Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ghosts of Rwanda (2004)

Documentaries are an odd medium, aren’t they? At least in terms of critical purposes. I’m not saying they’re difficult to review. Au contraire, but they are a separate entity. They are almost critic-proof. You can’t review them on the basis of a linear narrative, because when you really think about it, there is none. You can’t review them on the basis of the performances, because there are none. You can’t review them on the basis on the screenplay, because, with the exception of a plan on what to discuss and who to question, there is none. Sure, you can judge it on the basis of the technical composition (tone, cinematography, lighting, music, etc.), but that’s not what matters.

In the big scheme of things, documentaries rely on their themes. The main thing to inspect is how those themes are conveyed. Documentaries have tones that range from whimsical and majestic (MicroCosmos), to deathly serious (The Cats of Mirikitani), to philosophical (The Secret), to musical observance (Michael Jackson’s This is It). Conveying its themes properly requires not merely technical composition, but also alluring power, fascination, be it good or bad, and, at times, charisma, like in a Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore documentary. One documentary that certainly does its job very well is Ghosts of Rwanda, produced by PBS, a.k.a. Pretty Boring Shit (hahaha…I’m just playing).

The theme of this documentary is the 1994 Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus and this documentary was released in response to the ten-year anniversary of that genocide. I already discussed a good chunk of the genocide’s historical content in my Hotel Rwanda review. However, surprisingly, the film actually balances the juxtaposition of the atrocities of the genocide with the limited action of the United States. The film takes a perspective of the United States that is, concurrently, contemptuous and painfully, agonizingly humane. We felt sorry for what was going on in Rwanda, but we didn’t want to cause any additional trouble. Nevertheless, it is definitely frustrating, angering, and disdainful to see how the United States barely made any effort to rescue the Rwandans and the movie adopts a tone that is embarrassingly and horrifically retrospective.

However, thinking of the film’s tone brought to mind a quote from a Ryan Michaels review of Moonrise Kingdom, where he said that film was, “unified in tone, but varied in emotion.” That statement can most definitely be applied to this documentary. While the film soaks in that embarrassed and horrified retrospective tone, the emotions range from sad to furious to dumbfounded. The stories and images presented in this documentary are fascinatingly upsetting. They draw you in and tear your soul and heart apart. The black screens with dates and locations on them ratchet up the tension, as the viewer is anxious on what horrific moment of the genocide is behind that black screen. The camera persists on showing thousands of slaughtered civilians, some of them slowly rotting away into a skeletal configuration. They emphasize the fact that the Rwandan genocide was, in the words of Michael Jackson, “…a nightmare. A horrifying nightmare.”

That’s pretty much the overall gist of the film. Like I said earlier, documentaries should be judged on how they convey the themes they espouse. So, does the film properly communicate the horrors of the Rwanda genocide? Does it leave an impact and provoke thought on the involvement of foreign affairs? To me, yes! Sorry that this wasn’t a very dissecting, deep review, but this really isn’t that kind of film.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Watching this film evoked a section from the poem, “A Dream Deferred,” by Langston Hughes. “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore and then run?” This concept comes into play several times during the film. In Rwanda, the Tutsis want to be able to live in peace and be saved from the bloodshed and chaos. They always come close to have this dream come true. However, some obstacle always blocks that dream. If one is a historian or Rwanda connoisseur, then they know the outcome of what happens, but this offers sympathy in one of the most inspirational and powerful films I’ve ever seen.

The film takes place in Rwanda (obviously) in 1994. Around this time, Rwanda is experiencing an ugly genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus. The situation worsens when the Rwandan president, who planned to unite the Hutus and Tutsis and stop the mass killings via a peace treaty, is killed when his plane is shot down and the Tutsis are blamed for it, resulting in a more massive slaughtering of Tutsis. Hope arrives in the form of an improbable hero: Paul Rusesabagina. Paul is a Hutu hotel manager, whose wife is Tutsi. As the problem is becoming greater, he provides salvation by allowing the Tutsis to take shelter in his hotel and bribe and persuade the Rwandan army officers. From then on, the film is a constant mission to help these people and get them to safer grounds.

