Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Reeling in the Year

To clarify something I wrote yesterday, I was trying to make a point that it is often easier to dwell on what isn't going right than to see what is going your way. In other words, I was reminding myself to keep perspective and writing about it with dark humor that may not have translated well.

For example, the Hard Times headline blows the situation out of proportion. (I try to use the headlines for references that amuse me, in this case, a Dickens novel.) I thought it was funny that the last two films I watched were IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and BETTER OFF DEAD, both of which feature characters working through their problems, yet here I am complaining about mine. It was all much funnier in my head than it was in print.

No posts on January 1--you know why--but I'm hoping to take some time to figure out what my Top Ten/Best of lists for 2003 will look like. That's on the horizon, plus comments on any DVD viewings or films I happen to revisit at the theater if I'm feeling cooped up at home.

And with that said, I bid you a happy new year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Hard Times

Sunday night I wrote a blog entry about Top Ten/Best of lists on my home computer, thinking that I could save it to a disk and post it at work the next day. Turns out the A drive doesn't work either, making the machine completely worthless for all intents and purposes. I may copy it down by hand and retype it again, but we'll see how ambitious I feel.

Currently I'm writing from the Westerville Public Library. The 30-minute limit--if people are waiting--may cut me short. I could pound this out from the office, but the library is a more conducive environment for writing.

I suppose it is ironic that last week I wrote about IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and how you should be happy with what you have rather than concentrating on your disappointments and aggravations. It's ironic because since then I've been dealt the great computer death, a longer work day on Monday than expected, and today's adventure, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles wait. In the BMV case, it is my fault. I lost my driver's license sometime after mid-November. Lost, as in misplaced, not revoked. I went to the BMV a week ago to get a replacement but was rebuffed because I needed my birth certificate in addition to my Social Security Number. Today I returned and ended up spending an hour there because my details or something weren't properly loading in their computer. Ugh.

So this past week has delivered a few setbacks. Nothing on the level of Jimmy Stewart's problems in the Capra film, mind you, but enough to to cause some consternation.

What a perfect time to watch BETTER OFF DEAD, right? No, I didn't decide to watch it out of a sense of self-pity. I am making good on a promise to see the film. A friend loaned me the pan-and-scan videotape, which I resisted watching, but now that I'm trying out Netflix, this seemed like an appropriate choice.

BETTER OFF DEAD (Savage Steve Holland, 1985) (DVD, 12/30/03) Grade: B-

The teen years are turbulent times, when the smallest problems are magnified to proportions of life and death matters. For Lane Myer (John Cusack), being dumped by his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) is such an event. Lane can't stop thinking about Beth and the good times they had, so her lack of interest in him leads him to thoughts of suicide. His failed and aborted attempts to kill himself just lead to more problems. Yes, this is a comedy.

That plot summary makes BETTER OFF DEAD sound a lot darker than it is in execution. Lane never appears to give serious contemplation to killing himself, and the suicide thread is a very minor part of the film. Instead, BETTER OFF DEAD is a quirky look at the adolescent mindset. The film's best moments are often those that express the hyper self-awareness and confusion of that time. A flashback to Lane and Beth's first meeting humorously illustrates how boys and girls are so fixated on themselves when flirting that everything else gets blocked out. A meaningless gesture--rubbing one's nose, in this case--makes Lane and Beth afraid that something is wrong with their appearances, and they tune out what is being said.

Most teen comedies are built around the popular students or the outcasts. Lane is a rare movie example of the regular student, someone who doesn't hang with the cool crowd but isn't sidelined with the nerds either. Cusack is perfectly cast because he brings self-assured air mixed with nervousness and doubt. He's been playing variations of this role for a long time. It isn't hard to imagine Lane being well-liked around school, making him an ideal stand-in for the viewer.

