2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  • Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
  • Written by: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. Based on “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke.
  • Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rains, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, Vivian Kubrick, Daniel Richter.
  • Rated: G.

When I write about a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey, I am aware that I am not writing about simply a movie. There are some films, some books, some plays, some pieces of art, that transcend the trappings of intention, criticism, niche, genre, and art form. They become living, breathing entities of their own with the power to catapult our hearts and minds into treacherous depths or new heavens. I don’t doubt that if Paul McCartney, J. K. Rowling, or Christopher Nolan told the world to jump off of a bridge, someone would. I believe the art we experience becomes a piece of us, some greater than others, but all pieces. Movies like 2001 are the most remarkable pieces: vast, limitless, breathtaking, and puzzling.

2001: A Space Odyssey promotional posterStanley Kubrick’s sci-fi opus is perhaps the most reluctant and enthusiastic recommendation I shall ever give. 2001 is a curious venture, an unsolvable riddle, but the riddle is told so beautifully, so brilliantly, that we cannot help but watch, awestruck, with our mouths agape. The story concerns a series of monoliths across the galaxy that supposedly aid in human evolution. Whether these creations are meant for good or ill is largely up for the viewer to decide, but I think perhaps both. Where they come from is never explained in the film; the book apparently explains them as the products of an archaic alien race. I like Kubrick’s version much better. The monoliths are there, they are related to evolution, and that is all you need to know.

Our tale begins at the very beginning. The human race is more similar to apes than to humans during the section appropriately named “The Dawn of Man”. Then a great black monolith appears before them. This scene is eerie, daunting. Some are cautious, some are panicked. One skirts around it, touches it, and repeals his hand as though the monolith were hot to the touch. It is certainly out of place among the dark crags of Kubrick’s interpretation of the Beginning. It is square, black, and defined by straight edges and planes. What happens next is even more extraordinary. One of the man apes (Daniel Richter) contemplates a pile of bones, and then - miraculously - picks one up. And so man becomes a tool-wielding race. There is a match on action with a bone flying through the air that turns into a spaceship, and we leap forward four million years to the year 2001, or rather, in great irony, Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of the year 2001.

The future is cold and sterile, plagued by Kubrick’s dark irony, but my, is it filled with wonder. Spaceships float across the screen in ten minute segments to formal sounding waltzes in a show of tedium modern moviegoers aren’t used to. I wonder how many would see 2001 today and ask when the ships will go into light speed. Kubrick realizes that spaceships are extraordinary enough to hold our attention. And that’s what makes 2001 great. Everything is a wonder to behold, another treasure to leave you breathless. When watching the film, I thought that if only Kubrick would show us a porthole - there is a vast, infinite galaxy crammed with even more infinite awe.

The main story that everyone remembers revolves around a group of scientists and astronauts investigating the sudden appearance (or rather, reappearance) of the mysterious monoliths. Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) discovers a monolith on the moon, which is transmitting a signal to Jupiter. There are two astronauts on the mission to Jupiter, Dave (Keir Dullea) and his assistant (Gary Lockwood). They are largely aided by the magnanimous computer HAL 9000, often referred to simply as Hal.

Hal is used to contrast the human characters in the film, who are far from human. Hal is, in fact, the most human character in 2001. He expressed doubt about the mission and, upon discovering his two masters believe him to be in error and are trying to shut him down, displays enough judgment and passion to kill Gary Lockwood’s scientist. As Roger Ebert observed, the most meaningful and poignant bit of dialogue in the film is during Hal’s final scene, in which Dave finally manages to shut Hal down. Hal goes through stages of despair, pleading with Dave not to shut him down, as he looses his memory and sings his earliest programmed memory for Dave - a simple song called “Daisy Bell”.

