Valentina


Mother and daughter share a smile.

(2020) Drama (CorriolaThiessa Woinbackk, Guta Stresser, Rômulo Braga, Ronaldo Bonafro, Maria De Maria, Pedro Diniz, Leticia Franco, João Gott, Paula Passos. Directed by Cássio Pereira dos Santos

As humans, we like to put people in boxes. It makes it easier for us to figure out who they are, I suppose. The boxes can be narrow or broad – from a teenage girl to a gaming nerd to a math geek. Or maybe all of the above. People, though, seldom stay in the boxes we put them in.

Valentina (Woinbackk) is your average teen girl in Brazil. She likes music, argues with her mom, can be temperamental and has a healthy dose of drama in her DNA. She also happens to be transgender.

She and her mom (Stresser) have moved from Sao Paolo to a small country town to get a new, fresh start. Victimized by bullies at her own school, she is eager to enroll in school under her new identity. The problem is that the school won’t let her do that without the signature of both parents, including her father (Braga) who is no longer with her mom and who has had a hard time adjusting to the change that Valentina has undertaken.

At school, she is wary about telling anyone her secret, not wishing to be victimized again. She does start making friends but elects not to tell them that she wasn’t born a girl. However, complications begin to ensue when she is groped by a young man who works in the butcher shop who was, up to then, sweet on her. He in turn tells her bigoted brother who wants Valentina to be thrown out of school and is willing to go to extremes to see that it happens, including rallying the other parents in school to sign a petition. However, nothing is going to keep Valentina down – especially after her father turns up in her corner.

Woinbackk is a trans activist and popular YouTube personality in her native Brazil, and she has loads of screen presence; she has the ability to become a big star down the line with the right roles. One wonders how much of Valentina’s story is her story; I assume that she had her share of resistance to her decision to make the change. Woinbackk, if you get a chance to see her videos, has a forceful personality and it’s easy to see where Valentina got that aspect of her personality from.

In fact, one of the things I admire the most about the film is how Valentina is portrayed not as a transgender first and a girl second, but as a girl who just happens to be transgender. We get to meet the person, not a stereotype. Valentina could be any teen girl you meet in your own hometown – and there are probably several just like her that you don’t know about, who have elected as she did not to tell anyone for fear of persecution. One wonders why adults feel the need to terrorize a teenage girl, but that isn’t an unusual situation, in Brazil or the United States, sadly.

There are some elements of the movie that don’t work, unfortunately; at times the action becomes overly dramatic to the point where it feels more like a soap opera. The classroom confrontation at the end of the movie between Valentina and the bigot feels extremely contrived, and while it does hit the right feels, it never rings true.

That’s a shame because other than that this is a marvelous first feature for Pereira dos Santos, and an impressive acting debut for Woinbackk. A terrific character was created here, a true role model who isn’t perfect (Valentina can be a little hotheaded, and she has a tendency to not give her trust easily) but is still someone to admire. This is out on the festival circuit for now; hopefully one of the indie distributors that features LGBTQ films, or a cable/streaming service that serves that community will pick up this fine film.

REASONS TO SEE: Valentina is portrayed not so much as a trans girl, but as a girl who is transgender (a crucial difference).
REASONS TO AVOID: Has an occasional tendency to go the soap opera route.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: 82% of all Brazilian trans boys and girls drop out of school due mainly to bullying.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Fantastic Woman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
5 Years Apart

Shine Your Eyes (Cidade Pássaro)


Sao Paolo – a white person’s city?

(2020) Drama (NetflixO.C. Ukeje, Chukwudi Iwujie, Indira Nascimento, Paulo André, Ike Barry, Yasmin Thin Qi. Directed by Matias Mariani

 

Some movies are more densely packed than others. This Netflix excursion tackles familial responsibilities, tribal myths, quantum physics (!), alternate realities, reincarnation, missing persons, Nigerian music, mental illness and the immigrant experience. This isn’t a film for the faint of heart.

Amadi (Ukeje), a Nigerian musician who was raised a part of the Igbo people, has journeyed across the Atlantic to Sao Paolo, Brazil’s most populous city, to find his older brother Ikenna (Iwuji). Ikenna, his mother’s favorite, is by all accounts a brilliant man and was pursuing a career in academics, a math professor at a technical university in the Brazilian city.

Except that the university he purports to teach at doesn’t exist, and while Amadi gets tempting glances of his brother from time to time (so he knows he is at least in the city), for all intents and purposes Ikenna has fallen off the map. In a city roughly the size of New York, finding one person who may not necessarily want to be found is not only nearly impossible but almost fiendishly cruel, but Amadi feels that this is how he wins the love and respect of his mother, who clearly prefers Ikenna, who has largely forsaken his family.

As Amadi delves deeper into the mystery, utilizing clues that might have stumped Sherlock Holmes, we discover that while not employed as a math professor per se, Ikenna was working on a physics issue that could revolutionize how we perceive reality – assuming that the Universe isn’t just a hologram, which is what Ikenna has come to believe.

The search for a missing person concept is a very cinematic one; it can be both thriller and character study. Through the search for the missing, we get to know them in ways we might not ever have had we just spoken to them. In this case, it’s doubly true; everything that Ikenna told his family back home is a lie, but everything he tells his friends in Brazil is also a lie. We begin to suspect that Ikenna is not the genius everyone thinks he is, but a con man who is playing both sides of the fence. Then again, he might have discovered a way to bridge two alternate realities (and maybe more); ot, he could be losing his mind.

We also get a sense of the exclusionary feelings that an immigrant feels in a city they don’t know and perhaps don’t understand. At one point (in fact, in the very scene depicted in the picture above), Amadi’s uncle (Igujie) refers to Sao Paolo as “a white person’s city” which may come to a shock to Americans who look as Brazilians as brown. Again, perceptions can differ depending on where you come from.

The visuals here are stimulating, from the cityscape of Sao Paolo with its sea of high rises, to the quantum representations of the mathematics that Ikenna was working on. It can be a hard slog at times – I don’t begin to pretend I understand game theory and quantum mathematics but at least I don’t feel talked down to.

A fellow critic compared this to the work of Darren Aronofsky and in some ways, that’s correct in that Aronofsky has a tendency to burn rubber where angels fear to tread. This is not a movie you can put on as background noise. It demands attention and focus and a willingness to let it transport you places you never thought you’d go. I like that despite all the fairly lofty ideas being bandied about here, I never felt talked down to and I never felt that I was drowning in concepts that were so far over my head that they aren’t even in the same solar system.

=That said, this isn’t going to be a movie everyone is going to want or even need to see. There are those who are absolutely opposed to movies that make you think, and would prefer movies that appeal to the emotional aspect of our humanity. While there are some scenes that are emotional in nature here, this is very much an intellectual film and those looking for light entertainment or mindless fun need to keep on scrolling past this in the Netflix menu. Those who appreciate a good intellectual challenge, however, can rejoice.

REASONS TO SEE: Ukeje has star potential. Glossy cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the mathematics content is a bit esoteric.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes, while not offensive, certainly are geared towards adults; kids will likely not have the patience for this.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film has seven credited writers including Mariani; the others contributed expertise in mathematics, quantum theory, Igbo culture, and other aspects of the film; although these experts wrote no dialogue nor story, Mariani felt that they deserved credit and so all were given co-writing screen mentions.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100’% positive reviews, Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Billie

My Hindu Friend (Meu Amigo Hindu)


Doing a rain dance.

(2015) Drama (Rock SaltWillem Dafoe, Maria Fernanda Candido, Reynaldo Gianecchini, Bárbara Paz, Selton Mello, Guilherme Weber, Dan Stulbach, Gilda Nomacce, Tuna Dwek, Tania Khalill, Maité Proença, Dalton Vigh, Supla, Ary Fontoura, Rio Adlakha, Barry Baker, Juan Alba, Lilian Blanc, Jason Bermingham, Roney Facchini, Helena Cerello, Ondina Clais, Christine Fernandes. Directed by Hector Babenco

 

Death comes for us all, but it comes in different forms; a sudden, violent end a gentle slippage into eternal sleep, or a protracted, painful illness. Whether ready or not, we all die.

Diego Fairman (Dafoe) is a famous film director but neither his riches or his fame can rescue him from the inevitable; he has cancer, an aggressive and life-threatening sort. He needs a bone marrow transplant if he is to survive, but the operation itself might kill him. His girlfriend/partner Livia (Candido) responds with supportive words “You know that if it were a choice between you dying and me dying, I’d choose me” to which Diego agrees that he wishes it were her dying. He’s lashing out, of course but even so that had to hurt, but still she agrees to marry him.

Following the ceremony, he is whisked to New York for the painful and debilitating process that will either save his life or end it. While in the hospital, he’s visited by a mysterious stranger (Mello) who has come to collect him to take him to the other side. “But I’m not ready to go,” Diego protests. The man shrugs. “That’s what they all say,” he says in a plainly irritated voice. The stranger comes night after night, sitting down to play chess with Diego in a nice little nod to Berman.