Occasionally writer-director Savage Steve Holland shakes things up in the film's universe. Although set in a nondescript northern California suburb, surrealistic flourishes, usually in the form of throwaway gags, unbalance the relative normality. For Christmas Lane's father (David Ogden Stiers) receives an aardvark fur coat, complete with a head on hood. He is told everyone will be wearing one, and soon thereafter we see that his neighbor has similar winter wear. Lane's mother (Kim Darby) cooks all manner of strange concoctions, one of which really does crawl off the plate. These weird non sequiturs serve as extensions of the confused teenage mindset. While the jokes aren't always successful, they help an overly familiar story stay interesting. You can expect that Lane will end up with the pretty French exchange student Monique (Diane Franklin), but no one will would have anticipated a clay-animated sequence featuring a hamburger rocking out to Van Halen's "Everybody Wants Some".

The BETTER OFF DEAD DVD looks and sounds fine, but for those who like added value, the lack of any extras, not even a trailer, is a strong deterrent when paired with the $24.99 MSRP.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

A roadblock

Due to a computer problem--my home computer currently is out of commission--updates may be a little sparse over the next week. I may write some things at home and post them when I get to work. (I realize this is backwards and beside the point of blogging, not to mention that what I write at home may be done by hand, but that's how it goes.)

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Christmastime is here

Merry Christmas to all.

Almost everyone is asleep here, so I have a little time to tack up something.

Christmas is a big moviegoing day, which is due in no small part to the flood of new releases in theaters. The studios unwrap their prestige pictures for the general public's consumption, which means the country can celebrate the holiday with such downbeat fare like COLD MOUNTAIN and HOUSE OF SOUND AND FOG. I think COLD MOUNTAIN is good, and HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG. Still, these are weighty films that aren't going to buoy your holiday spirit.

If you're going to go to the movies today or tomorrow, a better seasonal option is ELF. Will Ferrell is a scream as a human who has been raised at the North Pole by elves and believes he is one. ELF also contains one of my favorite scenes of the year, Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel's blissful rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside". The movie will leave you with a smile, and it's fun, and appropriate, for the whole family.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

It's the film, stupid

I bought a DVD player in December 1998--hard to believe it has been five years--and a 5.1 surround sound system and flat screen television followed in the next couple years. Gradually I became much more particular about viewing conditions. I wouldn't watch a film, be it on DVD, VHS, or television, if it wasn't presented in the proper aspect ratio. In fact, I practically dropped watching movies on pre-recorded VHS at all because the image quality didn't match DVD. I've since come back around to the format as long as the aspect ratio is correct, in large part because there are still many films unavailable on DVD.

While I don't have the most expensive or most elaborate home theater--in the opinion of some on home theater message boards, I don't have one, considering I own a 27" television--I am relatively satisfied with my set-up. The down side is that it can make seeing things elsewhere on home video a challenge. Take, for instance, watching movies at my parents' home. There it isn't so much a matter of equipment, although that can factor into it, but the environment. Trying to find a quiet moment around the house during the holidays is pretty rare, and even if everyone is sitting down to watch something, it is inevitable that some are going to want to ask questions or carry on discussions as the movie plays.

With mom in the kitchen and everyone else out of the house for a bit, I thought I might be able to watch IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE without too many distractions or interruptions. As you know, even the best laid plans don't always work to perfection. It wasn't the ideal viewing situation--people coming and going, a ringing telephone, etc.--but in the end, if the film is good enough, all will be fine. (OK, that's not completely true. If I had been watching GERRY, the racket would have ruined the mood that film creates. Hey, I'm trying to be magnanimous.)

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (Frank Capra, 1946) (DVD, 12/24/03) Grade: A

Hollywood probably can't, or won't, make a movie like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE anymore. Everyone remembers the sections in which Jimmy Stewart is distraught and the angel Clarence comes to help him. These scenes are so embedded in popular culture that I knew these parts reasonably well and hadn't seen the film before. Yet what makes the film work is the extensive establishment of Stewart's George Bailey. Most modern day studio pictures don't devote a lot of time to character development, but the reason why the latter part of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE resonates is due to the deep sense we have of Bailey's humanity.

