Monday, January 29, 2007

Review - Blood Diamond

Hollywood loves action movies; it’s what they do best, with spectacular explosions, clearly defined characters and plausibility stretched to the limit. Hollywood also loves message movies; they give filmmakers a chance to show how aware they are of all the terrible things going on in the world, to show they really care (apropos of nothing, these movies are particularly popular around Oscar time). Director Edward Zwick loves to combine these two types of filmmaking, and Blood Diamond is his latest attempt to wrap a mainstream blockbuster around a political message.

This time Zwick wants to tell us all about the terrible things people do to each other in the pursuit of diamonds. His film is set in Sierra Leone in 1999, at a time when the country torn asunder by a violent civil war partly waged over possession the lucrative diamond fields. Over the course of eight years this conflict left tens of thousands of people dead and turned millions more into refugees, and the film makes a surprisingly fair attempt to depict the horrors of this period. The opening massacre, with rebel troops raiding a small fishing village, is a powerful sequence, with women and children being gunned down indiscriminately and survivors later having their limbs chopped off to prevent them from voting in the forthcoming elections.

It’s the kind of unpleasantness which might make one gag on their popcorn, and it’s refreshing to see Zwick - too often engaged in such bland silliness as The Last Samurai - taking a harder edge to his depiction of this serious issue. But Blood Diamond is a strange film which can’t really decide what kind of movie it wants to be. At times, the picture displays a surprising intelligence and grittiness when engaging with its moral message, and at other times the film seems to retreat from the controversy and slip into no-nonsense action mode, with straightforward character arcs and storytelling which signposts every twist long before it arrives. The tension which lies between these two aspects of Blood Diamond tends to make it a rather frustrating picture, but it’s good to see a big-budget Hollywood film engaging - however clumsily - with these issues, and Zwick does at least deliver enough entertainment to make the often preachy tone more palatable.

The diamond which causes all the trouble here is discovered by Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a humble fisherman who is captured by guerrilla forces in the raid mentioned above and forced to work on the diamond fields against his will. As he sifts absently through the dirt, his thoughts drift to the whereabouts of his family who disappeared in the chaos, and he has no idea that his wife and daughter have ended up in a refugee camp while his son is being trained as a child soldier. Then, Solomon feels something hard in his hand, and is astonished to find himself holding an enormous pink diamond. He stealthily manages to bury the precious stone in the nearby undergrowth, but not before his violent taskmaster (David Harewood) has caught him in the act, and the only thing which saves Solomon’s life is the fact that government forces quickly descend on the area, rounding up everyone in sight.

In jail, Solomon’s secret doesn’t remain a secret for long, and his knowledge of this priceless gem’s location is music to the ears of Danny Archer (Leonardo Di Caprio), a Zimbabwean ex-mercenary smuggler who is languishing in a nearby cell. As soon as Danny is out he immediately arranges for Solomon’s release, and then he offers Vandy a tempting quid pro quo: If Solomon leads Archer to the diamond, he will help Solomon find his family.
Blood Diamond subsequently becomes a rip-roaring adventure movie - or at least, it would if it didn’t keep getting interrupted by stodgy lumps of moralising. That’s the problem with message movies, the story so often gets lost behind the message. Charles Leavitt’s screenplay is well-researched and plausible in its attempts to tie the whole business of conflict diamonds together, but it struggles to make its points in a manner which doesn’t disrupt the film’s framework. As a result, breathless action sequences are followed by expositional scenes in which political points are uncomfortable wedged into the actors’ mouths, with some of the dialogue cringeworthy in nature. “In America, it's bling-bling. But out here it's bling-bang” is one particularly awful line which Di Caprio seems a little embarrassed to be uttering; and Jennifer Connelly’s Maddy fares little better, with lines like “You might catch a minute of this on CNN somewhere between sports and weather”. Zwick is also guilty of laying things on a bit too thickly at times, like his decision to show us a young, healthy-looking African boy writing on a blackboard before he slowly turns and reveals a stump where his other arm should be. It’s a shameful piece of manipulation.

The thing is, Zwick doesn’t need to make his points in such a lumpen fashion; there’s an inherent potency to much of Blood Diamond which is hard enough to shake. Its depiction of a country devouring itself in a bloody and senseless manner is brilliantly realised, with exceptional location work and fine camerawork creating an authentic atmosphere, and the sight of young boys being brainwashed and drugged into gun-toting killers has a horrible raw power; with a shot of one young boy laughing as he fires haphazardly into a crowd being particularly chilling.

Moments like this don’t need Zwick twisting the knife, and Blood Diamond is a much better film when it focuses on its story and lets its politics work in the background. Sure, that story isn’t anything special - in fact it’s structurally reminiscent of a Hollywood adventure yarn from the 30’s or 50’s, with X marking the spot - but Zwick knows how to handle big-scale action sequences and Blood Diamond’s set-pieces are dynamic and thrilling pieces of filmmaking. It’s often ludicrous, of course, with our heroes dodging a million bullets before being saved by the handiest of scriptwriting contrivances, but as a mainstream action film it works splendidly.

The main reason Blood Diamond remains so watchable is the electric pairing of Di Caprio and Hounsou. As the tough antihero Di Caprio sports a convincing accent and delivers an intelligent, charismatic performance; his path to eventual redemption may be a little glib, but Di Caprio maintains a steeliness in his performance, keeping his emotions and true motives close to his chest. Alongside him, Hounsou - such a powerful and passionate screen presence - exudes anger and emotion, and there’s a fascinating Defiant Ones-style spark between the pair. They both have their own reasons for forming this uneasy alliance - Solomon’s family, Archer’s diamond - and there’s always an edge of mistrust in their relationship, with Di Caprio even displaying some latent racism when they explode at each other in the final act. Connelly sometimes feels like a third wheel alongside the leading pair, but she manages to fashion the cliché of the crusading journalist into a solid character, and she shares good chemistry with Di Caprio, even if their half-developed romance is an unnecessary touch. Nobody else gets much of a look-in though, and Michael Sheen is wasted in an almost wordless cameo (amusing as it is to see Tony Blair buying conflict diamonds).

