Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Capricorn Horoscope for week of December 31, 2009

Capricorn Horoscope for week of December 31, 2009

Verticle Oracle cardCapricorn (December 22-January 19)
"I am a man of fixed and unbending principles," said American politician Everett Dirksen, "the first of which is to be flexible at all times." That's the kind of playful and resilient spirit I urge you to aspire to in 2010, Capricorn. I think you're most likely to have a successful year if you regularly explore the joys of improvisation. The more empirical and less theory-bound you're willing to be, the better you'll feel. Practicing the art of compromise doesn't have to be galling, I promise you; it may even turn out to be more fun and educational than you imagined possible.

What hidden factors will be massaging your destiny in 2010? Could you use some hints about how to prepare for the adventures awaiting you in the next 12 months? This week and the next two weeks, my EXPANDED AUDIO HOROSCOPES will feature long-range, in-depth explorations of your destiny in 2010. Each part of this three-part report is between 6 and 10 minutes long. Tune in to Part One! Get started on creating a master plan for the coming months.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


i dreamed about acquiring a new cat. I was holding a new 6 month of little grey tabby. It was a composite of a tabby but resembled my cat in color and spirit. I stated three or four reasons why I didnt want a new cat, travel, space etc. How i didnt want a new cat. The cat was in my arms and when i put it down, it curled up on the carpet and fell asleep, totally at home.

dreamed I was in Las Vegas, I was with my parents, they were leaving and I was staying but had to change hotels. I tried to check into the next hotel and there were brunette receptionists, one wore a hat that said Probable Allowance. There were some discussion and issues about taking a shower. I offered my hotel room in the other hotel but the offer was politely refused. I was wondering about the cost of the hotel that I had to move into and why I had to move hotels and not just stay. I believe it had to do with rate of hotel. I was curious but didnt ask. In the next scene of the dream, and I started to check into the second hotel but had to check out of the first hotel .
I wanted to continue the dream and fell back to sleep. Again, I saw the hat Probable Allowance.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Up in the Air

Neither Here Nor There

Published: December 4, 2009

For most people there’s no joy in sucking down recycled oxygen while hurtling above the clouds. The free drinks and freshly baked cookies in business might be nice. (I wouldn’t know.) For most of us, though, air travel largely invokes the indignities of the stockyard, complete with the crowding and pushing, the endlessly long lines, hovering handlers, carefully timed feedings, a faint communal reek and underlying whiff of peril. The skies rarely seem friendly anymore, but to Ryan Bingham, the corporate assassin played by George Clooneyin the laugh-infused stealth tragedy “Up in the Air,” they’re so welcoming, he might as well be home.

Dale Robinette/Paramount Pictures

Mr. Clooney as a “career transition” counselor and Anna Kendrick as his colleague.

And so he is. Like many high-altitude border crossers who sometimes seem alone in keeping the airlines aloft, those business types with the corrugated brows, juggling BlackBerrys and double-shot lattes, Bingham lives in between here and there, home and away. The difference is, he loves interstitial living, finds comfort and more in all the spaces associated with airports and airplanes or in what Walter Kirn, in his novel that inspired the film, calls Airworld. “To know me is to fly with me,” Bingham says in the film, like an airborne Descartes. It’s as if as a child he had heard — and heeded — the call of the female attendants for National Airlines who, in the gilded flying age, used to purr, “Fly Me.” Back when flying meant soaring.

That was then, this is now, and this is here, meaning the crash-and-burn-baby-burn America in which one man’s economic crisis is another’s golden opportunity. This is our moment, enthuses Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman, pitch perfect), the unctuous pragmatist for whom Bingham works if rarely sees in person. Some men hunt heads, others — like Bingham — lop them off. A “career transition” counselor, he crisscrosses the country firing employees whose bosses won’t pull the plug themselves. Racking up scalps and miles might seem like a tough way to make a living. Yet it suits Bingham, a solo act for whom no hotel room is too depressing or crowd too lonely, which makes him ripe for the dramatic picking.

The young director Jason Reitman initially takes a hard-sell approach to Bingham, putting the character — and of course Mr. Clooney — front, center and under flattering light, as if he were selling a luxury car or diamond watch, which in some ways he is. In fighting trim, Mr. Clooney looks suitably sleek, even when dressed in the generic business clothes he’s soon packing into a suitcase, a task that’s captured in a series of precisely framed, rapid shots. Expressive of both efficiency and a routinized existence, this sequence is itself an economic narrative device (one Mr. Reitman repeats). But it also comes across as glib, a shortcut to character, making it hard to know if it’s Bingham who’s the slick one here or Mr. Reitman.

