Sunday, May 29, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

A non-believer thrust into defending the holiest city of all, Balian of Ibelin finds himself in the throes of an un-holy war between the crusading Christians and the equally fanatical Muslims. He is able to hold his ground. He saved hundreds of lives. He saved the city of Jerusalem from ruin. And ultimately he delivered himself from the soils of desperation and destruction to the zenith of glory.

Ridley Scott, hailed as the master of modern epic, successfully gives us again another breathtaking and gloriously decorated production. Kingdom of Heaven is the fictionalized story of the great knight Balian, whose valiant legacy is forever immortalized in history books as the leader who surrendered the holy city of Jerusalem into the hands of Muslim warrior Saladin.

Orlando Bloom headlines this terrific movie and he effectively essays the role in a quiet but compelling performance. From the moment we see him engulfed in grief over his wife's death to his slow realization of the responsibilities pushed onto him after his father dies we find a fusion of emotions from an actor whose performances of late has been rather spotty. Here the actor wields a sword, he makes illicit love to the queen and he battles a battalion of armies, and yet we can still sense a certain amount of vulnerability - one that can be gleaned from the way the film is carefully structured.

The writers have fashioned the film to reveal the story of a tortured soul whose passion for life has ebbed and to be able to redeem himself he must die and be born again to deliver the people of Jerusalem from the threats of destruction and death.

It is not almost noticeable, but it seems to me that Scott has drawn some parallels between the story of Jesus Christ and the story of Balian. Or do I just love the movie so much, I am not sure.

Bloom is ably supported by a stellar cast of actors. Among them Eva Green who last wowed us with her wild portrayal in "The Dreamers". Here she shines as the betrothed princess Sibylla who falls for Balian. Jeremy Irons also appears as Tiberias, the king's loyal advisor, and he is as good as ever even in a minor role. Liam Neeson and Brendan Gleeson also appear.

In Kingdom of Heaven, Scott gives us a truly epic film, devoid of inconsequential nonsense that befell the similar productions of Troy and Alexander. Indeed the film is about the war waged by the Muslims and Christians during the infantile days of religious awakening but the viewer is presented with the cases for both sides: for truly men may have different choices of religion but in the end we are still speaking of only one God. It's a triumph!

Monday, May 23, 2005


There are numerous episodes of violence in Crash, Paul Haggis’ gritty drama about race relations in multi-racial Los Angeles. From a slur of invectives to virtual sexual assaults, from latent racism to blatant racial distrust, from contained anguish to impulsive acts of aggression. Violence comes in any form.

But the movie is not all that. Crash is a clash of cultures – a crash of egos, frustrations, and frailties that come in everyday living in a city as divergent as LA.

First-time director Haggis, who also wrote Million Dollar Baby, has crafted the year’s first near-masterpiece. Filmed in the tradition of multi-character, fused story line and non-linear filmmaking recently seen in movies such as Amores Perros, Traffic, 21 Grams and Magnolia, Crash provides a fervid vision of society gone awry.

There are no black or white characters in this movie, literally and figuratively. Each has own imperfections. And each facet of humanity is evenly scrutinized, criticized that no character is left unturned. But however the film has depicted these characters, in the end they all come out human – flawed, deficient but all are capable of the universal feelings of hatred, fear and affection, relative or otherwise.

With Haggis’ able direction, the film cruises through a day in the life of several Angelenos as they grapple over life’s basic inequity; directing their frustrations toward people who are culturally, racially different from them. Ranging from misunderstood biases to unsubtle prejudices, these series of vignettes commences in sudden bursts of violence and culminates in a harried play of startling tragedy and inadvertent comedy.

On top of the directing and writing triumphs, Crash is further enhanced by the extraordinary performances of the ensemble cast. Among them, Terrence Howard, Larenz Tate and Matt Dillon give the most memorable turns.

Howard plays a black TV producer who turns a blind eye to lurking racism in his midst. Until he experiences this first-hand and sees his wife virtually assaulted by a cop does he confront this undeniable truth, but what does a black man of his position do? We are given clues, but no direct answer. But his performance signals the coming of another brilliant actor.

Tate plays a nerdy hoodlum who listens to Country music, views his surroundings pragmatically and leads a life on the edge. Whatever awaits his character’s fate, it however sets the stage to unravel another unsettling truth. This truth provokes the viewer to assess his own perceptions about various shades of racial discrimination.