Life on the Discovery One is displayed as dull and humdrum. We watch the tedious lives of Dullea’s and Lockwood’s scientists, who eat perfectly proportioned meals, exercise regularly, and lose chess games to Hal. Observe how monotone these characters are. The great vacuum of space has pulled them into oblivion. When Dullea gets a call from his parents wishing him happy birthday, they are energetic and talkative. He says not a single word to them, but they bounce back between themselves chatting about this and that. When the video call ends, he returns to his nap. There is a sharp contrast between those who’ve stayed on earth, like Dullea’s parents or William Sylvester’s daughter (played by Vivian Kubrick), and those traveling in space. It is also Vivian Kubrick’s character’s birthday, earlier in the film, and Sylester will not be present. He thinks sending a present can convince his daughter she still has a father.

The Jupiter Mission segment is by far the most cinematically rewarding. The scene in which Kubrick’s camera angles reveal to us that the dreaded Hal can read lips, or indeed the computer’s heartbreaking death scene, are among the finest caught on film. There’s great music throughout the film, too. The ballet of spaceships requires a waltz. Moments of great suspense bear a chilling, static reverberation. And of course there is the famous 2001 theme used when Kubrick thinks we need a little more wonder. Notice, too, the ominous red light with which Kubrick bathes some of his scenes, and the humor he occasionally sneaks in. It comforts me to know that, in the distant future, we will still have Hilton (space) hotels and the BBC will be in fine form. We see long lists of directions for using the restroom in space, as well as emergency instructions. I doubt that one could wait to read such an essay in either situation.

It is impossible to discuss 2001 without discussing What It All Means. There are, I’m sure, many theories, just as there are many opinions of the film itself. I think 2001: A Space Odyssey is a remarkable, unique masterpiece, and I will never see anything quite like it again, but I know many who are even more passionate than I in both defending and decimating the film’s credibility. It is certainly not for everyone, and an opponent of 2001 remarked that Kubrick seemed to be trying to paint an abstract painting instead of making a movie. That’s certainly true, but I don’t know if it’s a bad thing. As for what I think it means? I think the monoliths are a great and terrible thing that aid in human evolution. Great, to turn us into tool-wielding sentients, and terrible, for turning us into warriors and killers.

Millennia later we invented machines, and further evolution and understanding was required. When William Sylvester’s daughter says she wants another telephone for her birthday, she doesn’t want a telephone. She wants communication, face to face with her father by the only mode of communication she knows. Kubrick informs us that our machines have become such an integral part of our society that they are ruining communication and individual personality. We are all slowly becoming machines, in love with progress for the sake of progress. Great science fiction stories are more prophetic decades after they are introduced to us than they were when first released. As for the ending? Dave sees himself, his life as tainted by machines, and is reborn, glorious and enlightened. Thus 2001 is a cautionary tale, but one with a hopeful ending.

The last line of dialogue in the film is spoken by William Sylvester’s scientist, via a computer screen. He speaks of the monoliths, saying “its origin and purpose [is] still a total mystery.” It gives me great comfort to know that it always will be. ☆☆☆☆

Goodfellas (1990)
  • Directed by: Martin Scorsese.
  • Written by: Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi. Based on Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi.
  • Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Christopher Serrone, Frank Vincent, Chuck Low, Frank DiLeo, Catherine Scorsese, Gina Mastrogiacomo, Samuel L. Jackson.
  • Rated: R.

When Martin Scorsese’s crime saga Goodfellas was recommended to me, I asked how it was in comparison to The Godfather. To be fair, the two aren’t really comparable. Goodfellas is a dazzling showcase in the best spirit of modern filmmaking, while The Godfather burns more slowly as an old-fashioned family epic on a grander scale. In my book, not only are they fairly equivalent in artistic quality and entertainment value, but they’re complementary. To watch The Godfather followed by Goodfellas would be the ultimate crime cinema experience, a clash of old and new and a vivid portrait of over 100 years of organized crime.

Goodfellas promotional posterBut enough fantasizing about double billings. Goodfellas follows Brookly native Henry Hill’s rise to - well, not to power, nor to notoriety - prominence, we’ll say. He’s played by Christopher Serrone as a teenager and Ray Liotta as an adult. Henry’s enamored with the glamorous life of a “wiseguy”, as he so coins his profession. “To me that was better than being president of the United States. To be a gangster was to own the world,” he raves. Henry drops out of high school to join the mob across the street. For awhile, times are good, as long as you make sure to shine your shoes and bribe the right cops. What’s so engaging in these early scenes of Goodfellas is the sense of family. When Henry gets arrested and eventually let off, the whole gang arrives to congratulate him in a group hug. Dinner together at the club is a jovial affair.

Early scenes establish the other key players. Paul Sorvino is Paul Cicero, the Don Corleone of the Goodfellas family who rules his miniature empire with a level head and no-nonsense disposition. Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) is a volatile hothead with the world’s itchiest trigger finger and the world’s best mobster voice. Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) is “Jimmy the Gent”, a man known for his robust tipping as well as for having no qualms with murder. After all, as Liotta reasons by way of voice over, sometimes somebody gets whacked. It’s the business. In the spirit of other gangster movies, the background is populated with a myriad of interchangeable mafiosos. At the very most most you have to know five characters well and another ten by sight to follow along.

Liotta’s unctuous voice over is crucial to the film. We are mobsters looking into the mirror, not observers spying on mobsters. When Henry, now in his early 20s, meets and marries the feisty Karen (Lorraine Bracco), she joins in the narration. The duo spend a lot of time convincing themselves everything’s okay. When a teenage Henry’s father gets a letter from his school explaining his truancy, we see his father beat Henry. But that’s a part of life, right? And of course, sometimes somebody has to get whacked, right? Karen even convinces herself that Henry and company are honorable men who aren’t afraid to take risks to afford a lavish life in a society afraid to do so. Right, they’re perfect models of the American dream.

With Karen comes the literal definition of family, which is often blended with Henry’s Mob family. The mob wives gossip about their husband’s frauds and murders while commenting on each other’s hair and dresses. The kids refer to the gangsters as their uncles, and after burying the body of an insolent gangster one night, Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy stop by Mommy DeVito’s house for a late dinner. Catherine Scorsese, the director’s mother, gives a virtuoso extended cameo performance.

Goodfellas is infamous for its frank and vibrant portrayal of violence. Nearly every other scene contains a murder or fight of some kind. It’s harsh but honest. A lesser movie would’ve diminished its violence, but this isn’t for 15-year old Call of Duty addicts looking for cheap thrills. This is real life, or at least the twisted life we visit while watching Goodfellas.

These early scenes are marked by a sense of fun and entertainment. We enjoy seeing Tommy’s personality clash with the world, seeing Karen and Henry fall in love against all odds, and the heists and jobs the characters pull are ingenious and humorous. Martin Scorsese’s camera work is breathtaking and involving. There are two continuous shots early in the film; the first whirls around the gangster’s favorite bar and haunt, introducing us to amusingly-named background characters, while the second follows Henry and Karen walk through a night club from the back door, through the hallways, the kitchens, and through the main dining room.

But the good times aren’t to last. Cons and tricks give way to the drug trade, and both Karen and Henry become addicts. The camera that flowed so easily and naturally in earlier scenes is replaced by frenetic movements and quick cuts. The voice over is frantic and panicked. The assumption that wiseguys don’t go to jail is tested as the movie goes on, and Henry’s relationships with each of his two families disintegrates. Henry has an affair, and Lorraine Bracco’s best scene comes when she finally confronts him about her suspicions. The mobster quartet of Henry, Tommy, Jimmy, and head honcho Paul Cicero falls apart into a tangled web of lies and deceit. Earlier we had such a sense of trust and even love between these four. By the film’s end, the characters are never sure who’ll try to murder them next. The glorious life of Henry Hill culminates in disappointment and regret.

Martin Scorsese is probably the only person who could’ve pulled this movie off. Much has been said about Scorsese’s childhood, growing up in Brooklyn. It’s clear he has first hand experience with the characters of Goodfellas and has channeled it into art, entertainment, yes, but also a cautionary tale. When talking about Scorsese, the words “Catholic guilt” come up a lot. The most enduring aspect of Goodfellas is that we sometimes think the character’s passion and criminal fantasies may be Scorsese’s forgotten aspirations. If he yearned for freedom and immunity as a gangster, he got the next best thing: a Hollywood director. ☆☆☆☆

The Greatest Movies of All Time

You may have noticed there is no year affixed in parentheses after the title of this blog post. Unfortunately, there is no movie that I am aware of named The Greatest Movies of All Time. I usually restrict myself to straight up reviews, though I have made a number of pages; the first of which, now lost in the oblivion of the Internet, detailed my predictions and evaluations for this past year’s Oscar nominees (which were largely poor predictions) while the second page, which I have deleted after reconsideration, though not without first saving to my computer, outlined a list of my 100 favorite movies.