The answer is both, though Mr. Reitman is working harder than it first appears and more than he did in either “Juno” or “Thank You for Smoking,” his only other features. The son of a funnyman (his father, the producer-director Ivan Reitman, helped bankroll this movie), the younger Mr. Reitman seems to have been weaned on screwball comedies — he likes women and teasing patter — and classic Hollywood is in his blood. “Up in the Air” is an assertively, and unapologetically, tidy package, from its use of romance to instill some drama into the narrative (the book introduces disease instead) and the mope-rock tunes that Mr. Reitman needlessly overuses. When you have Mr. Clooney and Vera Farmiga on camera, you don’t need some professional emoticon mewling away on the soundtrack.

Ms. Farmiga enters the picture, legs and intelligence flashing, just around the time you think that nothing much is going to happen with Bingham. (A crash? a terrorist strike?) As Alex, a fast-moving businesswoman, Ms. Farmiga bats around the double-entendres effortlessly and brings out real warmth and palpable vulnerability in her co-star. To watch them together — particularly during their later scenes, when they visit Bingham’s hometown — is to realize just how much alone time Mr. Clooney clocks in his movies. It says something about the dearth of strong female stars in American cinema that he hasn’t been this well matched with a woman since Jennifer Lopez in the 1998 caper film “Out of Sight.” (In the years since, Brad Pitt has been playing Rosalind Russell to Mr. Clooney’sCary Grant in the “Ocean’s” movies.)

One of the pleasures of “Up in the Air” is that its actresses — including Anna Kendrick, who plays Bingham’s colleague Natalie — share the frame with Mr. Clooney as equals, not props. The ferocious Ms. Kendrick, her ponytail swinging like an ax, grabs every scene she’s in, which works for her go-getter (go-get-him) character, who is sent out on the road with Bingham as part of an efficiency campaign. She’s a monster for our times: a presumed human-resources expert who, having come of age in front of a computer, has no grasp of the human. By contrast Bingham, who fires people face to face with a small smile and pat speech, comes across as the good guy, though only if you forget what he does for a living.

Mr. Reitman successfully exploits the seeming disconnect between his star (whom we can’t help but like) and the character he plays (whom we want to like, simply because he’s played by Mr. Clooney), so much so that it takes some time for you to notice the approaching darkness. Mr. Reitman certainly hints at the trouble to come: however bright Mr. Clooney’s smile, there is something terribly off about Bingham’s blithe attitude both toward his own existential reality and his profession. Instructively, it is how Mr. Reitman circles around the character, showing how Bingham’s actions affect not just him, but also those around him — including the people he fires — that deepen the movie if not its peripatetic center.

There are different ways into “Up in the Air,” which can be viewed as a well-timed snapshot of an economically flailing America, appreciated as a study in terminal narcissism or dismissed as a sentimental testament to traditional coupling. A wedding subplot, for one, involving Bingham’s sisters (Melanie Lynskey and Amy Morton), which brings him closer to Alex, threatens to swamp the story in sentimentality. Yet to put too much stock in this detour (which also involves Danny McBride) is to flatten a film bristling with contradictions. Certainly you can fall for Bingham, maybe even shed a tear for him, though don’t get carried away (as he does) or mistake him for some kind of hero. The truer tragedy here, as the repeated images of fired men and women suggest, doesn’t belong to him.

“Up in the Air” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Adult language and partial female nudity if not (alas) male.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Mr. Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn; director of photography, Eric Steelberg; edited by Dana E. Glauberman; music by Rolfe Kent; production designer, Steve Saklad; produced by Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman, Daniel Dubiecki and Jeffrey Clifford; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.

WITH: George Clooney (Ryan Bingham), Vera Farmiga (Alex Goran), Anna Kendrick(Natalie Keener), Danny McBride (Jim Miller), Jason Bateman (Craig Gregory), Melanie Lynskey (Julie Bingham), Amy Morton (Kara Bingham), Sam Elliott (Maynard Finch), J. K. Simmons (Bob), Zach Galifianakis (Steve) and Chris Lowell (Kevin).


A New Eden, Both Cosmic and Cinematic

Published: December 18, 2009

With “Avatar” James Cameron has turned one man’s dream of the movies into a trippy joy ride about the end of life — our moviegoing life included — as we know it. Several decades in the dreaming and more than four years in the actual making, the movie is a song to the natural world that was largely produced with software, an Emersonian exploration of the invisible world of the spirit filled with Cameronian rock ’em, sock ’em pulpy action. Created to conquer hearts, minds, history books and box-office records, the movie — one of the most expensive in history, the jungle drums thump — is glorious and goofy and blissfully deranged.

