MovieHype00583 – Finding a Million Hotel Neverbabies
On tap today:
MILLION DOLLAR BABY
MILLION DOLLAR BABY
Readers of this column will recall that I tried to write about MILLION DOLLAR BABY (MDB) several weeks ago, and could not. This was interpreted by many that I hated the film. This is not true. There was simply too much emotion involved at the time, and I didn’t know how to talk about it, not to mention the fact that one has to be extremely careful when writing about MDB for those who have not seen it.
However, when last week it became apparent to me that MDB would win Best Picture, I relented and started setting up this review. I still can’t talk about the controversy any, other than to say that if you do plan on seeing it, and you haven’t yet heard about the “twist,” do your dead-level best not to.
I’m not sure how a person who “knew” what was coming would view MDB. It makes me curious enough that I almost want to see it again, with foreknowledge, to see how I’d react.
The plot we can discuss is covered in a few words: Maggie (Hilary Swank) is a female boxer, who talks a reluctant trainer Frankie (Clint Eastwood) into training her, with the help of Frankie’s best friend Eddie (Morgan Freeman).
To say this is a sports movie is accurate and yet wholly inaccurate. After I saw the film, and calmed down a bit, I wondered why I reacted so vehemently. I think that part of the reason was that I took my dad to see MDB, remembering the times he would bring home ROCKY movie. Good times. (Which is probably why I have such affection for the series, when in reality they start going downhill pretty fast.)
Anyway, I thought we were going to see a boxing movie, and it would be nostalgic and so forth. And, that’s what happened for the first hour and a half.
But the movie changes, and while I won’t discuss the specifics, it’s imperative you know that you are not going to see a sports movie. I guess I felt betrayed. Here I brought my dad to one movie and it turned out to be something completely different. (Note: he was not actually offended, but I was enough for both of us.)
That doesn’t make MDB a bad film. It would be like if I took my mother to see FINDING NEVERLAND, and instead we got KILL BILL. I loved KILL BILL, but I wouldn’t take my mother to go see it, because I know she’d be uncomfortable. Does that make sense?
The other reason I had so much emotion isn’t because I felt the ending was propaganda or anything, like some ideological zealots in the media have alleged. What I feel about that issue personally is a whole other issue, one I’d be happy to write an entire column about.
My problem was that I didn’t think that those specific characters would make those decisions. It didn’t seem organic, and it bothered me. I guess in a way this is a back-handed compliment to the acting. If I didn’t care about the characters and their lives, I wouldn’t have gotten so angry, right? At least, that’s my theory.
Now that the Oscars are over, the question is, did MDB deserve what it won? While Morgan Freeman wouldn’t have been my choice, he certainly deserved it. He was as good as he ever is, and that’s pretty great. Hilary Swank was phenomenal too. I cannot think of a single actress in Hollywood who could have pulled off that performance. Clint Eastwood, though he didn’t win, was as good as I’ve ever seen him too.
The directing was spare, but that worked well. The story moved at its own pace, and let the characters reveal themselves to us without a lot of shortcuts. But ultimately, too many questions were not answered. Forget the controversy for a moment: several plot strings were not tied up. I wanted to know what the letters were about, and what happened there (when you see it, you’ll know).
All in all, I cannot recommend MILLION DOLLAR BABY. It won the Oscar, so obviously many people disagree with me. If you’re a movie person you’ll probably want to see it simply to know what the fuss is all about. Perhaps you’ll disagree with my take on the ending, and think MDB handled the situation naturally, and deserved Best Picture.
But not me.
This was one of the most pleasant surprises in some time. I expected to find a stuffy, boring period piece, filled with that Victorian earnestness that usually grates on my nerves. It’s a bias of mine: I simply don’t believe the Victorian Age was that wonderful. It’s common to romanticize it now as the golden age of manners and behavior, but from my reading of history, it didn’t work that way. The vast majority of late 19th century England had to work very hard in dirty smelly conditions, and didn’t get the silk and lace of frilly A&E specials.