Even though Blood Diamond gradually slips into a generic and unsatisfyingly flat climax (with a terrible, hugely patronising final scene), it generally offers a fun, engaging ride with a couple of exceptional performances on display. But Blood Diamond isn’t content to be an entertaining action movie, it wants to make a difference. Prior to its release there was a brief flurry of controversy over the impact it would have on the diamond trade, and leading jeweller De Beers was forced to make a statement defending its position. But how much impact will it make, really? Message movies like this usually cause the filmmakers to pat themselves on the back after bringing an important issue to the world's attention - then the industry under attack pats itself on the back after successfully riding out the storm - and then life goes on as before. I’m not sure if Blood Diamond will make many people think twice about the stones they’re wearing on their fingers - after all, as the predictable plotting and explosive action constantly reminds us, it’s only a movie.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Review - The Fountain

There are some films which are so ambitious, imaginative and heartfelt, it seems almost cruel to label them a failure, but Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is one of these pictures. In an era when so many films offer nothing new, having the life market-tested out of them before they hit the cinema screens, one wants to applaud a picture which takes the kind of risks that this bewildering film does so frequently, but The Fountain is an absolute mess. It’s an incoherent and po-faced muddle which outstays its welcome long before the laughable finale - even with a 96-minute running time. At a number of points in The Fountain the words “finish it” are repeated, and every time I heard this good advice I hoped somebody was about to put this seriously misguided film out of its misery.

The Fountain stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in a story which spans 1,000 years, and in each of them Jackman plays a variation on the same character, striving to save the woman he loves. In 16th century Spain, Queen Isabel (Weisz) has been targeted by The Grand Inquisitor for her perceived heresy in attempting to find the secret of eternal youth. She summons Tomas (Jackman), her most trusted conquistador, and sends him on a quest for the Tree of Life which has apparently been hidden away in a lost Mayan pyramid. When he returns, she tells him, they will live together as immortals.

Weisz is very far from immortal in the second strand of The Fountain’s narrative. This time the setting is the present day United States, and Weisz’s Izzi is suffering from a brain tumour which is causing her to die in a very slow and oddly beatific fashion. But her husband Tommy (Jackman) hasn’t given up hope yet, and he spends hours in his lab trying to find a way to save her. “Death is a disease like any other, and I will find the cure” he states, but his obsession with this medical breakthrough means he is neglecting his wife when she needs him most. This section of the story is linked to the first through a book Izzi is writing - named, funnily enough, The Fountain - which tells the story of the Spanish search for the Tree of Life; and the climax of her book, if she lives long enough to write it, will have something to do with Xibalba.

What is Xibalba? Apparently it’s a nebula in the solar system which the Mayan people believed was their afterworld, the place souls go to be reborn, and this is the tangential connection to The Fountain’s third narrative thread. Now the film takes place in the 26th century, and a shaven-headed Jackman is positioned in a giant floating bubble which is gradually ascending through space towards Xibalba. For company, he has that troublesome tree growing in his bubble, and he is frequently visited by the ghost of Izzi. Occasionally he picks off pieces of the tree’s bark for food, and tattoos himself to mark the passage of time. What all this means is anyone’s guess.

The Fountain has been a labour of love for Aronofsky, who was originally set to make the film some four years ago with Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and a much bigger budget, but quite what he’s trying to say here is a mystery. Clearly the director has some deeply profound thoughts on his mind - The Fountain is awash in its own seriousness - but amidst all the surreal goings-on he never finds a way to express those ideas in an effective manner; and if he did, then they went right over my head. This isn’t necessarily disastrous for the film - I have enjoyed many films in the past without being able to grasp their meaning - but The Fountain fails in other departments as well. What matters with this film is not that it left me bemused, but that it left me bored.

For a film so concerned with eternal life, The Fountain is sorely lacking in any sense of life itself. Aronofsky directs in an oddly structured fashion, pushing the picture along on rigid lines with his continual vertical pans and slow zooms; and this relentless formalism is stifling. The same director’s Requiem for a Dream plunged right into the emotionally wrought waters of Hubert Selby Jr’s story, but here that kind of passion is notable by its absence. The pacing is poor, with many scenes being repeated over and over again, and along with the cutting together of three stories it makes the film feel rather baggy. The continual hopping from one time period to another has a detrimental effect on character development too, with neither of the leads ever fleshing out their various incarnations.

In fairness, both Jackman and Weisz give fine performances, but they’re acting in a void. Despite Jackman bringing intensity and gravity to his role, we never really get to know who he is - instead of a fully-formed character, Jackman plays Man with Beard, Man without Beard and Man in Bubble; that’s about as much depth as he is afforded. Weisz has also been forsaken in the characterisation department; she’s here more as an object of beauty than anything else, with Aronofsky bathing his fiancée in an angelic light and shooting her as lovingly as possible. The two actors can’t generate much heat in their scenes together though, and the failure of this central relationship pretty much kills the movie.

Aronofsky continues to tell three stories until the movie finally inches into its climactic act, and then he disastrously attempts to draw everything together with a final section in which the separate time periods appear to bleed into one another. It becomes quite clear, as we watch one anti-climax follow another, that the director has no idea how to end this picture, and things grow increasingly ridiculous as the movie hurtles towards the abyss. The natural reaction would be to laugh, but The Fountain takes itself so seriously - not a hint of humour is ever allowed to pierce its shield of self-importance - and instead this final onslaught of nonsense is simply depressing.

There are some lovely individual aspects to The Fountain, which makes its overall failure all the more disappointing. The visual effects shots - apparently created without recourse to CGI - are often brilliant, and Clint Mansell’s score is very good indeed, but the pretty imagery and music doesn’t seem to be underpinned by any tangible meaning, which negates its effect. One must admire Darren Aronofsky’s ambition and single-mindedness in making this picture, but he has lost his way badly with this self-indulgent folly, and it comes as an enormous letdown after the intelligent Pi and the lacerating Requiem for a Dream. The Fountain seems to tell us that life is short, and we should make the most of it while we can - what a shame this hugely talented filmmaker has spent six years creating such a turgid waste of time.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Review - Babel

Whatever you might say about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, there’s no doubting the director’s ambition. From its biblical title to its globe-encompassing narrative, Babel is a film which strains for profundity as it tackles a number of weighty themes - prejudice, destiny and our inability to communicate with our fellow man. But in this third collaboration with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Iñárritu’s reach spectacularly exceeds his grasp, and Babel collapses in on itself as the contrived storytelling, sluggish pacing and fudged messages take their toll in the picture’s second half. Babel is a film about miscommunication which ultimately has nothing to say.

But what a spectacularly well-made mess this is; you won’t see many films this year which are crafted with so much skill and flair. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography brings the strange beauty of three vastly different continents to life, Gustavo Santaolalla’s score is excellent (if a tad repetitive), and the performances are uniformly strong, with the various non-actors working seamlessly alongside Babel’s A-list talent. This movie seems to have it all, but the whole is far less than the sum of its parts.