Ever the populist, Frank Capra paints a portrait of a small town man whose selfless commitment to the community makes him one of the most beloved people in Bedford Falls. Yet Capra is also quick to point out that George has experienced his share of disappointments. Every time he has been on the verge of finally leaving Bedford Falls, whether for Europe, the big city, or college, something happens that requires him to stay. The floor gets pulled out from under him, but George just keeps on dancing, something Capra illustrates during the party scene when the floor over the pool is opened while a dance contest is in full swing. George isn't a saint, just a regular guy who does what he knows to be the right thing.

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE reinforces its title without resorting to cheap Hollywood devices or sentiment. In the end, George is able to understand that he has had an enormous impact where he lives, possibly more than he could have had if he had become an architect in New York City. One senses that somehow George will scrape by, that life won't get any easier for him. Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) won't have a change of heart, and the Bailey Building & Loan won't be highly profitable. Those twists would be the easy way out, a direction Capra never takes. No, like the wide audience Capra was addressing, George will have to work hard to keep his head above water, but he'll be rich beyond words because of his friends and family. That's a sentiment worth remembering, whether at Christmas or any other time.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

The Dream is Alive

Paul Markoff, my co-host/co-producer on NOW PLAYING, has pestered me about seeing perennial Christmas favorite IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, and yet I keep putting it off. Sure, I've been busy but in two or more years I haven't had a couple free hours for it? Whatever the reason, it has never been a priority. I have the DVD, so lack of access is no excuse. Around this time of year I start thinking maybe I should watch it. I know, I know, it isn't necessarily a Christmas film, although it is most associated with the holiday. It's not like I expect I'll hate it either. I brought the DVD to my parents' house, so maybe I'll sit down and watch it tomorrow. (If Paul is reading this, I suspect he just let out a skeptical laugh.) Really, I'm going to try, although I did check out a couple books on blogging from the library, not to mention a Truffaut biography and a couple novels...

Speaking of things mentioned but never covered, this seems like the perfect time for some thoughts on the Richard Linklater short that played after BUS 174 the other night. It was on projected video rather than film--insert sad emoticon--but it's worth a look. The timing couldn't have been better with the recent announcement of the plans for the former World Trade Center location. The film builds up to an unconventional suggestion for how to use the space.

LIVE FROM SHIVA'S DANCE FLOOR (Richard Linklater, 2002) (Wexner Center, 12/20/03) Grade: A

Timothy "Speed" Levitch takes us on a brief tour of Manhattan's financial district, including a trip to the footprint of the collapsed World Trade Center's Twin Towers, in LIVE FROM SHIVA'S DANCE FLOOR. Along the way he shares his knowledge of the area's history, opinions on commerce in contemporary life, and thoughts on how to move forward at the site of the September 11 tragedy.

A tour guide and a philosopher, Levitch has a knack for talking, which made him an ideal subject for the feature documentary THE CRUISE. Director Richard Linklater put Levitch to good use as a wandering dreamer in the brilliant WAKING LIFE. Linklater's films are characterized in large part by philosophical contemplation, and in Levitch he's found a kindred spirit. (Levitch was perfect for WAKING LIFE and wouldn't have been out of place in SLACKER.) LIVE FROM SHIVA'S DANCE FLOOR lets both director and performer continue their existential search.

Levitch and Linklater encourage the viewer to look beyond the surface, whether it's a physical item or a story. Levitch tells the story about a tree on Wall Street, how it came to be there, and what it is supposed to represent. Then he reveals the mythmaking involved in the story. What the tree once represented may not be true now, but the power of what it stands for today endures.

