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
There 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)