DVD Traffic Report: April 8, 2008

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Manda Bala: Send a Bullet (City Lights Video)

First-time filmmaker Jason Kohn’s documentary about life amidst the violence, poverty, and pervasive corruption of urban Brazil is frighteningly easy to watch — he shot on 16mm film using anamorphic lenses that stretch the image to an eye-popping ratio somewhere to the wide side of Cinemascope, and cinematographer Heloísa Passos ably captures a range of images that include the unfortunate amphibians inhabiting an overstuffed frog farm, the drably colorful favelas of Säo Paolo, and the too-colorful cosmetic-surgery procedure that’s put to use in oder to replace the ears torn from kidnap victims by their abductors. Set largely to the urgent, jazzy stylings of tropicalia music from artists including Tom Zé and Gilberto Gil, Kohn’s vignettes eventually cohere in a patchwork portrait of a country under siege by the twin threats of violent crime and the shenanigans of corrupt politicians whose money-laundering schemes fuel the kind of economic disparity that creates lower-class desperados. There’s something to be said for chutzpah, and you can’t accuse Kohn of laziness — the film includes a low-key confrontation with Jader Barbalho, the villain of the piece, and a nervy interview with one of the masked gunmen who makes a living dealing drugs and snatching members of the upper classes, securing their (mostly) safe return in exchange for money he claims to re-invest in his community. Kohn has been criticized for a certain sensationalism in his approach, and it’s true that Manda Bala is a nonfiction film with the sensibility of pulp fiction. (Its gangster-movie tone actually reminded me a bit of the similarly in-your-face City of God.) But Kohn doesn’t claim that he’s trying to change the world. This is more of an essay film — a colorful, eyes-wide-open trip through the cities and slums of Brazil with a gutsy young filmmaker who’s poking around to find ways to illustrate the connections between crooked politics and systemic violence. The ride more than repays the time you put into it — but it’s an ultimately pessimistic trip that’s unlikely to make you feel any better about the wide world outside.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Manda Bala

480_twbb.jpgThere Will Be Blood (Paramount)

The movie that finally turned me into a P.T. Anderson fan is even better on a second viewing, and if the inevitable high-definition home-video version hadn’t fallen through the cracks created by the implosion of HD DVD, I’d be ready for a third go-round, like, tonight. Home video isn’t the perfect environment for the fiery visuals of this grim descent, spectacularly photographed in widescreen by Robert Elswit. It may, however, be a good place to appreciate the score by Jonny Greenwood; it sounds radical enough as film music to make me frustrated by the moribund, this-is-how-we-feel-now style of too many composers, who labor in the long shadow of movie-music kingpin Johnny Williams and his work on behalf of the Lucas-Spielberg syndicate. (Not to knock John Williams, who has done some pretty solid work, but his success in a very familiar, “neo-romantic” mode has established a kind of hegemony in mainstream movies.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: There Will Be Blood or There Will Be Blood (Two-Disc Special Collector’s Edition)


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P2 (Summit)

At a time when sophisticated directors like Neil Jordan and Sidney Lumet are

making lowbrow genre fare with highbrow aspirations, it’s sort of

refreshing to see a low-budget thriller that’s as completely free of

pretensions as P2.

The title refers to a parking-garage level beneath a Manhattan office

building where Angela (Rachel Nichols) is working late on Christmas

Eve. Instead of going home for the holiday, she spends the night trying

to escape from psychopathic security worker Thomas (Wes Bentley), who

kidnaps her for a perverse Christmas dinner. The film effectively

skewers a type of misogyny that masquerades as chivalry — Thomas complains about other

men who don’t treat Angela with respect while he keeps her handcuffed

in the passenger seat of his car — but otherwise hasn’t got much on its

mind. The performances are decent and the script is OK, but there’s no

real spark to the material — several scenes hew so closely to formula

that you can imagine how they’ll turn out before they’ve even begun. It

only roars to life intermittently, especially in three impressively

staged explosions of gore. The rest of the time, it aims low and hits

the mark. (A version of this review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: P2 (Widescreen Edition)

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Lions For Lambs
(UA)

Feel like being hectored by a self-righteous college professor, an

ambitious Republican senator, a skeptical TV newswoman, and the two

most earnest U. S. soldiers in the world? Also, do you have 90 minutes

of your life that you’re not planning on using for anything else? Then,

by all means, buy or rent a copy of Lions for Lambs,

a rambling, unfocused op-ed piece masquerading as a movie about a

fictionalized troop surge in the frigid mountains of Afghanistan and

the hand-wringing going on back home among liberals who support the

soldiers and detest the Taliban but can’t translate their thoughts and

intentions into action. Writer Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom)

crams an impressive number of left-wing talking points into a script

that could have been staged easily as a stage play, and director Robert

Redford elicits a solid performance from Meryl Streep — who represents

the news media’s complicity in the invasion of Iraq — but the

high-minded

debates that take up the bulk of the film’s running time feel

hopelessly bogus. Worst of all, Redford’s ham-handed appeal to

America’s apathetic youth is so familiar and perfunctory that it comes

off less as a call to action and more as a lecture from Grandpa. The

continued failure of Iraq War-themed movies to gain any traction at the

box office may be an indication that movie audiences prefer to keep

their eyes covered and their ears plugged when it comes to current

events at the multiplex, but this kind of pedigreed lecture-hall

material isn’t going to win the kids over. (To be fair, Kimberly

Peirce’s flawed but emotionally complex and MTV-friendly Stop-Loss couldn’t do the trick either.) A version of this review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Lions For Lambs (Widescreen Edition)

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