Hotel Rwanda (MGM, 2004) D: Terry George, w/ Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo. Rating NNNN
A conventionally pretty and un-obtrusive shooting style keeps our attention firmly on the people and only enhances the power of this fact-based story of a hotel manager who saved the lives of 1,200 people during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Don Cheadle is flawless as Paul Rusesabagina, who uses his smooth surface and polished negotiating skills to win protection from generals and food from the leader of the slaughtering militia.
But Cheadle's not alone. Sophie Okonedo as his wife is both strong and vulnerable, and almost every other performance is filled with power. Even the sidekick/confidante role engages us fully.
Only Nick Nolte as a UN colonel strikes a false note. There's nothing wrong with his work emotionally; he's convincingly compassionate and distressed at his helplessness - the UN wouldn't let its troops intervene. But compare him to Roméo Dallaire, the real UN commander in Rwanda at the time, chief model for Nolte's character and on ample display in the excellent documentary Shake Hands With The Devil. Beside him, Nolte just doesn't cut it as a soldier.
There's a lot of fictionalizing here. Several characters are composites, and events are compressed or restaged for dramatic effect. On the commentary, director Terry George explains why these decisions were dramatically necessary. In counterpoint, the real Paul Rusesabagina points out the changes. His voice is quiet, gentle, his disagreement mild, but its easy to believe that he disapproves of the fictions.
Some of these matter, and some don't. The horror of the genocide remains clear. But George, with his express commitment to entertainment, tacks on an upbeat ending that is a disservice both to the reality he and everyone else involved feel so passionately about and to the fine movie he'd crafted till then.
Extras Director, Rusesabagina commentary, Wyclef Jean commentary on end credits, Cheadle selected scenes commentary, making-of doc, historical doc, trailer. Wide-screen. English 5.1, French 2.0. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
The Woodsman (Alliance Atlantis, 2004) D: Nicole Kassell w/ Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick. Rating: NNNN
despite outstanding reviews and some festival prizes, not many people turned out for this in theatres, which is a pity, because it's a gem - dramatic, suspenseful and emotionally complex. The material sounds unpromising. A convicted child molester is paroled, returns to Philadelphia and tries to make a life. He has trouble getting close to the woman who shows an interest in him, is harassed at the lumberyard where he works, gets shunned by his family and is terrified of offending again and returning to prison for life.
Two simple contrivances provide the basis for good drama here: his apartment is across the street from a public school, and he's convinced that a man he sees loitering there is preying on little boys.
Kevin Bacon carries the film and performs the amazing feat of gaining our goodwill without playing on our sympathy. By the time he's shaking on the brink of doing it again, we're in the realm of tragedy. It's a remarkable, detailed performance, all the more so because he's alone onscreen a lot of the time.
First-time director Nicole Kassell, who co-scripted with Steven Fechter, does a great job of opening out Fechter's original play, using fluid camera work and deep compositions to highlight the emotion and let us into the character's mind.
The extras here are nothing special, though Kassell has done her homework and offers some insights into the real-life crime. But the film alone is more than worth the money.
Extras Director commentary, making-of interview with producer Lee Daniels, deleted and extended scenes, trailer. Wide-screen. English and French 5.1.
The Crook (Le Voyou) (MGM, 1970) D: Claude Lelouch, w/ Jean-Louis Trintignant, Daniele Delorme. Rating: NNN
claude lelouch's bizarre mix of fantasy and naturalism makes for an engaging crime thriller. At the same time, it's a poke at most thrillers for their foolish glamorization of criminals and at the French new wave, whose take-it-to-the-streets aesthetic was busy creating its own glamour. A song-and-dance number segues into an almost documentary naturalism as we follow the doings of escaped master criminal Simon the Swiss. Lelouch returns to this number from time to time, and its music is always present to bring a jarring note to the film's matter-of-fact realism.
As Simon, Jean-Louis Trintignant never lets us forget the man's utter ruthlessness, even when he's performing the most ordinary acts. At the same time, he never abandons the ordinary for the movie-star smirk when he's cleverly baffling the cops or pulling imaginative crimes. It's a good performance by a very charismatic player.
Lelouch may have been taking a poke at himself as much as anybody else. He's known as a light sentimentalist - A Man And A Woman (1966) is his best-known title. It's a pity MGM didn't provide us with a commentary, or at least an interview. Lelouch is still working, and his views would have been interesting. Still, the transfer is good and the subtitles are perfect.
Extras Wide-screen. English, French mono sound. English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Trailer Park Boys: The Complete Fourth Season (Alliance Atlantis, 2004) D: Mike Clattenburg w/ Robb Wells, John Paul Tremblay. Rating: NNN
One of the strangest sitcoms ever committed to tape continues along its cheerfully berserk way with no slackening of its jaw-dropping lunatic creativity. Mind you, a Trailer Park season is only eight episodes, but quality wins over quantity any day (though it feels strange to use the word quality in connection with a series that celebrates vicious, booze-soaked criminal stupidity). If you know the series, there's nothing to say here. If you don't, it centres on three buddies living in a rundown trailer park. Ricky, the ringleader, is a violent small-time crook with a gift for malapropisms and a thirst for destruction - one episode this season has him take a front-end loader to a pair of cars. His best buddy, Julian, is just as dense but calmer, and Bubbles can only be described as a good-hearted moron. Their group dynamic is clear in the scene this season where they beat one another bloody with baseball bats under the misapprehension that one of them is a sasquatch.
If this sounds dumber than the Three Stooges, it is. It's also much, much smarter, and the extras insist that beer has a lot to do with it. Check it out. If you don't laugh, you'll at least be stunned. And isn't that better than pablum?
Extras Commentary tracks, deleted and alternate scenes, interviews, making-of doc, scene highlights. Full frame. English 2.0, no subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, April 19
Meet The Fockers (Universal, 2004) Robert De Niro does comedy.
House Of Flying Daggers (Columbia, 2004) One of the best martial-arts-and-art-direction extravaganzas.
Hanzo The Razor: Boxed Set (Homevision/Morningstar, 1973, 74, 75) Zatoichi star Shintaro Katsu as an Edo cop with a very hard weapon.
Captain Blood (MGM, 1935) Errol Flynn as one of the greatest swashbucklers ever...
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb