City of God

Last year, I watched “Bus 174,” a 2004 documentary about a street kid in Rio de Janeiro who held a bus hostage for four hours. Like all good documentaries, it’s more than that; in examining this lost youth Sandro, the movie explores the dark underbelly of a culture that embraces the wealthy and turns their backs on the slums.

It is both incredible journalism and a fantastic film, and because of that experience, I was a bit hesitant to watch “City of God,” Fernando Meirelles’s 2002 film. “City of God” is also about slum kids in Rio, and while it’s based on a true story about gang rivalries, I was afraid the real story would get lost in the Hollywood treatment.

Sometimes, I really hate being right.

Don’t take that to mean that “City of God” is a bad movie, because it isn’t. It’s very well made, the cast of unknown actors do a service to the craft, and the direction and script never lag. What I had issue with is with the scope of the story.

I’ve never read the book it’s based on, but I’m willing to bet it’s a sprawling, intricate story filled with lots of flashbacks and backstory for every major character introduced. That’s pretty much how the movie goes, and while it provides the much-needed exposition, the information never goes beneath the surface.

There’s no real intimacy in “City of God.” There is a de facto main character, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), but he’s mostly on the sidelines watching everything happen around him. We spend the whole film watching the violence and chaos that surround the players, but it doesn’t make an impact; you watch “City of God,” and you move on.  After watching “Bus 174,” I immediately had to watch two episodes of “South Park” just to recover from the devastating impact of that film.

It’s possible that if I hadn’t seen “Bus 174″ I would have been moved by “City of God.” But when you’ve seen it done right, how can you go back to almost right?

“City of God” (2002)

Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Written by John Kaylin

Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues (Rocket)

 Leandro Firmino (Li’l Z)

 Phellipe Haagensen (Benny)

Phoebe in Wonderland

Go see “Phoebe in Wonderland.”

I understand if you’re a little turned off by the cutesy premise of a little girl who imagines herself a modern-day Alice in Wonderland after getting the lead in her school play. But if you promise to keep reading, I’ll let you in on a secret.

Still with me? That’s not what the movie is really about.

I know, a trailer lied to us! Shocker.

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My Dinner with Andre

“My Dinner with Andre,” Louis Malle’s art house hit from 1981, is all talk and not for the weak of heart.

When I say it’s all talk, I mean it; two men, friends of sorts who haven’t seen each other in a few years, meet for dinner, and talk about their lives, the meaning of life, the value of art, the future of mankind, etc. You know, typical stuff to talk about on any given evening.

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Inventing the Abbotts

It’s hard to know what to say about “Inventing the Abbotts.”

Pat O’Connor’s 1997 film begins with two families; the Abbotts are the wealthy ones, the family that earns the envy and desire of all the other people in town. Lloyd Abbott, the patriarch, came up from nothing to marry a wealthy woman, and they had three daughters: Alice (Joanna Going), Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly) and Pam (Liv Tyler). Lloyd insists on showing them off to the neighbor kids who can’t ever be them or have them at every opportunity, and the girls, for one reason or another, just go along with it.

The Holts are the other family, two brothers and their widowed mother. Jacey (Billy Crudup) is the oldest and makes no secret of the fact that he is completely obsessed with getting into the Abbott family. It’s not love, but he pursues Eleanor with a fiery passion and then moves on when she is unavailable. Doug (Joaquin Phoenix) is a bit shy, a bit more withdrawn, and while he has feelings for Pam, he’s seen what an obsession with that family can do and stays away from her when he can. Most of the time, that fails.

There’s some more backstory, and some more interpersonal conflicts, but that’s the majority of the film. The boys pine, the girls remain aloof and all the while some great mystery hangs in the background, always out of reach.

It’s hard to give an opinion here because I liked the story, but I didn’t love it. I appreciated that the soapy route I predicted did not come to pass, but I had some issues with the lack of characterization of any of the female characters. I thought Phoenix overdid the sincere small-town boy at parts, and I felt that Tyler under-sold her poor-little-rich-girl act, but most the time they balanced each other out. I thought some third-act revelations were lame, but I thought others worked.

“Inventing the Abbotts” is a nice enough movie, with a good enough story, and a good enough cast, but it’s nothing notable.

“Inventing the Abbotts” (1997)

Directed by Pat O’Connor

Written by Ken Hixon

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Doug Holt)

Billy Crudup (Jacey Holt)

Liv Tyler (Pamela Abbott)

The Greatest Show on Earth

Readers, I have found the 1950s version of James Cameron’s “Titanic.” No, I don’t mean “A Night to Remember,” the 1958 chilly reenactment of the crash of the ocean liner.  I mean a bloated, over-praised epic that inexplicably won the Best Picture Oscar (yes, I’m still a bitter “L.A. Confidential” fan.).

Yep, I’m talking about “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Cecil B. DeMille’s story of the circus and the performers who love and struggle to bring us cheap but honest entertainment.

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The Believer

Henry Bean’s “The Believer” (2001) left me at a loss for words. The film is a bit of a mystery and not the good kind.

Ryan Gosling stars as Danny Balint, a modern day Nazi who enjoys beating up Jews, Blacks, whatever Ethnic group member he happens to come across. While he enjoys that hobby, he gets bored fighting alone, so he joins up with a group of Fascists and successfully talks them into preaching his message of hate and genocide.

But Danny is more than he seems; he is Jewish, and not just by heritage. He knows the language, the practices, the traditions, everything. He passes that off as ‘know-your-enemy’ thinking to his buddies, but he still follows the rules when in the presence of religious artifacts.

And that’s where I run into the conundrum; Danny is filled with hate for ‘his’ people, but he also ardently believes in their traditions and being a good Jew in line with those traditions. I’m guessing that the writer, Bean again, was trying to show that racism can be complex, but to me, Danny just doesn’t come across as a real person.

A Jewish Nazi is an intriguing premise, and Gosling gives everything he has to the performance (make no mistake, it’s an award-worthy one), but other than an extreme contrarian streak in Danny, there doesn’t seem to be any foundation for his wishes of genocide. At one point in the film, he preaches that “we” hate the Jews simply because we hate them, and while the speech makes the point, that isn’t enough justification for the hatred in Danny.

I don’t buy it, and therefore I can’t get behind the movie. Maybe you’ll have better luck.

“The Believer” (2001)

Written and directed by Henry Bean

Starring: Ryan Gosling (Danny Balint)


“Frost/Nixon” began life as a powerful, thought-provoking play about a historic battle of wills between a lightweight journalist and disgraced former president. Fortunately, it’s also a pretty good movie.

Most of the film is setup, which irks a little, but context matters, so the first 45 minutes or so is spent on setting up the scene. David Frost (Michael Sheen) is a journalist struggling for credibility and comes up with the idea of a series of interviews with Pres. Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), who left the office of the president after the Watergate scandal.
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While watching Siddiq Barmak’s “Osama” (2003), I kept getting thinking about Ursula K. Le Guin’s seminal ’60s novel “The Left Hand of Darkness.”

The novel takes place on a planet named Winter where gender doesn’t exist. All of the natives are essentially hermaphrodites; they appear masculine for the majority of the time, but during kemmer (think a menstrual cycle or heat), two people mate and by luck of the draw, one will be a female and one will be male (in a curious side note, if the two reproduce, parental rights and lineage go to the mother).

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