This film draws striking parallels to Schindler’s List. Anyone reading the synopsis can confirm that. And to be honest, Schindler’s List is a better film. This film doesn’t push itself to the extreme, overbearingly ugly levels that Schindler did. Plus, Oskar Schindler was a more complex being. He seemed extremely detached from the situation and really seemed all about profit with limited empathy towards the victims until he morally unfolded into that kind of person. Paul seems more like a standard good guy and you believe that he would do the things he did. However, what sets Paul apart from a standard cinematic hero is that this hero has the face and spirit of Don Cheadle. You’d think that wouldn’t be a major difference, but it is, as Cheadle gives a veracious and vehement performance, which may possibly be the best of his career. Jamie Foxx deserved his Best Actor Academy Award for Ray, but if anyone else, by chance, were picked over him, it would’ve have to had been Don Cheadle with his rich, thick, and realistic accent and his quick-witted, intelligent persona that he employs. It is phenomenal to see the tactics that Paul uses to aid these victims (1,268, to be exact).

While Don Cheadle certainly is worth talking about, the supporting performances are outstanding, too. Nick Nolte shines in one of his best performances as UN officer Colonel Oliver, who finds a superb mixture of gruffness, lovability, and disorientation. He is stuck in a very uncomfortable position as he wonders how to get these civilians to a state of tranquility and security. This allows for a wonderful dynamic between him and Paul. The way they communicate their thoughts, conflicting as they can be, is beguiling. Sophie Okonedo gives a shattering and visceral performance as Paul’s wife, Tatiana. At first, I though that this actress didn’t receive many other cinematic opportunities afterwards. I thought it was one of those performances that is so brilliant that the performer will never be able to top it and eventually, the performer fizzles out. However, after looking at her filmography on Wikipedia (don’t judge), I discovered that she’s still hanging in there. So, instead of a great acting performance that leads to one’s downfall, it’s a great acting performance that actually (gasp) gives her more work. Either way, it’s a very strong performance that even allows for a little bit of humor. All I’ll say is: wait for the showerhead scene. Who knew a scene that begins tense and frightening unfolds into something so whimsical and frothy.

This film is deeply intriguing from beginning to end. The viewer is immediately drawn in by the monologue spoken over a pitch-black screen. And the intrigue keeps flowing. I said that Schindler’s List and this film have a similar story arc, but are different in execution. While both are searing and unabashed emotionally, they differ in nature. Schindler’s List relies on the macabre and repulsive facets of history. Hotel Rwanda relies on lamenting poetry. Scenes, such as the staggering morass on the Rwandan streets and the street of dead Tutsis, are simultaneously simply heartbreaking and profoundly horrifying.

However, those scenes didn’t click in my mind as much as one specific scene. It’s a scene where the United Nations proclaims that they must not intervene with the situation, given the disastrous situation in Somalia the year before (**coughs** Black Hawk Down **coughs**). All white citizens, such as white hotel customers and foreign officials, are evacuated from Rwanda, but the Rwandans themselves are left behind. As the bus with all of the white people leaves Rwanda, the camera focuses on the millions of Rwandans in the rain, watching their chance for survival vanish. It’s one of the saddest and frustrating cinematic scenes I’ve ever witnessed. What a lesson it preaches in such a short scene. If you can simply turn the other cheek to your brothers in a time of need, you are killing them whether you pull the trigger near their temples or do nothing, forcing them to fend for themselves. This is director and co-writer Terry George’s major film. He hasn’t really directed anything particularly eminent before or after this film. However, he sure as hell can do it, given the spic-and-span quality of this film. I absolutely love this film!

RATING: Four stars out of four

Black Hawk Down (2001)

You know, there was every chance for this film to go horribly wrong. Military duty is not to be taken lightly. While it is a dignified affair, the results can also turn out horrible for the soldier, physically and psychologically. Making a film of this subject matter, which we’ll dive deeper in later, needed to be crafted with the most thorough, delicate, and buttoned-up hands. I suspect that some people in 2001 may have been worried when they heard two of the names attached to this project. One of those names was Ridley Scott. When one hears the name Ridley Scott, two films usually come to mind: Blade Runner and Alien, two films that are now highly regarded as laudable, fecund, science fiction visionary masterpieces. However, keep in mind that while Alien did well with critics back then, Blade Runner was a different story.

