Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Movie Review - Africa, true and false

So, two movies I’ve seen in the last week are both set in Africa, though they couldn’t be more different if one had been filmed in Antarctica. Hotel Rwanda is nearing DVD release and Sahara’s sequel is probably already in pre-production, so their time left among us is short. So while there’s a chance to still go see them, let’s discuss whether or not you should.

Hotel Rwanda, you should. And I’ll just say it: you should go see Hotel Rwanda while it is still in the theatres so it makes some money there so other movies like it can get made.
Don Cheadle possesses the greatest “Why Me?” face currently working, possibly the greatest ever. Certainly in the same class as, say, a young C. Thomas Howell (pre-Soul Man) and Don Johnson and almost up there with all-time champ John Cazale before he put up the most amazing career in movie history and promptly died.
Where, afterall, have we seen Cheadle? Getting screwed by life, that’s where – One, he was the desperately honest cop in Traffic whose witness gets killed out from under him and who then takes one in the chest himself; two, as the most unbelievable Caribbean gangster imaginable in After Sunset, where he was so not-menacing that you found yourself rooting for the movie’s ‘hero,’ Pierce Brosnan (another eternally miscast guy) to cut him a break; and, three, in his defining role, as the immortal Buck Swope, the would-be-honest “high end” stereo dealer who loses his chance for a legit life because of his porn career in Boogie Nights.
Don Cheadle has made a great career by playing characters who get less than they deserve and react in the exact way you or I would: half-noble bravery, half-pleading self-pity.
Which is why he is so perfect in Hotel Rwanda. He faces hell on earth first as we know we would – denial and panic - and then as we hope we would – with bravery and action.
That’s the greatness of the performance. It evolves as the movie does and is utterly human.
The greatness of the movie is that the story is true.
I don't want to spend a huge amount of time recounting it because you should learn about it yourself, but briefly: In 1994, a civil war broke out in Rwanda that was like all wars – fought for the rich by the poor – but because it happened in tribal Africa, it was much more so. Powerbrokers convinced the nation’s ‘tribes’, the Tutsis and the Hutus, to slaughter each other. As the movie makes clear, the ‘tribes’ of Rwanda are nothing more than the still-standing caste-system set up by the country’s Belgium occupiers who pulled out decades ago. To call yourself a Tutsi or a Hutu had nothing to do with ancient, or even recent, African tribal history. It had to do with how low or high Belgium’s white people let you rise in their servant corps.
Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, whose European name fits perfectly with his job as the manager (more or less) of a high-end hotel that caters almost exclusively to white foreigners. He is a master of the well-thought-out bribe to keep the wheels turning at the hotel (owned by a Belgium-based corporation). He begins the movie – and possibly ends it – with a vision of himself as above any and all possible native Rwandan issues. He works for a European hotel, catering to European tourists and business people. And they love him. In his mind, he’s most of the way to European himself.
And then the world explodes.
Half of Rwanda’s population begins hacking the other half to death, co-ordinated by a radio station and fueled by their own poverty. And suddenly Paul is left alone – his white guests are evacuated by the UN (whose politically handcuffed Canadian commander, in real life made impotent by UN rules, is bafoonishly played by Nick Nolte), leaving his family, his employees and a growing roster of Tutsi's hiding in the building.
With wit and deceipt, skills he once used to steer his hotel through peace-time Rwanda’s social circles, he keeps the jackalish packs of muarading Hutus at bay for at least a few weeks.
In the end, he helps get nearly 1200 people – children and women, mostly – to safety. The movie leaves no doubt that all would have been slaughtered without him.
It’s a terrific story told with patience, humor and, when needed, unblinking cruelty, and it all begins and ends with Cheadle’s desperation – at first, his desperation to not be seen as an African which becomes a desperation to be with them.

