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Not a pretty picture: Rodrigues in City of God.

Where the Streets Have No Name

By Shawn Stone

City of God
Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Set in Rio de Janeiro’s most violent slum—the ironically named City of God—Fernando Meirelles’ dynamic film is a cinematically ecstatic chronicle of a neighborhood that goes from bad to worse over a span of three decades. (By the end of the picture, the City of God resembles one of Dante’s lower circles in hell.) A volatile mix of real personalities, actual events, folklore and mythic narrative flourishes, City of God is by turns shocking, bloody, hilarious and tragic.

The story is told through the eyes of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a would-be photographer whose brother died a gangster’s death. The film opens with a virtuoso chase sequence that starts with street kids and a chicken, and ends with the chicken and Rocket pinned between ridiculously well-armed gangsters and cops. The rest of the movie is told in flashback. The joke is that when, at the end of the film, the story catches up to the events leading to the opening sequence, the audience is so inured to fate’s capriciousness in the City of God we expect everyone will die—cops, gangsters, Rocket and chicken.

A classic outsider, the good-natured Rocket couldn’t turn to crime in his worst moment; there’s a sweet sequence in which he intends to commit a stick-up, but can’t because everyone he meets (a friendly transit worker, a beautiful girl and a guy with good pot) is too nice to rob. Most everyone else in the film is some kind of thief or killer.

The social texture is richly evoked. One of the first gangs—“the Tender Trio”—are teens with more bravado than brains, and a sensibility more akin to Robin Hood than Tony Montana. To them, it’s like the Wild West; Meirelles underlines this with the then-dusty, open vistas of the neighborhood’s first incarnation. Hardly more than boys, they hold up propane-gas trucks and supermarkets, throwing cash to the crowds and dreaming of bigger and better crimes. As the ghetto becomes more densely developed, taking on a forbidding urban feel, innocents like these are displaced by far more ruthless—and even younger—criminals with a grasp of both organized terror and the economics of the emerging drug trade.

From The Public Enemy to Menace II Society, poverty and a society in disarray have made for trenchant social commentary. In this tradition, City of God makes its points beautifully. Poverty breeds crime; crime begets a breakdown in civil order and opens up a variety of lucrative career paths to vicious sociopaths. Only one aspect is missing—women’s lives in this world. As in traditional Hollywood gangster films, they’re strictly objects of love, lust or violence. Early on, the presence of a tart-tongued gangster girl (the vibrant Roberta Rodriguez Silvia) is refreshing, but she quickly disappears from the picture, and no other woman takes her place.

If its believable social milieu were all the film accomplished, City of God would be interesting. It is also delirious entertainment: It moves like a high-speed freight train. Though heavily loaded with characters, incidents, flashbacks and flashforwards, City of God is lightning-paced and utterly purposeful. The combination of assured storytelling and indelible, kinetic images keeps the audience fully engaged over the entire two hours. It’s just great filmmaking.

Killin’ Time Is Killin’ Me

The Hunted
Directed by William Friedkin

Don’t be taken in by the particulars—Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro go mano a mano under William Friedkin’s direction. Yes, The Hunted is a fast-moving, graphically primitive actioner boasting Friedkin’s French Connection-style chase scenes, here occurring on foot through the scenic forests and cities of Oregon, and with knives instead of guns. But that’s all it is. Jones is the manhunter and Del Toro is the killing machine who slips a gear. Their conflict is simple, bloody and meaningless. The screenwriting team of David and Peter Griffiths have come up with half a movie between them.

The opening sequence is set in the ethnic slaughterhouse of Kosovo, 1999. Aaron Hallam (Del Toro), a U.S. assassin, infiltrates the Serbian command post and stealthily butchers the head executioner. He later suffers from “battle stress,” and back in the States, he stalks and kills two elk hunters, apparently confused by their high-tech scope rifles. As L.T. (Jones), his former instructor, says, “The physical part of killing is easy. The difficult part is turning it off.” An interesting comment considering the recent build-up in CIA Special Forces operating outside of military jurisdiction, and the idea of covert operatives responding irrationally to fears of terrorism at home is an intriguing one. But Aaron, it turns out, is just a wacky, if lethal, animal-rights crusader. L.T., now a wildlife conservationist in remote British Columbia, is brought out of retirement by the CIA to track Aaron down before the Feds nab him. Connie Nielson is the FBI agent who gets the film’s best two minutes when she tracks the tracker with a simple subterfuge.

