The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?)


Mother knows best.

Mother knows best.

(2015) Dramedy (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Regina Casé, Michel Joelsas, Camila Márdila, Karine Teles, Lourenҫo Mutarelli, Helena Albergaria, Bete Dorgam, Luis Miranda, Theo Werneck, Luci Pereira, Anapaula Csernik, Hugo Villavicenzio, Roberto Camargo, Alex Huszar, Audrey Lima Lopes, Thaise Reis, Nilcéia Vicente. Directed by Anna Muylaert

There are the servants and there are the served. The distinctions between the two have made up society throughout the planet essentially since humans started walking upright. Throughout history, there have been changes, perhaps never more than now but we all belong to one class or another.

Val (Casé) belongs to the latter caste. A domestic working in the home of Dr. Carlos (Mutarelli) – whose doctorate is never explained as we never see him working mainly because, we learn later, he inherited wealth – and his wife Barbara (Teles), she has also raised their son Fabinho (Joelsas) as if he were her own. She in fact has her own – a daughter – whom she hasn’t seen in ten years nor spoken to in three. Val lives in a tiny, cramped room but is content, with a fan, a TV set, a tiny bed and the family she serves nearby.

Then she gets a call from her daughter Jessica (Márdila) out of the blue. It turns out that Jessica is studying for the entrance exam at a prestigious university there in Sao Paolo. She asks Barbara if it would be all right if Jessica stayed with them while going through the application process and Barbara agrees, magnanimously insisting on buying a mattress that Jessica can sleep on while staying in Val’s cramped room.

Val, who is very conscious of her place and what is expected of her (after more than a decade of service to the same family, you’d expect that), is grateful for the kindness and is absolutely over the moon at the chance to spend some time with her daughter.

Jessica, for her part, has grown up with Val’s estranged husband and has a bit of a bone to pick with her mother who seems to have chosen the family that employs her over her own family. She also has no patience for social niceties, looking at Val’s attitudes as archaic and incomprehensible. For Val’s part, Jessica’s self-confidence that borders on arrogance is like a creature from another world. She doesn’t understand why Jessica can’t show deference to the people who pay for Val’s service.

Before long, Jessica has wheedled her way out of Val’s cramped quarters and into the more luxuriant guest bedroom suite and is eating at table with Dr. Carlos and his family, putting her mother in the humiliating position of serving her own daughter. Fabinho also clearly notices the new girl in the house as does, somewhat creepily, his dad.

Fabinho is closer in many ways to Val than to his own mother who is somewhat cold to him and doesn’t express her feelings to him as much as the more outgoing Val, and Barbara in turn is more than a little bothered that her son isn’t willing to hug her but freely gives hugs to Val. Still, Val is a part of the family and she’s willing to put up with a little bit of inconvenience for a short time…until Jessica’s attitudes begin to unravel the carefully woven fabric of the family’s relationship with Val – and each other.

Class distinction comedies are nothing new, nor are they limited to Latin America. This isn’t strictly speaking a comedy but it isn’t a drama by any means. Muylaert tries to keep things light as much as possible, although occasionally her point about class consciousness is made with leaden hands. What Muylaert excels at here is developing the various relationships in the film which drive it, from the distinct employer/employee relationship between Barbara and Val to the loving mother/son relationship between Val and Fabinho. American audiences may react differently to Val’s affections towards Fabinho but using domestics as nannies who actually end up spending more time with the children than their biological parents is not unusual in Latin America.

One of the things I really like about the movie is the relationship between Jessica and Val. The two couldn’t be more different; the mother is squat, self-effacing, and the antithesis of glamorous (unlike her employer who is an arbiter of style for Sao Paolo). Jessica is thin, pretty and something of a know-it-all. The two have had little connection over the years but both have a strong work ethic and as the movie unspools, they begin to develop an understanding and eventually a respect for each other. At the end of the day, Val is still Jessica’s mom and Jessica is still Val’s daughter and that forgives a lot of sins. Not all of them, but a lot.

