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Monday, November 11

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Hotel Rwanda
4 of 5 stars
Directed by Terry George.
Starring Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte. Joaquin Phoenix, Desmond Dube and David O'Hara.

In the 1997 Bosnian War drama Welcome to Sarajevo, Woody Harrelson played a minor role as an American journalist, but his character got to deliver the sad but true zinger (I'm paraphrasing): I can't help but thinking, if it were the other way around -- if it were Muslims killing Christians -- we've had done something by now.

To anybody who actually followed the events at all, it was kind of a "no shit, Sherlock" line, but no less true because of its obviousness. Hotel Rwanda is a new film about the 1994 genocides in Rwanda by Terry George, creator of CBS's "The District" and screenwriter of In the Name of the Father and The Boxer. In it, Nick Nolte plays the leader of the U.N. peacekeeping force, Colonel Oliver, who gets to deliver the equivalent, equally obvious, zinger to Don Cheadle's Rwandan hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina, as he explains why the United Nations has no intention of stopping the violence: "We think you're dirt, Paul. The West, all the superpowers… they think you're dirt. You're not even a nigger. You're African."

The two films cover similar ground: atrocities in a distant country that nobody in the United States gives a damn about, either because they're the wrong religion or the wrong color. Once the American citizens had been evacuated, the Clinton administration was content to just let the events run their course. Republicans like to point the finger of blame on America's inaction squarely at Clinton, but the blame lies all around Washington. As Senator Bob Dole said, "I don't think we have any national interest there." Of course, the blame also lies with our media, for not covering the situation adequately, and with us as well, for allowing our government to get away with not caring.

Although some minor facts were inevitably changed for the sake of telling a story (for instance, in real life, "Colonel Oliver's" role was filled by a Canadian Brigadier-General named Roméo Dallaire), the underlying truths are left intact. Despite a few moments of melodrama, Hotel Rwanda never sanctifies its heroes and simply allows its villains to demonize themselves by their own actions, not through manipulation. Hotel Rwanda is sobering tale and a chilling reminder that the world community needs to think of itself as a community, to pull together and help one another in the face of almost unimaginable tragedy. Even though the horrors in Asia originate from the depths of the ocean, not the darkness of the human heart, it's a lesson America would do well to remember right now.

Hotel Rwanda is playing at AMC River East 21 and the Landmark Century. The Human Rights Watch website provides the full text of Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda for those interested in learning about the 1994 genocides, the events leading up to it and the events following it.

The Life Aquatic
2 of 5 stars
Directed by Wes Anderson.
Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, and Jeff Goldblum.

After the one-two punch of brilliance better known as Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, I was nervous to learn that for Wes Anderson's follow-up to Tenenbaums, he was no longer going to be working with his co-writer on those two films (as well as Bottle Rocket), Owen Wilson. I was even more nervous after I learned that his new writing partner would be Noah Baumbach, whose previous films include the insufferable, ill-focused indie comedy Kicking & Screaming and two less well-received films I haven't seen, Mr. Jealousy and Highball. At the end of a year that has already brought us two bad Wes Anderson knock-offs, Napoleon Dynamite and David O. Russell's far-less-intelligent-than-it-thinks I (Heart) Huckabees, the last thing I wanted to do was celebrate Christmas with yet another bad Wes Anderson movie -- especially one by the man himself. I breaks my heart to say that The Life Aquatic is a clumsy, disjointed, overlong, ill-focused mess.

Well, it sounded good on paper: Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) stars as a Jacques Cousteau-inspired oceanographer hunting down the mysterious "jaguar shark" that ate Murray's partner Esteban (Seymour Cassel). The film also features animation by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach), a score by the ever-reliable Mark Mothersbaugh, and a soundtrack consisting largely of early David Bowie tunes (mostly sung in Portuguese by co-star Seu Jorge, who's something of a pop idol in his native Brazil). But The Life Aquatic is, at just under two hours, about 30 minutes longer than it should be, with scenes that drag on with little more than a minor chuckle to their credit and little of the heart of Anderson's previous films, as childlike as that heart has always been.

Aside from Murray's appropriately comatose portrayal of the man-child Steve Zissou, only Willem Dafoe seems to be making more of the two-dimensional characters that, as usual, populate Anderson's scripts. As Klaus Daimler, a cartoonish German shipmate, Dafoe shines even when he's not delivering his lines like a Hogan's Heroes reject. One particularly great moment is a blink-and-you-miss-it scene where, in the background, Klaus grins broadly while he plays with a little plastic boat in the hot tub below deck of Team Zissou's boat in the Pacific ocean. In Rushmore and Tenenbaums, the gifted casts blew up Anderson's cut-outs to almost mythic proportions. Here, despite the larger scope of the story (in terms of nautical miles, if not depth), all of them just seem so small -- so insignificant.

As far as I'm concerned, the biggest problem is The Life Aquatic retains only a few hints of the visual brilliance of Anderson's two masterpieces. Although he retained the same director of photography (Robert D. Yeoman), for whatever reason, the production designer for all three of Anderson's previous films, David Wasco (who also worked on all of Quentin Tarantino's films), wasn't involved this time around. Mark Friedberg (Far From Heaven) attempted to fill Wasco's shoes -- and seriously dropped the ball. Wasco concocted a whimsical, bizarre and hyper-detailed dream home just around the corner from the real world, beautifully grounding the utterly unreal Tenenbaum family in an equally unreal world. But in The Life Aquatic, only the underwater scenes and a handful of shots featuring a cut-away view of their ship, the Belafonte, even approach this mark. The thing is, the underwater scenes and the creatures that populate it -- both of which look totally, ludicrously fake, because they are -- were due to Selick's involvement, and the cut-away set was straight from Anderson's own sketchbook. It just seems that Friedberg's imagination is entirely too literal-minded to suit the needs of Anderson's bizarre imagination.

It was little consolation to me in the theater, but as flawed as it is, The Life Aquatic wasn't a total loss. Highlights included the previously mentioned cutaway shots, a ridiculous sequence where Team Zissou stages a rescue of "the bond company stooge" from Filipino pirates and, crucially, the climactic scene where we finally see the dreaded jaguar shark, set to Sigur Rós's gorgeous "Starálfur." But too many of the film's best moments are throwaways, such as a scene early on where Steve, after meeting his possible son, wanders away from Ned mid-conversation to smoke a joint (with Bowie's "Life on Mars?" swelling in the background) -- only to immediately go back to them talking again. It's a beautifully executed character moment, thanks largely to the perfectly integrated music, but in the context of the story it only serves to draw out an already too-long scene.

Tenenbaums is one of the few films I can re-watch from beginning to end by myself and thoroughly enjoy, even after having seen it over half a dozen times, but it took me a couple of viewings to appreciate it as much as I do now. Yet the first time through, I still very much enjoyed it. Sometimes that happens. I didn't like The Big Lebowski the first time I saw it, for instance. Now, I think it's hilarious. To me, it was like a joke that I had to hear all the way through in order to get it -- then the next time I heard it, I was really hearing it for the first time. But will subsequent viewings significantly alter my opinion of The Life Aquatic? I'm not holding my breath.

Wes Anderson's next film will find him working with Henry Selick again -- and with Mr. Selick in familiar territory. It will be a stop-motion animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr. Fox. What makes me nervous is that Noah Baumbach is along for the ride again, too.

The Life Aquatic is playing at the the Loews Esquire, the Landmark Century and Century 12/CinéArts 6 in Evanston.

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About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn't like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, do so at .

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