When I first set out to construct such a list, it brought me extreme joy. I looked through lists of “the greatest movies of all time” and scoured my memory and DVD case for films to consider. That was two years ago, or something like that, and I have seen a great many more movies since then. When I created this site, I moved the list here as well, tweaking it to represent my current tastes. And so I continued to do so over the first few months of my tenure on this blog as I saw new treasures and experienced new wonders.

But my list was a bad one, to say the least. Apart from a great number of missing titles, there were many I added reluctantly or because I had fun in them. I’ve only seen around 400 films. I say ‘only’. I am quite certain that, for a teenager my age, this is a great many films to have seen and an enormous accomplishment. I think I can be considered knowledgeable and I hope I can form an intelligent opinion about the movies I see, otherwise I see no purpose in you reading and following this blog. But to choose a quarter of the movies I’ve seen as “must-watch” seems ludicrous.

As a self-proclaimed movie buff, I’ve looked up other lists for comparison and for advice on the next movie to watch. The two most famous and most widely referenced of these are the Sight & Sound poll conducted every ten years and the American Film Institute’s poll, which has been conducted twice. Of the seventeen films on the 2002 Sight & Sound poll, I’ve seen but six of them. Of the 123 films on the American Film Institute poll, I’ve seen thirty. Worthy feats for a teenager, if I do say so myself, but I’m hardly in a position to make a definitive list of the greatest movies of all time.

So I determined my beloved list had to go. A joke, really. I pondered other modes of conveying my absolute favorite movies. Roger Ebert has a great system in which he rewatches significant works and inducts them into his “Great Movies” canon. There are currently 358 films in his list, a whopping amount. He’s unofficially thinned this list to around thirteen films in his entries to the Sight & Sound poll, but no doubt Great Movies is his preferred mode of categorization. It is an awesome list, and I use the word ‘awesome’ not to denote it’s quote unquote coolness but the genuine awe and wonder it gives me. I am not against stealing the idea for myself, creating my own “Great Movies”. I have not seen as many films as Roger Ebert, and my list would be hampered as such, but it is not out of the running.

In my opinion, all lists fail miserably when compared with Roger Ebert’s, for a variety of reasons. The Academy Awards list of Best Picture winners, or for that matter nominees, is too exclusive. For the large majority of the history of the Oscars, only five movies were allowed on the ballot. This has changed, but now we face polarizing movies like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (which I loved) and The Tree of Life (which I hated) showing up on the ballot. Do you really know anyone who loved War Horse? The Oscars have other flaws, too. There’s a rather perceptive quote from Nick Davis, who writes the following on the Oscar nominations.

"Generally speaking, if you drop the adjective ‘Best’ and replace it with ‘Most,’ you come to a better understanding of what the Academy Awards are often about. ‘Most Editing’ would be an apt label for the kinds of movies that win trophies for being so obviously ‘edited,’ particularly through action scenes or across multiple plot-strands, that even audiences who rarely think about film editing sit up and take notice. ‘Most Sound’ and ‘Most Sound Effects’ would explain the lingering fascination with explosions and submarine pings rather than subtler work connected to mood or character, and ‘Most Visual Effects’ is even more self-explanatory. ‘Most Original Score’ works if we parse ‘Most’ not onto ‘Original’ but onto ‘Score,’ since the compositions possessed of the greatest uniqueness and creativity rarely win or even get nominated, but movies crammed with music often do, even when the winning composer wrote almost none of it (see: Babel). Actors are often rewarded for doing the Most Acting, especially in the Supporting divisions, since ‘Most’ connotes both the fussiness of one’s thesping (just ask Renée Zellweger and Tim Robbins) and the awful-lotta screen time that nominees like Jamie Foxx, Jake Gyllenhaal, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman tend to have over truly ‘supporting’ actors.”