While undergoing chemotherapy, Diego meets a young Indian boy (Adlakha) whom he befriends, using his imagination to tell stories to keep the frightened little boy from being too afraid of the terrible suffering he is undergoing. Diego wants to make one more movie and his new friend might just give him the strength to go out and make it.

The movie was actually made in 2015 by Brazilian legend Hector (Kiss of the Spider Woman) Babenco, the first Latin American director to be nominated for a Best Directing Oscar. It is largely based on his own experiences battling the cancer that would eventually kiss him in 2016 (his death would keep the film from American distribution until earlier this year).

This is not just a downbeat film about the indignity of dying – yes, the horrible painful indignities visited upon cancer patients are presented matter-of-factly, as are Diego’s estrangement from his brother who is now charged with keeping Diego alive with a donation of bone marrow – but also a loving tribute to the movies that Babenco loves and kept him going in dark times. At one point, Diego breaks into a song – “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” to be exact – pulling out his breathing apparatus, but his fantasy overlaps into the real world as nurses frantically sedate him before he inadvertently kills himself.

Like most Brazilian films, there is a sensuality that is going to surprise American audiences not used to such things. It manifests in a joyous dance routine that closes out the movie set to the standard “Singing in the Rain.” It also manifests in a scene in which Diego, long too sick for sex, rediscovers his physical sexuality once again in one of the film’s more affecting moments.

The film was originally written in Portuguese but was switched to English to accommodate Dafoe (more on him in a moment). The result is that some of the Brazilian actors are a bit stiff and stilted in their dialogue and it is kind of strange to hear all the supposedly American doctors and nurses speaking with Portuguese accents.

But it might have well been worth it to get Dafoe, one of the best actors of his generation. He is downright skeletal as the ill Diego, his head shaved from the chemo and radiation therapies, looking very much like a man who is inching closer to death. He still, even in his debilitated state, have the ability to roar at the cosmos over the injustice of it all and Dafoe makes it feel organic.

The movie is a bit of a mixed bag and sometimes all the parts don’t mesh as well as I would like, but that’s me. The fantasy sequences work really well, but the “real” sequences of the cancer treatment are also compelling in their own way. The movie does end up on a high note, even though it is tempered with the thought that one of the great directors was making his last film. As swan songs go, this one is a pretty satisfying way to say goodbye.

REASONS TO SEE: Rather imaginative and somewhat surreal. Keeps the interest despite a two-hour running time.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little self-indulgent.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, some drug use, and plenty of sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was based on the experiences of Babenco as he battled cancer and the characters are based on his own family and friends; this would turn out to be his final film as he passed away a year after the movie was released in Brazil.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, FlixFling, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seventh Seal
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
A 12-year Night

Bacurau


A town like no other.

(2019) Action (Kino LorberBárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Thardelly Lima, Rubens Santos, Wilson Rabelo, Carlos Francisco, Luciana Souza, Karine Teles, Antonio Saboia, Sônia Braga, Udo Kier, Buda Lira, Clebia Sousa, Danny Barbosa, Edison Silva, Eduarda Samara, Fabiola Liper, Ingrid Trigueiro, Jamila Facury, Jr. Black, Suzy Lopes. Directed by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho

 

In the northeast corner of Brazil is the sertão, the Brazilian version of the Australian outback. It’s a region rarely seen in Brazilian cinema which tends to focus more on urban wildernesses, with an occasional detour into Amazonian rain forests. There are plenty of interesting stories to be had in the sertão as well.

In this bone-dry dusty environment lies the small village of Bacurau. Taking place a few years from now, the town has recently been squabbling with local authorities which have dammed up their water supply, forcing them to have water delivered in tanker trucks. It is in one of these that Teresa (Colen) rides into town for her grandmother’s funeral.

At the funeral, the town doctor Domingas (Braga) goes on a drunken rant berating Teresa’s grandma, but like many of the townspeople she’s on edge; in addition to water being cut off, their cell service has ceased. Soon, they also notice that the town can no longer be found on GPS maps. Then, there are sightings of mysterious UFOs and an entire family turns up massacred. Strange visitors show up from the city to go dirt biking in the wilderness. And who are those strangers in the hunting lodge outside of town?

Things are about to get ugly in Bacurau, and they call on outlaw Lunga (Pereira) to help defend the town. The strangers, white tourists from America and the UK, are planning on hunting the most dangerous game and Bacurau – sold out by their mayor Tony Junior (Lima) who despises the town anyway – is their game preserve.

The look and feel of the film owe a lot to John Carpenter and more to the point, Sergio Leone. You could well call this Once Upon a Time in Brazil. Although the score is more electronic in nature, you can almost hear the strains of Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack.

