Morgan Freeman easily could be the God of the movies, and not just because he's played him once or twice. Freeman appears in films near constantly, conveying his wise aura to the audience without us ever second guessing him - he's a man that's easy to believe as one that stands above the rest of us, a little smarter, and a little more sure of his actions. So, in essence, playing Nelson Mandela is a fitting role for him, considering he so capably mirrors Mandela's peacefulness and grace without even batting an eyelash. "Invictus" gives him the chance to show off his chameleon like acting ability, embodying every little detail about the great, inspiring South African President. The film begins with Mandela's 1990 release from his 27-year long prison sentence, a sentence in which most men would lose themselves to bitterness and leave their cell a good deal more cynical, focusing on the negative aspects of life rather than the positive ones. This isn't the case for Mandela, who walks out with optimism and keeps it in mind that he still isn't done changing South Africa, a country still divided by blatant racism. After being elected President four years later, he becomes increasingly concerned with the violence that constantly erupts between the black and white population. When he attends a rugby match between the Springboks, South Africa's union team, and England, Mandela notices that the black onlookers are rooting for England - he realizes that the Springboks, though representing their country, give a representation of off-putting prejudice. Due to the popularity of the sport, Mandela realizes that, if he manages to turn the Springboks' reputation around, he could unite the country, once and for all. Aided by the captain of the team, François Pienaar (Matt Damon, who portrays his character with winning boldness), a man who is truly inspired by Mandela's strong soul, the possibility of winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup could bring South Africa together, finally. A main problem with most "based on a true story" films, is that they either try too hard to stand apart, choosing style over substance, or they are a bit more lenient to make things scream Hollywood, amplifying the pros while compartmentalizing the cons. "Invictus", which is directed by Clint Eastwood, who has always been able to hit a good balance between thought-provoking intelligence and popcorn entertainment, reaches the invigorating high points it's looking for while still putting things into perspective. It's smart but still accessible. Mandela is a man of legend, one that has the same kind of untouchable greatness that only has been captured by few people, like Gandhi or Mother Teresa. "Invictus" shows him as a man so unbreakable in spirit and so forgiving of the flawed world around him that there isn't a second where we don't watch his actions with jaw-dropping awe. Sure, it may not be the real man standing in front of us, but Freeman plays him with such believability that there isn't any doubt in mind. The film moves along with such power that there seems to be nothing stopping it - Mandela has never been portrayed in such a fine manner. "Invictus" hits the right balance of emotional strength and factual evidence. This is a movie that leaves us gasping in triumph by the end, a great accomplishment for such a great film.
There are some adaptations of great literature that are a cut above the book, or a notch below, but there never seems to be a middle in which they match almost every direction. Though long forgotten as both a movie and a novel, "Snow Falling on Cedars" is a surprisingly flawless reconfiguration of the source material. It captures the very essence and mood of what the author, David Guterson, portrayed so clearly in his work. Although it may be a tedious film for casual viewers, for the individuals who took the time to read the novel, it makes for an adaptation worth savoring. Taking place on isolated, Washingtonian island San Piedro during heavy winter in 1950, the film revolves around a murder trial. The accused is Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a young Japanese man; the victim is Carl Heine (Eric Thal), a German fisherman whose death rings mysteriously to the townspeople around him. Unfortunately, San Pierdo, still suffers from extremely racist tendencies due to WWII, which causes Kazuo's chances of running free very slim. Simultaneously, "Snow Falling on Cedars" dives into the parallel story of Kazuo's wife, Hatsue's (Youki Kudoh) past love affair with local Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), who still longs for her despite years of separation and Hatsue's long-lasting union to Kazuo. The love between them at one time was strong, but the segregation of their community ripped them apart, reminding us, yet again, that the trial itself may not end so happily. There no doubt that if you haven't read "Snow Falling on Cedars," watching the film is going to be like watching paint dry. Not only can it be confusing, but there is so much happening at once that it can be a bit challenging to take it all in. But the novel itself is exactly how the movie is portrayed - filled with jumping flashbacks and differing plot lines, heavy atmosphere, and an overall feeling of immense dramatic tension that gives every scene a sense of intriguing beauty. The film captures every little bit of the novel, with very few changes in store (despite Kabuo's name being swapped for Kazuo, which doesn't make much sense anyway). Guterson's work is thick with description, taking us to the island of San Piedro and letting us bathe in the dank weather that plagues it. Rather than being flat, "Snow Falling on Cedars" (the film) is shot with sumptuous and intricate cinematography that mirrors the luscious richness that originally was thought out. One of the most intriguing ideas presented in the novel is how disgustingly prejudice society was during the 1950s. Though the war was long over, the disdain for the Japanese was still in store, which is a detail most people in the modern world forget about. On paper, the side story of Ishmael and Hatsue's relationship seems like a filler, but in actuality, it compliments the trial - the two could not be together thanks to their different origins, and in the meantime, Hatsue is married to Kazuo because of prejudice, and later on, he is accused of a crime with evidence that more clearly targets his race rather than the facts. In the novel, these aspects are highly fascinating and often times thought-provoking, and the film brings them to life with smooth adjustment and complete grace. Ishmael and Hatsue's relationship is fleshed out with tenderness, while the hate by the townspeople of San Piedro is just as bitter and sickening. The acting by the cast is simply extraordinary, with characterizations that perfectly line up. Hawke captures Ishmael's sensitivity, while Imada glows with Hatsue's fragile beauty that masks a deeply disturbed inner-self. "Snow Falling on Cedars" is an ultra-stylized adaptation of the novel that works in almost every way. But mark my words, read the source material first, or it's going to end up being one seriously bumpy ride.
