Top 5… Morgan Freeman Roles

Unbelievably, Morgan Freeman is 75 today! He is most famously known for his smooth, mellifluous tones, making him easily the greatest narrator available for any story like to tug the occasional heartstring and culminate in an uplifting scene, but his lovable, greatest-grandfather-yoou-never-had persona has been perfectly suited to many other roles too. Let’s have a look at the ones that fitted most perfectly.
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Invictus

South Africa, May 1994. Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) was released from prison 4 years ago, and has just been elected as the country’s president. Amidst a nation-wide racial clash, Mandela believes that the key to a united country could lie within the national rugby team, the Springboks, and their captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon).
Mandela’s plan, it seems, is for the Springboks – a team so despised by the black population that they instinctively root for whoever is playing against them, and who hadn’t been doing terribly well before Mandela got involved – to win the Rugby World Cup in less than a year’s time, though experts believe they’ll get no further than the quarter finals at best. The Springboks, with only one black player and a uniform of apartheid’s green and gold, find themselves in a position where their president wants them to be cheered on by the entire mixed nation, so embark on a PR campaign involving playing and teaching rugby to the poor black kids from the slums of the country. Going in, I thought his plan would have been to create a team comprised of 50% blacks and whites, thereby creating animosity as to whether the players were recruited for their skill or the colour of their skin, but in effect his plan was… nothing. Other than some inspirational speeches, standard marketing techniques, a slightly more intense training regime and an admirable cause, the aim seems to be just to will the team to win. Much like Million Dollar Baby, I could have done with some more time spent on the reasons behind the success, not simply showing it.

The subplot involving Mandela’s begrudgingly mixed race security team being forced to work together, eventually bonding over the rugby matches, was well played if predictable, but ably showed the success of the president’s plans. I’d have liked more time spent on Mandela as a person, maybe depicting his rise from prisoner to presidential candidate in an extremely racist country, as opposed to skipping through it in an all-too-brief opening montage. The man behind the title is hinted at – his broken family, way with the ladies and fondness for afternoon tea – but such a prolific, historical figures surely deserves a full biopic that doesn’t spend half it’s time on the rugby field. But then Eastwood’s recent biopic, J. Edgar, has received largely negative reviews, so there could be a reason for why he didn’t do the same here.
The closest the film comes to spectacle is in the rugby matches, and I’m no sports fan. Every modicum of emotion that can be wrought from the game has been, but those unfamiliar with it’s intricacies (I’m only just out of this category) could believe it to be simply about mid-pitch wrestling matches and kicking a ball between two posts.
Morgan Freeman has been trying to play Mandela for years, eventually getting the project off the ground with his Million Dollar Baby/Unforgiven director Clint Eastwood. He does a great job with the accent and the performance, but his casting was such an obvious choice that it dullens the impact. There is no-one else that could have portrayed the character better, and its doubtful that were someone else casting the film they’d’ve asked anyone else. If Freeman weren’t involved, the project probably never would have gone anywhere, and perhaps that’s how it should have been. Damon is good too, and it shows the notoriety of Eastwood as a director that Damon, one of the most outright and capable leading men working in Hollywood today, is willing to take a supporting role just to work with him.
Some plot points are clearly superfluous – much attention is put on Chester, the Springbok’s only black player, injuring his hamstring so he is unable to play a couple of matches – and far too much time is spent on the less interesting sports aspects over the far more captivating figurehead at the heart of the story.
Choose life 5/10

Million Dollar Baby

The second part of my Clint-Eastwood-directing-himself-and-Morgan-Freeman-in-a-supporting-role double bill see Clint take on a genre he’s never really (that I know of) looked at before, the sports movie (please feel free to let me know if he has, I’m often wrong about these things and he’s been working for an awfully long time).

If there’s two criticisms that can be lauded onto Eastwood, it’s that he doesn’t direct happy stories or portray more than one character. He’s not renowned for making lighter films with happy endings or playing people who aren’t grumpy, stoic curmudgeons with their trousers too high, and his streak continues here. I know he’s made a few lighter films (Paint Your Wagon, Every Which Way But Loose) but I haven’t seen them, and I’m guessing he plays the grumpy, stoic, possibly singing straightman to a comically messy primate who never stops annoying him. Again, please let me know if I’m wrong and recommend any films where he flashes a smile, once.