While it did receive newfound popularity over time (a 1992 director’s cut could partially be the reason), the film, at that time, deeply divided people. There were some people that thought it was plodded; heavy on spectacle, light on substance. In addition, some say that Ridley Scott’s track record hasn’t been necessarily immaculate. While his 2000 flick, Gladiator, earned him an Academy Award for Best Picture, that film, like Blade Runner, was very divisive. Some think of it to be a colossal, ambitious, yet overrated snooze fest. And need we remind you that he directed the film that many people consider to be the low point of the Hannibal Lecter franchise?

The other named people raised eyebrows and scratched heads at was Jerry Bruckheimer. This producer is particularly known for slam-bang, furious, no-holds-barred action films (Gone In 60 Seconds, Armageddon), sugarcoated kids’ films (G-Force, Confessions of a Shopaholic), and forgettable, fantasy flicks (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time). So, I’d like to think that some expected this film to be a disgusting, overly-patriotic, pious propaganda piece; a film that could be summed up in three words: America, F*** Yeah! However, these two questionable and somewhat disparate cinematic moguls have come together to create a nifty, gritty, competent experience.

What’s the film about? The film takes place during 1993 in Somalia. Warlord Mohamed Farrah Adid has seized food from his fellow citizens, resulting in famine and anguish. The U.S. responds to this atrocious situation by sending their Army to Somalia, capture Adid, and seize Adid’s food supplies to give to the poor. What is seemingly thought of as a straightforward, breezy assignment turns into an absolute nightmare. Planes take heavy, unrelenting fire and men drop dead one by one.

The first five minutes of Black Hawk Down is great cinema. It opens with dim, unfiltered cinematography, which plays a huge part with the success of this film. The film has a crafty and flexible color palette, which ranges from bright, enticing yellows to blurry, desolate green and blues. Every shot connects with its tonal counterpart and really puts the viewer in the atmosphere and mood of the scene, which is exactly what happens in the opening. We, also, in the beginning hear that familiar, poetic African singer that always punctuates an epic yet horrifying moment. Some may find that a cliché, but I think it’s a great chance of pace from having the usual overwrought, bombastic orchestra music. The opening also immediately confronts us with the terror of the situation pre-military intervention. It also offers a great cultural portrayal of Somalia, outside of the horror. The way it’s shot, the way it juxtaposes African and American music; all of it makes me feel like I’ve been to Somalia. These first five minutes are an excellent summation of the things I absolutely adore about the film.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film never lives up to the greatness of the first five minutes, but nevertheless, it is still a strong piece of filmmaking. This is one of those war films where the soldiers begin the film as somewhat juvenile, frivolous punks, ready to transform into Rambo-type heroes and kill some scum, but then have a character arc, where they realize that there’s more to the military that meets the eye. Yeah, we’ve seen that storyline before. However, the characters themselves are, nonetheless, interesting individuals. Of course, they are done justice by the actors who play them, which include Sam Shepard, Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Tom Hardy, Orlando Bloom, and many more. One of the criticisms for this film is that the film lacks in character development. In my opinion, I’m glad that time was not spared for character development. This film is about situation, not character. The situation is, in itself, complex, misleading, and progresses into additional anxiety and puzzlement. The characters aren’t developed, but our sympathy for them is, which is just fine with me.

Of course, the characters are no more than prelude to the real astonishment of the film: the battle scenes. For a guy who previously produced Armageddon, a film that many described as “frenzied,” “aggressive,” “assaulting,” “ugly,” and “a film that cuts so quickly,” some may find it shocking to know that these battle scenes are skillful, but there it is. This film departs from the Armageddon style of filmmaking and adopts a style that is more cohesive, structured, comprehensible, and realistic. Of course, the action has the Bruckheimer stamp, meaning that it is kinetic. The difference here is that the action here is about honor and duty, as opposed to seeing things blow up really good, though the explosions in this films are competently done. I, also, love the desire to inject these scenes with small yet delectable details, such as blood splattering onto the camera and the POV camera angles. They don’t feel as if we’re playing a video game, quite the contrary. It, instead, submerges the viewer deeper into this chaotic dilemma. In addition, these scenes have, you’re never going to believe it, no shaky cam! See, it is possible to do battle scenes without the camera shaking to the point of nausea. And when shaky cam is used in the film (yeah, I guess I kind of contradicted my last statement), it’s moderate and grounded.