There are three distinct strands to Babel’s narrative. The film opens in Morocco, with two young shepherd boys (Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani) being handed a rifle by their father to shoot any jackals they see in the mountains while they tend to their goats. Bored, the two boys decide to amuse themselves by testing the gun’s range, and they start taking pot-shots at the cars below. One of these bullets flies into the window of a passing coach and enters the shoulder of Susan (Cate Blanchett), an American tourist who is here with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) in a bid to rescue their ailing marriage. With his wife slowly bleeding to death, Richard embarks on a race against time to find a local doctor who can save the rapidly weakening Susan.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (or, more accurately, California), Richard and Susan’s children are in the care of Amelia (Adriana Barraza), a Mexican woman who has been a nanny to young Debbie and Mike since they were born. Amelia had made plans to travel back to Mexico to attend her son’s wedding, but the incident involving Richard and Susan has disrupted her plans and her attempts to find a friend or neighbour who can look after the kids for the day come to nought. When Amelia’s nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) turns up to drive her home, he’s understandably surprised to see the two children coming along for the ride.

These two sections of the film share a very clear link, but the third, and most interesting part of Babel takes place in Japan, and it seems oddly disconnected from the rest of the picture. Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a deaf-mute schoolgirl who has shared a difficult relationship with her father (Kôji Yakusho) since her mother’s suicide. Despite her attractiveness few boys want anything to do with her when they find out about her disability, and Chieko becomes desperate for some sort of human connection, debasing herself in an effort to gain it; she makes advances on her dentist and flashes her vagina to a group of teenage boys. Chieko is a volatile bundle of raging hormones, untapped frustration and sexual longing, and Kikuchi is simply stunning in a challenging and somewhat degrading role. But even though Chieko’s condition makes the theme of communication explicit, it’s still hard to see where exactly this part of the jigsaw is supposed to fit into the Babel puzzle.

The scenes in Japan have absolutely nothing to do with the scenes taking place in Africa or America, and when Arriaga does finally try to draw the whole thing together, the link he provides is so tenuous it’s almost laughable. In a way, this link sums up Babel’s major failing; Arriaga’s screenplay is an absurdly schematic creation which sacrifices character development and plausibility as it pushes its story through ever more contrived hoops. As the film progresses, much of Arriaga’s narrative rests on various characters making stupid decisions - particularly in the Mexican strand of the film - and as Babel forces everyone into various pits of despair it becomes increasingly difficult to care about any of their fates.

This is not the fault of the actors, who are all admirably committed to the cause. The presence of Hollywood stars Pitt and Blanchett could have felt incongruous against the unknown actors who populate much of the film, but they both give earthy, vanity-free performances. However, they aren’t exactly given a great deal to do other than continually push themselves through the emotional wringer, and both actors have been allowed to do much better work in the past. In Mexico, Gael Garcia Bernal is an engaging, if rather uninteresting presence, at least until his character is forced to arbitrarily lose his head in order to service another plot development; and Barraza (who played Bernal’s mother in Amores Perros) is moving in one of the film’s more sympathetic roles.

But Babel’s fatalism and endlessly miserable approach dilutes the intended impact of these stories, and so does Iñárritu’s jumbled narrative which - as in the awful 21 Grams - comes across as a pointless affectation. The decision to hop between countries as if these incidents were happening concurrently, when they obviously aren’t, adds nothing to the overall piece, and it occasionally has a detrimental effect - an early phone call from Brad Pitt suggests to the viewer that Blanchett’s character will be OK, which makes the long scenes in which she subsequently writhes in agony seem even more purposeless. I always felt that the muddled structure of 21 Grams disguised the absurdity of that film’s melodramatic plotting, while here it simply makes the film feel bloated.

Iñárritu’s style didn’t always have this effect. At 153 minutes Amores Perros runs ten minutes longer than Babel and almost half an hour longer than 21 Grams, and yet when I re-watched it recently I was struck by how much tighter, more incisive and more exhilarating that film remained in comparison with the director’s subsequent efforts. Amores Perros was propelled by richly drawn characters and a breakneck energy which is absent from the director’s grimly lugubrious later works, and while Arriaga and Iñárritu have grown more ambitious since their first collaboration, their results haven’t come close to matching the impact of that extraordinary film.

The best moments in Babel are the ones which have least to do with Arriaga’s torturous narrative, the ones in which Iñárritu can simply display his undeniable grasp of filmmaking language. There’s one superb moment in a Japanese nightclub in which the dance music gradually grows louder until it’s almost overwhelming, and then the director abruptly pulls the sound as he cuts to Chieko’s point of view. The silence is deafening. Iñárritu also has an intuitive ability to fully immerse the viewers into the sights and sounds of whatever locale the action happens to be occurring in, and the vibrant sequences where he simply allows things to unfold at a Mexican wedding, a Moroccan village or the streets of Tokyo are remarkably alive with feeling and atmosphere.

These moments are fleeting bright spots in a relentlessly sorrowful picture though, and Babel’s final section is particularly interminable, with the slack editing allowing almost every scene to run on longer than it needs to. Ever since 21 Grams Arriaga and Iñárritu seem to believe that lingering on repeated scenes of suffering and anguish is enough to be taken as some sort of statement on the human condition - but Babel is artifice, not art. It has no meaning beyond some “we’re all the same/can’t we just get along” moralising, and the lack of emotional impact the film offers at the close makes its 140 gruelling minutes seem rather unedifying. Iñárritu is still one of the most naturally gifted directors working in cinema today, and perhaps the rumours of an irrevocable split with Guillermo Arriaga could be the impetus he needs to really exploit his potential; forcing him to move into new territory which will hopefully be unmarked by such trite and heavy-handed storytelling. All the world’s a stage for Iñárritu, but all Arriaga’s men and women are merely pawns.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Review - The Pursuit of Happyness

Will Smith is one of the most likable and charismatic leading men in American cinema, so if you’re going to watch somebody stumble from one soul-destroying disaster to another for two hours, then it may as well be him. Smith stars as Chris Gardner, a real-life character who found himself living a hand-to-mouth existence amidst the renewed financial optimism of Reagan-era America, before pursuing his dream of becoming a stockbroker. But the road to recovery is a long and painful one for Chris, and The Pursuit of Happyness is one of those films where you’re thinking “surely things can’t get any worse for this guy” every five minutes, and then they do.

As a result of Gardner’s endless setbacks, The Pursuit of Happyness becomes something of a slog; and I’m not sure if it’s worth trudging through endless scenes of misery and despair in order the enjoy the brief spots of elation the film offers at the climax; but Gabriel Muccino’s film has a couple of aces up its sleeve, and their names are Will and Jaden Smith. The performances from the star and his real-life son are low-key, engaging and touching, and they give the picture a genuine core of emotion which helps to paper over some - but not all - of the movie’s flaws.