Here, Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, a knowledgeable, best-there-is boxing trainer who can’t seem to get it together to be more than the owner of the run-down Hit Pit Gym. His latest fighter, Big Willie Little (Mike Colter) has a promising career ahead of him, with Frankie having gotten him almost to a title fight, but alas he leaves for a more prolific manager, leaving Frankie high and dry. Meanwhile, self-proclaimed white trash  Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) has joined his gym and is looking for a trainer, though Dunn is adamant that he doesn’t train girls. Her pluck and commitment eventually wears down Dunn, assisted by persistent advice from his assistant, Morgan Freeman’s retired boxer and former recipient of Dunn’s training, Eddie ‘Scrap-Iron’ Dupris.


The story is a little corny and at times downright predictable. It’s clear that Maggie and Frankie will work together, each filling a void in the other’s life (Maggie’s father is dead, Frankie’s daughter has fled and refuses to acknowledge his efforts to contact her), and once they get going her rise through the ranks is unbelievable, especially as she never received any training until she was 31, but the delivery is spot-on. Heartstrings are at times shamelessly plucked, but justifiably so, and there’s a blindsided moment I genuinely didn’t see coming on first viewing. This isn’t your average rags-to-riches underdog sports movie, and it’s proud of this. There’s moments of humour, most noticeably from Dunn trying to talk to Maggie (“I’m going to try and forget the fact that you’re a girl”) and from Jay Baruchel’s simpleton wanna-be-but-never-gonna-be boxer ‘Danger’ Barch.


Swank is, expectedly, brilliant, earning her second Oscar as she all but becomes the downtrodden heroine. Her family has never stopped putting her down (look out for Garfunkel & Oates’ Riki Lindhome as her welfare-cheating sister!) but she retains a dogged sense of determination, saving up all her money from waitressing jobs where she has to steal half-eaten steaks to survive, just to buy a speedball for training. The outcome of her trying to do something nice for the family that’s never done anything for her is genuinely heartbreaking. Eastwood is good, but it’s well trodden ground for him, and Morgan Freeman is wonderfully understated – until he gets a chance to show off some moves later on.


There’s a lot to recommend about the film, but not a lot to bring you back. It’s certainly worth watching at least once, and I took a great deal away from it, but most of that was that I didn’t want to go through the harrowing gut-punch of an experience of watching it again any time soon.


Choose film 8/10

Unforgiven

The first part of my double bill of Clint-Eastwood-directing-himself-and-Morgan-Freeman-in-a-supporting-role sees the American icon define the genre that not only made him the prolific star he is, but that he has almost singlehandedly kept alive since it’s surge in popularity in the 60s and 70s; the western.
Unforgiven sees Eastwood as William Munny, a former hardened killer reformed by the love of a good women and the birth of his two children. With his wife dead and their herd of pigs stricken with fever, Munny accepts the offer from young upstart The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) to kill two ruffians who cut up a whore after she laughed at one of them having a small penis. They team up with Munny’s former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and head out to the town of Big Whiskey, lorded over by Gene Hackman’s occasionally violent ‘Little’ Bill Daggett, where other hired killers, including Richard Harris’ English Bob, are also heading to claim the bounty.
Eastwood’s Munny isn’t your typical western hero. In fact, no character in this can ever be truly classed as heroic. Munny has what could politely be called a sordid past, and his desperation to honour his late wife by not succumbing to his younger urges is evident. A self proclaimed no good son of a bitch, Munny is a shadow of his former self, unable to shoot straight or even mount a horse. Freeman’s Ned has a woman at home, yet has no qualms about visiting the whorehouse in town, Schofield has his own secrets and Bob is an outright liar, gambler and killer. At times it seems that Little Bill, supposedly the villain of the piece, is possibly the most moral character here, opting not to kill the prostitute abusers in favour of fining them horses instead, with the sins he commits in the present are nothing compared to those done by Munny in the past, and his intentions are only to keep his town free from guns and violence, except from his own. I found it odd though that nothing was made of Freeman’s race, as he and his partner are the only non-white characters in the film, yet there are no even passing references when the townsfolk describe him. I’ve just realised I’m annoyed that Morgan Freeman wasn’t racially abused in a film.
The script, which did the rounds in Hollywood for 20 years before Eastwood picked it up, is pocked with sharp humour and great lines (“If I see you again, I’m just gonna start shooting and consider it self defence.”) and works not just as a study and disassembly of the westerns that came before it, but as a damn good, prime example of one itself. Harris’ English Bob has his own biographer (Saul Rubinek), whose role is to take Bob’s stories and lyricise them a little; in essence creating the cowboy myths and legends that make up the staples of the genre. It’s a film about shattered dreams and fallen heroes – the actors as much as the characters – as it’s not often you see Eastwood rolling around in pig shit, Morgan Freeman asking someone if they sleep with prostitutes or just use their hand or Lex Luthor beating the crap out of Dumbledore. It’s clear that Munny could quite easily be any one of Eastwood’s previous stoic, bitter, hard as nails cowboys who’d let themselves go for a few years.
The film deals with the seriousness of death and murder, with no post-kill smart alec quips. One characters defiant “I’ll see you in Hell, Willaim Munny,” is met only with a considered, matter of fact “Yeah.” It’s almost as prolific as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon A Time in the West, and definitely ranks in the top 5 westerns.
Choose film 9/10