The Hunted is too mechanical to bear comparison to The Fugitive, although Aaron does give the feds, the CIA and L.T. the slip with skillful wiliness. Why Aaron’s letters asking for help were never answered is never addressed. Instead of motivation, the film relies on groaningly obvious symbolism, such as the sight of Aaron hiding behind a concrete fountain (the waterfalls of the urban jungle). Instead of a plot, the film has a song, the biblical Johnny Cash version of Dylan’s “Highway 61.” The song ties in with L.T.’s fatherly attitude toward his “boys,” as he calls his trainees, and provides a coda that substitutes for an ending. Before that final lyric, however, the film’s bloody literalmindedness climaxes with a prolonged knife fight. He who lives (covertly) by the fillet blade, apparently, dies by the fillet blade—although you won’t find that one in the CIA training manual.

—Ann Morrow

James at 15

Agent Cody Banks
Directed by Harald Zwart

It’s easy to wax nostalgic about the James Bond films of the ’60s. Not only did they feature the oh-so-suave Sean Connery, who, not incidentally, acted the part as if he got the joke, but the crises and the gizmos used to quell them were decidedly simple, straight out of any teenager’s seventh-period fantasies, and not so much a love affair with hard, crystalline technology. So it’s rather fitting that the latest, quasi-installment of that series is Agent Cody Banks, in which teenager Frankie Muniz, playing the title role, is an undercover CIA agent trying to save the world from sinister types Brinkman (Ian McShane) and François (Arnold Vosloo) with an old-fashioned mix of suction-cup sneakers, magic watches and rocket-powered skateboards and snowboards.

The glitch is, he’s got to get close to the girl, Natalie (Hilary Duff), and while Cody may be fearless when it comes to rescuing a tot trapped in a careening car, his attempts at conversation with the opposite sex result in their asking him whether he’s in special ed.

Directed by Harald Zwart, Agent Cody Banks is a smart, well-paced and surprisingly funny homage to both spy films like the ’60s Bonds and matinee fodder like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. What works best about the film is that its fantasy is precisely the type that most teens, indeed, most youngsters, can and do envision. Much like the more imaginative Spy Kids series, Cody Banks features likeable, smart youths working with their wiser adult associates, and yet having to deal with mundane things like homework, chores and Drivers’ Ed.

Muniz is well-cast, as is Duff, who is no dimwitted damsel in distress. The pair’s dialogue is quite funny, especially when Cody makes his initial, tongue-tied forays into friendship. The movie’s best surprise, however, is Angie Harmon as Cody’s handler/mentor Ronica Wells. If the powers-that-be ever attempt another Avengers movie, Harmon is perfectly poised to play the indominatable, yet highly fashionable, Emma Peel. Agent Cody Banks tiptoes into naughty territory when Harmon, dressed in a knockout red pantsuit and stiletto heels, comes to retrieve her protégé from the locker room. Temperatures rise as Cody’s friends do their wise-ass best to simultaneously impress and intimidate this imposing goddess, who finishes them off in short order. Ronica’s developing friendship with Cody is believable, so much so that this viewer and her would-be secret agents actually hope for a follow-up adventure.

—Laura Leon

You Dirty Rat

Willard
Directed by Glen Morgan

Willard, a remake of the 1971 horror film of the same name, is an indefatigably unpleasant little movie. Like its nearly worthless predecessor, it tells the story of Willard Stiles, a young man who conscripts an army of willing rats into avenging the thousand insults and humiliations heaped on him by a hostile boss and domineering mother, who seems to be the living incarnation of Psycho’s Mrs. Bates.

Unlike the original, the remake builds no empathy for the ghoulish Willard, who looks like he squeezed from between the pages of Edward Gorey or Charles Addams. The cartoon image is worsened by Crispin Glover’s over-the-top performance. It is a far scream from the delicate, nuanced work of Bruce Davidson’s Willard in 1971. Making a very limited cameo by way of a photograph and a painting, Davidson “appears” as Willard’s dead father (whose death must have been a liberation from his twisted family). The only face in the film that looks truly human or humane, the Davidson reference only highlights the deficiencies of Glover’s work.

The new film does excel or exult in creating an atmosphere of decay, which is lovingly sustained from the opening credits to the dumb denouement. It would seem that the production designer, director of photography and makeup artist must have had perversely good times supplying details to make audiences feel queasy, and it is difficult to name the most sickening aspect of the film. Mrs. Stiles’ thick, dirty toenails are probably more off-putting than R. Lee Ermey’s too-white teeth and Glover’s snotty nose. But it is more likely the incessant, almost fetishistic evidence of rat droppings that finally makes one wish the entire excremental excess masquerading as a thriller would end.

As for the rat pack, they are a largely cute lot when not shown in apparent CGI hoards, and they are far more appealing than the humans. And their penultimate attack is handled more realistically here than in the original, where it appeared that mice were being thrown onto Ernest Borgnine. If only they had better toilet manners.

The sole tense scene involves a hapless cat, the only character about whom one truly gives a rat’s ass. The rest of the show is the filmic equivalent of d-CON rodent bait.

—Ralph Hammann


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