This is a glorious mash-up of a variety of styles and there is a charmingly offbeat feel to the movie. Bacurau is full of real characters but none really so off-kilter as to undermine the film. This is definitely an ensemble piece because although they seem to be setting up Teresa as the central character, she isn’t really the lead. Equal time is given to reformed outlaw Pacote (Aquino), Lunga, Domingas and a few others. It does take a little while to get going but once it does, it’s absolutely mind-blowing.

Ostensibly set “a few years from now,” the movie is very much an allegory on modern Brazil and definitely a hate letter to ruler Jair Bolsonaro and as much so for foreign corporate interests who come in, utilize the country’s vast natural resources and leave nothing for those who live there.

But this isn’t just social commentary. This is also satisfyingly entertaining, even at times, zany. You can’t help but root for the citizens of Bacurau just as you can’t help but enjoy this fun – with a message – flick.

PLEASE NOTE: This film will be available on Enzian On-Demand starting today. A portion of the online streaming rental will go to the Enzian. Members should definitely take advantage of this; see a great film at home and benefit our beloved Enzian. Go to this page for more information on EOD, or here to stream the film and benefit the Enzian.

REASONS TO SEE: Off-beat in a good way. Has a charmingly retro feel to it.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a little while to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of violence, profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school depicted in the film carries the Portuguese name for John Carpenter, who is an idol of both directors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: 80/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The collected works of Sergio Leone.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
An Irish Story: This is My Home

Pacified (Pacificado)


You have to grow up fast in the favelas.

(2019) Drama (ReAgent MediaBukassa Kabengele, Cassia Gil, Débora Nascimento, Léa Garcia, Raphael Logan, Jefferson Brasil, Rayane Santos, José Loreto, Thiago Thomé, Shirley Cruz, Rod Carvalho, Murilo Sampaio, Mariana Lewis. Directed by Paxton Winters

The favelas of Rio de Janeiro have long been the home of the working and poor classes of the city and as such a breeding ground for crime. They have also been a fertile location for some of the best films to come out of Brazil over the years.

Prior to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, the Brazilian government decided to crack down on the favelas, making sure that the image of the city wasn’t tarnished. Several of the more notorious crime bosses were rounded up and tossed into jail. Among them is Jaca (Kabengele) who is released just after the closing ceremonies of the Games. He receives a hero’s welcome in the favela for as the boss there he took care of the residents and was their arbiter and go-to guy when they needed help, since nobody else gave a toss about them.

Jaca, however, doesn’t want to resume his old life. He knows that his reappearance has made the man who took over for him after he went to prison, Nelson (Loreto), somewhat nervous. He reassures Nelson that he, Jaca, has no interest in resuming his former life and that Nelson will remain in charge. Nelson, though, isn’t buying it.

What Jaca really wants to do is open up a pizzeria, something that Nelson finds amusing. However, Jaca’s former partner (and brother) Dudu (Logan) isn’t laughing. Dudu is eager to have the position of power and prestige he enjoyed when he was Jaca’s good right hand. Jaca’s wife Andrea (Nascimento) has become a drug addict and sells stuff to get buy, although now that Jaca is out, nobody wants to sell to her anymore for fear of being in Jaca’s crosshairs.

Then there’s Tati (Gil), his 13-year-old daughter who longs to emerge from the shadow of her parents and spread her own wings. However, the cops don’t believe that Jaca has gone straight, neither does Nelson and things are going to blow as soon as the pacification project is discontinued – which will be soon.

=Winters gives us some rich characterizations; most of the main cast are well-drawn and come off as three-dimensional people rather than one-dimensional clichés. Kabengele has a quiet intensity that makes him perfect for the role of Jaca, while Gil expresses a wisdom beyond her years, born of a harsh life in the favela. As for Nascimento, she just might be the most beautiful woman on Earth right now; but she is also an exceptional actress, giving what could have been an unsympathetic role a kind of dignity and pathos.

The camera is always moving in the film, sometimes to the point of vertigo-inducing. Strangely, the pace of the film doesn’t match the kinetic movement of the camera, giving the movie a kind of dichotomy of speed. It is a little bit off-putting.

Still, this is a solid tale of life in the favelas blending a kind of 1930s Warner Brothers gangster aesthetic with gritty modern urbanism. It’s a heady combination that, with a little judicious editing, might have been one of the cinematic highlights of the year.

REASONS TO SEE: Kinetic camera work.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-paced despite the above.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winters is an American director working for the first time in Brazil with a Brazilian cast and crew.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: City of God
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Dog Doc

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

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