Hey folks, Harry here with the tongue wagging Estella Warren addict, Mr Beaks... I just can't believe he has it this bad. Listen... Estella, if you're out there... Drop Mr. Beaks a letter and give him a date. He's Prime Grade A Angus Beef marinating in his own juices awaiting you! And look, he can act real civilized when talking about great cinema as evidenced by this CITY OF GOD review! What else do you want in a man? Oh... Well, surgery can help him with that baby! Here's Mr Beaks...
CITY OF GOD (d. Fernando Meirelles & Katia Lund, w. Braulio Mantovani)
After months of hype stemming from a torrid trail blazed across the worldwide film festival circuit (from Cannes to Toronto to AFI), CITY OF GOD (CIDADE DE DEUS) is finally making its U.S. commercial debut, and it’s exhilarating; a visually resplendent piece of pulp filmmaking that is an absolute must-see for anyone who cares about cinema. Spanning three destitute decades in the favela of the title – Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious slum – Fernando Meirelles’s audacious collision of formalist narrative technique and neo-realist aesthetic (making use of primarily non-professional actors) manages the impressive feat of entertainingly depicting a seductive criminal lifestyle without glamorizing it in the least. Nominated as Brazil’s candidate for Best Foreign Film of 2002, the only worry is that CITY OF GOD might be *too* good to win an Oscar.
Adapted from a massive, painstakingly researched work of fiction by author Paulo Lins (the book runs close to 700 pages), Meirelles and his screenwriter, Braulio Mantovani, have pared down characters and incidents to focus mostly on the divergent paths of two youths – Rocket and Lil’ Dice – as they struggle through the abject poverty into which they’ve been born. There are two avenues of improvement available to them: the sucker’s life, that of the honest man who earns little and likely goes nowhere, or the dealer’s life, a dangerous existence with an irresistible potential for power and relative riches. Rocket, our guide through this precarious universe, hews mostly to the straight and narrow, a choice he makes early on in childhood when he distances himself from the rogue lifestyle of his older brother, a marauding member of a band of petty criminals known as the Tender Trio. Lil’ Dice, on the other hand, would like nothing better than to emulate his brother Shaggy, who leads the Tender Trio, but he’s even more ambitious, suggesting that they raid a nearby brothel; a scheme that ends bloodily when Dice gets bored with serving merely as lookout for the older boys, and guns down a handful of helpless employees and customers in cold blood. At this point, Dice’s path is set; he welcomes this amoral lifestyle like a boy at the controls of a giant electric train set. For him, crime isn’t just a necessity, it’s a divine calling.
Rocket’s journey, however, is far from fixed; and, as we skip into the 1970’s, we find him kicking around with a colorful group of fun loving teenagers known as the Groovies, who spend most of their time hanging out on the beach getting stoned. They’re a peaceful, hippie-ish lot that seem largely to avoid the criminal element, save for when its time to hit up the local pusher. It’s during such an errand that Rocket once again crosses paths with the newly christened Lil’ Ze (“Dice” having, apparently, a too childish connotation), who is brashly seeking to carve out his own territory in the City of God selling both weed and the more addictive (i.e. lucrative) cocaine. Rocket’s primary indulgences, however, are photography and Angelica, an attractive female member of their clique not at all opposed to a frivolous bout of sex, but his prolonged flirtation is eventually undone by Ze’s faithful, lifelong lieutenant, Benny, a charming, slightly less wicked sort who tires of the violent lifestyle and transforms himself into a Groovie; thus, drawing the attention and eventual affection of Rocket’s beloved Angelica. But his absence in Ze’s life serves to imbalance the burgeoning crime lord, leading to a tragedy that will eventually play a crucial role in Rocket’s ultimate aspiration to leave the City of God.
One of the many impressive achievements with this film is the seamless way Meirelles interweaves his episodic narrative. As described above, and considering the huge cast, one expects a periodic sense of clutter or confusion, but this never happens. Meirelles is too nimble a guide, advancing the story with striking visual cues and an unobtrusive narration that conveys cleanly and economically a great deal of crucial information ala GOODFELLAS. And there are so many clever passages, like the history of an apartment condensed into one digitally manipulated shot, or Rocket’s half-hearted attempt at the criminal life that shows him looking for that unattainable “victimless” crime. That there doesn’t seem a forced moment or a self-conscious shot in the entire film is a tribute to Meirelles’s compassion for the material and the plight of those trapped in the unremitting squalor of the favelas.
And it may very well be unthinkable for Meirelles to have pulled off this startling achievement without the assistance of his co-director, Katia Lund, whose immersion within the favelas has yielded an acclaimed documentary, NEWS FROM A PRIVATE WAR, as well as the striking short film, “Golden Gate” (where she was assisted by Meirelles), from which is borrowed the wrenching moment where Lil’ Ze asks two youthful, mortified, positively baby-faced delinquents whether they’d like to be shot in the hand or the foot. (I saw “Golden Gate” at the 2001 New York Film Festival, and it has lingered in my mind ever since. Though I am sure it is not Meirelles’s intent to overshadow Lund’s contributions, I’m surprised at the lack of recognition she has received in most reviews.)
Ultimately, CITY OF GOD is unforgettable precisely because it never allows its high style – split-screens, bullet-cam and all – to overshadow its very real characters, so that we find ourselves wondering insistently what it takes for one of these kids to make it out of this seedy, sweltering hell. Meirelles and company never once claim to have any substantive answers; they just give us the odds. In one brilliantly executed final shot, Rocket, having witnessed a daylong series of violence, mayhem and atrocities, walks out of the ghetto with a roll full of film that will bring him acclaim and success as a photojournalist, while a group of adolescents pass by, walking cheerfully back into the decrepit urban jungle. Ten to one. Luck.
Faithfully sub— oh, hell, let’s get this shit out of the way…..
KANGAROO JACK (d. Dave McNally, w. Steve Bing & Scott Rosenberg)
Honestly, what can you ask from a film that started life as an adult-themed caper film, Estella Warren skinny dipping scene and all, only to end up as a flatulence-filled kiddie film *without* Estella Warren skinny dipping? It’s simple, really. Who has the skinny-dipping footage, and when are y’all bringing it over to my house?