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Weird Science

The Earth is in trouble in The Core.

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I find it more than a little ironic that contemporary movie audiences, seeking escapism by means of mind-numbing movie pap, can turn to science fiction. You would think that the "science" part would imply that the film is more intelligently conceived than regular fiction. Not so. Witness: The Core. I would hate to have seen this with any kind of real scientist, as I am sure that he or she would be uncomfortably distracted by the parade of poorly conceived scientific plot calculations. However, when the Golden Gate Bridge collapses near the end (every other review of The Core mentions this, so I'm not ruining it, okay?), even a die-hard science whiz should be able to admit that it's pretty cool.

The United States has preemptively developed a superweapon called DESTINI: a giant system of machines that can disrupt the Earth's core and cause earthquakes in enemy countries. DESTINI, however, has gone awry, and said core has decided to stop spinning. I can't explain how or why it spins, but there is some exposition early on that does, so you can take my word for it that this spinning business is important and that we're screwed if it stops.

Aaron Eckhart (a poor man's Bill Paxton, from Possession and Nurse Betty) plays Josh Keyes, a meticulously rumpled geophysics professor who is called upon by the government to explain some mysterious goings-on. In England, a rogue flock of freaked-out pigeons destroys a neighborhood. At night, the hauntingly beautiful Northern Lights can be seen everywhere. Such is what happens when the Earth's core stops spinning. These are fun sequences (odd that such destruction is fun to watch, but it is), however audiences may squirm a bit when atmospheric disturbances force the space shuttle Endeavor to make a crash landing in the middle of Los Angeles. The scene is well-done (the shuttle gliding low over Dodger Stadium is sweet), but it's still a little strange to see a shuttle in jeopardy so soon after our recent tragedy. Thank God it was Endeavor and not Columbia in the film. Anyway, Keyes enlists the aid of a Carl Sagan-like celebrity scientist (played smugly and over the top by Stanley Tucci) to help set the government straight on the consequences of Earth's temperament. This is the film's Dumb Scene. Keyes, explaining that the spinning Earth's core provides electromagnetic microwaves that protect Earth from solar winds, asks if anyone in the room has a can of air freshener. Oddly, none of the U.S.'s top generals does, but one is found and he uses it as a flamethrower to torch a conveniently available peach to demonstrate what will happen to an unprotected Earth. The generals gasp and sigh, having apparently never before understood that the sun is hot.

The solution to the core problem: Nuke it. A dream team is developed, and, as in all movies of this variety, they are a ragtag bunch of disparate individuals who would otherwise never be found in the same kitchen. They include Hilary Swank as "Beck," the plucky navigator from the recently salvaged shuttle, and Delroy Lindo as "Braz," the reclusive inventor of a megalaser that can cut a hole through a mountain. A brief demonstration of this laser is proof enough for the government (and, by extension, the audience) that this laser, installed on a ship, can cut through thousands of miles on a journey to the center of the Earth. As Blanche on The Golden Girls might observe: "Let me get this straight. We can cut through thousands of miles of lava and rock with laser beams, all the way to the center of the Earth in an invincible ship with hundreds of thousands of pounds of pressure on every square inch, set off a nuclear device that restarts the entire planet, and we can't come up with a decent-tasting fat-free cheese?"

I wanted more on-land disaster scenes. Once our team goes underground, the special effects get repetitive. Frankly, I have seen computer screensavers that are more impressive than some of the core footage. Whales are featured prominently at the beginning and end of the film and both appearances are silly. They look like cartoons at the beginning, and at the end it would seem as though a group of them makes a phone call to an aircraft carrier. I hope someone can explain this to me.

Regardless, as escapist "science" fiction, this one is okay, as it destroys the requisite amount of recognizable, iconic landmarks. (Here, the Roman Colosseum and the aforementioned bridge. Freedom-kissers everywhere may be disappointed that the Eiffel Tower is spared.) Real acting by Lindo almost spoils the fun, but otherwise The Core succeeds as good, peachy escapist fluff. -- Bo List

A sensationalistic tale of street violence in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian import City of God seizes the viewer immediately, its energetic, explosive, instantly iconic opening sequence establishing an unmistakable tone and delivering a clear message: The City of God is a vibrant, dangerous place, and there's no way out.