“Sahara,” on the other hand, were you to buy it a beer in an empty bar, would probably describe itself as an ‘action’ flick - but what isn’t these days? In modern cinema, if you don’t have at least one boxing/ju-jitsu match under spinning helicopter blades, you’re pretty much begging for the purgatory of ‘art film’ status. You say your final 10 minutes were actually FILMED rather than spit out of a computer? What is this, “Lonestar?”
Well, Sahara is certainly not “Lonestar,” and while we’re on the subject, I think we’re now far enough along the Matthew McConaughey career-arc to officially declare “Lonestar” as the best movie he will ever appear in – his “Good Will Hunting”-moment – but so what?
Damon is going to die with a 9 digit net worth thanks to Jason Bourne and now maybe McCoughney can give him a run for his money with a franchise based on Clive Cussler’s swashbuckling novel hero, Dirk Pitt.
I read probably 4 Dirk Pitt books – I bet there are close to 10 – in early high school. Pitt was probably invented to be an American James Bond, only instead of being a professional spy, he’s a professional scuba diver with vague ties to the government along scientific lines – all of which, time after time, just happens to be exactly the right background to save the world from a long line of dark geniuses, psychotic tycoons and rogue tyrants (needless to say, Pitt always get the girl, too, though that plot point –scuba expert gets laid - was never as difficult a sell). As a teenager, I found the books immensely involving and readable, if only for the sheer size of their spirit. In the most famous of the series, they raised the Titanic and in general, showdowns tended to be on icebergs or on crashing planes or on space shuttles or something. Lost treaure was usually part of the hunt. All hope would almost always be nearly lost several times over in each book. A key moment of inventive brilliance always carried the day.
Terrific reading for a 15 year old - though I thought even then that the hero, Dirk Pitt, was a bit bloated with Hero-ness. He lived in a hanger full of vintage cars? He knew how to actually fly helicopters? He really carried 30 year old Scotch with him everywhere, even into volcanoes?
And – here was the real stretch - America’s greatest warrior-playboy earned a paycheck from the part of our government whose primary service to the taxpayer is… studying weather?
Then came Tom Clancy, and suddenly being a buff, Scuba-diving weatherman wasn’t good enough to fight evil. What was required was usually a degree from Holy Cross or Annapolis, current subscriptions to Jane’s and Barrons, and lifelong membership in the Republican party. America’s fictional answer to James Bond, it turned out, wasn’t an over-sexed, deep-tan scuba playboy, but Oliver North.
Seriously – what DIDN’T the 80s ruin?
“Sahara” shrugs off most of those bonds, but some things have changed for good, so “Sahara” delivers a blazingly tan McCounghey as Pitt, but he’s not a weatherman but rather – try not to yawn – an ex-Navy Seal who now dives for buried treasure.
The movie starts fantasticly – really, for 30 minutes I thought we had found the new “Ronin” – but slowly disintegrates towards typical ‘blow-up-the-bad-guy’ video game fare.
The plot: At the end of the US civil war, a steel plated Confederate gunboat made a run past the Yankee blockade and was never seen again. The movie opens brilliantly depicting this nighttime run, with hardly a single word exchanged onscreen as anonymous men fight desperately to save their ship – dark and cramped as a tomb - and themselves from unseen enemies, who lob firey cannonballs at them from the fog.
Then you get the credits, which roll over a constant, zooming tour of a modern-day room, where every corner and spare inch of wall is covered with newspaper clippings about Pitt and his sidekick and their past searches for treasure (including the Titanic). As the credits wind down, the camera finds the room’s desk, where we discover that the room is actually on a boat which is even now asea seaching for more treasure.
Which McConaughey almost immediately surfaces with.
Great opening.
However, neither the movie, McConaughey nor anyone else in the movie are given time to breathe as several intricate and worthy plot twists are piled on the screen much too quickly (if Pitt, prowling the Lagos, Nigeria underworld, finds his way to a dark shop in a dark alley to retrieve a dark, ancient clue for the plot’s key dark, ancient mystery, isn’t that worth, say, 2 or 3 minutes of screen time and a few strokes of the creative brush, just to get you in the mood? It gets maybe 30 seconds and you sort of end up thinking: is this Nigeria or New Jersey?)