When we first meet Chris Gardner his struggles are only just beginning. It’s 1981and Gardner is a salesman in San Francisco who is having difficulty persuading various doctors and health organisations that the portable bone density scanners he has invested his life savings in are worth purchasing. Chris marches from rejection to rejection with this bulky contraption in his hand, and his lack of success is putting a financial strain on his family. His wife Linda (Thandie Newton, marooned in a badly-written role) is working a double-shift in an attempt to make some inroads into their debts, but the bills keep piling up and their marriage is suffering as a result. The Gardners can’t even afford decent care for their son, and instead young Christopher (Jaden Smith) is stuck with a feckless and cranky old Chinese woman whose day centre sign misspells the word ‘Happiness’ (hence the title).

Then, fate intervenes. Chris spots a businessman parking a very expensive-looking car and is dying to know what the man does for a living. He’s a stockbroker, and his belief that all you need to succeed in this field is to be good with numbers and good with people strikes a chord with Chris. He has always had a knack for mathematics, and he’s a personable chap, so why shouldn’t he have a go? Chris signs up for an unpaid internship at Dean Witter stockbrokers - an exacting six-month course from which only one candidate will be selected - and as he gets down to work his life begins to fall apart. Linda leaves him and their son Christopher to try and find a job in New York, and Chris is later thrown out of his apartment for non-payment of rent. Despite being homeless and struggling to take care of his child, Chris continues to work at his internship and tries desperately to sell his remaining bone density scanners at the same time.

Chris Gardner’s story has pretty much everything a Hollywood tearjerker could hope for - triumph against the odds, chasing the American dream, a cute kid in tow - but The Pursuit of Happyness doesn’t work half as well as it should do. The relentless assault of bad luck eventually takes its toll, and at some point during the film’s second half the repetitive nature of Chris’ experiences begins to grate. We see him get turned down at one sales pitch after another, we see him lose one of his scanners (twice) and fortuitously get it back (twice), and we see him running through the streets of San Francisco again and again. The screenplay’s pattern of following each bright spot with another kick in the teeth steadily grows as predictable as a metronome, and Muccino’s flat direction never looks like lifting the picture out of its by-the-numbers stupor. The film’s determination to milk Gardner’s story for all it’s worth (in reality his internship paid $1,000 per month, and he wasn’t rejected from the Glide women’s shelter as he is here) eventually works against it, stifling its power by laying the adversity on too heavily.

It’s a rather lumpy mixture, but the central pairing is almost good enough to keep the picture on track. With no major names among the supporting cast - aside from the aforementioned Newton, and Dan Castellaneta as a possibly racist Dean Witter employee - it’s left to Smith and Son to carry the whole show, and they do it with some skill. Under a greying afro and drooping moustache, the 38 year-old Smith delivers one of the few genuinely mature performances of his career, instilling his character with a moving sense of pride and resolve, making this almost saintly figure feel real. Against Muccino’s unsubtle direction, Smith’s tactic of underplaying the bigger emotional moments makes them far more affecting - the way he simply clasps his hands together in silent joy after fixing the one scanner he has left to sell, or the way his eyes slowly fill with tears when he and his son are forced to spend the night in a subway toilet. It’s moments like this which give The Pursuit of Happyness brief touches of heartfelt emotion, and Smith’s onscreen work with his son is a constant source of pleasure. Jaden is a natural and relaxed actor, and he manages the not-inconsiderable feat of being a cute child in a Hollywood tearjerker without ever becoming a cloying presence. Between them, Will and Jaden provide one of the most touching and plausible depictions of a father/son relationship in recent years.

That relationship is pretty much all the movie has in its favour though, and the incessant tugging of the heartstrings is eventually counterproductive. The Pursuit of Happyness left me cold, not only because it somehow manages to make a true story feel like a false one, but also because it occasionally seems to lose sight of what’s important in Gardner’s tale. “They all looked so happy” Smith’s voiceover muses as he watches various stockbrokers wandering past, “why couldn’t I be that happy?”; and while this is a perfectly reasonable question, The Pursuit of Happyness often seems obsessed with the idea that money is the key to the happiness Chris desires. The rich white men whom Gardner does business with are all benevolent, jolly and inclusive, while most of the poor people he encounters are venal, aggressive and deceitful; and when Chris is rewarded for the enormous revenue he has generated with a permanent position at Dean Witter, the end credits can’t wait to tell us how much money he made over the next couple of years. It seems the filmmakers took the idea of rags-to-riches a tad too literally; and while Will and Jaden Smith work overtime to instil this picture with some heart, it’s disheartening to realise The Pursuit of Happyness is really all about the pursuit of wealth.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Review - A Prairie Home Companion

At one point in A Prairie Home Companion, the mysterious character played by Virginia Madsen says “there is no tragedy in the death of an old man”, and under the circumstances her words have a bitter irony. This is the last film directed by the mercurial Robert Altman, and his death last November did feel like something of a tragedy for cinema. We lost a daring, innovative, imaginative filmmaker; an utterly singular artist who never compromised his reckless style to gain favour with the establishment, and even at the age of 81 he was still one of the most consistently interesting figures working in American cinema. How can the passing of such a man be considered as anything other than a tragedy?

So, one approaches
A Prairie Home Companion with mixed feelings. This will be the last Robert Altman film we have the pleasure of viewing, but it’s a relief to report that the director went out on a high note. His cinematic take on Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio show is full of traditional Altman tropes - an eclectic ensemble, overlapping dialogue, an endlessly roaming camera - and it’s also full of laughs; but this light and breezy film has a surprisingly dark underbelly, and it seems eerily prophetic that this particular picture is so often preoccupied with death. Despite that shadow of death, however, A Prairie Home Companion is a wonderfully alive piece of filmmaking.

I had never heard of Garrison Keillor’s radio show before the release of this film, but apparently it has attained cult status in the US with its mix of country music, stories, jokes and spoof advertisements. It is presented by Keillor in front of a live studio audience, and it has been running for some three decades now with very little change in the formula - I suppose if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it - but this strange little production still seems to be a particularly unlikely basis for a feature film.

But it works beautifully, and much of the credit for the film’s success must go to Keillor, whose screenplay seems perfectly attuned to Altman’s direction. In dividing its attention between events both onstage and off, the film allows a wonderful mix of characters to cross paths, with Altman cherry-picking the choicest moments for inclusion in the ramshackle narrative. Keillor also appears in the film as a version of himself, and he does a very good job, particularly when the cast alongside him is such an embarrassment of acting riches. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are a pair of singing sisters, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are a hilarious double-act as singing cowboys, and Kevin Kline is on fine comic form as a barely-competent private eye. The ensemble is rounded out by Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen, Marylouise Burke and LQ Jones; and the actors all appear to be perfect fit for their various roles.

There’s not a lot in the way of plot here, but Keillor’s screenplay does inject proceedings with a small dose of tension by making this the last broadcast of his show. WLT, the radio station behind the programme, has been sold to a Texan conglomerate and there are rumours flying around the Fitzgerald theatre that
A Prairie Home Companion is about to be dropped from the schedules. But the show must go on, and the performers and crew continue to go about their business while they wait for the dreaded axe to fall.