The story behind the story, including a production budget estimated to top $230 million, and Mr. Cameron’s future-shock ambitions for the medium have already begun to settle into myth (a process partly driven by the publicity, certainly). Every filmmaker is something of a visionary, just by virtue of the medium. But Mr. Cameron, who directed the megamelodrama“Titanic” and, more notably, several of the most influential science-fiction films of the past few decades (“The Terminator,” “Aliens” and “The Abyss”), is a filmmaker whose ambitions transcend a single movie or mere stories to embrace cinema as an art, as a social experience and a shamanistic ritual, one still capable of producing the big WOW.

The scale of his new movie, which brings you into a meticulous and brilliantly colored alien world for a fast 2 hours 46 minutes, factors into that wow. Its scope is evident in an early scene on a spaceship (the year is 2154), where the passengers, including a paraplegic ex-Marine, Jake (Sam Worthington, a gruffly sensitive heartthrob), are being roused from a yearslong sleep before landing on a distant inhabited moon, Pandora. Jake is woken by an attendant floating in zero gravity, one of many such aides. As Jake himself glides through the bright cavernous space, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore, as someone soon quips (a nod to “The Wizard of Oz,” Mr. Cameron’s favorite film). You also know you’re not in the gloom of “The Matrix.”

Though it’s easy to pigeonhole Mr. Cameron as a gear head who’s more interested in cool tools (which here include 3-D), he is, with “Avatar,” also making a credible attempt to create a paradigm shift in science-fiction cinema. Since it was first released in 1999, “The Matrix,” which owes a large debt to Mr. Cameron’s own science-fiction films as well as the literary subgenre of cyberpunk, has hung heavily over both SF and action filmmaking. Most films that crib from “The Matrix” tend to borrow only its slo-mo death waltzes and leather fetishism, keeping its nihilism while ditching the intellectual inquiries. Although “Avatar” delivers a late kick to the gut that might be seen as nihilistic (and how!), it is strangely utopian.

It doesn’t take Jake long to feel the good vibes. Like Neo, the savior-hero of the “Matrix”series played by Keanu Reeves, Jake is himself an avatar because he’s both a special being and an embodiment of an idea, namely that of the hero’s journey. What initially makes Jake unusual is that he has been tapped to inhabit a part-alien, part-human body that he controls, like a puppeteer, from its head to its prehensile tail. Like the rest of the human visitors who’ve made camp on Pandora, he has signed on with a corporation that’s intent on extracting a valuable if mysterious substance from the moon called unobtainium, a great whatsit that is an emblem of humanity’s greed and folly. With his avatar, Jake will look just like one of the natives, the Na’vi, a new identity that gives the movie its plot turns and politics.

The first part of Jake’s voyage — for this is, above all, a boy’s rocking adventure, if one populated by the usual tough Cameron chicks — takes him from a wheelchair into a 10-foot, blue-skinned Na’vi body. At once familiar and pleasingly exotic, the humanoid Na’vi come with supermodel dimensions (slender hips, a miniature-apple rear); long articulated digits, the better to grip with; and the slanted eyes and twitchy ears of a cat. (The gently curved stripes that line their blue skin, the color of twilight, bring to mind the markings on mackerel tabby cats.) For Jake his avatar, which he hooks into through sensors while lying in a remote pod in a semiconscious state, is at first a giddy novelty and then a means to liberation.

Plugging into the avatar gives Jake an instant high, allowing him to run, leap and sift dirt through his toes, and freeing him from the constraints of his body. Although physically emancipated, he remains bound, contractually and existentially, to the base camp, where he works for the corporation’s top scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, amused and amusing), even while taking orders from its head of security, Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a military man turned warrior for hire. A cartoon of masculinity, Quaritch strides around barking orders like some intransigent representation of American military might (or a bossy movie director). It’s a favorite Cameron type, and Mr. Lang, who until this year had long been grievously underemployed, tears into the role like a starved man gorging on steak.

Mr. Cameron lays out the fundamentals of the narrative efficiently, grabbing you at once with one eye-popping detail after another and on occasion almost losing you with some of the comically broad dialogue. He’s a masterly storyteller if a rather less nimble prose writer. (He has sole script credit: this is personal filmmaking on an industrial scale.) Some of the clunkier lines (“Yeah, who’s bad,” Jake taunts a rhinolike creature he encounters) seem to have been written to placate those members of the Michael Bay demographic who might find themselves squirming at the story’s touchier, feelier elements, its ardent environmentalism and sincere love story, all of which kick in once Jake meets Neytiri, a female Na’vi (Zoë Saldana, seen only in slinky Na’vi form).