Shiva is the Hindu god of destruction and reproduction, and in Levitch's view, Shiva's dance floor was Ground Zero at the World Trade Center site. The destruction has passed, and now is the time for something to emerge from the remains. Rather than constructing a granite monument or establishing more places of commerce, which, some might argue, dishonor the dead, he proposes a park where American buffalo can freely roam. The idea sounds kooky, but Levitch makes a convincing case, financially and spiritually, for making a home for one of the iconic national creatures. It won't happen--last week plans were announced for a 1,776-foot tower at the site--but wouldn't his suggestion be more inspiring for visitors and New York residents through the years?

Levitch and Linklater must have known that their idea had an infinitesimal chance of catching on, but in a way, they have been able to make the dream real via this film. They've envisioned something that isn't there and have made it visible to the viewers of LIVE FROM SHIVA'S DANCE FLOOR. Isn't witnessing the dream, whether it takes a physical shape or not, one of the things that defines America?

Monday, December 22, 2003

Finest Worksong

The immediate post-screening time can be the most sensitive when trying to formulate an opinion on what you've just seen. A week ago I saw PAYCHECK, the latest Hollywood picture from Hong Kong action auteur John Woo. The publicist was sure to make the three of us in attendance aware that while it wasn't the final version--the first reel looked like pixellated Avid output, music wasn't finished, and end credits were missing--the content would not be changed in the release prints. Not a big deal, although I'm not crazy about seeing works in progress. Anyway, I thought it was a serviceable sci-fi action film. Not among Woo's best but entertaining enough, even if the plot is overexplained numerous times. I don't recall if I was on the fence or leaning favorably toward the film as I walked out of the theater. Regardless, the last thing I needed was to hear the negative comments of others. Which is exactly what caught my ears.

For me, there's a certain amount of "gut decision" involved, especially with those films bordering on a mixed or positive review. To have this ephemeral feeling interfered with makes evaluating all the more difficult. When it leads you to question your initial assessment, everything gets thrown out of whack.

This explanation is a roundabout way of saying that I saw it again tonight. I would have rather spent the evening doing other things, but I wanted to be assured in my stance, whatever it turned out to be.

PAYCHECK (John Woo, 2003) (Marcus Crosswoods, 12/22/03) Grade: B-

In PAYCHECK Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is a hired gun whose services don't come cheaply for him or his clients. Solitarily confined while he reverse engineers and improves upon competitor technologies, Michael earns a fat paycheck in the end but at the expense of his memory. His employers are willing to pay top dollar so he can help them obliterate the competition, but they want to ensure he knows nothing of his involvement. Once the job is done, Michael's memory is wiped clean back to the point when he started. How's that for a non-disclosure agreement?

Michael doesn't consider the erasures to be significant since the situation allows him to use the money to create a memory highlight reel. He gets to enjoy unforgettable experiences and not have his memory clogged with the mundane. College buddy and tech firm impresario Jimmy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) proposes a job that will pay Michael a sum beyond his wildest dreams. He would never need to work again, but with great opportunity comes great risk. Instead of being withdrawn from society for a couple months, the assignment could last three years.

The reward is too great for Michael to turn down, and three years later, it initially appears to have been worth it. $92 million in Allcom stock will do that. A visit to his accountant quickly disabuses him of his confidence that he made the right decision, though. A few weeks before the task was completed he waived the stock so he could mail himself an envelope of twenty common items. Naturally, Michael has no memory of this. Why would he give up all that money in exchange fora paperclip, hairspray, and a pack of cigarettes, among other things? Michael struggles to understand, but a brush with the FBI and his subsequent escape, aided by the items, tip him off. He left himself clues to remember what he did and why he is marked for death.

Michael's search for an answer slowly leads him to the realization that he constructed a machine capable of seeing the future, a high tech crystal ball. Armed with this revelation, the problem remains that he doesn't know what he is supposed to do.

