Thursday, April 19, 2012

Flick of The Day: City of God / Cidade de Deus

It's hard to believe but it is ten years since Fernando Meirelles tale of the effects of crime on the inner city slums of Rio de Janeiro burst onto our cinema screens. Epic in structure, it is a landmark film of modern Brazilian cinema and was a big hit in its day, leading many cinema critics Top 10 lists for the year and garnering 4 Oscar nominations.
Narrated by Rocket played by Alexandre Rodrigues among a cast of relatively unknown Brazilian players, the film opens with Rocket as a gifted amateur photographer caught literally in the middle of the war zone between the gang led by local drug lord Lil Ze and the corrupt police who watch over the slums. As this showdown takes place, Rocket thinks back to how the current gang war started and how the slums were initially built way back in the 1960's. In a narrative which jumps back and forth across two decades of Rio street history, Rocket tells the various stories of his home town from the original gangsters called the Tender Trio on account of their wish to avoid conflict to the rise of Lil Ze and his partner Bene while completing an overarching narrative of Rocket's own attempts to survive and escape the slums in pursuit of his dreams of being a photographer.
While often bleak in its view of the violence and corruption which blights the lives of the citizens of the city of god, the film pulses with the vibrancy of the city. It jumps out at you from the beginning and never lets up displaying all of the hyperactivity of early Tarantino with a soulfulness and sense of humour all of its own. It never seeks to glorify the actions of these hoods, seeing as they are based on actual events and is all the better for it. It gives the film an almost documentary feel despite the frenetic speed of things.
Utilising a cast of largely non-professional actors from the city of god slum adds even more to the sense of realism which pervades throughout. All of this realism could make for a depressing film without a moral core and this core is Rocket. He quickly realises that he is not cut out for life as a hoodlum and is the character which holds the centre ground when compared to the terrifying psychotic that is Lil Ze. Rocket documents the rise and fall of Lil Dice who grew up into Lil Ze and is the main focus of the narrative. Both the younger version played by Douglas Silva and the fully grown version played by Leandro Firmino da Hora are scary from the get go and dominate the screen.
All in all, this is a powerful film even today and if you haven't seen it you are missing out. A great cast of unknowns combined with an epic tale of the effects of crime on a neighbourhood and its denizens make for gripping viewing.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Flick of The Day: Walk the Line

Musical biographies are a tricky business at the best of times. Focus too much on the mythology of your average rock star and you end up with something endlessly turgid like Oliver Stone's The Doors and even when you are possessed with a good script, the film can hang solely on the performance of your leading actor. If he or she fails to capture the essence of a much loved loved star then the backlash can leave your film stillborn. Perhaps this is the reason for Martin Scorsese's long gestating Sinatra biopic failing to make it to the big screen as of yet. In any case, in terms of capturing a man and his career albeit only in snapshots then few have come close to 2005's Walk the Line which tells the life of country music legend Johnny Cash.
Opening with Cash, played by Joaquin Phoenix, at the height of his fame and preparing to take the stage for his seminal Folsom Prison concert, we are soon in flashback mode for the rest of the film. We see Cash as a poverty stricken child toiling with his older brother in the fields under the eyes of their stern father, played by a man who has built a second career playing stern characters, Robert Patrick. Perhaps the defining event of his childhood is the death of his brother in a farm accident which his father blames him for. So far, so ho-hum and it is only when Phoenix arrives and screen that the film gets going. His taciturn take on Cash is spellbinding and holds the screen for the remainder of the film. Director James Mangold chooses to focus on Cash's rapid rise in the American country scene from recording for Sun Records to meeting Bob Dylan while chronicling his long term pursuit of his soul mate June Carter. Carter is given a witty souther charm by Reese Witherspoon and the chemistry with Phoenix works well. Both actors give all their own musical performances and the film is all the better for it.
Based on Cash's own autobiographies, the film doesn't shy away from portraying Cash as the flawed individual he was particularly focusing on the lost years of drug abuse and his poor treatment of his first wife. For all this, Joaquin Phoenix gives a measured and charismatic performance as Cash. He is perhaps the coolest character ever to populate the country music genre and consequently his fame transcends this.

Johnny Cash: [playing for the inmates at Folsom prison] Once in El Paso, I had this bag of... Oh... you heard about that? You been in El Paso, too? Well, anyways, I felt tough, you know?. Like I'd seen a thing or two, you know? Well, that was till a moment ago... 'cuz I got to tell you, my hat's off to you now, 'cuz I ain't never had to drink this yellow water you got here at Folsom!
Perhaps the strongest suit of the film is the decision to focus only on a small part of Cash's life concluding with the Folsom concert in 1968, something which really brought Cash to the mainstream. Taking on too much can lead to an over-long and under-detailed mess.
So that's that really, this is a well made biopic of a musical icon with a decent if not too cluttered script and fine performances from the leads. You don't have to be a lover of Cash's music to enjoy the film because there is much here to enjoy for the beginner. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon would go on to Oscar nominations for their performances with Witherspoon carrying home the gong.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Flick of The Day: Hugo