Mr. Cameron has said that he started thinking about the alien universe that became Pandora and its galactic environs in “Avatar” back in the 1970s. He wrote a treatment in 1996, but the technologies he needed to turn his ideas into images didn’t exist until recently. New digital technologies gave him the necessary tools, including performance capture, which translates an actor’s physical movements into a computer-generated image (CGI). Until now, by far the most plausible character created in this manner has been slithery Gollum from Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” cycle. The exotic creatures in “Avatar,” which include an astonishment of undulating, flying, twitching and galloping organisms, don’t just crawl through the underbrush; they thunder and shriek, yip and hiss, pointy teeth gleaming.

The most important of these are the Na’vi, and while their movements can bring to mind old-fashioned stop-motion animation, their faces are a triumph of tech innovation, with tremors and twitches that make them immediately appealing and empathetic. By the time Neytiri ushers Jake into her world of wonders — a lush dreamscape filled with kaleidoscopic and bioluminescent flora and fauna, with pink jellyfishlike creatures that hang in the air and pleated orange flowers that snap shut like parasols — you are deep in the Na’vi-land. It’s a world that looks as if it had been created by someone who’s watched a lot of Jacques Cousteau television or, like Mr. Cameron, done a lot of diving. It’s also familiar because, like John Smith in “The New World,” Terrence Malick’s retelling of the Pocahontas story, Jake has discovered Eden.

An Eden in three dimensions, that is. In keeping with his maximalist tendencies, Mr. Cameron has shot “Avatar” in 3-D (because many theaters are not equipped to show 3-D, the movie will also be shown in the usual 2), an experiment that serves his material beautifully. This isn’t the 3-D of the 1950s or even contemporary films, those flicks that try to give you a virtual poke in the eye with flying spears. Rather Mr. Cameron uses 3-D to amplify the immersive experience of spectacle cinema. Instead of bringing you into the movie with the customary tricks, with a widescreen or even Imax image filled with sweeping landscapes and big action, he uses 3-D seemingly to close the space between the audience and the screen. He brings the movie to you.

After a few minutes the novelty of people and objects hovering above the row in front of you wears off, and you tend not to notice the 3-D, which speaks to the subtlety of its use and potential future applications. Mr. Cameron might like to play with high-tech gadgets, but he’s an old-fashioned filmmaker at heart, and he wants us to get as lost in his fictional paradise as Jake eventually does. On the face of it there might seem something absurd about a movie that asks you to thrill to a natural world made almost entirely out of zeroes and ones (and that feeds you an anticorporate line in a corporately financed entertainment). But one of the pleasures of the movies is that they transport us, as Neytiri does with Jake, into imaginary realms, into Eden and over the rainbow to Oz.

If the story of a paradise found and potentially lost feels resonant, it’s because “Avatar” is as much about our Earth as the universe that Mr. Cameron has invented. But the movie’s truer meaning is in the audacity of its filmmaking.

Few films return us to the lost world of our first cinematic experiences, to that magical moment when movies really were bigger than life (instead of iPhone size), if only because we were children. Movies rarely carry us away, few even try. They entertain and instruct and sometimes enlighten. Some attempt to overwhelm us, but their efforts are usually a matter of volume. What’s often missing is awe, something Mr. Cameron has, after an absence from Hollywood, returned to the screen with a vengeance. He hasn’t changed cinema, but with blue people and pink blooms he has confirmed its wonder.

“Avatar” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Gun and explosive violence, death and despair.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Written and directed by James Cameron; director of photography, Mauro Fiore; edited by Mr. Cameron, John Refoua and Stephen Rivkin; music by James Horner; visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri; production designers, Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg; produced by Mr. Cameron and Jon Landau; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 2 hours 46 minutes.

WITH: Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoë Saldana (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Grace Augustine), Stephen Lang (Col. Miles Quaritch), Michelle Rodriguez (Trudy Chacon), Giovanni Ribisi (Carter Selfridge), Joel David Moore (Norm), C C H Pounder (Mo’at), Wes Studi (Eytukan) and Laz Alonso (Tsu’Tey).

ITs Complicated

A September-September Romance

Published: December 25, 2009

In the pleasurable, daffy if at times daft “It’s Complicated,” Meryl Streep plays Jane Adler, a successful restaurateur who’s about to nest happily alone in an upscale Southern California coastal community, or so it seems. Divorced with three adult children who enjoy her company (the middle one is just moving out), Jane lives in a large house on a lush sprawl surrounded by trees and no visible neighbors. It’s such a bucolic vision you half expect a few deer, a couple of bunnies and the bluebird of happiness to swing by for a visit and a quick song. Instead you get Rita Wilson trilling support as one of Jane’s close friends.

“It’s Complicated” was written and directed by Nancy Meyers, a Hollywood filmmaker who makes female-specific indulgences that, at their irresistible best, are testaments to the power of fairy tales. Like her finest film, “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), this new one revolves around a woman in late middle age, who, after years of going it alone in bed and out, suddenly becomes sexually and romantically involved with two very different men. What kinks up “It’s Complicated” ever so slightly is that one of the two suitors here is Jane’s former husband, Jake (Alec Baldwin), an unreconstructed womanizer now married to the much-younger Agness (Lake Bell), a hard-bellied beauty with abs and smiles of steel.

