Invictus revisits a thrilling World Cup victory

Invictus ****

Another late-career triumph for director Clint Eastwood, this convulsively moving account of the early days of Nelson Mandela's presidency and how South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup victory helped unite the country is the antithesis of a standard Hollywood message movie. Superbly adapted by Anthony Peckham from John Carlin's book, Eastwood's majestic film is nuanced and full of vivid, telling details that help convey not only the measure of two men (Morgan Freeman's Mandela and Matt Damon's Afrikaner rugby captain Francois Pienaar), but also of a nation on the precipice of seismic changes — both culturally and politically. Clocking in a briskly paced 136 minutes, this is that rare movie epic that carries its size and ambition with incomparable ease, remarkable grace and unstinting dignity. After Gran Torino, Letters From Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River — all within the past half-dozen years — perhaps it's time to recognize Eastwood as America's greatest working director. — Milan Paurich

Opens Friday areawide

Fellini's Roma **

In this 1972 scripted film without plot or characters, Federico Fellini plunges into an evocation of Rome through disconnected and surreal vignettes, Nino Rota music and cinematic buffoonery ladled out with a heavy hand. Rome's crowded, crazy tenements of the fascist '30s are shown from the viewpoint of a newcomer from Italy's cultured north. Then there's a flash-ahead to Fellini himself and his camera crew in oddly futile modern-day exploits, shooting a vaudeville sequence that seems to oscillate between WWII and the Vietnam era. There are dramatized comparisons of upper- and lower-class brothels, an interview with Gore Vidal and a brush-off from Anna Magnani. There's a visit to an aged aristocrat, cuing a gaudy "Vatican Fashion Show." It recalls anti-Catholic iconoclast Luis Buñuel, who at the time was also making anarchic — but brilliantly composed and fiendishly entertaining — anti-narratives like The Phantom of Liberty and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Fellini's film, by contrast, seems to be thrashing around in search of cohesion, mostly in vain. — Charles Cassady Jr.

Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque

At 9:25 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12,

and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13

Red Cliff ***

A robust, proudly old-fashioned battle epic that's usually described as the sort of movie they don't make anymore, this truncated, two-and-a-half-hour U.S. version of John Woo's five-hour-plus historical extravaganza delivers more bang for the buck than any recent Hollywood action flick. The vastly outnumbered armies of two small southern kingdoms square off against the battalion of corrupt Han general Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) in third century A.D. China. Spectacular battle scenes — all shot on a humongous, cast-of-thousands scale — ensue. There are terrific performances (including a masterly turn by Wong Kar-wai muse Tony Leung as a good-guy viceroy) and even a piquant love story at the core. What's not to love? While some of the political nuances and niceties of characterization may be lost in the abridged cut, what remains will more than suffice until the full-length version of Woo's lollapalooza is released on DVD. — Paurich

Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee

Damned United ***

You don't have to like or even know anything about British football (soccer to us Yanks) to get a kick out of Tom Hooper's biopic about legendary '70s Brit soccer manager Brian Clough (deliciously played by Michael Sheen as a combination of ruthlessness, egotism and boyish naiveté). Peter Morgan's (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) adroit screenplay takes a Citizen Kane approach to Clough's life and career circa 1968-1974, jumping back and forth in time without ever losing track or focus. The delicious irony of the film is that the Clough portrayed here suffers one ignoble defeat after another after finally landing his dream job as head coach of the almighty Leeds United. As Peter Taylor, Clough's long-suffering assistant, character actor MVP Timothy Spall sparks up every scene he's in. Clough and Taylor's fractious, codependent relationship might not have been a conventional love story, but it's a love story just the same. — Paurich

Opens Friday at Cedar Lee

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