One thing I wish the movie had explored more was the dynamic between Barbara, Fabinho and Val. There is certainly some tension there and it isn’t really explored; I’m guessing that Brazilian audiences are more used to the concept than American audiences so there is a bit of cinematic shorthand involved; it’s a given that these types of arrangements work out. I would have liked to have seen more of what the two women thought of the other’s relationship with Fabinho, but again, I imagine it is understood by locals. There is a nice moment between Fabinho and Barbara near the end; part of the overall sweet feeling of the film.

Critics have praised the movie pretty much universally (see scores below) but I have to say I’m a little bit less enthusiastic. It’s a good film to be sure and there are certainly a lot of undercurrents worth exploring, but they really don’t get explored much. At the end of the day, this is more like a soft drink than a Caipirinha. Lots of bubbles, lots of fizz but not as much substance perhaps as one might wish.

REASONS TO GO: Frothy. Captures mother-daughter relationship nicely. Tender-hearted.
REASONS TO STAY: A little creepy in places. Hits one over the head with its point. Could have developed Fabinho a bit better and especially his relationship with Val and Barbara.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of profanity and some brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brazil’s official submission for the 2016 Foreign Language Film Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, VOD (check your local provider)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spanglish
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: A Very Murray Christmas

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Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite)


Elite Squad (Tropa De Elite)

Just another day at the office for the Elite Squad.

(IFC) Wagner Moura, Caio Junqueira, Andre Ramiro, Milhem Cortaz, Fernando Machado, Maria Ribeiro, Paulo Vilela, Fernanda de Freitas, Fabio Lago. Directed by Jose Padilha

As mean streets go, there are few meaner than the streets of Rio de Janeiro. That might come as a surprise to those whose image of the city are beautiful beaches, half-naked women in the skimpiest bikinis imaginable, endless carnivals and Sugarloaf Mountain, but the slums of Rio are some of the most vicious in the world. Those who have seen Fernando Meirelles’ masterwork City of God already have an idea of that.

In order to combat the crime and drug trafficking, the Brazilian government created a Special Forces unit called BOPE that literally has carte blanche to do whatever is necessary to keep the problem in check. They are the team that goes where even the Brazilian military thinks twice about treading. The druglords in the slums are often better armed, certainly than the police.

That kind of power can lead to corruption, however and often the actions of the BOPE are indistinguishable from those of the gangs that they are sworn to combat. Revenge often takes the place of justice with summary executions commonplace and woe betide any community in which a BOPE member is killed, for the innocent get swept up with the guilty.

Captain Nascimento (Moura) has been one of the field leaders of the BOPE for more than a decade and he is burned out and worn out. He yearns to leave the force and take a job that allows him to spend more time with his wife and baby, but the BOPE is so undermanned that they can’t afford to lose a seasoned leader such as him.

Therefore he must find his own replacement and the first place he looks is in a couple of raw recruits, Neto (Junqueira) and Matias (Ramiro). Matias is studying in the university where he often comes into conflict with the more liberal-minded students who come from privileged backgrounds and have no idea what really goes on in the slums, where he comes from. Neto is his childhood friend, quick on the trigger finger and possessed of a moral certainty of the rightness of what he does. Matias is a bit more idealistic, but the more he sees in the field the more his ideals get compromised.

The two wind up caught in enemy territory, leading to a major BOPE incursion into the slums for a rescue operation. The murder of two of Matias’ student friends further intensifies a tense situation which has been rendered even tenser by an upcoming visit to Rio by the Pope. With corruption rampant and the threat of violence at an all time high, will the stress change the young rookies?

The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Rodrigo Pimentel, who himself served in the Elite Squad for 18 years and one can assume that the action here is based on his experiences. The viewpoint can be characterized as right wing, although those who say “fascist” might be a little bit harsh (and some critics have made those accusations).

Director Padilha previously made the documentary Bus 174 which depicted a real life bus hijacking; it is one of the most amazing documentaries of its kind. He clearly has the skills necessary to make a tense action thriller, and there are moments when he does just that. Unfortunately, for some odd reason he decided to insert an extensive narration by Moura as Nascimento that as the movie goes on becomes maddening and intrusive. While I don’t mind voiceover narration in and of itself, it is a tool that needs to be wielded as a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.

The action sequences are well-done and occasionally brutal, but necessarily so. The violence in the favelas (the slums of Rio) requires it. Some may find it excessive, but the subject matter should be warning enough that those who are of a sensitive nature should probably be wary of seeing it.