Those intimidating abs are as important to Agness’s outsider status in the story as the kooky spelling of her name, which stands out next to the reassuringly ordinary Jane, Jake and the fourth wheel, Adam (Steve Martin), who also catches Jane’s eye. Agness enters belly first, sashaying into the opening scene as the camera and Jane both fix on Agness’s stomach, an image that underscores her fertility while also reducing her to a body part (and lopping off her head). “Something’s Gotta Give” opens on a similar thematic note with images of sylphlike young beauties striding across the screen, their legs slicing the frame. We have met the enemy, Ms. Meyers seems to be suggesting, and she is firmer — and younger.

Younger, perhaps, but never better, at least in Meyersland. One of the most interesting things about Ms. Meyers’s romances is that they are pitched at a niche demographic, by which I mean women over 40. Ms. Streep looks sensational, but she and her crinkles also look close enough to her real age (60) to reassure you that she hasn’t resorted to the knife. That may sound grotesque and petty. But in an industry in which actresses whittle themselves down to nothing so they can have a little screen space only to fade away once they hit a certain age, there’s nothing trivial about a movie that insists a middle-aged woman with actual breasts and hips and wrinkles can be beautiful and desirable while also fully desiring.

Jane’s lust (and lustiness) kicks in after she and Jake land in New York to attend the college graduation of their youngest, Luke (Hunter Parrish). After a coincidental meeting at a bar, the parents end up drinking and dancing the night away, capping their giddy evening with an off-screen bout between the sheets. Afterward a grinning Jake enthuses over the encounter, a recap that a stunned-looking Jane answers by vomiting. But if Jane has doubts, which she shares through Ms. Meyers’s customary stream of babble, the heart or maybe the head wants what it wants. Whatever the case, Jane and Jake continue their affair back home, sneaking around while their children, as well as Agness and Adam remain oblivious.

Ms. Meyers and her interviewers like to invoke the comedies of Ernst Lubitsch (“The Shop Around the Corner”) as one of her inspirations. But watching a Grand Prix race doesn’t make you a Formula One champion. Her cinematographers tend to be first rate (John Toll shot this one), yet Ms. Meyers doesn’t have her own visual signature. What she does have is a kind of upmarket taste and the means to translate it onto the screen. Here, as in the other films she has directed, the camera is little more than a machine that takes nicely lighted pictures of the designer items, the actors included, which she has amassed and, with the exacting attention of an interior decorator, prettily arranged inside the frame.

At the same time there’s no doubt that she is an auteur, in that the films she has directed, including “What Women Want” and “The Holiday,” express a personal vision. Being an auteur isn’t simply a matter of what you do with the camera and why; among other things, pacing also counts (and Ms. Meyers has very good comic timing when it comes to banter) as do the performances. The movie’s best moments may be, to borrow a thought from Andrew Sarris, appreciated as exquisite whimsy (he was talking about a 1935 romantic comedy), but even in such whimsy, Mr. Sarris reminds us, a director’s touch can be “immortalized as a figure of style.”

Ms. Meyers’s vision can be maddeningly narrow and not only because her movies take place in cosseted, largely white worlds where the help is discreetly out of view. Both “It’s Complicated” and “Something’s Gotta Give” center on an independent woman whose life, despite all its personal and professional markers, immediately expands — even as it shrinks — once a man starts rocking her bed and head. Before her first adulterous night with Jake, Jane is a melancholy solo act, whether she’s weeping in her kitchen after her daughter moves out or trading somewhat desperately raunchy sex jokes with her girlfriends. Jake’s attentions give Jane snap, vibrancy, some color in her cheeks and, most important, a comic foil. Jake, in other words, turns her into a Nancy Meyers character.

In “It’s Complicated” Ms. Meyers transforms a divorced couple into a romantic couple, which suggests a belief in love enduring even after a marriage dies. That sounds wonderfully romantic or a prescription for pathology, maybe both. Whatever the balance between madness and madcap, classic screwball comedies involve a woman and a man meeting on the battlefield or in a newspaper office and sparring their way into coupledom. Ms. Meyers wants, as her title implies, to complicate that formula. But no matter how liberating some of her conceits, notably the older heroine, her embrace of sexist stereotypes, including male characters as agents of narrative change, keep her and her female characters down.