To be honest the central plot hook is - as in so many of Altman’s films - pretty much irrelevant, and what counts here is character and atmosphere.
A Prairie Home Companion is a collection of lovely moments, small touches and deft strokes, which gradually builds into a warmly satisfying picture. Altman’s pacing is leisurely; he allows scenes to play out in their own time, with his camera slowly picking up on minor details, and this relaxed approach sees the film settle into a comfortable rhythm which is typically Altman. Scenes which may seem inconsequential are incorporated into the overall piece, contributing to the sense of detail and texture which the film possesses.

Altman always loved actors, and cast on display here spark off each other like they’ve been doing it for years. Streep and Tomlin share an infectious sense of fun in their scenes together, finishing each other’s sentences and giggling as they tell stories from the family’s past to Lohan’s Lola - it’s a perfect example of how Altman’s overlapping dialogue gives a naturalistic air to the way his characters interact. Harrelson and Reilly’s brilliant performances make one wish for a Dusty and Lefty spin-off movie, and their dirty joke medley towards the end of the film is a side-splitting highlight; and even if Kevin Kline’s Guy Noir often seems like a resurrection of
A Fish Called Wanda’s Otto, who would complain when he can produce as many laughs as he does here?

But it’s the character played by Virginia Madsen who is the most interesting of all. Looking beautiful in a white coat and bathed in light, she’s an angel who has come to the theatre to claim some lives on the night the show dies. It’s a risky move by Altman and Keillor, to bring this fantastical element into the film, but they just about manage to swing it, and the director’s death gives this particular aspect of the picture a whole new relevance. It’s always strange when a director’s last film seems to somehow predict their imminent passing by focusing on themes of mortality, fate or regret, and it has happened a number of times in the past - think of Tarkovsky’s
The Sacrifice, Kieslowski’s Red or pretty much any of Kurosawa’s final pictures. A Prairie Home Companion is given a resonance through the passing of its director which is strange to experience, and it lends the enigmatic final scene a powerful edge. As the angel of death walks directly towards the camera, one can’t help wondering if it’s the man behind the camera she is coming to claim.

A Prairie Home Companion isn’t an Altman masterpiece, and there are a few niggling little flaws which must be taken into consideration. The character played by Tommy Lee Jones is a rather shapeless one, and it would have been nice to see the actor getting more of a chance to make an impact on the proceedings before finally being dealt with in such an arbitrary manner. The shaggy nature of the film’s structure also, inevitably, means that some scenes hit the mark while others don’t - in particular, I wasn’t particularly taken by the revelations about the prior relationship between Streep and Keillor’s characters - but these minor flaws thankfully don’t leave much of an impression.

This is a fine way for Robert Altman to bow out; a hugely enjoyable picture which is every bit as meandering and idiosyncratic as you’d expect it to be.
A Prairie Home Companion climaxes with the all of the major characters singing and dancing on the stage, and it’s a hugely uplifting finale, but there’s a lingering sense of sadness here as well. As the credits roll they’re not just announcing the end of the movie, but the end of the line for Altman too - and as the picture comes to a close, we realise the lights have finally gone out on an extraordinary life.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Review - Rocky Balboa

“I ain’t interested in getting mangled and embarrassed”. That’s what Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) tells a boxing agent halfway through his latest film; but if avoiding embarrassment is what Rocky wants, then one would imagine climbing into the ring to face a champion half his age would be something best avoided. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what Stallone has done for this, the sixth film in the Rocky series, and the appearance of this picture some 16 years after the series completed its descent into self-parody with Rocky V is hardly a film we’ve been awaiting with bated breath.

So where is Rocky now? Well, he’s still living in Philadelphia, where he holds the status of local hero, and he’s now running a small Italian restaurant named Adrian’s, in memory of his late wife who has passed away. The shadow of the past hangs heavily over the film’s early scenes; on the anniversary of Adrian’s death, Rocky takes his reluctant friend Paulie (Burt Young) on a nostalgic tour of the places which were important to him in years gone by, and the past has also disrupted his relationship with his son Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), who is embarrassed by people only ever seeing him as his father’s son. Even at his restaurant, people seem more interested in hearing fight stories and getting a picture taken with the former champ than they do in having a good meal.

In fact, the first half hour of the film is pretty much all nostalgia - even when Rocky strikes up a new relationship with barmaid Marie (Geraldine Hughes) it turns out to be ‘Little Marie’ from the original
Rocky all grown up - and the effect of this endless navel-gazing makes the opening section of the film feel rather maudlin. Yes, there’s an irresistible quiver of excitement to be had when the opening credits start running to the sound of Bill Conti’s classic theme, but our affection for the first Rocky film has its limits, and the film sticks so rigidly to the formula established by the previous efforts that we begin to wonder if Rocky Balboa has anything new to offer?

Thankfully, some sort of plot eventually kicks in and this film gradually begins to find its own identity. The opponent this time is Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver), a young champion whose frequent easy knockdowns have seen the public turn against him, showering him with ice as he tried to leave the ring after a recent quick-as-a-flash victory. With many people decrying the state of the modern fight game, ESPN sets up a computer-generated match between Rocky and Mason - two champions separated by three decades - and Rocky’s victory seems to provide more evidence that standards are slipping in the boxing world. When Rocky himself sees this broadcast, it seems to unlock something inside of him, and he starts feeling the urge to pull on his gloves again. He applies for a licence and begins a bit of light training, and when Dixon’s management team hear about this development they come up with the bright idea of an exhibition match between the pair.

I know what you’re thinking, this all sounds very silly, and to be honest it is. As well as being rather silly
Rocky Balboa is clichéd, cheesy and structurally lopsided - there’s no way it should work as well as it does. But Rocky has never really been about subtlety or nuance, it’s all about heart, and that’s something Rocky Balboa has in abundance. Stallone’s screenplay continually returns to the same themes - follow your dreams, believe in yourself, take the hits and keep on going - and while these ideas may be played out in simplistic fashion, often through impassioned speeches from Stallone, they’re expressed with a sense of integrity and self-belief which is touching to witness.

At the centre of all things
Rocky is Sylvester Stallone, and his performance here is one of the main reasons for this movie’s unexpected impact. It’s hard to avoid seeing Rocky as an approximation of Stallone himself; after all he was the young unknown who came out of nowhere to live the American dream in 1976 - he was Rocky - and over the subsequent years Stallone took a number of beatings, with his films being critically derided and often ignored by the public. Now he is seen by many as something of a joke, a dinosaur in a young man’s game, and in Rocky Balboa he seizes his chance to stand up to his critics and show them he’s still got what it takes.