Well, FINDING NEVERLAND takes place a hundred years ago, in England, around the type of people who can afford to wear spiffy clothes at all times and have servants and treat each other with utmost gentility. And it’s as earnest as any movie you’ll see this year.
But I still loved it.
For one, there was Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and those wonderful kids. Depp plays J. M. Barrie, a noted playwright who is struggling to find his voice after a major flop. He runs into Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four children in the park one day, and instantly becomes enchanted by them, especially Peter, a child who has seen too much sadness (the father has recently died) and is too serious.
Depp well deserves his Oscar nomination, totally underplaying Barrie with quiet reflection. The performance was so subtle I almost wanted a little more at times, but that’s nitpicking: Johnny Depp takes a role that few actors could have handled and pulls it off admirably. He continues to show he’s one of the best actors of his generation.
Kate Winslet is equally good as a mother trying to keep it together after losing her husband and fighting an illness herself, all while raising four young boys. If she hadn’t already been nominated for ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, I’m convinced she would have been here.
And the boys are great too, especially Peter. They brought humanity to their roles, and seemed like real children rather than kids playing parts, which we get so often in the movies.
Barrie comes into the family’s life and fills the children’s days with imagination and fun again. They in turn inspire him to write his next play, PETER PAN. There are lots of great touches, like showing how Barrie got his ideas for PAN. One scene shows a crusty grandmother cleaning a hook and pointing it at the kids. Stuff like that.
Of course, there are a few snags. Movie-wise, Barrie is married when he meets this family, and virtually abandons his wife to spend all his time with Davies. This in turns leads to suspicion of an affair, and when that doesn’t bare out, imprecations turn to Barrie’s behavior towards the children. The movie deals with all of these subjects quickly and then moves on. One could wish for a more realistic portrayal, but we judge the movie in front of us, not the one we wished for, and that’s not what FINDING NEVERLAND is focused on.
This does bring up another point, though: FINDING NEVERLAND is based on the life of J. M. Barrie, and so logically one wonders how much of what is on screen actually happened. Best I can tell, there are a few details changed of fudged to give more drama to the story. That’s okay with me; they never claim it’s a docu-drama.
Also, I’m happy because the drama they do get from the changes were surprisingly emotional. I did not expect to react the way I did; several times very close to tears. FINDING NEVERLAND does this in an emotionally honest way. Though the material is melo-dramatic by nature, I never felt manipulated or tugged this way and that. That’s all you can ask for.
Perhaps the best part of FINDING NEVERLAND is that I cannot think of a single person who wouldn’t like it. It’s inoffensive while never boring. You could take your child, your husband, or your very conservative grandmother. It’s rare these days to find a movie that safe while still that entertaining.
This is my fifth attempt to write this review. While MILLION DOLLAR BABY and FINDING NEVERLAND are emotional movies, they didn’t compare to the experience I had sitting in the theatre watching HOTEL RWANDA. I have not felt this angry in a movie since SCHINDLER’S LIST.
HOTEL RWANDA tells the true story of the genocide that took place in Rwanda during the mid ‘90s, and what one hotel manager tried to do something about it.
In 1994, close to 1,000,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda’s ethnic cleansing. (Note, it wasn’t even an actual ethnic dispute, but one the colonial Belgium government created. It really angers me when Western Europe gets all sanctimonious about Iraq. But I digress.)
Mind you, these people weren’t killed with German efficiency in gas chambers, or for the most part, even gunned down and bombed. The vast majority were killed by hand with machetes.
Thankfully, we don’t get to see that but for a glimpse or two. That’s not what HOTEL RWANDA is about, although there is plenty to be sick about, but most of it comes in our imagination.