And yet ... much as Diane Keaton did in “Something’s Gotta Give,” Ms. Streep, mugging wildly if winningly, takes this character and makes you love her, just as Mr. Baldwin does with Jake, who, with his shark smiles and thrusting gut, beautifully conveys male vanity in its twilight. Jane may be too perfectly dressed, coiffed and housed to be plausible. But Ms. Streep makes you believe in Jane, or rather makes you want to believe in her, from her casually chic wardrobe to the indulgent smiles she bestows on her children and lovers, all of whom need nurturing. The truth is that everyone needs a little coddling, which could be the key to Ms. Meyers’s peculiar talent: She pampers her audience shamelessly.

“It’s Complicated” is rated R. (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.) Some tame nuzzling and a little pot smoking.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Written and directed by Nancy Meyers; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Joe Hutshing and David Moritz; music by Hans Zimmer and Heitor Pereira; production designer, Jon Hutman; produced by Ms. Meyers and Scott Rudin; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes.

WITH: Meryl Streep (Jane), Steve Martin (Adam), Alec Baldwin (Jake), Lake Bell(Agness), John Krasinski (Harley), Rita Wilson (Trisha), Mary Kay Place (Joanne), Alexandra Wentworth (Diane) and Hunter Parrish (Luke).


Final Score: Future 1, Past 0

Published: December 11, 2009

It may not seem obvious at first, but Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus,” a rousing true story of athletic triumph, is also that director’s latest exploration of revenge, the defining theme of his career. It is hard to think of an actor or a filmmaker who so cleanly embodies a single human impulse in the way that Mr. Eastwood — from “Pale Rider” to“Mystic River,” from Dirty Harry to “Gran Torino” — personifies the urge to get even.

He has also, of course, taken a critical view of the drive for vengeance, investigating its tragic roots and terrible consequences. A movie like “Unforgiven,” most famously, suggests that violent revenge is regrettable. But rarely, in the world of Mr. Eastwood’s films, is it avoidable.

“Invictus” is to some degree an exception, a movie about reconciliation and forgiveness — about the opposite of revenge — that gains moral authority precisely because the possibility of bloodshed casts its shadow everywhere. The film, based on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy,” takes place in South Africa in the mid-1990s, just after Nelson Mandela’s election as the country’s first black president. Many of the whites in the film — most of them Afrikaner nationalists still attached to a system that kept their black compatriots poor, disenfranchised and oppressed — brace themselves for payback as Mandela assumes power. Quite a few of the president’s black supporters expect it, too, as their due after decades of brutality and humiliation under apartheid.

But Mandela, played with gravity, grace and a crucial spark of mischief by Morgan Freeman, knows that score-settling would be a disastrous course for a new and fragile democracy. Passing by a newsstand on the morning after his victory, he spots a headline in Afrikaans. He has shown that he can win an election, it says, but will he show that he can govern? His bodyguards bristle at a pre-emptive low blow from a hostile press, but Mandela shrugs. “It’s a fair question,” he says.

And a perennially urgent one in any democracy. Mr. Eastwood and the screenwriter, Anthony Peckham, are too absorbed in the details of the story at hand to suggest historical analogies, but “Invictus” has implications beyond its immediate time and place that are hard to miss. It’s an exciting sports movie, an inspiring tale of prejudice overcome and, above all, a fascinating study of political leadership.

But much of the ingenuity in Mr. Freeman’s performance lies in the way he conveys that idealism and the shrewd manipulation of symbols and emotions are not incompatible, but complementary. Taking power a few years after being released from 27 years of incarceration, Mandela is already a larger-than-life figure, an idol in South Africa and around the world. His celebrity is something of a burden, and also an asset he must learn to use; his moral prestige is a political weapon.

But he is preoccupied, to the dismay of loyalists in his movement, with finding some kind of concord — not friendship, necessarily, but at least a state of non-enmity — with the people who hate and fear him: the whites who see him as a terrorist, a usurper and a threat to their traditions and values. Mandela’s overtures to the Afrikaners — starting with his refusal to dismiss white members of the presidential staff and security detail — arise partly out of Gandhian principle, and partly out of political calculation. They are a powerful force in the army, the police and the South African economy.

Mandela’s aides — in particular Brenda Mazibuko (Adjoa Andoh) — are baffled when he takes up the cause of the South African rugby team, a symbol of stiff-necked Afrikaner pride despised by most blacks. The team’s Springbok mascot, named for a kind of gazelle, and its green-and-gold uniforms are nearly as loathsome as the apartheid flag, and when Mandela insists that the colors be retained, it seems almost like a betrayal of his life’s cause. South Africa, a pariah in the world of international sports for a long time (“the skunk of the world,” as Mandela puts it), is preparing to host the Rugby World Cup, and Mandela decides that if the nation is to find unity and self-respect the underachieving Springboks must win the championship.