Perhaps Stallone’s affinity with the character is what gives his lead performance such an unaffected air of naturalism and lived-in depth. As an actor, Stallone has always had clear limits, but here he manages to give a tender, expressive performance full of humility and pride. There’s something engaging about that oddly lopsided, hangdog face of his, and his slurring drawl is perfect for the large amount of self-deprecating humour and homespun philosophy which is present in the screenplay. He infuses his part with real emotional weight, and it won’t take long for Rocky to have you in his corner, cheering him on yet again. The rest of the characters are painted in broad strokes, with Mason Dixon and Rocky Jr. suffering from poorly-developed parts; but Stallone gives Burt Young and Geraldine Hughes plenty of room to work alongside him, and they both offer strong support. Young’s performance is particularly enjoyable - full of sardonic humour - and the film benefits from a real sense of affection between Paulie and Rocky.

Rocky Balboa
just about gets away with the lethargic pace it employs for its first half, and it’s a relief when the big fight looms on the horizon and the film really springs into life. There’s a classic training montage, with Rocky lifting weights, punching slabs of meat and - of course - running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That montage tells us that Rocky is back, and the climactic fight - which takes up most of the film’s final twenty minutes - is as big and bruising as any which have gone before. Extremely well edited, the bout sees past and present colliding as memories of Rocky’s earlier encounters bleed into his titanic battle with Dixon, and the result is a supremely exciting and involving 10-rounder. Of course, you can see how the movie is going to end from pretty much the first frame, but that doesn’t really seem to matter this time.

“What’s crazy about standing toe-to-toe with someone and saying ‘I am’?” Rocky asks when people question his decision to get back in the fight game, and
Rocky Balboa emerges as a fine testament to an old man willing to go the distance even if his best years are long behind him. This is a rousing and surprisingly moving underdog tale which overcomes its various flaws through sheer will, relying on the big-heartedness of its story to win the audience over, and it’s ultimately a triumphant return for Sylvester Stallone. He has given a sense of dignity back to his most enduring character, and in doing so he has reclaimed his own reputation. He has fully earned this final round.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Review - Miss Potter

Maybe it’s all down to the unexpected success of Finding Neverland - the twee JM Barrie biopic which charmed its way to a number of Oscar nominations in 2004 - or perhaps it has something to do with a young wizard recently making the name Potter very fashionable among both literary and cinematic circles. In truth, it’s hard to see any real reason for this tepid film version of Beatrix Potter’s life to exist. It tells a very uninteresting story in a very uninteresting way, and it’s one of those films which begins to recede in your memory even while you watch it. After the wonderful imagination and heart on show in 1995’s near-flawless Babe, this is a resoundingly disappointing return to directing from Australian filmmaker Chris Noonan.

Miss Potter tells the story of Beatrix (Renée Zellweger), the woman whose tales of anthropomorphised woodland creatures have become some of the best-loved children’s books of all time. Here we see Beatrix taking those first, unsteady steps to fame, and the film opens with her pitching her idea to an pair of publishing brothers who seem less than enthusiastic. But they surprisingly decide to take Potter on, with the intention of palming this silly “bunny book” off on their younger brother Norman (Ewan McGregor), a seemingly naïve young man who is trying to break into the business. Norman sees much more in The Tale of Peter Rabbit than his older brothers do though, and soon enough he starts to see something in the author herself, with a romance quickly blossoming. However, this relationship greatly disappoints Potter’s parents, who can’t bear the idea of their daughter marrying a tradesman.

The conflict between Beatrix and her parents over Norman’s suitability as a husband is just about the only hint of drama in this vapid picture, and even at 92 minutes
Miss Potter feels rather bereft of incident. Frankly, the life of Beatrix Potter isn’t the most riveting story ever told - she came from a wealthy family, wrote some best-selling books, became even more wealthy, and then retired to the countryside. Perhaps recognising the paucity of drama in this tale, Miss Potter’s writer Richard Maltby Jr. tries to focus on the chaste romance between the central pair, but this resolutely uninteresting relationship never sparks into life, and there’s no real emotional impact when tragedy strikes.

But the biggest problem
Miss Potter faces is an unfortunate case of miscasting in the central role, with Renée Zellweger completely out of place as the writer. Her horribly mannered performance is full of self-consciously ‘cute’ tics and gestures, and the usual Zellweger caveats also apply here. Her lines are all delivered in that croaky, whispery tone of voice; and she is constantly pulling faces, squinting and grimacing as if she has just swallowed a mouthful of vinegar. Distractingly, the woman who have been perfect for the part is often standing right next to Zellweger, with Emily Watson bringing charm and wit to her role as Norman’s sister and Potter’s closest friend. One can only imagine how much more palatable the film would have been if she had been cast as the titular character.

Beyond the lead, however, there are some choice pieces of character acting on show here. Ewan McGregor is funny and likeable as the rather timid Norman, and it’s good to see him on such engaging form after a series of underwhelming displays. There is also fine support from Barbara Flynn and Bill Paterson as Potter’s parents, with the magnificent facial hair sported by Paterson proving particularly entertaining (it’s a pretty great movie for facial hair all round). Another performance of note comes from Matyelok Gibbs as the old woman who acts as Beatrix’s silent, unsmiling chaperone; in the film’s first half she’s a constant presence in the background of the action, often providing some fine deadpan comedy with her reactions to Norman’s courtship of Beatrix.

But we can only derive so much pleasure from fun performances, and the lack of substance to Miss Potter is ultimately wearing. Chris Noonan’s handling of the story is mostly unadventurous, allowing the beautifully-shot countryside to do all the work, but he does inject one or two brief flourishes into the film. At a couple of moments in
Miss Potter the characters Beatrix is drawing seem to come to life on the page, wiggling their noses and hopping about, and this touch pays dividends in a neat scene later in the picture; when tragedy has affected Beatrix’s life and her cartoons start to run away from the shadow of death as she tries to draw them. This is the only moment in the movie which feels fresh, and this brief element of darkness comes as a welcome break from the insufferably sweet goings on elsewhere. Unfortunately, the gambit of allowing Beatrix’s creations to move about also leads to the writer admonishing them for doing so - and the sight of the character saying “Peter, stop that!” or “Flopsy, behave” only serves to make Miss Potter look a little, well, potty.

Miss Potter drifts by painlessly enough for a while, but it loses any semblance of forward momentum in the final third, with endless scenes of Beatrix wandering around the Lake District and buying up various pieces of land which she later donated to the National Trust. The film drizzles to a close and only leaves one wondering what the point of it all was. Sure, Beatrix Potter’s books have delighted generations of children, and she did great preservation work for the National Trust; but does every famous person automatically deserve to have their life played out on screen, even when their story is as bland and incident-free as this? Miss Potter may please those filmgoers who enjoy pretty, undemanding movies which don’t spring any surprises, but this empty biopic left me cold; and anyone looking for a Potter to provide a bit of fun at the cinema should probably just wait for Harry.

