Questioned Apocalypto; Leo in the Sierra with Diamond
By Fernando F. Croce

Apocalypto, now. Mel Gibson has issues, agreed, but let us stick to film -- the undigested psycho-baggage on display in Malibu and interviews is best left between him and his anger-management counselor, though on the screen he's managed to wrestle those knotted totems into a very personal directorial style. The Passion of the Christ is never less than disgusting in its insistent conflation of Christian martyrdom and jazzed-up masochism/sadism, yet all emotions are unmistakably Gibson's, palpitating with the insane intensity of a story that just had to be told by its tormented director. Does art soothe the beast? Not if Gibson's latest is any indication: further refining the superstar's deeply held belief that the body can only reach grace when it is being sliced open, Apocalypto offers an expanded dictionary of corporal punishment. Showman that he is, however, Gibson delays the carnage and lulls the audience before setting the right, blood-lusting mood; the narrative, set during the last gasps of the Mayan civilization, locates the first omen as the hero, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), spots a ravaged tribe making its way through the jungle, stricken with fear and looking for a new beginning. An old man regales the soulful villagers with a parable about Man's insatiable void, the morning brings horrors in the shape of raping 'n' pillaging brutes, who come from some Mayan metropolis seeking human sacrifices; the place is torched and the evil savages march the noble savages to their Sodom, though not before Jaguar Paw has stashed his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and son at the bottom of a rocky pit.

Gibson has added a political subtext by explicitly braiding the butchering, fear-mongering Mayan rulers to our current administration, but it's Reagan, not Bush II, providing the presidential specter. Apocalypto indeed transports audiences to another time, not so much to the pre-conquistador Americas as the action-flick '80s from which Gibson extracts his filmmaking templates. George P. Cosmatos (l'auteur du Rambo: First Blood Part II) is as much of a point of reference as Boorman's Emerald Forest and Herzog; the majestically ripped main bad-guy (Raoul Trujillo) could be patterned on Vernon Wells in The Road Warrior (or in Commando), the second-string rotter (Rodolfo Palacios) might be Billy Drago, the balls-eating bit (and the subsequent burning-balls bit) are from Porky's, perhaps. At the very least, Gibson has the courage of his absurdity -- a knife sails across the throat of the hero's father, who looks up at the pale sky and crumbles to the ground; Jaguar Paw is just about to join the decapitated noggins at the bottom of the pyramid when his wife achingly summons him from her cave, and an eclipse materializes. And Gibson, unlike most actors who take up directing, has a keen eye. The first image is a slow track forward into the jungle, with each leaf in the foliage looking ready, alive; the ornaments on the characters' faces fascinate him almost as much as the blood that flows from them, and, best of all, Gibson has for the most part retired his portentous slow-mo (after the slogging of Braveheart and The Passion, the film's fervid forward-motion is a very welcome). Gibson may yet become the barbarian-artist that cinema lacks (and needs) since Peckinpah died; Apocalypto is nothing if not visceral but, both as narrative and art, it ends where The New World begins.

*

Diamonds may be forever, but Blood Diamond hopefully will only last through the Oscar season. Yet another Movie with Something to Say that makes me feel like Samuel Goldywn snorting at directors to send their via messages Western Union, less because the messages should not be told than because the message is from the start simplified, compromised, and corrupted for the benefit of us sods in the dark. The jig this time is the diamond trade in Africa, but since this is the same Africa that has housed Hollywood's self-fellating "humanitarian" bits in such glamorized condescension-fests as The Interpreter, The Constant Gardener and The Last King of Scotland, critique ventures barely skin-deep (God forbid studios alienate future producers). The opening (a match is struck in the darkness) is very trite, but the face that emerges belongs to Djimon Hounsou, the gifted column of muscle who lent Steven Spielberg's Amistad what Woody Strode lent John Ford's Sergeant Rutledge. There was hope, but not for long -- Edward Zwick, following his own Man-Friday formula from Glory and The Last Samurai, has decided that that the plight of the Other can only be seen through an Aryan presence, hence the film in a New York minute goes from Hounsou's plight as a family man caught in the bestial upheavals of Sierra Leone to the spurious spiritual awakening of greedy, lily-white scoundrel Leonardo DiCaprio, who duly (and dully) learns to be a good man in Africa while trying to fuck Oscar-bait staple Jennifer Connelly.

Bloodthirsty radicals raid Hounsou's village, and his family dissipates; "I've freed you," one revolutionary leader bellows, Hounsou is sent to the river for brutal diamond labor instead of getting his hand chopped off. An egg-sized, pinkish gem is found, then buried as government soldiers bust in and hustle everybody to jail, including slick Aeolian smuggler DiCaprio, who overhears about the giant diamond and latches on to Hounsou in hopes of appeasing his boss (so sinister, he's actually played by reliable direct-to-video villain Arnold Vosloo). The storyline (decimated homes, search for family, bungle in the jungle) reads like Apocalypto Redux, but Gibson's picture at least tried to give a feel for individual human beings affected by the brutality around them; Blood Diamond, however, is content to exploit a half-assed notion of sanguine hands (the U.S. is responsible for two-thirds of global diamond demand, doncha know) so that it can use the people of Sierra Leone as an anonymous, suffering dark mass shredded by the bloody (but oh so tastefully staged) intervals of Uzi fire and explosions. Outrage isn't expressed, instead it is voiced by American reporter Connelly, who, this being 1999, laments about Clinton's bj receiving more airtime than the miseries of the country (she rests her eyes on a sprawling refugee camp and sighs, "you might catch a minute of this on CNN"). Like that asshole The Last King of Scotland "hero," Zwick & Co. are most comfortable with Africa from the viewpoint of a departing plane, so Blood Diamond becomes Treasure of the Sierra Leone, with DiCaprio handling whiskered-superstar duties and Hounsou behind calling him "boss." I await Dave Chappelle's skit on the Hollywood-saves-Africa genre.

*

The crucifixion-by-bamboo and gushing gashes of Apocalypto are a cakewalk beside the mind-numbing vapidity of The Holiday. Fatuous cuteness gift-wrapped in real-estate porn, Nancy Meyers's new rom-com is at first too inoffensive to really raise anybody's ire, but when the bodies of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges are dug up and frivolously dragged around the screen, the cinephile in me wants to see some asses getting kicked. Kate Winslet, a doormat in the Bridget Jones mold (an actual Brit taking Renée Zellweger's sloppy seconds -- ouch), and Cameron Diaz, an anxious movie-trailer editor (with her very own ongoing voiceover, apparently), decide to switch houses for Christmas to get over their romantic troubles. Winslet gets Diaz's California place and meets Jack Black, Diaz flies over to Winslet's London cottage and finds Jude Law; the two parallel romances flow like congested molasses while, from the wings, an old-school Hollywood screenwriter (Eli Wallach) bemoans the modern state of movie actresses, who got no "gumption." Myers, like her soul-sucking colleagues Charles Shyer and Norah Ephron, pours on the bourgeois syrup until your tongue feels hairy, with each performer doing their market-researched routines: Winslet pretending to be frumpy, Diaz telegraphing bitchiness in big block letters, Black doing agonizingly "hilarious" karaoke (after Nacho Libre and that Tenacious D floater, I am taking at least a year away from him), Law being a coat-hanger. It will make money, of course, and more than a few critics convinced themselves that it's a pretty okay chick-flick, but make no mistake -- The Reckless Moment is a chick-flick, The Holiday is patronizing antimatter.


Reviewed December 13, 2006.

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