Hollywood's current obsession with 3D is yet another gimmick to extract more funds from the wallet of the average movie-goer. Once can only hope that this trend will run its course.  Very often it is used as a substitute for good storytelling and it is a pleasure then to report that Martin Scorsese's smart use of the medium in his recent Oscar nominee, Hugo, never detracts from the story and doesn't feel shoehorned in as it has on so many recent pictures. One could be forgiven for thinking that the director of Goodfellas and Casino would not be an obvious choice to direct a children's tale set in a Paris train station in the 1920's, however the fact that the film is a triumph on all fronts highlights once again that Scorsese is a master filmmaker regardless of genre.
The precocious Asa Butterfield plays Paris orphan Hugo Cabret, who after the tragic death of his father (A surprisingly non-irritating Jude Law)  is sent to live with his drunken Uncle Claude played by Ray Winstone who looks after the winding of the clocks in the mammoth Montparnasse station. After his Uncle's disappearance, Hugo maintains the clocks and roams the station while avoiding the watchful eye of the station's police officer played by Sacha Baron Cohen and also attempting to steal clockwork parts from the toy store of Georges Melies, played by a brilliantly cranky Ben Kingsley. Hugo needs the spare parts to fix a clockwork automaton which his father had been attempting to fix at the time of his death. Unfortunately Georges catches Hugo in the act and threatens to turn him over the police however Georges run in with Hugo leads the latter to form a friendship with Georges granddaughter Isabelle played by Chloe Grace Moretz and together they try and fix the automaton while also discovering the mysteries of Georges past.
This is a film with a big heart and a grand sweeping tale of the birth of cinema. Scorsese has always had a fine eye for detail and in his reconstruction of 1920's Paris, he is meticulous. It is a feast for the visual senses as much as anything else. The intricate clock work that hides behind the grand fa├žade of the station is stunningly rendered while the imagery of the early pioneers of cinema is a reminder that this can be a whimsical and colourful art, something which can be forgotten in the race for the next big blockbuster franchise.

"Maybe that's why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn't able to do what it was meant to do... Maybe it's the same with people. If you lose your purpose... it's like you're broken. "

The real emotional heart of the film is the tale of loss which binds the characters together. Hugo has lost his father and any hope of a normal childhood, Georges has lost his purpose in life and his achievements as a director have been forgotten while Isabelle has also lost her parents and even the police officer pines for the leg he lost in the war. It is this loss which drives them and the plot forward to its conclusion and along the way allows Scorsese to indulge in recreating some of the most well known imagery of the early days of cinema. In a sense, he tries to capture the magic that makes cinema that most accessible of art forms.
He is aided in this effort by a really stellar cast. When an actor of the calibre of Christopher Lee appears in a tiny role as book seller and is joined along the way by the immortal Richard Griffiths then you know you are in for a fine film. It is these small ancillary tales of life in the station that keep things moving along: Griffiths attempts to woo a fellow Parisian despite the murderous intent of her little dog and the budding romance between Baron-Cohen's policeman and Emily Mortimer's flower seller are highlights.

This praise is without even getting to the main characters of which Ben Kingsley gives a typically measured performance as Georges, a man deeply embittered by his personal failures much to the dismay of his wife. The child actors Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz manage that almost impossible task of giving both a fine performance and also not treading too far into the land of saccharine.
All in all, this is a really lovely film and manages to hold its own amongst some of Scorsese's best work in terms of its visual sweep and the warmth of its storytelling. It makes uses of 3D without using it as a crutch and saints be praised relies on actors acting and speaking dialogue and other unfashionable things to tell its tale. A triumph.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Flick of The Day: El Bonaerense / Buenos Aires

A couple of weeks back we reviewed the most recent film from Argentine director Pablo Trapero, Carancho a journey to the dark side of modern Buenos Aires. Today's flick of the day is another Trapero film, 2002's El Bonaerense. A critical hit on its release, it is a grim look at police corruption through the eyes of a young recruit to the Buenos Aires police force.
Zapa, played with a taciturn air of solitude by Jorge Roman, is a locksmith in a sleepy rural town in Argentina. One day he is sent by his boss Polaco to open a safe that has become jammed. An unsuspecting Zapa quickly has his quiet existence turned upside down when it turns out his boss has set him up for a robbery and he is soon behind bars. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your point of view, Zapa's uncle is an ex-cop and he manages to extricate him from his troubles and send the clueless young man on a bus to Buenos Aires and ultimately a place at the Police training school. As Zapa gradually finds his feet in the big city, he begins an affair with one of his training officers and is gradually pulled into the system of corruption which keeps the system going. Along the way he loses his country boy innocence and becomes the protege of a senior officer named Gallo, played with menace by a strong Dario Levy, before a final confrontation with the man who threw his life this curve ball, Polaco.
The men and women in blue who police the streets of Buenos Aires as depicted in this film are unrecognisable from the typical image of an upright cop on patrol. There is nobody with a stern outlook and a strong moral outlook. This is an entrepreneurial activity. Traffic stops lead inevitably to bribery, a refusal to bow their will leads to violence and simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time can get you killed. They drink, they fight and argue and possess an almost fetishistic obsession with firearms. In short, this city is not for the faint of heart.
Zapa begins the film as a man so naive that he never once questions the possibility that these nice men he is opening the safe for could possibly be up to anything wrong. Yet over the course of the film, he becomes gradually drawn into the underbelly of the city and by the end is almost world weary and no longer the naive rookie he once was. Jorge Ramon's performance remains pleasingly quiet  and understated throughout. He very much carries the film and is perhaps the only moral touchstone in a sea of inequity.
All in all, this is a tense and engaging look at the modern Buenos Aires, post the economic crises of the 1990's. While it takes a grim view of the city, it is atmospheric throughout and to me at least captures a city on the edge but brimming with rhythm, crime, sex, death and life. It is well worth a look.

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