The film opens in the midst of a street festival -- the swirling sounds of samba and staccato glimpses of a knife being prepped for slaughter slicing sharply against a stone as chickens in a nearby pen await decapitation and plucking. One chicken gets free from the pen and tries to escape, only to be chased by the sponsors of the festival. "In the City of God, if you run away they get you. If you stay, they get you too," says the film's narrator, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who finds himself face-to-face with the bird and caught between two rival gun-toting gangs: the Rio police and the adolescent drug-dealers who control the neighborhood.

Rocket, more an observer than actor, is in some ways a typical audience stand-in, but as an aspiring photographer who chose the camera over the gun to document his environment from the inside, he's also as much a stand-in for director Fernando Meirelles, who marshaled an army of mostly adolescent nonprofessional actors for this chronicle of the street gangs formed by poor children in Rio de Janeiro. The film follows these organic criminal units from their origins on through to a full-throttle gang war that wipes out most of the central players and finally brings the conflict to the surface in the eyes of the media and government.

When Rocket is caught between the cops and gangsters in the film's opening moments, the camera freezes on him, then the image rotates and morphs simultaneously to leap backward to the early days of the City of God, a huge housing project on the outskirts of Rio, with the older Rocket crouched in the street turning into a younger Rocket crouched in front of a soccer goal. Thus begins a long flashback that details the origins of gang life in the City of God, but just as crucial is this early and telling juxtaposition of low-tech content and high-tech style: The mise-en-scäne of the film is neorealist, but the cinematography, editing, and effects are hyperstylized, as if The Bicycle Thief had been reimagined through the post-CGI lens of Fight Club or The Matrix.

Visually, City of God is a film of tremendous ambition that rarely falters. Its use of hand-held camera and rapid editing lends the film an intimate, energetic mood and only enhances the power of the film's few calmer moments, such as a slow, silent pan over the murdered remnants of a brothel holdup. But surrounding this primary style are myriad stylistic flourishes -- the film's promiscuous camera running the gamut from a ground-level point-of-view shot of the fleeing chicken to the detached overhead surveillance of a spy satellite as it follows the animal's pursuers. Chopped into chapter-like segments, each with introductory titles, the film changes styles on the fly to fit different storytelling needs. One section, "The Story of the Apartment," shows the evolution of a drug den in one static yet constantly morphing shot; another segment conveys the hierarchy of the drug trade -- from messenger to lookout to soldier -- with great visual rhythm and economy.

For better or worse, this is one foreign film likely to be easily accessible to American eyes precisely because of how much it borrows from the hip and hard-boiled side of Hollywood. As a gritty, wide-scope, decade-spanning gangster tale, it echoes Scorsese above all, with the film more a South American street-culture cousin to Goodfellas than a companion to that other Western Hemisphere debut showoff of recent years, Amores Perros, to which it has been compared. City of God's central figure, gang leader L'il Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), is the movie's Joe Pesci -- an asexual sociopath whose monstrous bloodlust, even as a child, seems totally unexplained by social conditions. And, like Goodfellas, City of God is also based on a true story. But the film's time-hopping narrative and use of pop music owes as much to Tarantino. Its chaotic bloodletting is pure Peckinpah, and it may make better use of split-screen than anything since De Palma.

The City of God was built in the Sixties as a relocation program to move the poor and homeless away from tourist-friendly areas, a fact subtly alluded to in Rocket's voiceover. There is poverty and ruin everywhere, from the dust-covered excuses for roads to the fragile, modest shacks the residents call home to the battalion of emaciated stray dogs that line the streets. There are many nods to social conditions in the film, from the obvious poverty to comments on limited employment options to intimations of police corruption, but not much is made of this. Rather than a message movie of any stripe, City of God is a relatively amoral gangster tale. The film itself doesn't convey much palpable concern for the people on screen and, as a consequence, the viewer may not either. But this emotional blankness is used as a slate for an exercise in pure film style. The film doesn't shy away from the brutality of its milieu; in fact, it wallows in it, exploiting the violence for cinematic kicks while only occasionally acknowledging the suffering underneath the noise. There's enough of a disconnect here to give reflective viewers pause, but the ride is so frenetic and so gripping that you may not care until the credits roll. -- Chris Herrington

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