Most of that is certainly true. Additionally, a heckuva lot of politics goes into it. After all, the Academy winners and nominees elect their own voters. Miramax and Harvey Weinstein grab headlines for audacious (and ridiculously expensive) campaigns. And a lot of the time, they win. I like the idea of nominating movies, making a list to honor a wide variety of great films in the year. There’s usually a varied list with something for everyone. But how on earth can you pick The Fellowship of the Ring over Moulin Rouge!? (Yes, I’m completely discrediting the existence of A Beautiful Mind). The Hurt Locker over Up in the Air? When it comes to truly great films, they give us different feelings, different experiences, and we come to them for different reasons. Naming one as a winner is ludicrous. Even if we’re to go along with the concept of a ‘winner’, there’s little room for these truly great films to be recognized. The Artist won more by default than by its own merit. It was largely agreed the film was good, but over which other films were great, none were in agreement.

So the Oscars are flawed. Ditto the American Film Institute, because 100 films, while less restrictive than five per year, would still have us think there are only 100 films of worth in the world. It might even be more ludicrous a list than the Oscars. They allow only six write-in votes alongside their nominated films, all of which must be weighed against a variety of strange criteria; the list is extremely xenophobic save cases in which it suits the Institute, like the inclusion of Lawrence of Arabia; and most ridiculously, they rank their films from one to 100. By my standards, the Sight & Sound poll is the most reasonable, as it occurs once every ten years. But, alas, it, too, ranks its films, and if everyone could be a movie buff after having seen ten films, well, everyone would be a movie buff.

But all of these lists have an underlying purpose that is simply wrong. We can look through all of them, agree with some, curse the listmakers for not including others, but what these lists imply that they are definitive and general consensus. General consensus is in fact a great oxymoron, and I’m glad it is. When we go to the movies, we bring ourselves: our fears, our dreams, our memories, our peculiarities, our relationships, and, of course, our tastes. It’s no secret that we all have different reactions to movies. Then why do these lists claim to tell us the greatest movies of all time? Aside from the simple truth that there’s at least one, likely thousands, of great movies that an individual hasn’t seen, each person carries their own subconscious list inside them.

No, Ebert’s Great Movies list is far and away the best because it’s personal to a single human being. Ebert isn’t pretending his list follows general consensus, nor does he think his tastes make the films included “the greatest of all time”. But they are his greatest movies of all time. I suppose you can say the same thing about year end’s best list, though they, too, are restricted to a certain number of movies. He intends to open the door for others to see what he thinks are great experiences. As he says, there is no greater gift than a movie title. We go to the movies to find and define our fears, our dreams, our memories, our peculiarities, our relationships, and along the way, our tastes. What we feel in a movie and what we think of them says more about us as human beings than it does about the movie itself. A dandelion isn’t beautiful nor pesky in itself, but to a child it may be wondrous to behold, and to a gardener it might be monstrous.

So am I going to make a Great Movies list of my own? I don’t know. Perhaps in the future, when I’ve seen a great many more movies. I know of quite a few I’d include, thirty or forty, off the top of my head. I can say that my favorite movie is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which goes against everything I just said, but there you have it. I guess my point is, if I have one, that what the critics, your friends and family, and especially the listmakers have to say can be useful in discerning your choice whilst at Blockbuster, challenging your opinion, or else further analyzing a movie. But movies aren’t made for a group of critics, friends and family, and listmakers. The movies are made for you.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
  • Directed by: Wes Anderson.
  • Written by: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Based on Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl.
  • Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Chase Anderson, Michael Gambon, Wallace Wolodarsky, Juman Malouf, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Jarvis Cocker, Owen Wilson, Helen McCrory.
  • Rated: PG.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a raucous, dizzying experience that deserves to be compared with the very best in stop motion animation, and indeed in animation, period. In my mind, at least, Wes Anderson’s surrealist picture has joined the upper echelon of animation, and I’m proud to place it on my shelf next to Disney, Pixar, and Aardman Animations. I’ve never seen a movie quite like Fantastic Mr. Fox, and I doubt I’ll see one again. Surely there are other surrealist films out there - most of them by Wes Anderson - but we must remember that these characters are also Roald Dahl figments. When the two styles are combined, we get an explosion of color and life.

