In the first scene of Mel Gibson’s boring, affected, expensive, gruesomely violent and historically inaccurate curio Apocalypto, a humongous tapir (like a wild boar) charges from the jungle and attacks a peaceful tribe of hunters, who slaughter the animal and eat its testicles. For the next 130 minutes, they search for a better meal. Wouldn’t you? And while you’re at it, you might search for a better movie.
I went to Apocalypto expecting and hoping for a historic chronicle of the decline of the Mayan civilization. But although the movie does end with terrified Mayan survivors watching the arrival of the Spanish, it’s probably worth mentioning that by the time the real Spanish reached Mexico, the Mayans were already decimated. At the screening I attended, security guards flanked the entrance doors, opening and inspecting the contents of every critic’s briefcase, purse and backpack in a search for recording equipment. What a waste of time. Who would want to tape more than two hours of a movie nobody wants to see, featuring hundreds of people nobody has ever heard of, speaking a language nobody can understand? You would learn more from an illustrated National Geographic essay.
This is an action epic, not a plot-driven film about big issues, but here is the thumbnail C.A.T. scan: A friendly and peaceful tribe with a cosmic sense of family loyalty is alarmed to see another tribe, homeless and scared, fleeing some nameless threat beyond the jungle. Suddenly the good guys are invaded by Holcanes, a vicious mob of slave traders who burn their crops and huts, attack the men, rape their wives, butcher their children and leave all but a handful behind to die. One brave warrior named Jaguar Paw manages to lower his pregnant wife and son into an underground cave for safety before he is captured with his friends, all of them painfully hog-tied to bamboo poles and dragged across the continent to a Mayan city to be painted blue, then sold on the auction block or sacrificed to the gods. Along the way, a diseased child acting as a mystic foretells the doom that awaits the savages for destroying their people and their country. The prophecies come true, but first the audience must endure a long, harrowing Mayan-sacrifice sequence in which human hearts are ripped out of chest cavities while still beating and heads are severed and rolled down the steps of the pagan temple, to tumultuous roars of applause and cheers for more blood. I kept trying to figure out where all of this was supposed to be taking place. I have visited the ruins of Tulum, Cozumel and the Yucatan, and none of the ancient temples had steps that climbed into the sky. All I could think of was that this is where a Club Med now stands.
Despite being sliced and diced with spears, knives and arrows, Jaguar Paw miraculously escapes, pursued by the sadistic savage Middle Eye, and the rest of the movie is nothing more than a Jungle Jim chase flick with some startling imagery of Mexico and much heartfelt compassion for the hero. But Mel Gibson has more in mind, like a cheeky parallel between the Mayan rulers who destroyed their civilization by ruling their people with power based on fear, and the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. This kind of naïveté is rather touching, but the political and social overtones in Apocalypto are an awkward stretch that inspired audience laughter. Although the ludicrous script by Mr. Gibson and Farhad Safinia borders on children’s comic-book blurbs, take a NoDoz and you do learn a few things: (1) In a pinch, killer ants can substitute for surgical stitches; (2) opening your veins vertically from wrist to elbow after a cobra bite will make death faster and easier; and (3) if you jump off the top of a raging waterfall, don’t try it head-first.
The huge cast of spear-carriers from the Oom-Gawah-Bwana School of Dramatic Art is composed of talented Mexicans and other Latinos, except for Jaguar Paw, who is played by Rudy Youngblood, a Comanche and Cree Indian who hails from Texas. The actors are effective, the torture sequences are harrowing, but you still leave wondering what the hell Apocalypto is about, and what kind of fool would pay for it in the first place. Blood pours from every orifice in what looks like a terrible waste of Smucker’s raspberry sauce.
Leo Grows Up
Blood Diamond is a politically confusing but narratively engrossing thriller by Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai) about how the 1990’s civil war in Sierra Leone was financed by the illegal diamond trade, killing thousands of people who have never even seen a wedding ring. The diamond industry is still a multibillion-dollar industry today, and even with stringent new rules about the kinds of gems you can display at Cartier, hundreds of thousands still die in the mines. The movie is a violent, repellent look at the smugglers, traders and victims who lose their lives harvesting and selling them.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Danny Archer, a white African mercenary from Zimbabwe turned diamond smuggler, who works for a gang of dealers that operates out of Belgium. The wonderful West African actor Djimon Hounsou, who has given one brilliant performance after another in such diverse films as Amistad, In America and Gladiator, plays Solomon Vandy, a fisherman forced to work in the mines who has risked his life to find and bury a rare pink “blood diamond”—the kind of stone Elizabeth Taylor would kill for. A blood diamond is a rare gem produced by a crisis, valued by the amount of human blood it has cost, and capable of causing more. In the process of Solomon’s own struggle, his wife has been turned into a refugee by the government, and his son has been abducted by the vicious rebels, brainwashed and turned into a child soldier. Solomon knows the diamond could reunite his family and secure their future. Danny hears about it in prison and sets out on a mission to find it for himself. Torn between the corrupt government, the merciless smugglers in business suits in Antwerp and the savage rebels who have captured the diamond mines in Sierra Leone, Danny and Solomon form a partnership, but the only way they can pass through the military checkpoints and enter the enemy territory where the diamond is hidden is to enlist the aid of an American journalist (Jennifer Connelly) who can get them on the press convoy posing as a reporter and cameraman. In exchange, Danny promises to give her the scoop on the smugglers in neighboring Liberia, where diamonds can be sold legally for money that is then used to finance the war. Whew! If you lose track of the multiple cross-purposes, double-crosses and life-threatening perils from all sides, don’t worry: Just sit back and enjoy the gunfire.
