Runs Fri., June 25–Thurs., July 1, at Varsity
In 1992, the convicts at São Paulo's terrifying Carandiru Prison fought the law, and the law won: The final score was 111 rioting prisoners dead, and zero guards. Carandiru was even more overcrowded than Abu Ghraib, a place essentially administered by prisoners under the benign neglect of their guards. Among the only vestiges of civilization was a visiting physician who tried to save the men from AIDS and tuberculosis.
He happens to be the same doctor who saved the life of Hector Babenco, a director laid low by illness and not seen much since the one-two knockout punch of his 1980 Pixote and 1985 Oscar winner, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Babenco talked his doc into writing a fictionalized memoir about Carandiru; both the novel and Babenco's film of it were huge hits in Brazil.
One wants to call Carandiru a third Babenco knockout, but it's way too aimless, formulaic, sentimental, and artificial—despite its vital realism (it was filmed at the actual prison before its 2002 demolition). Not every minute of its two and a half hours is worth watching, but you'd be a fool to cheat yourself of the dozens of minutes that are. It's great to have Babenco back.
In place of a plot, we get a procession of disconnected vignettes and character sketches as vivid and simplistic as tattoos. In the opening scene, a young con tries to kill a hit man named Dagger for murdering the con's dad outside the prison. Head convict Moacir stops the fight just before the guards step in. It's nicely done, and the tension between inmate and guard authority helps sustain us until the final riot/massacre scene.
But first come many anecdotes. Überdealer Highness keeps his conjugal-visiting days interesting by courting two irritable women at once—I was rooting for the nastier, more cinematic one, high-toned hooker Rosirene. Two childhood chums are destroyed by coke madness. Transsexual Lady Di weds her kindly homunculus lover, Too Bad. Saintly old convict Chico beams love to his many children outside, meditates on the philosophical placidity prison affords, and lets pretty balloons float to freedom.
Meanwhile, the nameless Physician (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) wafts dazedly through the movie with a fixed expression, like a happy-face balloon inflated by nitrous oxide. There are cool events, like when a guy grabs a rat, gets bitten, and is appalled to see the convict suturing his wound firing up a crack pipe to calm his jittery hands. A prison concert and soccer game are rousing. The final bloody riot is vigorous, though it dishonestly ducks the question of cons' inhumanity to con. These guys were evil, too, and Babenco can't face it. This factually inspired story is intermittently stirring, but he can't shape it. (R) TIM APPELO
Runs Fri., June 25–Thurs., July 1, at Varsity
Nearly every American has heard of Al-Jazeera, but few have actually seen it—unlike the 40 million viewers across the Arab world for whom it is the principal source of TV news. Fresh from SIFF, this excellent documentary by Jehane Noujaim (Startup.com) barely addresses the West's widespread demonization of Al-Jazeera; instead, it humanizes the network by focusing on the day-to-day work of its journalists and editors as they cover last year's invasion of Iraq. What we learn is that they grapple with many of the same issues, and aspire to most of the same ideals, as their Western counterparts. However deep your own cynicism might run, what makes Room essential viewing is Noujaim's tireless, fiercely intelligent analysis of the conflict and its portrayal in the media. In wartime, Room suggests, the only real enemy is untruth; the passionate journalist, in turn, becomes the most humane of heroes. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER
Opens Fri., June 25, at Harvard Exit
SIFF this year named Italian writer- director Ferzan Ozpetek one of its "emerging masters," and SIFF-goers voted to give this pensive, bittersweet drama the Golden Space Needle Award. Good choices on both counts: Ozpetek's lush, humane aesthetic grows more affecting with each new effort, and Windows is his most triumphant work yet.
Factory worker Giovanna (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) has two charming kids, a loving husband with limited ambitions, and the embattled look of someone for whom just getting through the day is officially a chore. Her furtive obsession with Lorenzo (Under the Tuscan Sun's Raoul Bova), the gorgeous guy she's been watching in the opposite apartment, rekindles her spirit when the two meet while aiding memory-impaired Simone (Massimo Girotto), a lost old man haunted by a decision that has defined him since the 1940s.
Like the director's hearty Steam: The Turkish Bath and His Secret Life, Windows is that rare film with a real feeling for life in every corner, with all the disparate people, difficult choices, and persistent insecurities that make up anyone's day. Windows builds a richly diverse world full of friends, family, conversation, and the sense that we could follow any of the lesser characters into another story as compelling as the central one here.
Mezzogiorno, whose liquid expressiveness suggests Debra Winger in her prime, doesn't play Giovanna as an easy character, and Ozpetek doesn't want her to. Her awakening isn't a facile Hollywood emancipation; we're not asked to simply root for an affair with Lorenzo, and Giovanna's husband, Filippo (Filippo Nigro), is obviously a good man. Though Ozpetek drips the film in romance, Giovanna's yearnings—for more passion, for a new career, for just basic contentment—have a nagging familiarity that makes her less the heroine of some melodrama and more a representative of our own hidden hopes.