Fantastic Mr. Fox promotional posterFantastic Mr. Fox isn’t really for young kids. They will probably think it too strange, too offbeat. Sure, they might laugh occasionally or like the vibrant nature of the proceedings. But the emotions and relationships are too abnormal for a movie like this. There are jokes they won’t get. I marveled at Anderson’s audacity to insert a crack about existentialism, and surely the line “but in the end, he’s just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant” is a little too complex, too morbid, for young moviegoers attuned to Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Phantom MenaceI’m perfectly fine with that. The great children’s movies stay with you as a teenager, as an adult, and to your grave. Well, Fantastic Mr. Fox might not be with you as a kid, but the sad fact of life is that your childhood is far shorter than your adulthood.

George Clooney’s Mr. Fox, who Wikipedia tells me is named Jack, is a thief. Squabs, chickens, alcoholic cider - it’s not too important to Mr. Fox. Sure, the food is delicious, but we get the feeling he likes the thrilling taste of victory more. Mr. Fox and the wife, Mrs. Felicity Fox (Meryl Streep), are trapped in a cage while raiding a squab farm. She chooses this moments of all moments to reveal she’s pregnant. We flash forward twelve fox years. The Foxes are now middle-aged, and Mr. Fox decides to move them from a hole to a tree. It’s a sunny, large location, but Mrs. Fox is worried about its proximity to three infamous farmers (Boggis, Bunce, and Bean!) Mr. Fox secretly views this as one of the house’s best attributes. But he’s gone clean now, so he says, a flourishing newspaper columnist.

This introduction sets up the tone for the rest of the movie. You’d think a tree would be very basic, rustic living, but no, they still have kitchens, toy trains, carpenters, and interior designers around the house on moving day. When Mr. Fox goes to consult his financial adviser, Badger (Bill Murray), the two say the word ‘cuss’ whenever the screenwriters would like to use a more objectionable word. At school, the Foxes’ misfit son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) plays a whimsical game so complex that we quickly give up trying to understand it and simply enjoy Owen Wilson’s cameo as the coach. He’s continually outshone by cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), who’s on an extended stay while his father fights double pneumonia.

Mr. Fox marvels at his nephew’s ability at, well, almost anything, as does the girl at school, Agnes (Juman Malouf). This duo’s affection for Kristofferson and neglect for Ash leaves Ash with a biting wit and wicked tongue. When Kristofferson asks if he might get out from under the uncomfortable corkscrew design of the train set to sleep elsewhere, Ash says he’s sick of putting up with the “sad house guest” routine. The final straw comes when Mr. Fox recruits building superintendent Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), Kristofferson, and most importantly not Ash for “one last job”. It’s a hit on all three of the meanest bunch of farmers you’ll ever lay eyes on. Of course, the one last job spirals out of control, and soon Michael Gambon’s Bean is digging up America looking for that dastardly Fox family.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a great film of touches big and small. The line “I love you too, but I shouldn’t have married you” provides the ultimate ouch factor and hints at the cogs spinning deeper than the marvelous candy-colored visuals suggest. We have subtle, funny portraits of a father disappointed with his son, about a couple growing apart, about cousins at loggerheads struggling to find common ground.

But the film is also a marvelously candy-colored stop motion picture. Wes Anderson’s color scheme is vibrant and rich without being the garish or kitschy hues associated with commercial directors. The textures, especially in the fur and eyes of the animals, looks so darn rich. It’s nothing like any stop motion you’ve seen before, and I wasn’t entirely sure what type of animation it was when I first saw it.