Following the pink jewel as big as the Ritz from child slave labor to the Kimberley Process, the 2000 world conference in the capital of South Africa that eventually changed the import laws regulating the diamond industry, Blood Diamond is never dull. It is also the first Leonardo DiCaprio movie ever made in which he becomes a real man instead of a talented teenager. As ridiculous as he was as a scrawny, asexual Howard Hughes in The Aviator, he does everything in roughneck, leading-man action-hero style here. In addition to perfecting a convincing Afrikaner accent, he’s put on some muscle and some weight, and there’s even a small patch of fuzz on his chest. The movie business is like the diamond business: Give ’em time, and little pebbles eventually get carved, shaped, honed and polished into big rocks.
Every holiday season, a feel-good movie comes along that is just a bit warmer, more romantic and intelligent than the others. Last year, it was the wise, incandescent and criminally underrated The Family Stone. This December, it’s The Holiday, a movie so loaded with charm that it makes you glow all over and puts a smile in your heart. Writer-director Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give, What Women Want) doesn’t always get it right, but anyone who wrote Baby Boom, one of my favorite comedies of all time, can be forgiven anything. At least 90 percent of The Holiday is a stocking-stuffer from Tiffany’s.
In England, Iris (Kate Winslet), a writer for The Daily Telegraph, has wasted years in unrequited love with an arrogant, egotistical columnist (the dashing Rufus Sewell) who has finally broken her heart by announcing his engagement to another girl at the Christmas office party. In Los Angeles, Amanda (Cameron Diaz), one of the overpaid thirtysomethings who produce those horrible movie trailers that keep millions of potential filmgoers from ever wanting to go to the movies again, has finally dumped her live-in lover (Edward Burns), a handsome heel who writes music and scores more girls than movies. Searching the Internet for a tranquil place to get away and lick her wounds, Amanda exchanges her modern Hollywood digs for Iris’ country cottage in Surrey. Although they’ve never met, the two women experience miracles before they can even get their bags unpacked. On her first night in the snowy English countryside, Amanda is shagging Iris’ handsome, rakish brother, Graham (Jude Law). In sunny L.A., Iris battles Santa Ana winds and falls for a funny, sympathetic songwriter named Miles (Jack Black), who is nursing the heartburn of his own unrequited disaster. By the time the Christmas holidays end and it’s time to hum “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”, Iris, who trusts nobody, has revived the career of her neighbor, an Oscar-winning screenwriter from Hollywood’s golden era (Eli Wallach), and solved all irreconcilable problems with Cupid by cheering up the depressed, less-than-camera-ready Miles. Across the Atlantic, the cool, tough Amanda, who hasn’t cried since she was 15, is weeping buckets of tears over Graham, who turns out to be mature, solid and responsible, the loving father of two daughters, and too good to be true even by Tinseltown standards. Like Hallmark cards, the sentiments in The Holiday advise people who think they’ve closed all the wrong doors how to open new and better ones.
Nothing wrong with that—or with beautiful people in beautiful houses wearing beautiful clothes who are lonely and blue on Christmas Eve, either. Am I the only one who finds such a refreshing lack of cynicism a welcome change from the misery most American films dump on us during the holidays? My only caveat is that too much optimism runs the risk of crashing head-on into a brick wall of implausibility. The final 15 minutes of The Holiday diminish a lot of the film’s good intentions. The way everyone resolves the dilemma of jobs, careers, commitments and logistics, toasting the rosy future in time for a happy, Technicolor, Grandma Moses greeting-card finale is not only unconvincing but quasi-moronic. Still, Ms. Meyers has created some hearth-cozy situations, written some movie-parody zingers, and provided Eli Wallach with his best role in years (as the writer who made history by adding the word “kid” in “Here’s looking at you, kid” in Casablanca). Another surprise as big as Grauman’s Chinese: Jack Black finally lends subtlety and sweetness to the first and only performance of his career that you could call vulnerable or even remotely likeable. In fact, everybody in the cast does their most natural and endearing work, playing people who are decent and human and empowered by self-improvement. I left smiling, which ain’t bad.
Gotta go while still in the Christmas spirit. Matter of fact, as I sign off, I’m already reaching for the House Exchange ads in the International Herald Tribune. The Holiday makes me think there’s hope for us all.