And so an alliance develops between the president and François Pienaar, the Springbok captain, played with crisp, disciplined understatement (and utter mastery of a devilishly tricky accent) by Matt Damon. Pienaar’s struggle to keep control of his team, and also to persuade them to accept some perplexing new social realities, is a microcosm of Mandela’s larger project. And he quietly accepts Mandela, who shares with Pienaar the Victorian poem that gives the movie its title, as a mentor.

Beyond the politician, Mr. Freeman and Mr. Eastwood allow us glimpses of a complicated and somewhat melancholy man, carrying the loneliness of his long imprisonment with him and estranged from much of his family. He is gracious and charming in small groups, a stiff but compelling public speaker and a boss whose authority is buttressed by a phalanx of devoted, sometimes skeptical aides.

But if “Invictus” is predominantly an absorbing character study of one of the most extraordinary characters of our time, it is also fleshed out with well-sketched minor players and subplots that illuminate the progress of racial rapprochement in its comic human dimension. The black bodyguards and their white colleagues proceed from hostility to wary tolerance to guarded warmth in a way that is pointed without being overstated. And that, for the most part, characterizes Mr. Eastwood’s direction, which is always unassuming, unhurried and efficient. In this film he tells a big story through a series of small, well-observed moments, and tells it in his usual blunt, matter-of-fact way, letting the nuances take care of themselves.

And once again, as in “Letters From Iwo Jima” — a tragic rather than heroic inquiry into the nature of leadership — they do. “Invictus” is more sprawling than that film, and more willing to risk hokiness. That is a chance Mr. Eastwood is often happy to take, and no genre is more susceptible to it (or earns it more honestly) than the victorious-underdog team-sports movie. That the sport is as alien to most Americans as it is to black South Africans presents its challenges, but by the end you might care about rugby more than you thought you would, even if it remains harder to understand than politics.

The convergence of the two provides an occasion for some potent, intelligent filmmaking — a movie that hits you squarely with its visceral impact and stays in your mind for a long time after.

“Invictus” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some swearing, the threat of violence and brutal sports action.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Anthony Peckham, based on the book “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens; production designer, James J. Murakami; produced by Mr. Eastwood, Lori McCreary, Robert Lorenz and Mace Neufeld; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes. WITH: Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela), Matt Damon (François Pienaar) and Adjoa Andoh (Brenda Mazibuko).

Bye Bye Birdie

If you get a chance, send a few dozen get-well cards to Henry Miller’s Theater, the new, handsomely renovated outpost of the Roundabout Theater Company empire. Flu season has arrived, and an especially mean virus appears to have attacked the cast of the revival of “Bye Bye Birdie,” which opened Thursday night.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

"Bye Bye Birdie," with John Stamos, left, Nolan Gerard Funk (as Conrad Birdie) and Gina Gershon, in the revival at Henry Miller’s Theater.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Nolan Gerard Funk as the honestly sincere rock ’n’ roller Conrad Birdie, with his fans.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Gina Gershon and John Stamos in "Bye Bye Birdie."

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

In the little apple: From left, Allie Trimm, Dee Hoty, Bill Irwin and Jake Evan Schwencke in the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of “Bye Bye Birdie” at Henry Miller’s Theater.

I don’t think it’s the swine flu that has flattened Robert Longbottom’s production of this popular 1960 musical about rebel rock ’n’ roll versus small-town America wholesomeness. The symptoms in this case include tin ear, loss of comic timing, uncontrollable jitters and a prickly disorientation that screams, “Where am I?” and “What am I doing?” Theatergoers may feel an empathetic urge to rush home and bury their heads in their pillows.

Clearly this is the sort of bug that could jeopardize the health of any red-blooded musical. For the silly, hokey “Bye Bye Birdie,” a show that just wants to have fun and be tuneful, it proves close to fatal. Directed and choreographed by Mr. Longbottom (“Side Show”) — with a cast led by John Stamos, Gina Gershon and Bill Irwin — “Bye Bye Birdie” may be the most painful example of misapplied talent on Broadway since the Roundabout’s production of “Hedda Gabler,” starring Mary-Louise Parker, last season.

Though long a favorite of high school theaters and summer stock, “Bye Bye Birdie” hasn’t been revived on Broadway since its first production, which starred Dick Van Dyke andChita Rivera. (A 1963 film featured Mr. Van Dyke and a sexually overcharged Ann-Margret as its teenage heroine.) Despite a catchy score by Charles Strouse, with blithely jokey lyrics by Lee Adams and a book to match by Michael Stewart, the show seemed square even when it first opened.

Its title character, Conrad Birdie (played here by Nolan Gerard Funk), may have been inspired by Elvis Presley and the clamor surrounding his being drafted into the Army. But the show introduced Birdie and the electrified music he embodied only to renounce them. “Bye Bye Birdie” was always proudly old-fashioned at heart, promising that it was the happy book musical — and not rock ’n’ roll — that was here to stay.