Review - The Last King of Scotland

Forest Whitaker stars as notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Actually, that’s not strictly true - he doesn’t star in the film, he dominates it. With his bulky frame and softly-spoken manner, Whitaker has often been cast as a gentle giant in the past; and even when he does play a villain - such as in David Fincher’s Panic Room - he’s usually a conflicted one who often has an attack of conscience which turns him around. In The Last King of Scotland, conscience doesn’t come into it. The actor completely embodies Amin, giving a performance which is charismatic, explosive and terrifying; and the brilliance of Whitaker’s central turn always demands the viewers’ full attention, even if the film around him is too maddeningly uneven to ever exert the same kind of power.
The Last King of Scotland is an adaptation of Giles Foden’s semi-fictional novel which tells the story of a Scottish doctor’s bizarre relationship with Idi Amin. After two fantastic documentaries which used adventurous recreational techniques to illuminate their subject matter, Kevin Macdonald has made the natural progression to narrative features, and under his guidance The Last King of Scotland emerges as an fairly entertaining political thriller which struggles to bring its disparate elements (biopic, comedy, horror, thriller) together in a satisfying way.

The film opens in 1970, with Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) celebrating his graduation and looking ahead to his future as a doctor. But a life working alongside his domineering father hardly appeals, and on a whim Nicholas pulls out a globe, spinning it while closing his eyes and repeating the words “wherever it lands, you go. Wherever it lands, you go”. The young doctor actually cheats - dismissing the first choice of Canada and allowing himself a second spin - and he seems much more satisfied when he finds himself staring at Uganda. Nicholas is looking for fun, adventure and a step into the unknown, and the mysterious African nation certainly fits that bill. How different things would have been if he stuck to his first choice.

Fast-forward a few months, and Nicholas has arrived in Uganda to help out at a small mission with a doctor (Adam Kotz) and his attractive wife (Gillian Anderson). He has also arrived slap-bang in the middle of a major turning point in the country’s history, with Idi Amin leading a military coup against Prime Minister Milton Obote, much to the delight of the Ugandan people. Soon, Nicholas gets to watch Amin in action - being present at one of his rousing speeches - and then a chance encounter on a country road sees the young Scotsman treating Amin’s hand after a car accident. The general is hugely impressed by Nicholas’ decisive and ballsy attitude, and his ability to maintain control in a hectic, tense situation; and he decides this is the kind of man he needs to have around him. Nicholas is offered the chance to become Idi Amin’s personal physician and - after a short stay at the general’s opulent home - he gratefully accepts.

The odd relationship between this unlikely couple is the motor which drives The Last King of Scotland’s best moments. Amin seems to sense some sort of kinship with his new doctor, and he quickly draws him into his inner circle, asking him for his thoughts on various issues and even allowing him to act as a proxy during a meeting with Austrian officials. When they’re together Amin is often avuncular and charming, and a sense of trust grows between the pair until Nicholas is positioned as one of his most important advisors. For Nicholas, things couldn’t be better: he lives a life of luxury, drives a fast car and has gorgeous women in thrall to him; but he foolishly allows his roving eye to drift towards one of Amin’s three wives (Kerry Washington), and as he gradually realises the extent of his boss’s crimes he finds it almost impossible to extricate himself from the messy situation he has found himself in.

One of the most interesting decisions The Last King of Scotland makes is to have the central drama play out between two characters who do nothing to earn our sympathy or affection. One the one side we have a cold-blooded dictator and mass-murderer, and on the other we have a young man who is arrogant, cowardly, and often downright stupid. Nicholas is a self-serving creep who begins working in Uganda with some vague intention of doing good, but his head is easily turned by the wealth and status on offer, and when he finally acts in the second half it’s purely out of a desire to save his own skin, to pull himself out of the trouble he has brought on himself. It proves to be something of an obstacle for the film to allow this figure - effectively the audience’s surrogate - to be such an dislikeable fellow; and this curious dynamic is perhaps a reason why The Last King of Scotland never really gripped me in spite all of the things it does so well.

And the film does indeed do a lot of things well. Anthony Dod Mantle’s excellent cinematography gives the picture an exotic, burnished sheen which adds to its visceral impact; the editing is sharp and lively; and Macdonald proves adept at handling both the large-scale crowd scenes as well as the more intimate moments between Amin and Nicholas. But the film’s screenplay, by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, is problematic. It lacks depth, and much of its contrived plotting slots together in an all-too-neat fashion. In particular, the film’s climax coincides with the Entebbe raid of 1976, but are we really supposed to believe that Nicholas has been with Amin for five years? Nothing in the film backs this up, and the compression of events into what feels like little more than a few months undermines the story‘s plausibility.

Nevertheless, The Last King of Scotland always had my attention even while it never grabbed my nerves, and the cast play a big part in the film’s appeal. At the core of everything is Whitaker, delivering a complex, multifaceted performance which fully lives up to the awards-season hype. In his first scene Amin delivers a speech to his adoring public saying “I may wear the uniform of a general, but in my heart I am a simple man”, and as he promises to make Uganda a great nation you really sense his firm belief in what he preaches. But as The Last King of Scotland progresses we are treated to a fascinating depiction of the corrupting influence of power, and Whitaker’s portrayal is mesmerising. It’s a display which exhibits charm and humour, but as Amin grows increasingly paranoid and volatile Whitaker’s performance becomes genuinely chilling, as he uses that huge physique to stunningly intimidating effect.

It’s hard for the other actors to escape from the shadow cast by this performance, and while they mostly do a sterling job I found myself missing Whitaker whenever he wasn’t the centre of attention. James McAvoy gives a solid turn as the cocky doctor who realises only too late the scale of Amin’s tyranny, and his character’s development is well mapped-out even if it’s never as affecting as it aims to be. Elsewhere, the supporting cast are uniformly fine. Simon McBurney (so enjoyable in last year’s Friends With Money) is great here as an snide British official who tries to take advantage of Nicholas’ unique position, and David Oyelowo brings dignity to his role as a doctor tired of the chaos surrounding him. As the two women in Nicholas’ life, Kerry Washington and Gillian Anderson are both impressive, with Anderson’s role proving small but significant. She is the kind of doctor Nicholas lacks the will or integrity to be, and she seems to see right through this naïve and reckless young man as soon as she sets eyes on him.
The Last King of Scotland lurches into thriller mode in its final third, with Macdonald struggling to change gears smoothly, and there are a few tense (as well as horrifically violent) moments in this climactic section, but the pat finale pretty much sums up the movie. This is nothing more than an uneven, implausible but decent little thriller which hits all the right notes without ever doing anything particularly special. However, the whole enterprise is elevated a couple of notches by an extraordinary central performance, and for that alone it should be seen. In truth, it might ultimately prove to be one of those electrifying pieces of acting which is almost too good for the film containing it - you simply can’t take your eyes off Whitaker when he’s on screen, and you can’t stop thinking about him when he’s not.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Review - Apocalypto