The acting is actually pretty fair here; nobody obviously overacts although Lago as a crazed druglord comes pretty close. I won’t make any bones about the violence, or the apparent worldview of the filmmakers which seems to be the end justifies the means and that those who live in slums deserve what they get. I also will give a cautionary note about the narration, which is definitely an issue. Other than that, this is a well-directed tense action film that has quite a bit going for it despite its flaws.

WHY RENT THIS: Gritty and street-wise, the movie is unstinting in the action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The voiceover narration is pervasive to the point of being annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty raw and the violence pretty pervasive. There’s also a great deal of drug use, so this is definitely for the big kids only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A pirated copy was released before the actual film made it in to theaters. It was the most-watched Brazilian film in Brazil that year with 2.4 million viewers, but there were also an estimated 11 million viewers of the pirated copy. Director Padilha recently completed a sequel.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Life As We Know It

City of God (Cidade de Deus)


City of God

Talk about reaching a dead end.

(Miramax) Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Jefechander Suplino, Alice Braga. Directed by Fernando Meirelles

When you think of Rio de Janeiro, perhaps you think of the impeccable beaches there, or the world-class nightlife, or the seductive music. Most folks don’t think of poverty and crime and yet Rio has plenty of both, also in world-class numbers.

One of the worst areas of Rio is known as Cidade de Deus or the City of God. It was created by the Brazilian government to move the very poor away from the center of the city, and then was basically abandoned by any form of authority, leaving the residents to fend for themselves. The slum, or favela became ruled by vicious gangs.

Rocket (Rodrigues) is a young man, son of a fisherman who yearns to get out of the slums and become a photographer. His brother, who runs in a gang called the Tender Trio, is later ambushed and murdered by a young boy named Lil Dice (Silva) who grows up to be called Lil Ze (Firmino). Ze’s bloodlust is nigh insatiable and he rises to the top of the gangs of Cidade de Deus by simply killing off all his rivals, or putting them to work for him. He is prone to fits of violence and when one of these rages leads to him taking out most of a family, their remaining son Knockout Ned (Jorge) declares war on Ze, aided by one of the few remaining rival gang leaders (Nachtergaele).

This is a vibrant movie in which the camera constantly moves and captures images of color and ferocity. The people of Cidade de Deus live in a warzone and accept that’s their lot in life. I’m sure that is not unlike the attitudes of the residents of Baghdad and Kabul.

Director Meirelles tells the story in a non-linear fashion, often taking tangents into the backstories of important categories, or revisiting events previously related to show them from another viewpoint and explain why characters aren’t reacting as you’d expect they would. It sounds like that would make things hard to follow, but in reality that’s not the case.

The performances of the mostly unknown cast are natural and unforced, resonating with a certain amount of realism. Their reactions may bother some viewers until you consider that these characters live with the kind of violence and degradation depicted here on a daily basis; this is nothing new for them, nothing to get worked up over. For them, it’s the equivalent of having to deal with a particularly annoying telephone solicitor.

There is a great deal of violence, but not more than you would find in a comparable Scorsese film. There are also moments of comedy that transcend the sheer misery of life in the favelas of Brazil. Some publications have called this one of the ten best movies ever made. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but this is certainly one of the more inventive and arresting movies made in the last decade. Although the characters themselves are fictional, the events depicted here are based on things that actually happened in Cidade de Deus in the 1960s and 1970s. The author of the novel the movie is based on lived there during that period and knew many of the combatants. That makes the movie all the more sobering.

WHY RENT THIS: Extraordinarily film of a place rarely captured on film; Mereilles brings the violence and amorality to life of a gang-run slum.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too real for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The filmmakers are matter-of-fact about drug use, violence and sexuality; they are intrinsically part of the story, and while not handled in an exploitative way, I would sincerely hesitate to let anyone other than the most mature of teens view this.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Nearly all of the actors had no previous experience and many of them lived in the actual Cidade de Deus itself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An hour-long featurette on the real drug war in Rio is included.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.6M on an estimated $3.3M production budget; the film was a smash hit.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Ladron Que Roba a Ladron