The regal, weathered Girotto is the perfect vessel for communicating what happens when you deny your own desires; the World War II–era revelation behind Simone's identity is a poignant reminder of the need to construct our lives based on what's most true in us. Windows stirringly considers the pursuit of happiness as an act of necessary bravery. Simone, and Ozpetek, insist that we "must demand to live in a better world, not just dream about it." (NR) STEVE WIECKING
Opens Fri., June 25, at Metro and others
What was the last domestic teen comedy that managed to be dissident, obtuse, and even subtly heartfelt within the suffocating confines of a PG rating? Drawing a blank? We could backtrack to the mid-'80s, before the advent of the "-13" suffix that paved the way for a slew of mean-spirited turn-of-the-century prom-edys like The New Guy and 10 Things I Hate About You; or we could simply murmur a celebratory "Yessssssss," à la its eponymous Big Bird–looking protagonist, that Dynamite has reached us today.
Dynamite has many familiar gork-show genre staples—tawdry Mean Girls; aggressive, oversexed bullies; creepy, not overly sympathetic ciphers; the inevitable as-the-worm-turns Big Dance—yet co-writer/director Jared Hess improbably manages to polish each of these turds, and with a paucity of profanity or cruelty. His film could be written off as a swear-free, no-risk Welcome to the Dollhouse, but Dynamite carves its own niche in cultdom thanks to the almost supernaturally lethargic performance of its 26-year-old lead, Jon Heder, who brilliantly embodies a teen 10 years younger.
The plot is skeletal at best. Supergeek Napoleon has a two-pronged long- term goal for the school year: securing a girlfriend (he believes they want men with "skills," i.e., computer hacking and bo-staff fighting), and helping mustachioed, nearly mute best friend/ co-gork Pedro win the class presidency. In the interim, he plays tetherball against himself, takes a free "Ray Kwon Do" course with his shut-in, effete 31-year-old brother (Aaron Ruell), sketches his favorite animal, the "liger" (half lion, half tiger), and stuffs tater tots in his pants pockets for mid-exam snacking.
Unlike the typical gork hero, who routinely learns a life lesson via standing up for himself/finding the courage to court his crush, Napoleon doesn't really grow at all over the film's brisk 82 minutes. That's part of the fun—he's true to himself, not to movie conventions. Heder delivers each line in a tongue-swallowing monotone that amplifies the humor of his rare moments of incredulity or passion. His interfering uncle Rico is a "frickin' idiot." Does he like the women's business suit he inexplicably buys for his first dance? "Heck, yes." Granted, the movie's surreal charms dissipate when Heder's offscreen, and its lack of story arc is certainly disconcerting, but as an out-of-left-field, goofball character study—which is all it ever purports to be—Dynamite has as much stubborn, winning integrity as its hero. (PG) ANDREW BONAZELLI
Opens Fri., June 25, at Guild 45 and others
This adaptation of the 1996 Nicolas Sparks best seller is, if possible, even more schmaltzy and insufferable than the book. It looks like a Hallmark card, although that's almost an insult to a reputable greeting-card company. Forget the MPAA and its rating, this film should be quarantined by the CDC. The sunsets turn so golden they're toxic. The lachrymose soundtrack can kill. Young love and sage wisdom combine via flashback into a Southern swamp so poisonously sentimental that it will contaminate all who set foot in it. Rachel McAdams (The Hot Chick) and Ryan Gosling (The Believer) play teenage sweethearts during the summer of 1940 who are separated by cruel fate, then WWII, until she's engaged to another. Which man will she choose? Could there be a connection between these events, seen in extended flashbacks, and the handwritten love story James Garner is patiently reading to Alzheimer's-afflicted Gena Rowlands from that little notebook? Briefly lucid, she murmurs, "How fast the time goes." Not fast enough, Gena, not fast enough. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER
Opens Fri., June 25, at Metro and others
Fuzzy, content little tiger cubs bounding through the jungles of Southeast Asia are enough to make any child smile—until they're captured by heartless hunters! Then one cat is sold to the circus, while the other is trained as a bloodthirsty fighter! At this point, Brothers may elicit tiny tears from its intended viewers—or inspire the next generation of PETA members. Meanwhile, parents will detect a loss-of-innocence theme as the tigers are transported into the cruel human world, where they're finally pitted against each other in the ring. Adults may also enjoy the film's travelogue aspect, as the movie opens deep in the jungle at the elaborate ruins of an ancient city; elsewhere, elephants gallop majestically across open fields.
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Bear), Brothers focuses on the unbreakable bond between these two furry siblings, despite their separation, and the newfound love of animals that causes one dreamy hunter (Guy Pearce of Memento) to throw down his rifle for good. The ending is happy but tardy given Brothers' 105-minute running time; at the preview, a traumatized 7-year-old beside me spent the majority of the movie covering her eyes to escape the images of cruelty to animals. (PG) HEATHER LOGUE
Opens Wed., June 23, at Metro and others
Clearly, the Wayans brothers haven't watched Fox since In Living Color was canned; if they had, director Keenan and co-stars/screenwriters Shawn and Marlon might've noticed Paris Hilton adroitly satirizing herself via The Simple Life, rendering this feature-length abomination completely unnecessary. Alas, since the world has yet to produce a set of wackier, wilder foils than bourgeoisie white bitches and bewildered, everyman brothers, we've got a "movie." The premise is almost as artless and confounding as its execution: Marlon and Shawn are bumbling FBI agents who, thinking outside the box, try to nab a kidnapper by going undercover in the Hamptons as . . . for God's sake, refer to the title. Of course, everyone inexplicably buys the low-rent Mrs. Doubtfire act, which yields panty sniffing, thong rash, and fart contests. Hollywood used to unload this kind of crap in late August, which doesn't bode well for the rest of summer. (PG-13) A.B.