The film has additional tiny details that hugely left an impact on me: the sporadic yet present moments where it naturally alternates between drama and humor, which results in one of my all-time favorite movie quotes (“I’ll make it so you can tell the difference between shit and French fries), the moments of unsettling, nerve-wracking silence, the use of contemporary music, as opposed to orchestral music, and, in particular, one brief scene that really affected me. Adid captures one of the soldiers and Adid says to him, “There’ll always be killing. That’s the way things are.” That one moment gave me goose bumps. We delve into Adid’s warped yet insidiously sensible mind. He isn’t just portrayed as a sparsely developed, point-blank Hitler copy. He has motives, as depraved as they may be. He, like many other great film villains, believes that the world can’t revolve without anarchy and agony. He’s just adding to it. The military can kill Adid, his henchman, or any other deplorable Somalian figure, but it won’t make Somalia a spotless, wholesome unit. It’s one of the most frighteningly logical and intensely articulate movie moments I’ve ever seen!

Oh, I should probably emphasize that VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED!! This film is rated R and for good reason. I’d say that the film practically bathes itself in blood, but that’d be an understatement. There are some extremely grisly moments, particularly a graphic first-aid scene that nearly killed one of my fellow classmates (I won’t say whom). While the gore is authentic and sensory-provoking, I feel that it is my obligation to spread the word. You’re welcome!
Now, as much as I bring up the respectable qualities of the film, it’s not perfect. Some of its flaws revolve around iteration. As much as I love the poetic singer, a little of that goes a long way. As much as I love the battle scenes, there were a couple times where there were minorly exhausting, but seeing how they always find a way to pull me back in, that complaint isn’t as strong. Another flaw actually could be connected to the lack of character development. Although I am accepting of the lack of character development, it does, however, drag the drama right down with it. While there are times where there is some effective drama, it, overall, doesn’t deliver on the visceral level, seeing how we aren’t given time for the characters to unfold, emotionally. And for the love of God, please stop using the cliché of the military man who was a wife, kids, or both, and wants to be with them, but looking at that convenient family photo gives him the courage to keep going. Moments like those are so mawkish and pointless that they could end up in a Nicholas Sparks film.

Overall, though, Bruckheimer and Scott have assembled a tight, atmospheric package. Tense, jarring, furious, and chocked full of compelling performances, ever-changing camerawork, and raw battle scenes, this film was exactly the boost Scott and Bruckheimer needed for their careers. That is until Bruckheimer went back to producing his typical, expected kinds of films and Scott went on to direct what many people consider to be one of the worst Robin Hood adaptations ever. Well, it was fun while it lasted.

RATING: Three-and-three quarters stars out of four

P.S. I recently saw Gone in 60 Seconds and I can confirm that it is a no-holds barred action film...when it's not being vapid, imbecillic, and having most of its actors walk around like zombies. Nice job, Bruckheimer.

Taking Chance (2009)

For a film of such clarity, Taking Chance opens in a deceiving, oblique way. It opens with two soldiers approaching the house of a fallen soldier, Chance Phelps, presumably to confront the family about his unfortunate and untimely death. They knock on the door and by now, the atmosphere is unsettling and anxious and the viewer can feel it. However, the film takes a left turn. In a typical film, the parents open the door, the soldiers inform them of this tragedy, and the parents proceed to sob over a swooning, overtly melancholic score. However, in this film, the soldiers knock on the door, to which it immediately cuts to the opening credits. This moment activates the viewer’s mind and provokes the thought of every possibility of the encounter between these characters. The viewer is still left uneasy, but strangely satisfied, as they have experienced one of the most cryptic, thought-provoking moments in film history. And it all goes uphill from there.

HBO has always possessed my deepest respect. A lot of their work is currently unseen by me, and by that, I mean all of their adult television shows. However, their body of work has always provoked intrigue from yours truly, due to their layered, meaty premises and boat-loads of critical and audience praise. Plus, their kids’ shows of HBO Family have thoroughly elated me due to their intelligence, simplicity, composition, and idiosyncrasy. In terms of Emmys, HBO has been more voracious than McDonald’s customers. 

Another HBO area of intrigue for me can be found through their television films, which, like their television shows, are varied in concept, but unified in praise. Their telefilm concepts have ranged from life in Lackawanna, NY during the ‘50s and ‘60s to a biography of Temple Grandin, which I have proudly labeled as my all-time favorite film.