This makes “Birdie” a particular challenge for those hoping to sell it to New York theatergoers who have since embraced “Hair,” “Rent,” “Spring Awakening” and even “Billy Elliot.” Send up “Birdie,” and you kill its melodic friendliness; play it straight, and it just looks quaint.

Mr. Longbottom — who did admirably by “Side Show,” the daring and difficult 1997 musical about Siamese twins — has lost his sense of direction in trying to chart a path between those extremes. Designed by Andrew Jackness (sets), Gregg Barnes (costumes) and Ken Billington (lighting), the show’s shiny pastel (and willfully synthetic) appearance may be meant to capitalize on the currency of the hypnotically slick “Mad Men,” the multi-award-winning television series set in the same era. (Incidentally, the film version of “Birdie” figures in this season of “Mad Men.” What a hall of mirrors is American nostalgia.)

But the look and attitude of this “Birdie” — which follows the messy public-relations appearance of Conrad in a tidy little town called Sweet Apple, Ohio, just before he goes into the Army — are more evocative of an old Old Navy or Nick at Nite ad, the kind in which visual clichés of the late Eisenhower years were presented in stylistic quotation marks that rechilled yesteryear’s cool. This sensibility is (or was) tasty enough in 30-second spots. But stretched over two hours it does not create a world that actors, trying to create even semi-real characters, can inhabit comfortably.

Consider, for example, that the different families of Sweet Apple are color-coded, dressed in largely identical styles with a different bright hue per clan. Is this a statement on the conformity of the period? Or a means of distinguishing largely interchangeable cast members? Or just campy interior decorating?

Whatever the reasons behind these aesthetic choices, the show also betrays them. Black-and-white photographic projections (by Howard Werner) of frenzied teenagers (like those seen in the Life magazine coverage of the firstBeatles concerts in the United States) offer a jolting contrast to the willfully artificial whimsy onstage. And the show’s leading performers are equally inconsistent in their approaches.

It’s true that many of them present themselves as cartoons, animated by physical slapstick, but they’re all from different comic books. As the mother-smothered Albert Peterson, the showbiz agent who manages Birdie’s career, Mr. Stamos affects an adenoidal speaking voice and a clownish body language (perhaps meant to recall Mr. Van Dyke’s) that make him seem the same age as Conrad’s fans. (Jayne Houdyshell, an immensely likable actress, seems out of her element as Albert’s dragon mom.)

This Albert, pencil-thin and skittish, is no match for his fed-up secretary and girlfriend, Rose Alvarez, played by the luscious Ms. Gershon. Bringing to mind the physical ripeness of Ava Gardner at her peak, Ms. Gershon also seems to share the lack of confidence in her part that Gardner often projected on screen.

Of course it’s unfortunate that Mr. Stamos and Ms. Gershon, who carry the burden of some of the show’s most hummable songs (“Put On a Happy Face,” “An English Teacher,” “Rosie”), tend to slide distractingly off key — not violently, but just enough to make you want to hit your ear.

They have more passable singing voices than Mr. Irwin, a dazzlingly talented big-time mime who in recent years has shifted successfully to serious dramatic parts (including last season’s “Waiting for Godot”). Mr. Irwin plays Harry MacAfee, a Sweet Apple paterfamilias whose daughter, Kim (Allie Trimm), a Conrad Birdie Fan Club member, is selected to be kissed by her idol on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

This means that Mr. Irwin leads Kim and the rest of his family (Dee Hoty as his wife and Jake Evan Schwencke as his son) in the peerless satiric tribute to television worship, “Hymn for a Sunday Evening.” This requires four-part harmony, and with Mr. Irwin participating, the results are not pretty. Perhaps to compensate, Mr. Irwin lapses into his familiar neo-vaudevillian shtick, trying on disconnected funny postures and voices that make you wonder if Dad hasn’t gone psycho. (Watch out, Kim!)

Led by Ms. Trimm’s Kim (more Hannah Montana than Sandra Dee), the chorus of high school students sing shrilly and dance anxiously. Strangely enough, Mr. Funk, who missed several previews because of tonsillitis, seems more at ease onstage than anybody else. Closer to a Back Street Boys alumnus than Elvis, he’s not really right for the part. But he sings on key and appears to be enjoying himself. It’s nice to think that somebody is.


Book by Michael Stewart; music by Charles Strouse; lyrics by Lee Adams; directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom; music supervisor/vocal and dance arrangements by David Chase; orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; sets by Andrew Jackness; costumes by Gregg Barnes; lighting by Ken Billington; sound by Acme Sound Partners; projection