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Five-star ‘Hotel’


OSCAR WORTHY: Cheadle in "Rwanda."
  • OSCAR WORTHY: Cheadle in "Rwanda."
One of the things that cinema does better than nearly any other art form — even novels in some respects — is capture the slow creep of courage; the way an absolutely normal person can have his limits pushed out by fate until he does one of two things: folds up in a corner somewhere and covers his head, or stands and faces danger with only his backbone holding him up. Movies are uniquely good at portraying the change. Courage is all about heart — about things that never really reach the head. It’s in the eyes, the shoulders, the slope of the back. In the hands of a great actor or actress — Liam Neeson in “Schindler’s List,” Denzel Washington in “Glory” and the last frames of “Malcolm X,” Hilary Swank in the superb “Million Dollar Baby” — a story of simple human courage can stagger you as cleanly as a punch. To this list of great actors, we must now add Don Cheadle, and his performance in “Hotel Rwanda.” Cheadle takes what could have been a top-heavy morality play and instead makes it the story of the struggle between a man’s heart and his head in the face of almost certain death. In a word, he is magnificent. Here, Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of the four-star Hotel Mille Collines. Spending his days buttering up visiting Belgian tourists and Rwanda’s overfed generals, Paul walks a line between worlds in more ways than one. Resentment simmers under the surface at all times, with the majority Hutus sometimes rising up to kill the minority Tutsis. Though Paul is a Hutu, many of his best friends, including his wife (Sophie Okonedo), are Tutsi. Soon after the title screen, the country goes to hell, machete-wielding Hutus rising up to massacre their Tutsi countrymen. With the white visitors and staff at his hotel forced to pull out and U.N. peacekeepers ordered to do nothing, Rusesabagina soon finds himself faced with a choice: flee with his family or stay behind and protect over a thousand Tutsi refugees who have sought safety in his hotel. Watching Cheadle make his choice is a lesson in powerful acting. A promising talent who looked like he might be stuck in Character Actor Hell for his entire career, Cheadle is absolutely brilliant here, buttressed by great performances by Okonedo and Nick Nolte, as a Canadian U.N. colonel who refuses to stand by and let the slaughter go on. In the end, “Hotel Rwanda” is a great film, one that should insure that Cheadle gets the acting gigs he deserves. Whether he wins the Best Actor Oscar or not, it’s sure to land him on Hollywood’s speed dial for years to come. While the legend of the Little Rock Nine has grown with each passing year, there has also grown up a counter-myth: that the Nine were nothing more than pawns; kids pushed by their parents and local Civil Rights leaders into racist hell in order to bring publicity to the larger movement. While that idea is often repeated — even today — by those who seek to lessen the impact of 1957’s Central High School crisis, it’s also a theory that crumbles to dust in light of the great things many of the Little Rock Nine have done since the doors of Central High swung shut behind them for the last time as teen-agers. Maybe that old myth will finally get a stake through its heart with the new documentary “Journey to Little Rock: The Untold Story of Minnijean Brown Trickey.” It is the story of a woman too courageous to ever be called anyone’s pawn. As seen in “Journey” — which will be shown in three free screenings this Sunday at Market Street Cinema — Trickey’s life after Little Rock was one of rare resilience, from raising four kids in the Canadian wilderness with her Vietnam-dodging husband, talking to at-risk youth about non-violent protest. In the end, “Journey” is a hymn to the way one person can change their little corner of the world, if they’re willing to risk everything. The eldest of the Little Rock Nine, Trickey was also the first to leave Central, expelled in February 1958 for the crime of calling one of her tormentors “white trash.” Like many of the Little Rock Nine, however, her story didn’t end there. Some of the early scenes in “Journey to Little Rock,” play like a trip to Stock Footage R Us, complete with spooky music when the Ku Klux Klan makes an appearance, but the scenes featuring Trickey herself are effective. Beautiful and vibrant, often smiling, she fills the screen whenever she appears, especially those shots in which the girl is juxtaposed with commentary by the middle-aged woman Trickey has become. The good news is that Trickey’s fame means she appears quite a few times in the visual record. With that, we have the opportunity to see a Big Soul mature in the spotlight: a giggling schoolgirl in interviews during her time at Central High, a lovely young woman riding her bike in college, a hippie wife fleeing the draft in a Volkswagen van, a mother protesting Canadian logging in the 1980s, the thoughtful activist she has become in middle age. Though sometimes flawed by unneeded fact-u-lets that spin out of the screen, for the most part “Journey” is an honest portrayal of a woman who will probably always be a 16-year-old girl in the American imagination — who will best be remembered not even as an individual, but as one of the fabled Nine Who Dared. While such a thought might freeze most of us in our tracks, the lengths to which Trickey has gone to keep quietly earning her reputation as a woman who matters are Herculean, not to mention a moving thing to watch. While nothing much good has come from the “National Lampoon’s” camp since Chevy Chase took his family on “Vacation” under that banner in 1983, that doesn’t mean they don’t keep trying (ok, ok … save your ink. I know that the “National Lampoon’s” tag is nothing more than a handy sales tool that makers of crummy movies can purchase in post production in order to boost sales. The horrendously bad “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder,” for instance, wasn’t tagged with the Lampoon title until after it was completed, though that didn’t save it from suckage). Just in case you might want to see the newest movie blessed (or would that be “saddled”?) with the NL tagline, “National Lampoon’s Blackball,” you’d better sprint to the theater to catch it. With a mostly British cast, next-to-nothing advertising campaign (had you heard about it until just this second?), a leading man who might just be the homeliest guy to ever headline a movie, and a plot about a sport as foreign to these shores as blood pudding, the fact that “Blackball” is quite amusing more than a few times probably won’t matter to the Gods of the Megaloplex. “Blackball” is set in the ultra-stuffy world of bowls, which is a sport in which middle-aged men toss what look like black doughnuts with no holes at a cueball, scoring points by … well, I’m not exactly clear on that one. Here, a young house painter from the wrong side of the tracks named Cliff Starkey (Paul Kaye) is to the sport of bowls what Bjorn Burgeson is to the Flugel Hamlin Gnosh (OK … what Michael Jordan is to basketball). After Starkey is disqualified from playing on the British national team, a sleazy sports agent (Vince Vaughn) sets him up as “The Bad Boy of Bowls.” You can probably guess the rest: Fame. Money. House. “Friends? I don’t need friends!” “Oh no, my passion is gone!” World Championship match. Friends: “We forgive you, Starkey.” Starkey: “I’ll do it for the love of the game.” Triumph! Fin. Hope I didn’t spoil it for you. In between, there are good performances by James Cromwell, as the traditional bowls player who loathes and later partners with Starkey, and by Vince Vaughn as Rick Schwartz, the sleazy agent who takes Cliff to the top. Kaye brings a real coolness to a sport that looks about as exciting as watching someone coil up a garden hose. There are quite a few laughs as well. “Duck Soup” it ain’t, but compared to last year’s “National Lampoon’s Master Debaters” it’s a freakin’ masterpiece.

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