Escorting McConaughey through out is the vastly underrated Steve Zahn. He plays a re-worked version of Pitt’s constant sidekick, Al Giordino. Here Zahn is Pitt’s exNavy buddy, nearly as much a superman as Pitt himself. And Zahn, a master of the comedy of panic, does his best to keep McConaughey loose. The movie would have sunk much quicker without him.
OK, so Pitt and his crew head up river out to find an Ebola-like plague and, maybe, the lost Confederate ship.
A fun boat-vs-boat gun battle ensues, which leaves Pitt and Zahn on camels, which leads to a gun fight with the local army (that fight, by the way, is actually pretty well executed. I’m always grateful when gun-fighting actors, rather than making pained faces or yelling laugh lines or dropping ‘you’re terminated’ quips, actually act like they want to WIN THE FIGHT. Yes, it’s been a while since I saw a Navy SEAL switch from shooting a rifle right- to left-handed, but their heart is in the right place).
Then the wheels start to seriously come off.
It turns out – and this is just laziness- the ‘villian’ is building some kind of, err, perfect toxic waste disposal machine in the desert (within sight, by complete coincidence, of the confederate gunboat hulk – pure chance!). So to be clear: to this point, our villian has killed off doctors and bought off governments and armies, and generally acted terribly; and Pitt and friends discover that his REAL plot is to… recycle!!!!
Only his huge recycler doesn’t work right, so actually he’s… POLLUTING!!!! Not even on purpose.
And that’s it. That’s the big dark secret at the center of the movie. An ‘evil’ tycoon wants to recycle, but is really bad at it.
(ANOTHER thing the 80s ruined – with the Russians no longer a credible threat, there’s no real reason a white guy would ever be an evil genius, at least not where Americans would care. Where once Goldfinger, Drax industries, Spectre and even the occasional free-lancing communist General threatened the world, we now get incompetent garbage men).
After some fisticuffs beneath some rotors (see above), the tycoon hires out the local warlord and his army to find and destroy Pitt and their climactic showdown manages to directly rip-off TWO Rambo movies, simultaneously. I’ll leave you some suspense by letting you figure out which two.
Still, much goes right early and often in Sahara, despite the dead weight of a sexless Penelope Cruz. This was a role for an SNL girl, not Tom Cruise’s ex. By way of making up for it, the movie surrounds McCoughney with plenty of other fleshy delights: smartly picked classic rock tunes – Skynard, Steppenwolf, Grand Funk – raggedy clothes and glowing backlighting. He’s quite a piece, as Mandy let me know several times during our screening.
At one point, before the strings get cut, McConaughey lets go a clever line which Cruz tries to cattily dismiss, but he volleys it right back with his go-to smile and a Dude-that’s-Wooderson-delivery: “The world would be a whole lot cooler if you did.”
This movie isn’t anywhere near great, but it almost was. I hope they don’t give up on the franchise.

FINAL TANGENT:

with the release of Sahara, McConaughey has now played, by my count, six memorable roles. Not in six memorable movies, or even six good movies. Six memorable roles.
Here are the names of those 6 characters:

Dirk Pitt
Denton Van Zan
Palmer Joss
Tip Tucker
Buddy Dees
Wooderson

(the last is David Wooderson, but Dazed and Confused’s Wooderson is “Wooderson.”)

Does that not read like the two-deep chart for receiver at Texas Tech? Or possibly the ‘featuring’ section of the credits in a porno movie? Dirk, Denton, Palmer, Tip, Buddy, Wooderson. Awesome.

The only marginal role on that list is Tip Tucker, but don’t underestimate it. Tucker was the crazed trucker in Larger Than Life, the widely ignored Bill Murray comedy about an elephant. Oh well – Western Civ’s loss. McConaughey was absolutely lights-out (not to mention unrecognizable) as the raving lunatic Tip.
The others are: Sahara (Pitt; pretty good), Reign of Fire (Van Zan; not a great movie but under-rated), Contact (Joss; intriguing but flawed) and Lonestar (Dees; I’ll return to Lonestar later).

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