Director Clint Eastwood, actors Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. That powerhouse trio could have chosen to tell just about any story they wanted and made it into an Academy Award worthy film. They chose Invictus, the real-life story of the then newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela (Freeman) and Françios Pienaar (Damon), the captain of the Springboks, the country's national rugby team.
In 1995, just months after he was elected, Mandela asked Pienaar to lead his team to a championship at the Rugby World Cup. It was a daunting feat. The Springboks, like the rest of South Africa, were worn down by the constant conflict in the country. They were poorly ranked and at first glance, seemed to have no hope of winning the World Cup.
But Mandela knew the country needed something to rally around, something that would unify the still-feuding white Afrikaners and black Africans. No matter what their skin color, Mandela hoped, his countrymen could rally around the green and gold colors of the Springboks.
Pienaar was at first dazed by the request, but soon jumped onboard. In the weeks that followed, the team trained and practiced non-stop. By the time the Springboks walked on to the field for the Cup, they were a different team. By the time they walked off, South Africa was a different country.
Freeman earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his intense yet subtle performance as Mandela. Damon, too, got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, for his complex portrayal of Pienaar. And Eastwood, who had the difficult task of realistically bringing the larger-than-life characters of Mandela and Pienaar to the screen, managed to keep the tension building up to the fateful match (even if most viewers already knew the ending).
Invictus captures a remarkable moment of history and two superb performances by Freeman and Damon.
Who are we to argue with success -- $110.2 million in box office sales is definitely success -- but we just can't find much to like about Valentine's Day. Director Garry Marshall did a great job putting together an all-star cast. That's not the problem; there's more than enough talent both in front of and behind the camera. The problem is what all these actors are doing, the goofy, unbelievable characters they are forced to play.
Julia Roberts is a army officer (yeah, right) just home from Iraq. Patrick Dempsey is Jennifer Garner's very married two-timing boyfriend. Anne Hathaway is a sex-phone operator who's just started dating Topher Grace and he isn't so happy about her job. Shirley MacLaine is married to Hector Elizondo and for some unfathomable reason, she decides to tell him that she had an affair years and years ago.
Emma Roberts (Julia's niece), Taylor Swift, and Taylor Lautner are along as eye candy for the 'tween viewers. There's also Queen Latifah, and Jamie Foxx, just in case any black viewers happen to accidentally wander by. Jessica Alba, Ashton Kutcher, and Jessica Biel get thrown in as the hotties, along with Bradley Cooper and Eric Dane who appear as a gay couple.
It's all too pat. As if Marshall went down the list of Hollywood types and picked one from each type -- tall and beautiful 30-plus woman with great teeth? Check. Spunky, skinny cutie pie who was shut down by a drunk at an awards show? Check. Old broad with serious acting chops? Check. Cute guy, cute guy, cute guy. Check.
We're a big fan of Love, Actually, which follows the same sort of multiple-storylines style. But Love manages to keep everyone rooted in something that looks at least a little bit like reality. Valentine's Day saw reality and said, "Hey, nobody go over there!"
Someone else who didn't go anywhere near the reality zone was Jackie Chan in The Spy Next Door. Chan is a Chinese spy working with the CIA. He falls in love with a female neighbor and decides to chunk the spy biz and settle down. The problem is the woman has three kids who aren't too wild about him. When he has to babysit them for a few days, everything goes to hell ... Ah, ... sorry, we were having an Are We There Yet? with Ice Cube flashback.
Where were we? Oh, yeah, in between serving up breakfast and getting the little
monsters tykes to school, Chan must also uncover a Russian mole in the CIA and figure out how to tell his lady love he's a kick-ass intelligance operative. (Insert the sound of hysterical laughter here.)
Russian moles in the CIA? Really? That is so last century.
It's telling that George Lopez and Billy Ray Cyrus are Chan's co-workers. We guess The Spy Next Door took a page out of the Valentine's Day playbook and decided to do a little cross-culture appeal. Asian action star? Check. Latino comic-turned-talk-show-host? Check. Funny-haired ex-country singer who raised a hooch for a daughter? Check.