Bahrani directed a film called Man Push Cart (2005) about the life of an immigrant selling hot dogs. It was beautifully photographed and attuned—as in the work of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers—to one-thing- after-another workplace rituals. But it had a bittersweet fairy-tale scenario that was too movie-ish. Chop Shop isn’t so beautiful or artfully sculpted, and you can’t shake it off as just a movie. You want to head out on the 7 train and find this little boy—or someone like him.
Set in Rio de Janeiro, City of Men is a quasi-sequel to the international smash City of God and has a similar mix of grit and bleached-out stylization. But the director, Paulo Morelli, isn’t an action virtuoso like his predecessor, Fernando Meirelles (who co-produced here). Morelli has a more insistent message. High up on “Dead End Hill,” Ace (Douglas Silva), the 18-year-old who forgot his tiny son at the beach, grew up without a father and can barely bring himself to sort-of look after his child. His best friend, Wallace (Darlan Cunha), also grew up without a father—and decides it’s time to track him down. There’s no one who can step in and protect the pair from a senseless gang war in which the shooting seems almost as natural (and indiscriminate) as partying. City of Men is clunky and often contrived, but there’s something haunting about fatherless boys in a blighted place fumbling to teach themselves what it means to be a man.
A gore-drenched portrait of mass psychosis induced by a pattern on a television screen, the shot-in-Atlanta indie horror film The Signal has drawn breathless comparisons to David Cronenberg’s work for its message that reality is subjective and easy to manipulate—that all it takes is a few rerouted synapses to suppress the part of the brain that says you’re not entitled to beat people to a bloody porridge. The movie has grand (and Grand Guignol) bits and pieces, but despite the hype it’s no big deal. By horror standards, the premise isn’t especially outlandish. Non-sociopaths can often justify acts of violence in the course of committing them, their minds as addled as on any acid trip. And when the hills are alive with the sound of senseless carnage, it’s marauding-zombie business as usual. It’s not even news that we’re unnervingly susceptible to viral marketing.
The Signal has a boffo first act—and I mean “act” literally, since the film is in three parts, each helmed by a different director (David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry). A tremulous woman (Anessa Ramsey) leaves the bed of her tender, non-macho lover (Justin Welborn) and heads home to her abusive exterminator husband (A. J. Bowen), whose jealous interrogation of her is right on the border between ordinary sick and scary- monster-movie sick. The carnage that erupts is an extension of his sense of injury—and what follows makes poetic sense, too, because the guy in the T-shirt walking down the apartment-building corridor shredding throats with a hedge trimmer bears a marked resemblance to the neighbor who’s a little too mad when he asks you to turn down your music.
But the second act is played as stylized black comedy—Theater of the Absurd—with a bit of (disgusting) torture porn thrown in to keep you from getting comfy. It kills the movie: It makes The Signal’s directors seem as blood simple as their characters. For all the babble about the thin line between rationality and psychosis, the filmmakers don’t venture beyond male overentitlement and male rage. The schlock-horror signal in which they’ve been bathed makes them believe that their grindhouse misogyny is the human condition.