Seven

A buddy cop movie with a seasoned old hand so close to retirement they’re already scraping his name off the door and his hotshot, firebrand young replacement, this couldn’t be further from another Lethal Weapon. Yes, one’s a family man and the other’s a loner, one is prone to anger and the other a methodical, careful detective clearly too old for this shit, but where Richard Donner’s 80’s staple is an entertaining, action-packed romp, this is something much darker.After a disturbingly evocative opening credits sequence enriched with depth and meaning on repeated viewings, we meet Morgan Freeman’s detective Somerset, picking up his last case, a sickeningly masterful serial killer with a penchant for the seven deadly sins, the same day as Brad Pitt’s Detective Mills arrives to replace him. That’s as much setup as there is, as we follow the mismatched detectives from crime scene to crime scene, via their headquarters and areas of research, with Somerset whiling a night away poring over books in the library, whilst Mills take a brief glance at the Cliff notes.

The script is dotted with well balanced moments of humour – Somerset having dinner with Mills and his wife Tracey (Gwyneth Paltrow) – and some deep black humour: “this guy’s sat in his own piss and shit; if he wasn’t dead he’d’ve stood up by now,” plus R. Lee Ermey’s belligerent, furious Police Captain (“This is not even my desk” is one of my favourite film quotes, ever).

Crucially, we see none of the killer’s murders onscreen, merely their gruesome aftermaths. It’s not as gory as you might remember, but it evokes imagery and feelings that some may find disturbing, not least what happens to Leland Orser’s character, who probably has the worst memories of those who survive. It could be argues that this is a precursor to the Saw franchise, punishing those that seem to deserve it in creative, torturous ways, but at least here we are saved the nightmarish spectacles of witnessing the deaths.

At times the film feels a bit predictable, like a police procedural itself, but whenever this is about to happen the plot shifts direction, taking an unexpected twist to shake things up again. The colour palette of muted greys and browns, interspersed with deep reds amongst the incessant torrential downpour of the nameless city only adds to the feelings of despair.

There’s small roles for John C. McGinley and Richard Schiff in there as well, a nice surprise for me in the opening credits, but unfortunately at times the acting, especially Pitt during the final scenes, leaves something to be desired. The ending has become the stuff of legend, but I won’t reveal it just in case, save that Pitt’s gurning and crying are a bit over the top and take you out of the scene. This is another one of those films where knowing your actors may ruin the film too, as recognising a voice could cause annoyances later on, but not too badly.

Overall this is director David Fincher’s defining film (better than Fight Club in my opinion, though it’s been a while). The gritty tone is perfectly realised through every medium possible, the plot is gripping, the twists hold up and, though far from an enjoyable experience, it remains worthwhile.

