Evidently Mel Gibson is in it only for the barbarity. Scouring the globe, roaming the pages of history, he has alighted in Apocalypto on the illuminating example of the Mayan people, past their civilized peak, where a happy, peaceable, practical-joking tribe of jungle dwellers (sample joke: the prescription of a red-hot herb as a topical fertility drug, so that the duped hubby must, in full view of the guffawing villagers, hop around buck naked and plunk down his burning loins in a water trough -- wait, it gets even better -- and his wife must pour a pitcher of water down her gullet) is cruelly set upon and rounded up by a storm troop of fearsome, bloodthirsty, bone-in-the-nose killjoys in search of sacrificial offerings to their god Kukulkan. A paradise, in other words, no less than turn-of-the-13th-century Scotland in Braveheart or 1st-century Palestine in The Passion of the Christ, where Gibson may indulge his appetite for mayhem, persecution, torture, martyrdom. The nine-tenths-naked natives enable him, further, to indulge his lesser appetite for homoerotica.
For the main course, he gives us -- he shares with us -- multiple impalings, beheadings, and cuttings-out of hearts; he gives us a breath-stopping near-miss when the hero is saved from the chopping block only by the timely intervention of a solar eclipse ("Kukulkan has drunk his fill of blood!"), straight out of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; he gives us a sort of ApocaRambo when the hero escapes back into the snug jungle and, guerrilla-style, turns the tables on his urban pursuers, with assists from the panther and the viper; and he gives us a cross-cutting, nail-biting (or, if you're not completely into it, rib-tickling) climax in which the hero tries to shake the last of his pursuers in time to rescue his pregnant wife from a flooding pit, where she is standing on tiptoes to keep her nose above the water while simultaneously giving birth beneath it. Gibson perhaps in Apocalypto indulges a little less in slow-motion, saving it for special dramatic stress, as when your father is having his throat cut in front of your very eyes or you are jumping off a mile-high waterfall with spears whizzing past your ears, as opposed to the constant stress of The Passion....
The English subtitles and the no-name cast might almost lead you to believe, were it not for the telltale slickness and the stressful slow-motion, that you're watching a product of, say, the Guatemalan New Wave or the Undiscovered Belizean Cinema. At the very least, the film should do nothing to fan the flames of Gibson's suspected and substantiated anti-Semitism. And at the next least, the last-minute arrival on the scene of Christianity (a missed opportunity, there, for a cameo of Hugh Jackman in conquistador regalia), even if it's every bit as fortuitous as a solar eclipse in getting our hero out of a tight spot, is not openly -- and politically incorrectly -- applauded. That might be the film's one and only instance of restraint.
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Blood Diamond stands as a serviceable action-adventure despite its frequent interruptions for sermonettes on human rights and capitalist wrongs. The ripped-from-the-headlines story (yesterday's headlines: civil war in Sierra Leone, 1999) features the stock figures of a self-interested soldier of fortune, in league with slaughterous rebels and unscrupulous jewellers, an engagé foreign correspondent, and a hapless native peasant enslaved in the diamond mines and separated from his family, all united on a treasure hunt for a priceless buried gem, "a pink," big as a walnut. Without the politics, the strong-arm manipulation of emotions would be inexcusable. Or rather, more clearly inexcusable. It's still inexcusable even now. (The on-screen standing ovation at the final curtain is an unsubtle elbow-in-the-ribs to the moviegoer.) Behind the op-ed posturing, the film roughly resembles a middle-period, middle-drawer Robert Mitchum vehicle, except that Leonardo DiCaprio, affecting an acceptable Afrikaner accent, is no Robert Mitchum. For all his recently acquired bulk, including the heftiness of his credits in Martin Scorsese's oeuvre, he remains too boyish to be a persuasive action hero: Robby Bensonitis, let's call it. Jennifer Connelly, meantime, is both capable and decorative as the journalist. And the only thing keeping Djimon Hounsou from total sympathy is the sanctimony in which his director, Edward Zwick, enwraps him. All three, along with their Dark Continent environs, are nicely, cleanly, warmly photographed by Eduardo Serra.
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The Holiday arranges an Internet home exchange, for two weeks at Christmastime, between two wounded women desperate to get away: a London newspaper columnist with a cozy cottage in Surrey and a Hollywood trailer-cutter with a modernist mansion in Beverly Hills. The agreed-upon date of "tomorrow" initiates a pattern of time-compression that effectively removes the action from the realm of the real world. But then, writer and director Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give and, director only, What Women Want) does not seek to inhabit the real world. Underneath her superficial smooth talk, she's really just a seductive dope peddler, chumming up to her susceptible sisters on the subject of romantic disillusionment, and then hooking them on the same old delusions -- the grooved path, greased wheels, and phantom obstacles en route to Mr. Right. The film, at best, is a testament to the dearness of the dream.
Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz present a clear contrast in styles and talents, even though they never share the screen till the denouement. Winslet has no need of the heavy drama of Little Children in order to do exquisite shadings of feeling. She can do them as well in a piece of fluff. Diaz, exhibitionistically cute, can offer little but cheekbones and dimples. Jude Law, as Winslet's brother, a book editor harboring a deep but not dark secret, is well matched with Diaz as to cheekbones (luckily no one gets cut in the clinches), and is more personable than usual, showing off a Hugh Grant-y polish in his delivery of lines. And Jack Black, as a nice-guy film composer, though it hardly matters as what, is merely Jack Black. The sample of Diaz's work as a trailer-cutter -- an imaginary action thriller starring Lindsay Lohan and James Franco -- is dead funny: the two stars running straight at the camera and away from a mushrooming fireball, the male star diving sideways in slo-mo with two guns blazing. But the fantasies wherein Diaz sees her own life in terms of a movie trailer never really take flight. Meyers's affection for Golden Age Hollywood -- chiefly funnelled through the character of Eli Wallach as a widowed Oscar-winning screenwriter grumpily resisting a lifetime-achievement award from the WGA -- is doubtless genuine, but our agreement with her must stop short of her persistent hints that she herself should be painted golden.
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The Nativity Story is a bearably dull Christmas worship service, fully supernatural in its vision (the voice of God, a luminous Messenger, an avian Holy Spirit), yet full of luxuriously tactile costumes, solid sets, atmospheric locales, and earthy Mediterranean faces. (The half-Maori Keisha Castle-Hughes, though harmoniously olive in complexion, seems a bit overwhelmed in the role of the Virgin. Understandably.) The treatment hits all the essential points of the story without pulverizing them into mush: the three Magi on camels, Mary on a donkey and Joseph on foot, the sheep in the stable, the spotlighting star, the swell of orchestra and chorus in the epic mode of Miklos Rozsa. After the adolescent drug problems of Thirteen and the pace-setting skateboards of Lords of Dogtown, this makes an odd project for director Catherine Hardwicke, who hereby renounces trendiness and embraces tradition. Although her focus quite reasonably is on the plight of a pregnant teen, the filmmaker has made no attempt to "reimagine" the character for a new age, simply to imagine her as she might have been, a treacherous assignment carried out with unforeseen taste and composure. Mel Gibson, it goes without saying, would have made a good deal more of Herod's elimination of his competition.