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CITY OF GOD A South American GoodFellas, City of God is a dazzling achievement that marks Fernando Meirelles as a masterful filmmaker with world-class aspirations. If the traditional gangster flick has appeared to be hobbling on its last legs over the past few years, this lightning bolt of a movie proves that there are still fresh ways to tackle familiar material. Based on actual events, this Brazilian import takes a hard look at a Rio de Janeiro slum and dissects the lifestyle of the youthful thugs who rule with a bloody fist. Make no mistake: As depicted here, the "City of God" (the name given to the area) is nothing less than a war zone, with blood flowing as swiftly and steadily as water over Niagara Falls. Our clean-cut protagonist in this urban epic is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), whose desire to become a professional photographer might be just the thing to lift him out of the surrounding squalor. On the opposite end, there's Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), a rabid gang leader prone to killing anybody at any time -- perhaps not since Ralph Fiennes' Nazi in Schindler's List has there been such a frightening portrait of unadulterated evil onscreen. It's tough to withstand 130 minutes of continuous nihilism, but Meirelles and his contributors are so completely in command of this material (the storytelling moves like mercury) that it's impossible not to get caught up in their descent into Hell on Earth. 1/2
THE HUNTED It's depressing enough when lousy movies manage to snag the services of one talented Oscar winner, but finding two stranded in the same drivel seems like an especially monumental waste of resources. Following last year's Snow Dogs, which buried past winners Cuba Gooding Jr. and James Coburn alive, this dreary hybrid of The Fugitive and First Blood finds Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro set adrift in a pallid action yarn that further soils the once-distinguished career of director William Friedkin (who went from The Exorcist in the 70s to Jade in the 90s). Monotonous in the extreme, this casts Jones as a retired fighting instructor who's forced back into action after it appears that one of his former pupils (Del Toro), a born warrior who snapped after serving his country in bloody Kosovo, has been going around murdering heavily armed hunters before they can blow away innocent wildlife critters (wait, shouldn't that make him a hero?). This whiff of a plot is just an excuse for cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to shoot reams of lovely exterior footage (filming largely took place in the Pacific Northwest), for the trio of scripters to resort to sloppiness at every turn (for someone skilled at being "invisible," Del Toro's character sure leaves a lot of muddy footprints for Jones' tracker to conveniently follow), and for Friedkin to stage an repetitive series of showdowns between his stars. 1/2
THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE An anti-death penalty screed disguised as a thriller, this one's a complete mess, a movie so ineptly realized that it will doubtless anger viewers on both sides of the debate. It's the sort of sanctimonious, holier-than-thou claptrap that gives liberalism (especially Hollywood liberalism) a bad name, yet what's astounding is that the movie shoots itself not only in the foot but in the bleeding heart as well, offering a series of plot twists that undermine every point that director Alan Parker and debuting screenwriter Charles Randolph were trying to make. Kevin Spacey stars as the title character, a former college professor and capital punishment opponent in Texas who's now on Death Row, set to be executed for the rape and murder of a fellow advocate (Laura Linney). Gale summons a news magazine reporter (Kate Winslet) to hear his story, maintaining his innocence and hoping that she'll be able to unearth the real culprit. The incessant proselytizing (complete with obvious "symbolism") is wearying enough, but, as stated above, what's especially dumbfounding about this film is the manner in which Parker and Randolph weaken their own arguments by painting their heroes as irrational zealots who just might have deserved what was coming to them. With friends like these, who needs George W. Bush?