Friday, April 15, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

Hotel Rwanda
Directed by Terry George
2004, rated PG-13
5 stars

It is important that we be reminded of the darker side of human nature. Documentaries, dramas, and action films have been made on subjects such as the prosecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, the creation of the atomic bomb and the consequences of its deployment on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Vietnam, World War I, and any other atrocity in which mass murder has occurred. These films are essential to our understanding of the world, and are made in the hopes that our manner of dealing with similar situations will improve as they arise in present times. One such atrocity imperative to global understanding occurred only ten years ago, and was allowed to continue without any intervention by the world powers. Hotel Rwanda, directed and written by Terry George, tells the story of one man’s heroic efforts during the time of the horrific genocide that occurred in Rwanda in the 1990’s.

Don Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a Belgian-owned hotel, Mille Collines, in the small African country of Rwanda, and whose remarkable story is told by the film. The film begins only a few days before the slaughter of the Tutsis by the Hutus. These two groups are barely distinguishable from each other; they share the same ethnic background, the same neighborhoods, the same religions, and the same general political beliefs. All that separates them from one another are their individual ID cards labeling them as either Hutu or Tutsi. These two groups, and the subsequent rift between them, were created by first the German and then the Belgian colonialists who controlled the country in the 1960’s. These European colonialists felt that it was necessary to have a governing body of an elite class, and declared the Tutsi minority to be the more elegant—and thus more favored. These Europeans then separated the people into these two groups using arbitrary guidelines such as the width of noses, height, and skin pigmentation. Although the differences were so minor that the two groups were virtually indistinguishable from one another, the Europeans favored the Tutsis for being taller, and lighter skinned. When these colonialist forces left the country, however, they left an angry Hutu majority in charge. Under an extremist Hutu government, many Tutsis were driven from Rwanda, and those that remained became demonized. As a Tutsi rebel army began to fight its way back into the country, a powerful Hutu radio broadcast went out calling for the eradication of all the Tutsi “cockroaches.” The Hutus erupted, killing nearly a million people, many of them innocent women and children, before the Tutsi rebel forces were able to fight back and halt the genocide. These events were covered on the news by European journalists, and reported to Western-power government officials by the United Nations officers stationed in the country—yet the world just stood by and let it happen, and no intervention force came to these people’s rescue.

As horrific and distressing as this story may seem, Hotel Rwanda carries more a message of hope than of disaster. Over the course of the genocide, Paul Rusesabagina sheltered more than 1,200 Hutu and Tutsi refugees in the Hotel de Mille Collines. It is his story of bravery and humanity that Hotel Rwanda celebrates. When the genocide first began, Paul’s original intention was to protect his family. Though himself a Hutu, his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) is Tutsi, and thus she, their three children, and her extended family are all in danger. As more and more refugees flock to the UN-protected grounds of the hotel, however, Paul begins to recognize the importance of protecting and saving all of them from the horrific murders taking place just outside the gates. Through the evacuation of all European personnel and complete abandonment of the Rwandans in their plight, and the bargains and bribes required to keep the Hutu militia at bay, Paul’s heroic efforts in the face of so much danger reminds us of the goodness that can be present in human nature.

Hotel Rwanda is absolutely superb. It encompasses every aspect a quality film should—a compelling plotline, excellent acting, quality filmmaking, and a well-told story. Every character in the film is absolutely convincing, and powerful in his and her sincerity. Don Cheadle, especially, gives a simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming performance as Paul, though the surrounding characters also contribute to the genuine feel of the film. Nick Nolte, as the UN Colonel Oliver, Cara Seymour as the Red Cross humanitarian worker Pat Archer, and Joaquin Phoenix as the journalist Jack Daglish each give magnificent supporting performances as the minor European—otherwise known as white—roles. Cheadle and Okonedo really carry the film, however, helped by the excellent performances given by Desmond Dube as Paul’s friend and hotel co-worker Dube, Tony Kgoroge as the Hutu-loyal hotel worker and general scum-bucket Gregoire, Hakeem Kae-Kazim as the Hutu supplier of weapons and supplies George Rutaganda, and Fana Mokoena as the Rwandan police official General Bizimungu. Every actor seems to be reaching through the screen and transcending the boundaries between film and reality, giving a powerful sense of how desperate the situation really was, and what actually happened. Though the story is tense, keeping the audience at the edge of their seats the entire time, it does make room for the interspersion of small comedy—which when it comes, brings a sudden relief from the anxiety and tension of the film.

Though genocide is not exactly a light or pleasant subject to be confronted with, Hotel Rwanda carries an important message of what happens when such carnage occurs while the world stands by and watches on the evening news. It also does an outstanding job of juxtaposing the worst side of humanity with the best and most heroic. The audience comes away not with a depressed feeling of despair, but with an uplifting sense of hope for humanity. Although not as widely publicized and well-known as other more famous cases of mass murder and genocide, Hotel Rwanda is just as important as films like Schindler’s List. When confronted with the bravery and heroics of one average man, it is encouraging to think that there is hope, even in the darkest of times.