Dillon plays a cop, the symbolic LAPD of recent years. Here he plays a cop whose routine means of apprehending people is sullied by his sinister and racist expressions. We are given tentative glances of his innate goodness but is only ironically summoned in a climactic incident. Dillon’s performance has the toughness and tenderness that leaves the most memorable impression to the viewer.

Notwithstanding the disappointing final frame that closes the movie, Crash remains a cinematic triumph, a scathing thesis on social disharmony. It’s a must-see!

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

The power of a movie is measured by how much it moves you into confronting your own values and beliefs, faith and convictions.

The film, Hotel Rwanda, focuses on a sad and piercing event when a few selfish people, trying to protect their own interests, fabricate stories to incite a long, deep hatred by their Hutu compatriots to wage a genocidal campaign against the Tutsi minority.

The film, however, rightfully emphasizes the inherent goodness in every person as it tells us of one man’s courageous efforts, using all practicable means, to protect his family and people he don’t know from the hands of the Hutu militia bent on annihilating them.

Paul Rusasubagena (Don Cheadle) is such a man. And Hotel Rwanda is his story – a true story.

The day the Hutu President signs the peace accord between his government and the Tutsi rebels; the day majority of Rwandan people come out rejoicing, also marks the beginning of days when Rwanda plunges into hell - a living hell that, in only three months, will kill almost a million people, and almost wipe out the entire Tutsi population.

Paul works as a general manager of the only five-star hotel in the capital city of Kigali. In the course of his dealings with the corrupt system he has mastered the art of gentle bribery. He can count on the help of an Army General anytime he wants to. He is a shrewd man. And he has very good reasons why he seeks the patronage of the powerful.

He is a Hutu and a member of the ruling class. His wife, unfortunately, is a Tutsi.

On the fateful day when the hostilities erupt, he glimpses first hand what he has dreaded all his life: His wife along with the rest of the Tutsis in his neighborhood are rounded by the police and threatened to be killed. Paul bargains by bribing the police with a handful of French francs. The police wavers but warns them that he will come back later and kill them all.

He moves his family and his neighbors to his hotel where the United Nations contingent and a handful of foreign nationals (calm and seemingly oblivious to the massacres occurring outside the hotel grounds) are still staying.

Soon these nationals are evacuated by their home countries when the situation has turned for the worse. And the United Nations, acting on the false report of the ruling Hutu government decides to limit their presence and takes a hands-off policy towards the conflict.

Paul then resorts to his own devises - calling their hotel headquarters, asking his staff to call former hotel guests for help (and if they need to, impress on their friends the precariousness of the situation and that the moment they hung up the phone could mean death for them.)

The story is so riveting that I am having a hard time distinguishing the movie from the real events it depicts. The fact that i am almost telling the entire story shall not diminish the power of this movie when one finally sees it. And I mean it.

Don Cheadle inhabits his character with a pained look in his eyes, a man putting up a brave face but is being consumed by fear and helplessness. He is simply magnificent! Cheadle's awesome display of powerhouse acting is mastefully showcased on the morning Paul breaks down at the hotel locker after they discover the pile of bodies scattered all over a road. The viewer can almost see the real Paul slowly being engulfed in sheer powerlessness.

And the poignant music by Wyclef Jean adds loving dedication to the Tutsi children who will grow up without a father, a mother, a brother, or a sister.

Days after watching this Terry George’s haunting and wrenching drama, I still find myself reflecting every now and then about the events that transpired during those fateful days of April 1994. I have even gotten into reading Rwandan history – how the tribes came into being; how the Tutsis, the Hutus and the Twas found themselves together in one country. What I learned is an interesting history not unlike any of its African neighbors. The European colonizer’s cultural and ethnical ignorance of the region contributed to the marked tribal rivalries that eventually escalated into a fierce and bloody conflict.

And the seeming indifference of the West at the time can also be explained by the debacle the UN faced when they tried to intervene in the earlier Somalian conflict (dramatized in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down).

But despite all these hindsight thoughts, I still can’t fathom how a man can tap such blind fury and commit such heinous acts. And when they say never again, do the Rwandans say this with conviction in their hearts? What about the next generation of Tutsi children? Who will educate them objectively about this event that killed nearly 80% of their people? Questions, questions…

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