City of Men succeeds nicely, thank you, despite comparisons to its well-regarded predecessor
by Mike Gibson
From the dawning moments of its release, Paulo Morelliâ’s City of Men has suffered by inevitable comparisons to its nominal predecessor, 2002â’s captivating and startlingly inventive City of God. The comparisons stem from the fact that City of Men was produced by City of God director Fernando Meirelles, and that both films are staged in the poverty-stricken, gang-infested favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
For whatever reason, the formidably talented Meirellesâ"his 2005 production The Constant Gardener affirmed that his artistic vision and stylistic grace as a director have few equals in todayâ’s cinemaâ"chose the seemingly unexceptional Morelli to helm the latest City pic. A journeyman former PR hack, Morelliâ’s tepid resumÃ© includes mostly television, some shorts, and only a couple of ill-regarded full-length features.
Consequently, City of Men has none of the verve or crackling originality of its predecessor. But thatâ’s not to say that Men doesnâ’t have significant virtues of its own, worthy of your consideration. They are quieter, less expansive virtues, to be sure, yet more than sufficient to rate City of Men as an emotionally affecting entertainment, as well as (in somewhat jagged spurts) a viscerally compelling one.
Based on Meirellesâ’ 19-episode Brazilian TV miniseries of the same name, City of God set its focus on the enduring friendship of two amiable, mostly innocent Rio teens coming of age on the notoriously violent, gang-ruled favela known as Dead End Hill. Slight, light-skinned Wallace (Darlan Cunha) was an earnest, unflappable youth whose sunny demeanor was darkened only now and then by the resurfacing of his lifelong yearning to find the father he never knew. Stocky, coal-complected Ace (Douglas Silva) was a slightly oafish but generally lovable 18-year-old layabout, fallen, for want of a prophylactic, into the roles of husband and father, for which he was woefully ill-suited.
As was the case in City of God, the threat of eruptive street-gang violence looms persistently in the stifling-hot sub-tropical air of City of Men. Aceâ’s cousin Midnight (Jonathan Haagensen) is leader of the dope-peddling outlaw band that rules the roost on Dead End Hill, and his falling out with disgruntled toady Fasto (Eduardo â“BRâ” Piranha) proves potentially lethal for both Ace and Wallace (as well as most of their friends and family living on the Hill).
But whereas City of God was at least one part hipster cultural documentâ"Meirelles used witty narrative discourses, time-lapse and quick-cut flashback sequences, and other colorful film-geek digressive techniques to illuminate the hard-scrabble milieu that is the impoverished Brazilian favelaâ"Morelliâ’s film is more concerned with the human element of its story. This plaintively familiar tale of fatherless young men and the special cross they bear might just as well have been recast and set anywhere.
The harsh truths of the Third World ghetto are merely one more plot deviceâ"a means by which to test the bonds of friendship forged between Ace and Wallace when the shooting starts and loved ones scream and dangerous, volatile men are sparked into frenzies of rage and unhinged malice. And when strange, cruel ironies pile one atop the other, such that the two protagonists find themselves inexplicably set at odds by fates they could neither name nor understand.
Amidst the turmoil of escalating street-gang melees, Wallace finally finds his fatherâ"Heraldo (Rodrigo dos Santos), an ex-con just paroled after serving 15 years for his part in a major bank heist. Slowly, Heraldo begins to embrace the notion of getting to know his forgotten son. But their newfound connection signals the onset of a rift between the two boyhood pals, a rift born of circumstances both foreseeable and unexpected.
Even with the constant threat of violence at hand, there are moments when City of Men drags; it lacks the quick-fire, irascible wit scripted into its predecessor, an infusion that kept the film moving briskly from opening credits to finish.
Where it trumps the foregoing City of God is in the sincerity and the palpable humanity of its principlesâ"in particular Ace and Wallace (Silva and Cunha), and Heraldo (dos Santos). One Internet critic referred to Silva and Cunha as â“natural actors,â” and thereâ’s a great deal of truth there, in that both performers have an unaffected air about them that contrasts the very fact of their performing. If the final credits revealed that Silva and Cunha were simply plucked off the streets of Rio and pressed into service on a whim once Morelliâ’s crew was set and the cameras started rolling, we could almost believe them.
But what of it? City of God and City of Men are different films, no matter the fact of their production-related and thematic connections, or the fact that nearly every critic that has screened them (including this one) seems compelled to make weighty pronouncements regarding their relative merits and the directorial balance of power. City of Men stands on its own as a fine film, and Paulo Morelliâ’s directorial filmography looks a damned sight more impressive than it did this time last year.
Gary Gygax is dead. Long live Gary Gygax. The Dungeons & Dragons co-creator may have traveled to another plane, but the kind of modern fantasy double-life he popularized is still with us. Witness Darkon, a new documentary by Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel that focuses on a band of live-action role playing (LARP) gamers who spend their weekdays manning desks and doing laundry, and their weekends conquering kingdoms.
Darkon has a lot of things going for it, among them a strong narrative: In the fantasy kingdom of Darkon, the nation of Mordam, led by Keldar (aka lank white-collar guy Kenyon Wells), has lorded over the other nations in the game long enough that upstart Bannor (beefy stay-at-home dad Skip Lipman) organizes a rebellion to bring Mordam down a few pegs. Between sequences when the LARPers don armor and swing foam-padded swords at each other, the filmmakers spend time with the players in their everyday livesâ"not that Darkon and the real world are walled off from each other. Wells seems to credit the game with helping him become a smug yuppie; others use it to work up their confidence so that they can maybe someday talk to girls. Rebecca Thurmond, a single mom with a hard-knock past, seems to genuinely need her time in another, less consequential world, as does an unnamed Iraq War vet. At the same time, the real world crosses over into fantasy, too, with politicking and bickering, shade-throwing, and friendships coming apart.
Meyer and Neel have created a handsome artifact here: Their camerawork is polished and often dramatic, especially the chaotic battle sequences. If Darkon offers no great revelations about the game or the people who play it, it stands as a respectful ethnography of a modern tribe half stuck in another world. â" Lee Gardner
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