It has been a strange couple of years for Mel Gibson. Not too long ago he was known mainly as a reliable leading man and an Oscar-winning director, but now he seems to have reinvented himself as a professional controversy magnet, a man whose every action is guaranteed to grab headlines. The main catalyst for this shift in Gibson’s public persona was his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, an Aramaic-language depiction of Jesus’ final hours which drew criticism for its extreme levels of violence and anti-Semitic undertones. That second accusation gained even more substance earlier this year when Gibson’s drunken rant at police officers appeared to make his prejudices clear in no uncertain terms. All of this has rather overshadowed the fact that Mel Gibson’s latest film as a director is one of the more interesting - if frustrating- American offerings of the year.

So what are we to make of Mel’s Apocalypto now? Well, it’s certainly a far better film than his awful The Passion of the Christ, and thankfully the director’s prejudices are a little less prevalent this time around (one unfortunate lapse into Holocaust imagery aside). But it’s another, equally troubling aspect of Gibson’s personality which casts its shadow over this film and ultimately proves damaging to the whole project, and that’s the director’s seemingly insatiable bloodlust.

Does any director depict cinematic violence with quite as much relish as Mel Gibson? After The Passion of the Christ one would have thought Gibson would have had enough of the red stuff for a while, but instead he seems determined to ramp it up to 11. Apocalypto contains all manner of beheadings, throat-slittings, stabbings and impalements; and Gibson finds ever more creative ways to make his audience flinch. If you’ve ever wondered what a Jaguar tearing a man’s face off would look like, then here it is in all its glory. If you like the idea of one man pulling the heart out of another’s chest while it’s still beating, Gibson shows it again and again. If you’ve ever wanted to see a pregnant woman beat a monkey to death (and really, who hasn’t?), then Apocalypto is the film for you.

The relentlessly brutal nature of the violence is initially off-putting, then numbing, and finally rather comical, with a blood-spurting head wound provoking some laughter at the screening I attended. There’s nothing wrong with a filmmaker showing us the savage acts which these people undeniably indulged in, but you need balance, you need occasional flashes of subtlety to offset the overall bluntness, and Gibson never knows when enough is enough. Subtlety, sensitivity and grace are directorial tools which Gibson doesn’t seem to have access to, and his no-nonsense style grows wearying as the body count escalates. His unwavering concentration on the various ways human flesh can be mutilated undermines the laudable ambitions of Apocalypto, and that’s a real shame, because there’s a great movie in here somewhere.
Apocalypto is ostensibly the story of the decline and fall of the Mayan civilisation some time in the early 16th century, and it revolves around a man named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood). He has a beautiful wife (Dalia Hernandez), who is pregnant with their second child, and life appears to be pretty good in the small village which he calls home. There are regular hunts - the film opens with a breathless chase through the jungle which ends with the slaughter of a tapir - and a lot of genital-based humour at the expense of his friend Blunted (Jonathan Brewer) who is having trouble conceiving a child, much to the chagrin of his wife’s cranky mother (cock jokes and mother-in-law jokes clearly tickle Gibson’s funny bone).

But the good times can’t last, and Jaguar Paw already feels a sense of unease after meeting survivors of a nearby village which was ravaged by some unknown assailants. A few nights later, his own village comes under attack from a group of savage Mayans - scarily clad in various masks, bones and tattoos - and Jaguar Paw just about has time to hide his wife and child down a nearby well before he is caught and led away with a number of other captives to a seemingly inevitable death.
This is where Apocalypto begins to get interesting. The journey which the terrified prisoners are led on, across raging waters and precarious mountain paths, is spectacularly depicted, and the brilliance of Apocalypto’s production design, makeup and casting makes this film feel like an unnervingly accurate recreation of the Mayans’ world. The hundreds of extras display intricate body art and have various bone piercings adorning their faces; and as in The Passion, Gibson has his cast speaking in a dead dialect - Yucatec Maya this time - with the mostly inexperienced leading cast giving guileless, authentic performances. The digital cinematography throws up some beautiful images (even if it does seem oddly flat sometimes) and James Horner adds a brilliant, moody score which plays a considerable part in the film’s partial success. Like Terrence Malick’s recent masterpiece The New World, this truly is an astonishing and evocative realisation of a particular time and place.

Eventually, the terrified Mayans are led to the city where the women are auctioned off and the men are painted blue in preparation for their sacrifice. They are led to the top of an enormous temple, and as they climb the stairs they can see a steady stream of decapitated heads plummeting down the other side. The High Priest is there, ready to spill blood in an attempt to appease their gods, and he begins pulling the hearts out of the prisoners’ bodies before their heads are removed and thrown towards the growing pile below. Jaguar Paw is on the altar, seconds from death, when the Priest’s hand is stayed by a solar eclipse (one of the script’s many uses of deus ex machina) and, with the sun god satisfied, the rest of the prisoners are dismissed, ready to be disposed of elsewhere. The prisoners are used for target practice in a secluded spot behind the temple, but Jaguar Paw manages to escape from his captors’ clutches, and he races into the jungle with an angry group of savages on his tail.
Apocalypto then becomes a chase movie and, unfortunately, that’s pretty much all the second half of the movie amounts to. It’s as if Gibson’s ambitions gradually shrink the further the film progresses, and after the far-reaching splendour of the first half, we’re left with just one long pursuit through endless undergrowth as the film’s climactic act. That’s not to say it isn’t exciting; Gibson effectively manages to build up a compelling sense of tension in many places, and the movie often develops a thrilling kinetic rush as Jaguar Paw hurtles through the trees, encountering a real jaguar, a waterfall and quicksand among the film’s bewildering number of cliff-hangers. But the chase gets repetitive, frequently stretching plausibility, and the climax Gibson offers at the end of it all is weak.

“A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within” is the Will Durant quote which Gibson uses to open the film, and it’s a quote which could be seen as offering some sort of cautionary moral to this story of a decadent society brought to its knees, but it could also act as a metaphor for the film as a whole. Apocalypto destroys itself through Gibson’s inability, or unwillingness, to widen his focus beyond man’s capacity for violence; he recreates a whole world in breathtaking detail, but then he retreats into the jungle, preferring to subject us to a few more scenes of bloodshed and pain. Apocalypto squanders its grand potential somewhere in that dense jungle, and it ultimately tells us a lot more about Mel Gibson than it does about Mayan civilisation.