Choose film 10/10

The Dark Knight

What can I say about the Dark Knight that a thousand others before me haven’t? Of all modern films, this seems to be the one pored over most closely and often, heralded as the saviour of the summer blockbuster, superhero movie and crime thriller, all rolled up in the tightest of scripts. So, to take a fresh perspective, I sought out some people who didn’t like the film (thank the lord for the Internet, it makes people who don’t like something so easy to find) and found myself furious after reading just one and a half 1/10 reviews on IMDb. The sheer level of nitpicking and miniscule plot-hole unravelling proves just how far people are willing to go to disagree with the masses and stand out from the crowd, even when the crowd is so undeniably correct.
Not that this is a perfect film. There are flaws, including the Joker’s plan being at times a tad too pre-emptive, some ominous camera angles and music cues hinting unsubtly a character’s true motives earlier than should have been done, and the bit with the cellphones, which is a bit silly, but is that really enough to warrant a 1-star rating? The fact that these reviewers (I won’t give them the satisfaction of names or links, only seek them out to feel the rage bubble inside you) fail to note even one positive point in a movie overflowing with brilliance negates any opinion they deem worthy of sharing. I personally find it impossible to find nothing good in a movie – The Adventures of Pluto Nash is an abomination unto film, yet Randy Quaid is a delight as Nash’s robotic assistant; Big Trouble in Little China is easily one of the worst films I’ve reviewed from the list so far, but it has imaginative (if insane) monsters and mythology, some dialogue that surpasses cheesy to being inspired, and features Kim Cattrall back when she was attractive. Therefore, with such damning reviews as these ‘people’ have offered, they are in fact unwittingly proving how good a film it is.
Leaping from the tantalising springboard ending of BatmanBegins – Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon showing Batman a playing card left as the mark of a new criminal, calling himself The Joker, we dive headlong into a wonderfully executed bank heist, as six masked goons effortlessly separate mob money from the vaults it was stored in. Director Chris Nolan has made no secret that Heat, Michael Mann’s superb DeNiro/Pacino cat and mouse crime epic, was a huge influence on the Dark Knight, and it shows, from a William Fichtner cameo to a central meeting of the hero and villain, even mentioning a cup of coffee.
Nolan wisely improved upon some mild mis-steps made in Batman Begins here, replacing Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhall as love interest Rachel Dawes, giving Batman’s mask a cowl so he can turn his head, and giving Batman himself (Christian Bale, good but no Adam West) a little less screen time, allowing alter ego Bruce Wayne and his various accomplices and nemeses some breathing room. Aaron Eckhart is spot-on as Harvey Dent, Gotham’s shining hope against the mob, and Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine remain on hand to add a touch of old school class and grandeur as Wayne’s dependable CEO nad curmudgeonly butler/moral compass, but justifiably most of the praise has been directed at the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. A creation for the ages, his layered performance of a truly maniacal genius reveals more with each viewing, and it is unfortunate that the role showcased the true acting abilities of a man previously thought of merely as a rom-com heartthrob only after he had passed. Plus, it gave us all another Hallowe’en costume to use.
Unusually for Nolan, the film is actually quite funny. It’s not exactly laugh-a-minute (there’s certainly less than 152 jokes here), the script is still a lot more humorous than you might remember. There’s also absolutely no filler, with every strand being integral to the plot; a true achievement when you consider just how engaging the story is, even when new elements are being added right up until the last few scenes.
As always with Nolan’s films, there’s a couple of cinematography moments that I’d have tried differently (see Inception), most notably the scene where the Joker leaves a hospital, which could have looked truly tremendous had it been one unbroken shot, without needlessly cutting away to some pedestrians nearby, but this is a small matter that is more of a personal niggle than a criticism.
Anyway, for those wondering if they should watch the film again before the upcoming trilogy closer The Dark Knight Risesthis summer, the answer is a resounding yes. Even if you don’t intend to see part 3 (I assume you’re planning on gouging out your own eyeballs, just in case it isn’t any good, there’s no other reason not to see it) you should watch The Dark Knight again, just because it’s probably the best film to have been released in the last 5 years, if not more.
Choose film 9/10

Batman Begins

As the title suggests, this predominantly covers Batman’s origin story, from the death of his parents after he becomes scared at the theatre, through his training by Liam Neeson’s Ducard, his development of a crime-fighting persona and his confrontation with his former mentor in a city ridden with toxin-crazed criminals and madmen. This is arguably the most realistic, or at least vaguely plausible comic book movie ever made, with the only real superpowers on display being a gas that makes people insane and a ridiculously vast fortune to funs Bruce Wayne’s double lifestyle. Granted, the secret passage in Wayne Manor is operated by hitting a coded sequence of piano keys, but this can be forgiven, and is at least a variation from the classic sliding of a secret book on a shelf.
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