PAYCHECK plays as a high concept hybrid of MINORITY REPORT and MEMENTO, although it never reaches the heights of those films. (MINORITY REPORT and PAYCHECK are based on Philip K. Dick short stories, which accounts for the resmblances. Unlike Guy Pearce's illustrated man in MEMENTO, Affleck has no problems with his short term memory.) This is a B-movie through and through, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, particularly at a time in the release schedule when nearly every film comes with the portentous weight of awards consideration. Much pleasure derives from seeing how the innocuous items were perfectly selected for the appropriate circumstances. While this is far from Woo's best film, Hong Kong or American, his energetic style keeps PAYCHECK humming along as it whizzes past the multiple holes in the screenplay. Of course it's all absurd and familiar, but Woo's operatic treatment of action scenes lays those criticisms aside. A breakneck chase sequence featuring Michael and biologist girlfriend Rachel (Uma Thurman) on a motorcycle is the film's centerpiece. One set of bad guys in cars pursue them through big metal tubes while the FBI hovers over the scene in a helicopter.

Dean Georgaris' screenplay is the film's weakest link. Characters repeatedly spell out what everything means and what they are going to do, just in case you were having trouble following. Thurman must have been attracted to the forgettable girlfriend role solely for the paycheck because she serves merely as an exposition explication device. Moreover, Rachel shouldn't be into the story if Michael is not supposed to have contact with the outside during his time on the project. Why bother wiping his memory if he can blab it all to his girlfriend? On top of all this, in spite of Georgaris' economy with images and plot points, every single one must come full circle to complete the protracted climax. Even with no flab, PAYCHECK feels bloated in the end.

Affleck comes across as flat and disinterested early on, but like a dispassionate Keanu Reeves as Neo in THE MATRIX and its sequels, these qualities work for his character. Paul Giamatti, playing the technician who zaps Michael's memories, is fun as the comic relief. His dishevelled appearance reminds us of his sterling performance as Harvey Pekar in AMERICAN SPLENDOR, someone who wouldn't have any part of dissolving life's routine and ordinary moments.

PAYCHECK'S set-up presents a tantalizing question. Would you be willing to trade three years of memories, time filled with work and work alone, for the promise that you would earn enough to fulfill your every wish and whim? The film discards serious discussion for Mexican standoffs and action scenes, trading the possibility of complex rewards for simple pleasures. Maybe the best choices weren't made in the filmmaking--it doesn't mean we can't kick back and enjoy the result.

An introduction

It occurs to me that some people reading this--whoever you may be--don't know who I am. I'd set up an "About Me" page, but I haven't even figured out how to set up a permanent link on the side for my e-mail. For now, this will have to suffice.

My name is Mark Pfeiffer. Since 1997 I have been co-producer/co-host of NOW PLAYING, a movie review program that airs on WOCC TV3 in Westerville, Ohio. (I am the Assistant Director of Television--in charge of production--at WOCC, an Otterbein College/city of Westerville cable channel.) I have been writing online for since 2000 and this year began contributing to The Film Journal. (Follow the links for my interviews with BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM star Parminder Nagra and PIECES OF APRIL writer-director Peter Hedges.) Each Friday I can be heard discussing current films on Youngstown, Ohio radio station Real Rock 104's morning show.

This blog is intended to supplement the work I do for those other outlets and may generate pieces for them. Like I said in my first post, I didn't plan on writing longer reviews here, but for the time being, I'm feeling reenergized. We'll see how this develops.

David Poland's The Hot Button and Jeffrey Wells' Hollywood Elsewhere aren't the strict models for what I want this blog to be--I'm not going to get into box office number crunching or industry reporting--but I like the idea of writing about movies every day, whether I've seen something or not. This should provide a space for commentary that I can't or don't do in my other film critic corners.

