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Snuffing and huffing


Snuffing and huffing

Rocket contemplates his ticket out of the 'hood in "City of God."

People familiar with the work of Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, who crafted the offbeat comedy Maids, might be floored by his latest big-screen effort. City of God is every bit as violent as Narc, just as gritty as Amores Perros, and nearly as relentless as Moulin Rouge. But Meirelles's picture one-ups those others because it's based on a true story.

            Being dropped into Rio de Janeiro's Cidade de Deus housing project is no less intense than what we've experienced in Bloody Sunday or Black Hawk Down. We begin in the late '60s, when the housing project was relatively new, yet had already succumbed to violent behavior begat by drug use and trade. The focus of the early section of God is on a group of boys called The Tender Trio, and from there, the film follows the lives of two of the Trio over the next few decades.

            Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) has a bad-ass older brother, but, after quickly learning a life of crime isn't for him, Rocket decides to pursue an interest in photography. Lil' Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), on the other hand, is rotten to the core and envisions a time when he controls Cidade like some kind of Brazilian Bill the Butcher. Zé certainly isn't the only hard character in God. Most of them make Hollywood's gun-toting, hip gangsta wannabes look like the cast of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

            It's one thing to make a two-plus-hour, non-linear film with dozens of characters (each one memorable) that covers nearly 30 years, but it takes a very special filmmaker to do that and, by injecting a little humor in between horrifyingly violent scenes of kids killing kids, flash enough style to warrant comparison to Tarantino, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Paul Thomas Anderson, (a pre-Swept Away) Guy Ritchie, and, of course, Martin Scorsese. Meirelles throws everything at the screen but the kitchen sink, using a split-screen, a very likable voiceover, and editing the likes of which I've never seen. If the first five minutes of God don't suck you in, it's time to scoop out your eyes and get new ones.

            More than once, cinematographer César Charlone shows us the carnage of a battle from overhead (a la the crescendo of Scorsese's Taxi Driver), giving us The Big Guy's perspective of life in the slums. And we get a different, harder-hitting point of view when the closing credits roll, revealing photos of the real-life people on which these characters were based.

On paper, Love Liza seemed like it would be a sure thing come Oscar time. The Academy has recently fallen all over itself to acknowledge a bunch of first-time feature-film directors (see Todd Field, Spike Jonze, Sam Mendes, Kenneth Lonergan, Stephen Daldry, etc.) like Liza's Todd Louiso. And Gordy Hoffman's script, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, follows in the massive footsteps of Memento and You Can Count on Me, which both went on to receive multiple Oscar nominations. The film's star --- incredibly talented local-boy-turned-indie-superstar Philip Seymour Hoffman --- usually appears in critically lauded ensemble pictures, but the closer he gets to being a leading man, the more he's praised (Flawless won him a Golden Satellite Award and a Screen Actors Guild nomination).

            In practice, Liza seems like anything but an Oscar contender --- which is not a knock against the quality of the film. It's dark. No, make that very dark. It offers little background about its protagonist. There is no character arc. Its ending is ambiguous. It's about suicide. It's about mourning. It's about addiction. And it's about huffing gas fumes.

            Hoffman, who once again channels Daniel Clowes' mouth-breathing loser Dan Pussey, plays Wilson Joel, a web designer whose wife, Liza, recently offed herself with what we can only assume was little or no warning. We see Wilson stumbling through what used to be his life and trying to avoid everyone intent on helping him (each offers support, but has ulterior motives that aren't initially clear). We see him sleeping on the floor or in his car, because he can't bear to use the bed, and, like Wilson, we can practically feel the hairs on our neck stand up when he discovers Liza's suicide letter while reaching for a pillow, because the kitchen floor is just too damn hard.

            After an attack of inappropriate laughter at work, Wilson is sent on a mandatory vacation, which leads him into the wacky world of radio-controlled cars, boats, and planes. And why not? The guy down at the gas station is starting to get suspicious about Wilson buying one gallon of gas at a time, but the people at the hobby shop will sell him as much Tetra-5 as he needs. In the meantime, while on the run from his mother-in-law (Kathy Bates), an amorous coworker (Sarah Koskoff), and his past, Wilson befriends the weasel-like Denny (Jack Kehler), forming an unlikely R/C-based friendship.

            If you replace the gas huffing with booze or drug addiction, Liza would probably be a slightly more accessible film (like, say, Leaving Las Vegas), which I think is a disturbing commentary on how society accepts alcoholism and pill-popping as just another part of the American experience. Hoffman one-ups Nic Cage's Ben Sanderson performance-wise, which is impressive enough, but he also has to carry this entire film on his back. There's no Elisabeth Shue-type sidekick here as he huffs himself into next week.

            Jim O'Rourke provides an appropriately erratic score, while Louiso's direction is fairly low-key and unobtrusive, allowing Hoffman to work his magic.

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