If HOTEL RWANDA was just about the genocide, it would be a worthy endeavor and a very necessary movie. But wonderfully, amidst all the horror, HOTEL RWANDA is one of the most uplifting movies you’ll ever see. More on that in a minute.
The hotel itself is a Five Star luxury palace, where wealthy Europeans mix with military generals and other African power brokers. The UN contingent is there, led by Colonel Oliver, well played by Nick Nolte.
When the killing starts Paul, the main character, is sure the United Nations will intervene and save everyone. They never do. Oh, they do get involved, but that is only to pull out the white people. Rwandans themselves are not allowed to leave.
Colonel Oliver explains to Paul the realities of world politics: “You’re not even a nigger. You’re African.”
Mind you: Oliver would like nothing more than to stop the killing. But he’s powerless to do anything, not even allowed to fire his weapon.
If I could take just a moment, the anger for me is watching this slaughter that so easily could have been stopped. The Hutus were not a well-armed force. They killed with machetes. Do you understand what I’m saying? They went from person to person and hacked them to death with a large knife. All it would have taken was for the US or someone from the West to care enough to send in troops.
But Rwanda had nothing to offer the world but Africans, and a dispute few understood, and fewer cared about. So what happened happened. You’ll get angry watching it. You should.
But like I wrote earlier, ultimately Hotel Rwanda is an inspiring picture.
That’s because of the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle. Cheadle is another one of those guys I’ve been touting for years. In my opinion he’s one of the best actors alive, and should be up for roles normally reserved for Denzel Washington. After this performance, maybe he will be.
Cheadle plays Paul, a hotel manager. At the beginning of the film, we see Paul doing business with some unsavory characters. Paul is sort of apolitical, not evil, but one of those guys for whom “business is business.”
Paul is Hutu, the ethnic group who took power when Belgium left, while his wife and her family is Tutsi, the group getting slaughtered. Paul comes home one night to find his house filled with Tutsis, terrified of getting taken. The next morning, the rest of the neighborhood is littered with corpses.
Paul takes everyone he can to his hotel, a kind of sanctuary.
Soon the UN pulls out, and over 1200 Tutsis are refugees in the hotel, with no one to protect them. Here is where Paul shines. Using the skills needed to be a successful hotel operator, Paul lies, bribes, and tricks the roving military bands into buying as much time as possible for these people. Whatever he has to do.
One of the neatest parts includes concocting this fairy-tale that the hotel is still operating for rich westerners. (Most of the Hutu leaders are smart enough to realize that the one thing that might bring the wrath of the West is if they start killing white people.)
Performances are great all around. Cheadle and Nolte, like I mentioned, but also Sophie Okenedo as Paul’s wife, a woman who refuses to leave any of her family behind. She’s brilliant, and you’ll hear more from her. Joaquin Phoenix—a guy I usually can’t wait to trash—is quietly effective as a journalist ashamed when the rescue comes, for whites only.
I won’t lie: HOTEL RWANDA is a difficult film to sit through. It’s rated PG-13, and it’s definitely not SCHINDLER’S LIST in terms of graphic killing, but you understand what’s going on, and the small scenes we get are perhaps all the more chilling.
But I would say this is the most necessary film in some time. I struggle with wondering how much of the non-response of the west is the casual racism of our society, and how much is just apathetic ignorance, and what I can do to help change either of those things.
When I wrote about intervening in the Sudan last year, before the mass killing got any worse, I got all sorts of nasty mail, from people who called me war-mongering, people who wanted to debate the definition of genocide, and some who accused me of imposing my paternalistic values on another culture in typical western fashion.
Yes, I want people not to be raped and slaughtered. Sometimes my own cultural agenda sickens even me.
I wish I could slap all of these people who want to stick their head in the sand and ignore the plight of millions across the globe. But not having that many arms, I wish I could make them watch HOTEL RWANDA.
I’ll settle for all of you watching it, and telling everyone you know.
Go to it.
March 04, 2005
Thanks to my Dad and my Mom
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