As for the small touches, the movie is full of them. Jarvis Cocker cameos as Petey, Bean’s banjo-strumming hippie at hand to sing wild songs during montages. During one scene, Bean is in his trailer and Petey calls him. When we see Bean exit the trailer a minute later, Petey’s slumped against the trailer. When a guard rat with a switchblade was revealed to be voiced by none other than Willem Dafoe, I think I went to movie heaven. In a universe like Fantastic Mr. Fox's, anything can happen. Characters can climb electric fences, get shocked, and run off to steal squabs. Thank Wes Anderson that we have a movie like that. In the movies, we look for escape; to laugh a lot, maybe to be moved a little, and ultimately have a good time. Anderson has figured out its much easier to do when you throw rules and inhibitions out the fox hole. ½

Hotel Rwanda (2004)
  • Directed by: Terry George.
  • Written by: Keir Pearson and Terry George.
  • Starring: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Cara Seymour, Joaquin Phoenix, Fana Mokoena, Jean Reno, Desmond Dube, Hakeem Kae-Kazim.
  • Rated: PG-13.

Hotel Rwanda utilizes great music. Music is a component movie critics often praise, but seldom criticize. When you hear a soundtrack like Hotel Rwanda’s, you know why. Director Terry George uses Rwandan children singing in the background of the film’s most powerful and heart-wrenching scenes. This provides a sharp contrast and effectively churns our stomachs – we’re watching genocide, racism, betrayal, and families being separated. All to the tune of a children’s choir.

Hotel Rwanda promotional posterThe film follows Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) who manages the Mille Collinnes hotel in Rwanda. He’s also a real life figure, which might be an added bonus for some, but I’m rather indifferent to whether or not a story is true. I think it implies that a fictional story cannot move us and stay with us. But never mind that. Paul runs his hotel with efficiency and charm. He’s been saving up acquaintances, favors, and information over the years, realizing that Rwanda is a volatile climate and that his family’s lives could very well hang in the balance of the temperature of a diplomat’s beer or the status of a general’s bed sheets.

In Rwanda, you are born either a Tutsi or a Hutu, or so I inferred from the film. The Tutsi reigned in Rwanda, but they were recently overthrown by the Hutu. The entire country waits with baited breath to determine the severity of changes. Little do they know that the Hutu do not plan domination. They plan revenge, and there is only one way to satiate the Hutu firebrands: the complete and utter decimation of their former oppressors.

Paul is Hutu, and uses his position, along with bribes and a fair amount of luck, to transport his Tutsi family to the Mille Collinnes. There are several taut close scares throughout the movie as the Hutu raid the hotel and send attack to United Nations convoys. Hotel Rwanda effectively creates an aura of paranoia and fear. Paul has instructed his wife (Sophie Okonedo) to take their children to the hotel roof and jump if something should happen to him. We are constantly playing a mental game of “who’s in danger?” and “who got out in time?”

The film is a triumph of direction and production. Every sundrenched scene makes us sweat, only to be relieved by entering the Mille Collines’ cool lobby. Don Cheadle gives a powerful performance as a man trying to remain strong when he has no reason for hope. He’s matched by Nick Nolte, as a United Nations commander spread too thin and hampered by the UN’s regulations, which treat each crisis with a formula to determine UN decisions and bar the officers from using violent force. “We’re here as peace keepers, not peace makers,” Nolte explains with a resigned air. Nolte is as gruff and hardened as usual, but we get the feeling this man needs to be.

Sophie Okonedo plays Paul’s wife with desperation and subtlety. The film requires her to cry in close to every scene, but when she does so, Okonedo steals the scene. Her expression in the films last few minutes when she finds her nieces is masterful and heartbreaking. Cara Seymour plays Red Cross worker Pat Archer with an abundance of heart and a grim expression, but Joaquin Phoenix and David O’Hara, as two journalists, don’t get enough screen time to establish an expression. As a consolation prize, Phoenix does get the film’s best line, though.

I think if people see this footage they’ll say, ‘oh my God that’s horrible,’ and then go on eating their dinners,” he says. It’s absolutely true. Do we ever leap out of our seats and fly to Africa when we see the news? Do we go to the bank and start distributing our excess income to the needy? Hotel Rwanda incriminates each and every one of its viewers as members of a passive, self-involved society. When the movie ends, we are exhilarated, defeated, drained, and overjoyed, all at once. And like all good movies, it makes us think about how we can start changing our own lives, too. ☆☆☆½