Film Reviews for 3-5-08

Mar 4, 2008 at 5:06 pm

‘City of Men’ shows Brazil in brutal, beautiful light
(Starring Douglas Silva, Darlan Cunha, Jonathan Haagensen, Rodrigo Dos Santos and Luciano Vidigal. Directed by Paulo Morelli. Rated R; 1:50. LEO Report Card: A-)

In so many ways, Brazil is the United States multiplied by a factor of 10. As bad as our economic disparities have become, Brazil has some of the widest gaps between rich and poor in the world (half of the population owns 90 percent of the wealth). We have Rodney King and South Central L.A., but they have running gun battles with the police and sprawling ghettos with millions of residents. Even their urban pollution is worse.
On the bright side? If the movies are to be believed, the average Brazilian is 10 times more beautiful than our supermodels, and their culture is every bit as rich as ours.

“City of Men” was produced by the team behind “City of God,” and both films are concerned with Brazil’s extremes. In this film, a stunningly beautiful cast of young, black men and women struggle with early adulthood. They’re not the glue-sniffing street children whose stories are often told, but they’re not much better off. Prisons and street violence have taken many of their fathers. Jobs in the city center take their mothers. They’ve raised each other, like a lot of children in America’s poorest neighborhoods.

Acerola (Douglas Silva) and Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha) are best friends from the Rio slums. Ace has a toddler, and as much as he complains about growing up fatherless, he’s not a very attentive parent. Laranjinha is obsessed with finding his father, but his mother never told him who he was and, in a city of millions, finding him seems impossible.

Further complicating things, a gang war is brewing. Although the boys try to steer clear of the gang that rules their neighborhood, it’s hard to not choose sides, especially when you’re related to the gang leader. Being a responsible man is tough when you have no father, an absent mother, no education and over-armed kid gangsters running through your streets, but Acerola and Laranjinha try.

“City of Men” is a spin-off of a television show of the same name, which was a huge success in Brazil. Both the show and the movie have parallels with American gangsta films, most notably “Boyz N the Hood.” Like that John Singleton movie, “City of Men” explains the social ills of the ghetto by providing a panoramic view of its economic infrastructure and culture. They don’t absolve the ghettos of responsibility, but they do explain to their viewers why things aren’t nearly so simple as picking oneself up by the bootstraps.  

But “City of Men” is more than sociology. Director Paulo Morelli and cinematographer Adriano Goldman capture the terraced hillside slums and sun-bleached beaches with a blazing poetry. Add to that some nuanced, heart-wrenching acting, and you have a hell of a film. In true Brazilian fashion, not only is “City of Men” brutal, it’s also beautiful. —Alan Abbott

‘Penelope’ a reduced-fat fairytale
(Starring Christina Ricci, Reese Witherspoon, James McAvoy and Catherine O’Hara. Directed by Mark Palansky. Rated PG; 1:30. LEO Report Card: C+)
“Penelope,” a pocket-sized guide to grrl power as a bloated feature-length movie, binges on life lessons but purges complexity. The fairytale, directed by Mark Palansky, has admirable intentions but places pure hearts in one-dimensional paper dolls masquerading as humans.

“Penelope” wears its earnestness like a Girl Scout badge. Simplicity can be a cinematic virtue, but the movie artificially sweetens its dramatic conflicts with too much sugar, spice and … you know.

The film’s namesake is a well-educated teenager, fluent in several languages, but her parents (shrieking mom Catherine O’ Hara and oblivious dad Richard E. Grant) hide her from public view. As portrayed by Christina Ricci (before her classic slice of sassy Memphis trash in “Black Snake Moan”), Penelope suffers from a generations-old family curse. She bears a pig’s snout. To lift the curse, she must marry a fellow blue-blood. But of course, every guy bolts when he sees her schnoz.

The movie fashions itself as a whimsical tale about the importance of self-realization —  a Disneyfied version of a chapter from “Reviving Ophelia.” But the film swerves between conflicted feelings toward marriage: Penelope seems solely interested in it to lift the curse, but she also longs to fall in the arms of a hunky degenerate gambler played by James McAvoy.

Eventually she runs away from home to gain her independence, covering her nose with a scarf from fear of rejection (but certainly not SARs). There are no wolves here, no dark forests  — this fairy tale is reduced-fat, with only a third of the typical caloric content. —Jamie Peters