With this film, HBO has created probably their most dense, thorough, and spellbinding concept to date: the process of bringing a fallen soldier home. The film revolves around Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl (Kevin Bacon). After the aforementioned Chance is killed during service, Strobl volunteers to transport his body to DuBois, Wyoming, his final resting place. What follows is an accumulative odyssey full of nuance. Oh, and there are some scenes involving Michael with his family. Those scenes are extraneous for this film. They aren’t clearly defined, developed, or interesting. The kids are just…the kids. The wife is just the woman who cooks and supports Michael emotionally. Because, ostensibly, that’s the only thing wives are good for.

On a visceral level, however, this film is a powerhouse. There is hefty dramatic tension and weight that lingers over the whole film. A brilliant aspect of the film is the lack of prior character development of Chance. The film knows that he doesn’t need any. We may not know the lost life, but it is still a lost life. We know that this was, at one point, a living, breathing human being, who had friends, family, ambitions, and dreams. We may not know them, but the fact that they were present, but no longer are is profound enough.

The additional sheer brilliance of the emotional texture is how controlled it is. It could’ve been easy to elicit emotion via crying fits and turning gruff men into little crybabies, but instead, it is executed modestly and nakedly. The secret is that it relies on the tense premise and holds back. This makes the slightest tear, glance, or sigh intensely sober and oh-so sad. And I mean spine tingling, bone-chillingly, achingly sad. The screenplay also allows itself to unfold into applicable revelations. Consider a scene where Michael gets off the plane and meets with someone else affiliated with the military. They have a conversation and the man reveals something that’s one of the most tense and eloquent moments in the film. As predicted, the climactic funeral scene is as every bit emotional. All of this build-up proves to not be pointless or squandered. And the ending! The end credits make a revelation that not only pertains to Chance’s life, but also to the film itself. I won’t dare ruin it for you, but let me say that combined with the funeral scene nearly turned me into a puddle of misery. I escaped crying, however. Just barely.

There is one specific value that provides strong thematic subtext: respect. The constant salutes, the patriotic symbolism, and even this one scene involving pictures of previous wars add a deeper layer of elegy and poetry. However, there’s an even deeper layer of respect that may remain undissected by everyone else: the shrewd respect of the filmmakers to enhance the experience on a sensory level. The sight of blood, the feel of his stiff, unresponsive hand, the way the film shows us his dead body, but we never see his face; all of these details give the film a more raw, gritty vibe and just add on as an technique for emotion. Also, for a movie that takes place during the Iraq War, it never delves into tawdry, pandering, self-important political messages. It’s not about that. It’s about the chronicle of one man put in a nerve-wracking yet vital position.

I could fawn over the technical craft of this for hours. The cinematography is excellent. It’s shot in an absolute, pristine condition that’s utterly majestic. This, along with the expansive color palette, covers a tonal spectrum that ranges from positive and regular to brooding and introspective. In addition, a great score has been constructed. Like the camerawork and visuals, the score covers a wide variety of moods on the tonal spectrum, too. It ranges from grand frothiness to unsettling heartbreak, but never overblowing it. These elements give the film a restrained yet noticeable scope that, additionally, augments the viewing experience.

Now, I am just dancing around the obvious subject for praise: Kevin Bacon. Whenever I think of that name, I always imagine that charming, innocuous pretty-boy persona that got him a slew of light-hearted comedies, likeable schlock like Tremors, and need we mention Footloose? However, I, and I’m sure many other people, forget that he has done some pretty deep, effective performances. Either way, it is astonishing to see the progression of this actor. Going from his debut film, National Lampoon’s Animal House, to what maybe his most mature and committed performance I’ve seen from him. Any thought and memory of his old, harmless persona is tossed away as he adopts an authoritative attitude and a macho yet haunting stare. Bravo to the Bacon!

I predict big things ahead for first-time director, Ross Katz, who spent the majority of his life co-producing films about homosexuality and a couple of films that wounded up with a Best Picture nomination. He is as humble yet as confident as a director that I’ve seen. And with a detailed, apolitical script, competent technical artistry, a committed, transcendent performance by Kevin Bacon, and sizzling, masterful emotion, Taking Chance is as humble and yet confident a film I’ve ever seen.

RATING: Three-and-three quarters stars out of four