likes to pack a styful of ham into every role, and is grossly bad in this film. Anyone who says otherwise cannot be trusted to have an opinion on movies.
Someone who can act is Michael Sheen, who was a beautifully unctuous Tony Blair in The Queen, where he had to make the most of some pretty poor material, and in The damned United makes Brian Clough, the smirking, irritating, smug imp that he was. Leaving aside the laughably inaccurate portrayals of the Leeds team, particularly Billy Bremner, who I believe was much more dour than the sniggering bully he is made out to be in this film, and Johnny Giles, who would not be seen dead in that hair!, this was a smashing film, a neat tale of hubris and a reflection on friendship and loyalty that also had more than a few laughs. What particularly caught my eye was Sheen's ability to capture a vulnerability in Clough that didn't make its way onto the TV screen until the very end of his career. The film is fictionalised (Clough's widow hated the book it was based on and insisted it was largely untrue) but when ever was there a film about a larger-than-life character that wasn't? Take a film like Gandhi, utter bollocks start to finish, in which Gandhi is painted as a saint he certainly wasn't, entirely without the flaws he certainly did have, yet creating a portrayal of a legend that is probably more satisfying than the truth. As in all biopics, events are telescoped and reordered, but the story is the thing and it's a smashing story and a diamond of a film.
Not a film as such but certainly filmic is The Pacific, followup to the hugely and deservedly successful Band of brothers. I greatly admired Band of brothers so why was I left cold by The Pacific. It has basically the same format -- we follow a group of soldiers through the Second World War, with tons of human drama and gruesome action, yet it's not as effective. Well, partly, I felt the characters were not as compelling, and the acting not as high grade. I cared a lot less about the soldiers, and felt I knew them less well, even though the series tried very hard to make them rounded. Perhaps too hard: where Band of brothers shifted focus from the core group, it did so within a shared context. So we had an episode about the medic and the nurse he meets in Bastogne, but the war continues around him and he's still interacting with the unit. But in The Pacific, we have episodes that drag horribly through dalliance in Australia, homecoming in the States, a character selling war bonds that is a pale reflection of Eastwood's superb Flags of our fathers. It doesn't help that the action scenes are samey and unfocused, so that it isn't all that clear what's going on. Yes, I know war's like that, but you can only watch screaming demented Japs get mown down so often. It may be that there was more conceptual room for this sort of portrayal of war in Band of brothers and The Pacific represents the diminishing returns in shock of the new, or it may just be that the characters and story just aren't as good.