Deeply melancholy and aching with the tragedies that the unpredictability of life can bring us, "The Descendants" is a low key film that brings the viewer into a world of sun-soaked paradise that masks the hurt within. It's approach is far more low-key than most would expect, but it works well because, after all, the film is a slice-of-life drama. It isn't set out to shock the viewer, but to simply tell a story they can relate to. George Clooney portrays Matt King, a man who is faced with a personal crisis after his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastle) gets into a boating accident and lands herself in a coma. Quickly, he becomes worrisome. What will he do with his two daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), both of whom he hardly has been involved in raising? How will he be able to do even the simplest of activity? His head is indefinitely spun when he finds out that Elizabeth won't be waking up from her injury. We don't know much about Matt, but what we do know is that he is hard-working, witty, and has a good head on his shoulders. So when Alex informs him that his wife was cheating on him and was planning to get a divorce, his world his rocked, and it comes as a surprise to the viewer. Sure, he knew their marriage wasn't in its prime: after all, they weren't speaking very often. But cheating seems like a misconception. His heartbreak and confusion isn't hard to feel. "The Descendants" never truly is exciting, and it's hard for it to truly engage the viewer. The scenery is relaxing, and you can almost feel the Hawaiian sea breeze as the characters roam around. The humor is often times cynical and unfiltered, making for a terrific contrast to the calming setting, and the drama is always realistically bitter. The biggest problem is, however, is that there isn't much that leaves the viewer suddenly surprised. We know that Matt will confront the man his wife was seeing. We know that he and his daughters will end up at least liking each other. We know that Elizabeth will die. All we can do is sit back and watch, and while it certainly is pleasant, there isn't a whole lot to bite our teeth into. The film plateaus within the first 20 minutes or so. It's odd, because, while the film sometimes drags, there is still something about it that manages to touch the viewer, and you at least can't manage to see that coming. There have been countless family movies in recent memory, but while we don't get much of a background on the King's, it isn't hard to envision their life before the accident: Matt and Elizabeth hardly spoke, as they were too involved with their professional life. They never made much time for their kids, and that's why Alex is so mopey and why Scottie is so overly excited about everything. They never really had the family dynamic you'd see on "Full House," which most people want. This ultimately, is the key to making the film work. Because the film is less about a twisty plot and more about simply telling a story, it's important to have a set of characters that actively involves the viewer at every step. Clooney is subtle and constantly sympathetic as a man who shouldn't necessarily face tragedy, but is forced to, simply by chance. But it's Woodley who effortlessly grabs our attention, and ends up upstaging her high profile costar. Alex is damaged, the product of affable parents who never really took the time to build a good relationship with her, most likely building a foundation of gifts rather than love. She curses at every turn, not worrying about her influence on her younger sister, but you can see it's not because she doesn't care: it's because she's been so used to being burned by her family that she's nearly numb. Before "The Descendants," Woodley's only major role was in the soapy TV drama "The Secret Life of an American Teenager," and with this film, she makes the transition from ingenue to an actress that should be taken seriously. There are some films that end, and you leave the theater with a certain kind of electricity crackling through your body, wanting to see it over and over again and relive that spectacular experience. "The Descendants" may not be one of those films, but it only proves why Alexander Payne's naturalistic directing style is so popular among critics - there isn't another director who can do it so convincingly.