Robots

Robots
Directed by Chris Wedge
2005, rated PG
4 stars

There seems to be a growing trend in children’s animated films of personification. For some reason it is just more interesting to see other creatures acting human than it is to see actual humans acting human. First it was toys (Toy Story 1&2), then insects (Antz, A Bug’s Life), monsters and fairy tale creatures (Monsters Inc., Shrek 1&2), and then fish (Finding Nemo, A Shark’s Tale). All of these films are heartwarming and endearing, and all follow the encouraging storyline of the little guy making it big through hard work and honesty. Now the personification has moved to robots in Chris Wedge’s aptly named film, Robots.

Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor) is a young robot from a small town making his way to the city with his big dreams and ideas. Rodney has been lured to the big apple—creatively named Robot City—by the enticing promises of opportunity offered by Bigweld (Mel Brooks) and his corporation. Rodney has grown up watching Bigweld’s television show, which promises open opportunity to any aspiring inventor who arrives at the corporation’s doorstep. Upon arrival, however, Rodney discovers that the business has been taken over by the fiscally focused, diabolically scheming Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), and that the door is now quite literally closed to any new ideas. With complete control of the corporation, Ratchet, along with his frighteningly psychotic mother, Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent), has formed a plot to outdate all old and underfinanced robots and to turn these outdated models into scrap metal. Rodney, however, will not stand for it, and with a little help from a strange assortment of friends—who include the voice talents of Robin Williams, Halle Berry, and Drew Carey—sets out to restore the rightful owner and integrity to the corporation he so admires.

The voice cast for Robots is absolutely astonishing in its star-studded brilliance. In addition to the names listed above, other well-known actors make their way into the film as minor roles. Paul Giamatti serves as the voice for the rude little Tim the Gate Guard; Jay Leno has a few lines as a fire hydrant; and James Earl Jones parodies himself as the recorded message for a pay phone. These famous actors do more than add showy names to the cast listings, however. Their voices and intonations are what bring these animated steel beings to life.

Of course, the special effects animation lends a hand as well. With every film, computer-generated animation becomes more life-like and fun to watch. After all, it doesn’t matter if the characters aren’t human, the more real they look, the more the audience can identify with them. And it’s always entertaining to watch human emotions and quirks translated and reflected in the facial expressions and actions of other forms. Robots makes excellent use of this technique, and it translates well, as the robots are of humanoid form, but just different enough to make the transition amusing and available for puns and jokes.

The animation for Robot City is also amazing in its scope and detail. The intricacies of the robot city life not only reflect that of humans, but add to it as well. The cross town journey, for example, more resembles a wild roller coaster bigger than anything at Six Flags more than anything else—although this may be an accurate reflection of how it feels to try to get from one side of a city to another.

Although similar to its predecessors in both plot and style, Robots incorporates much more humor and movement into its plot and storytelling. Constant allusions to current events and other movies keeps the older audience entertained, while the typical puns and gag jokes amuse all age groups. And, of course, the overall moral is a classic, with the hero fighting the good fight for the rights of the underdog. Overall, Robots is entertaining and enjoyable—though Robin Williams occasionally seems to have a few screws loose himself.

The Boondock Saints

The Boondock Saints
Directed by Troy Duffy
1999, rated R
4 stars

Stories of redemption and vengeance often ignore the moral dilemmas of the situations. Usually, the bad guy gets just what he deserves, and the audience knows he deserves it because we’ve been told and seen all the evil things he’s done throughout the entire film. The righteousness of the revenge of the hero is never questioned, because there is no doubt about whether or not it was the right thing to do. The Boondock Saints, directed by Troy Duffy, addresses this moral conundrum—but in an enjoyably entertaining and humorous way.

Connor and Murphy MacManus (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus) are Irish twins living in the slums of Boston. Stuck in a dead-end job at a meat packing plant and living in squalor in a one-room apartment, the two still maintain a light-hearted outlook on life, constantly joking and kidding around. Their world, however, is suddenly changed by the unexpected continuation of a bar fight, and the subsequent death of two members of the Russian mafia. Having heard about the terrible crimes this mafia has committed and how the police can do nothing about it, the two decide to take matters into their own hands. Suddenly they realize that their vengeance on the wicked ought to be extended to encompass any committer of evil who crosses their path. With the help of their clueless friend, “Funny Man” Rocco (David Della Rocco), a member of the Italian mafia himself, the duo continues their rampage of redemption.

The Irish joking of the MacManus twins keeps the film upbeat and funny at times when it could turn too dark and depressing. Their playful antics, along with the cluelessness of Rocco, make even the moments one would expect to be dark and serious, such as the shoot-out scenes, absolutely hilarious. Especially entertaining is Willem Dafoe’s performance as Paul Smecker, the federal detective tracking the mysterious cases of the twins. Dafoe’s flippant and arrogant air, combined with his amusingly hyperbolic frustration, make his performance one of the best of the film. Every character, however, is entertaining in his own way, and each works to bring the film together into one harmonious unit. Flanery and Reedus act at times like goofy teenagers, and at others like heroic action figures; Rocco struggles after them like an admiring puppy dog; and Dafoe pirouettes across the screen as if the entire film were his debut ballet performance. Even the minor characters add their own eccentric charm to the whole shebang.