I still plan on cobbling together a short write-up of that Linklater short mentioned in the first post. Expect the first break from movie talk at any time, as I intend to go over the year's highlights in music, concerts, and TV. Hopefully I'll get more adept at building this site and will also provide you, the faceless reader, with a way of giving me feedback.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Another day, another movie

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS (Shane Meadows, 2002) (Drexel Grandview, 12/21/03) Grade: C+

The title and the music suggest a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, but the setting and characters would be more at home in a Mike Leigh film. Those seemingly disparate elements are fused into a domestic drama/comedy with great tonal inconsistencies, although the end result is more poignant than expected.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS opens with most of the main characters appearing on the British equivalent of THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW. Carol (Kathy Burke) is dissatisfied with her marriage to husband Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson), an aspiring Country & Western singer. He's good enough with the kids, but his current avocation of choice doesn't have the most promise. The next guests on the show are their children and Carol's best friend Shirley (Shirley Henderson). Shirley assumes she is there to provide insight on Carol and Charlie's relationship, but instead her longtime live-in boyfriend Dek (Rhys Ifans) emerges from backstage with an armful of flowers and a marriage proposal. She declines.

Watching all of this on television is Shirley's former husband Jimmy (Robert Carlyle). If he didn't have a reason to pay her a visit before, now he does, although his primary interest has less to do with rekindling an old romance and more to do with dodging the Glaswegian pals he ditched at a robbery scene. Still, it's not as though the ineffectual Dek presents much of a challenge if he wants to steal back Shirley and their daughter Marlene (Finn Atkins).

Dek learns that Jimmy has come to the British Midlands and is looking for Shirley. As if being humiliated on national television wasn't enough, now his love's ex is encroaching on his home life. Shirley swears her allegiance to Dek, but he becomes more exasperated and distant. Eventually Jimmy takes his place, leaving Dek with nothing but a suitcase, his beloved car, and plans to skip town.

Meadows transplants this classic western scenario to modern day Britain, with John Lunn's jangly, Ennio Morricone-inspired score adding to that sense of good and bad facing off on an empty, dusty road. Unfortunately, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS can't quite recover from the fluctuating and contradictory tones that compose the film's first half. The opening seems to tell the audience to laugh at and look down on the characters. After all, only fools would go on such a television program and not expect they would look like buffoons. Yet we're expected to take these people seriously, a difficult task when the film appears to be smirking at Dek's complete lack of fashion sense and the lower middle class trapping and activities around them. Throw in a dash of British crime picture, with the three thugs pursuing Jimmy. The combination results in dissonance because Meadows' direction gives us conflicting cues.

Around the halfway mark, though, Meadows finds his feet, grounding the film in an emotional reality that explores the romantic triangle and how its outcomes impact Marlene. When ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS takes Marlene's perspective, it becomes much more resonant. We see her resistance to the father she has probably never known. We also view the bond she has with Dek, even though he be may terminally unhip. For an early birthday present he gives her something precious to him--a watch that his grandfather gave to his father, who bestowed it to him. This man's watch is too big and clunky for a girl and doesn't look like the valuable heirloom he suspects it is, but Marlene takes to it as a symbol of the love Dek has for her. A late scene shows Dek and Marlene enjoying a simple birthday celebration, and by this point we realize that in spite of his failings, here is a good man who should stand up and fight for his family. Ifans is especially good in these later scenes. If only his character hadn't been painted so broadly in the beginning.

As Shirley, Henderson tenderly plays the woman caught in the middle. Through her quiet performance we can understand why she has been attached to Dek for years yet resists him when put on the spot. Likewise, we can see the appeal Jimmy holds for her until he's been around long enough for the polish to wear off.

How I wish Meadows had been able to smooth out the rough first half. Like Dek, did he not feel confident in what he was doing? Comparing the first and second halves is akin to watching two different films. The straightforward domestic scenes of the second half are pitched over the top in the first. A lack of consistency creeps up in the music too. The score's nervous energy suits the story well. Then a Norah Jones song is shoehorned in for placement over a montage, and a Sarah McLachlan song plays under the crucial final scenes. These moments work with the pop music, but the transition jars everything around it. With a unified vision, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS could have been terrific. Instead, it's sometimes frustrating and sometimes wonderful.

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.