Saturday, December 20, 2003

Get on the bus!

Welcome to Reel Times. I hope to use this site as a repository for my thoughts on the cinema. Consider it to be a working critic's notebook. I don't intend to publish full-length reviews here, although there's nothing stopping me if I choose to do so. (Any full-length reviews that may appear here will also be published at, where they should be easier to locate instead of requiring searches through weeks and weeks of posts.)

I'd like to utilize this blog as a place to put down my thoughts on films. Maybe I'll write a couple lines about a film I just viewed, or perhaps I'll jot down a reaction to an issue in the film community. No boundaries, so to speak, but don't expect a place where you'll see:

5:57 p.m. Had pork chops and applesauce for dinner
7:32 p.m. Changed a light bulb in the hallway

This isn't to say that pork chop consumption and light bulb replacement are off limit subjects. Just don't expect it.

Needless to say, opinions regarding television, music, literature, and such will also pop up here, but the cinema will be the main thrust of the site.

So with that all said...

BUS 174 (Jose Padilha, 2002) (Wexner Center, 12/20/03) Grade: A

2003 has been a very good year for documentary films. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (my favorite of the year), SPELLBOUND, and WINGED MIGRATION were buzz movies this summer that also performed well, relatively speaking, at the box office. BUS 174 hasn't generated nearly the same amount of feature stories or mainstream attention as those films, but it merits serious consideration for a spot in my 2003 Top Ten list.

Like CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, it makes use of remarkable footage from an incident that took place in Rio de Janeiro in 2000. In this case, traffic and news cameras bring us up close to a hostage situation on a bus. The authorities fail to take immediate control of the area, so the scene's perimeter includes many bystanders, not to mention TV cameras broadcasting the stand-off live. It's something straight out of a movie. Costa-Gavras' MAD CITY, anyone? The hijacker, whether sky high on cocaine or not, realizes that with Brazil watching he has gained a certain amount of power.

Media theorists could have a field day using McLuhan to examine how the hijacker uses the television medium. He effectively becomes the director of this multi-camera "program". He makes a hostage write messages on the bus windows. In one message he claims that he will kill a hostage at 6:00 p.m. (Not to sound glib, but is this a sign that even he knows when peak news viewership is?) He tells the hostages how to behave and instructs the camera operators what to shoot. The hijacker even acknowledges that the situation isn't an action movie, although he does threaten to dispose of a hostage like he saw in a movie that was on television the night before.

Padilha pushes BUS 174 to greatness by providing the backstory of the hijacker and the social conditions in Brazil. The last thing you would expect in this film is to gain empathy for the hijacker, but the thorough reporting allows us to understand what brought him to this point. Anyone who has seen the astonishing CITY OF GOD is familiar with the brutal crime and violence being perpetrated by Brazilian children wandering the streets. It comes as no surprise that the hijacker, Sandro Rosa de Nascimento, was a street kid and had been in and out of jail. Obviously the film doesn't justify what he did; however, it amply demonstrates that crime isn't generated in a vacuum. The street kids could be considered parallels to Ralph Ellison's main character in INVISIBLE MAN. The kids say that they are invisible. They express that no one cares what happens to them. If the reported informal public approval regarding the 1993 massacre of children outside the Candelaria church is accurate, then the kids are frighteningly correct.

As the incident reaches its climax, Padilha first shows us what happened from a blocked view. We hear two gunshots but can't see what takes place. From a more advantageous angle he then expertly advances frame by frame in slow motion to explain the situation's resolution. Editor Felipe Lacerda does great work in this sequence. Played at real speed, we would not be able to discern what is occurring. The slowed action permits time for the filmmakers to make sense of what we are seeing as well as wringing out the suspense for maximum effect.

Go figure. I said at the start that I didn't plan on writing full-length reviews here, but what you've just read probably comes close to being one. So be it. I didn't include any comments on the fantastic opening aerial shot that lays out the geography of the city, the total botching of the incident by police, Sandro's family history and surrogate mother, or the shocking prison conditions, so it's certainly less than comprehensive.

The hour is late enough, so I'll hold off on writing about the Richard Linklater short that followed BUS 174. (For those curious, it was LIVE FROM SHIVA'S DANCE FLOOR, featuring Timothy "Speed" Levitch.) My theatrical moviegoing for the year is mostly complete, so there should be plenty of time to write about that later. Not before the big Bengals-Rams game, mind you, but sometime thereafter.

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