The Boondock Saints incorporates everything good about action films while at the same time adding heart and ambiguity. The shoot-outs are intentionally overdone, complete with big guns, fancy entrances, smoke, dust, blood, and an operatic soundtrack to back it all up. Interesting camera angles and fast cuts add to the chaotic nature of these sequences, but then slows the cuts down for the more relaxed and calmer moments. Dark, moody lighting accompanies seriousness, while brightness and light enhances the more comic moments. Most everything is exaggerated, which keeps the film from sinking to the dark, depressing depths of the moral dilemmas. The film does raise some questions, and raises them well. Unlike other action films that involve vengeance against the wicked, the audience never really sees the evilness of the “villains”; their crimes are mentioned briefly, and then they are gone. Thus the question is raised—is it really right to fight fire with fire? The police are unable to do anything to these powerful criminals, since they always find loopholes to escape through—so is it right that they should be eliminated from society in such a harsh manner?

Perhaps the most effective part of the film is that it doesn’t really take sides. In the end, all opinions are presented, and the audience is left to make up their own minds about the issue. Overall, The Boondock Saints is entertaining, even if you’re not as interested in the moral issues. As an action film it’s excitingly funny, with plenty of humor and bullets. As an analysis of societal morals it’s a little less solid, but still not without merit. And after all, everyone loves the Irish.

The Ring Two

The Ring Two
Directed by Hideo Nakata
2005, rated PG-13
1 star

There are certain aspects a horror film must have to make it sufficiently scary and worthwhile. Firstly, some aspect of it must defy the laws of nature—ghosts, vampires, demonic dolls, leprechauns, Freddie Krueger—but be set in an area that looks as if it were the house next door. Secondly, it must be dimly lit, with little or no natural lighting, preferably all at night. Finally—and perhaps most importantly—it must be able to generate a sequel. After all, where would we be without Scream 1, 2, and 3, all 7 of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, all 10 of the Friday the 13th series—not to mention the combination hit Freddy Vs Jason—and the 6 part Leprechaun series—which includes such brilliance in titles as Leprechaun in the Hood, and Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood. Now the immensely popular 2002 horror film The Ring—a remake of the 1998 Japanese version Ringu—can add to this proud tradition with The Ring Two, directed by Hideo Nakata.

Naomi Watts plays Rachel Keller, a journalist newly moved to a small, rural seacoast town from the big city. In the previous film, Rachel and her son Aidan (David Dorfman) only barely escaped from the murderous clutches of a video tape. Actually, it was the ghost of a murdered girl named Samara (Kelly Stables) trapped in the tape. Both in the this film and its predecessor, Samara kills anyone who had watched it after a week—unless they make a copy and pass it on for someone else to watch—by crawling out of a well, out of the TV screen, and drowning them. Rachel and Aidan, in an attempt to put the past behind them, are trying to make the best of their new, small-town life. Rachel has taken a job at the local newspaper and has even met a promising co-worker named Max (Simon Baker)—for where would any film be without the thrill of a love interest? Unfortunately, the Samara epidemic has spread enough to infect even this isolated locale, and Rachel and Aidan become re-involved upon the death of a local teenager who watched the tape. Now that Samara has found the two again, she is determined to escape from her cassette compound and inhabit a real human body. Since she always lacked a mother figure—one of the main issues in the previous film—Aidan seems the ideal person to occupy, with Rachel as the loving mother. What follows is the furious battle between a mother, and the evil impulses that have suddenly corrupted her son.

The Ring Two seems to pride itself on all the twists and turns it manages to cram into the storyline. This film has more complex folds than a piece of ornamental origami, but lacks the elegance and form. Instead of coming out as a graceful swan or crane, The Ring Two more resembles middle school love notes, the convoluted folds used not for form, but to conceal the actual content hidden deep inside. This film just tries too hard. It tries to link too many things together, and ends up either forgetting about them later, or lamely explaining them away. Links to previous seemingly random incidents—such as their car being attacked by a herd of 20 male deer, because there is always deer in the country—are left hanging, or suffer loose attempts at explanations—the deer are explained away by a pile of antlers that Rachel finds in the basement of Samara’s old house, but have no apparent relevance to any of the rest of the story.

Watts gives a mediocre performance as Rachel, and is pushed out of the limelight by her creepy son. Dorfman is definitely the scariest part of this film, his pale skin seeming to glow faintly in the continual darkness of the film. Yet, not even Dorfman and an appearance by Sissy Spacek as Samara’s institutionalized mother could save this film. Not nearly as chilling and frightening as the first, The Ring Two falls severely short of making it as a serious horror film. Next time, just keep the well closed.