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Navel Gazing with Burns and Dignan: Apocalypto, Blood Diamond, and The Holiday

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Navel Gazing with Burns and Dignan: Apocalypto, Blood Diamond, and The Holiday

Andrew Dignan: Pardon the interruption Sean, but I take back what I said a few weeks ago about The Fountain being the weirdest, most hallucinatory film of the holidays. I knew I never should have counted out Mel Gibson (aka “Crazy Christian”) who two years after making The Passion of the Christ, the rare film that could appeal equally to Evangelicals and the Fangoria set, returns with Apocalypto—another viscera-dripping exercise in onscreen violence, without any pesky ideology or Jew-baiting to get in the way of all the fun.

I, like most people I know, have spent the better part of the past year making jokes at poor Mel’s expense as his adventures in Malibu appeared to be several chickens finally coming home to roost, all in one glorious/horrifying public breakdown the likes of which I never thought I’d see again (until Michael Richards proved me completely wrong). As Mel’s spent the past three years as fodder for late night talk show monologues, it’s becoming distressingly easy to forget what a provocative and unique filmmaker he’s become, with a keen eye for visual, near-silent storytelling that sets him apart from nearly every other actor turned director in Hollywood. You might be repulsed by what he’s saying with his films, but my God, does he say it with aplomb. Of course your level of revulsion with Apocalypto will likely depend on your tolerance for watching someone other than the Son of God be brutalized for two hours. Playing like The Last of the Mohicans with way more human sacrifice, Apocalypto is a surprisingly conventional action movie, complete with all of the familiar beats one would come to expect from any given mid-’80s Stallone or Schwarzenegger film, the only difference here is it’s a bunch of guys running around in loincloths speaking a dead language (the film strangely reminded me of the Rae Dawn Chong camp-extravaganza Quest for Fire).

Making room for mother-in-law jokes, Jackass-style gross-out gags and fraternal back-slapping, Apocalypto finds Gibson working in the same nyuk-nyuk vein that’s sustained him for over 25 years, proving that, if nothing else, the guy still has retained his sense of humor (juvenile as it may be). This is merely the calm before the storm, however—establishing the simple, peaceful natives who are conquered by their war-mongering neighbors for the purposes of being dragged through the jungle to be sold off in an open-air market (if they’re lucky) or, more likely, to be torn to pieces as a gift to the Gods. It just wouldn’t be a Gibson film unless someone gets drawn and quartered, would it?

Much ink has been spilt trying to get to the bottom of Mel’s bizarre predisposition towards torture and desecration of the flesh (although I like to think the South Park boys have done the best job of dressing down Gibson as a barking loon), but Apocalytpo takes this idea to near-comical extremes, culminating in a second-act sequence set high atop a pyramid where many a heads is lopped off and sent hurtling to the ground like a soccer ball kicked down cellar steps. As in The Passion, the violence is inseparably linked to acts of faith; here the opulent (and Gibson would likely argue, diseased) Mayans slaughter the indigenous surrounding tribes as a testament to their society and deities being the only true ones. This, coupled with a third act that finds a larger, stronger, and better-armed platoon slowly decimated by booby-traps and scrappy insurgent ingenuity, can’t help but feel like a sly tweak of the very administration whose base made Gibson’s last film one of the biggest hits in history. One must hand it to the man for remaining, as always, unpredictable.

Of course what really counts here is whether the film quickens the pulse, and by and large the film does. Working against the ticking clock of an impending rainstorm that threatens to drown his pregnant wife and a young son who are safely tucked away at the bottom of a well, the last third of Apocalypto finds our hero Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) outrunning spears, bow and arrow and dudes in creepy headgear, in one prolonged breakneck-run through the jungle. This section is largely derivative of everything from First Blood to Predator, and I couldn’t help but wish cinematographer Dean Semler were shooting on 35mm instead of HD (those pixels were the size of grapefruits during some of the POV shots). Yet the film’s later segments take on a primal urgency which transcends period, language and large dollops of blue body paint. Watching large jungle cats tear off the faces of pierced Mayan warriors may not be all the fundamentally different from watching the son of a carpenter get his ribs kicked in circa 33 AD, but because it’s framed within a genre instead of a sermon, it certainly seems to go down easier. Sean, I’m convinced you took up chain smoking just to be more like Mel, so please tell me you had as good a time with this one as I did.

Sean Burns: Um, that would be both Mel and Bruce Willis, thank you very much. (I can never quite decide if it was Martin Riggs or John McClane who made smoking look so fucking cool.) But yes, Apocalypto was indeed an enormous hoot. I’ve been going around describing it to everybody as Werner Herzog’s Rambo IV. Can you imagine what kind of nightmares this Gibson fellow has? He might be a seriously disturbed lunatic, but such a fascinating filmmaker. There’s a real primal terror and forcefulness to the way he juxtaposes images, at once strange, familiar, and horrifying—this guy’s movies come straight from the gut.

What’s heartening to me, at least with regard to Apocalypto’s reception, is that critics are finally focusing on the awesome brutishness of Gibson’s filmmaking skills, instead of merely writing “I Hate The Red States” dissertations, as was temporarily in vogue after The Passion of the Christ’s release. Our host was one of the few I recall who really fixated on the power of Gibson’s technique, and I have to admit that in this respect, the dismissively (far too) gentle reviews for The Nativity Story made me chuckle to no end. All the same folks who a couple years ago seemed so outraged that a tale narrowly focused on Jesus’ death didn’t highlight more of his life and teachings now seem largely nonplussed that similar subjects weren’t addressed in a similarly narrowly focused story of His birth. (Of course, the fact that Catherine Hardwicke couldn’t direct her way out of a paper bag with both hands and a map probably helps.)

But I must admit, the first forty minutes or so of Apocalypto left me sorta cold. The Malick-y strangeness of the mileu was, to me, compromised by Gibson’s Three Stooges humor. (I’d never imagined so many bad “mother-in-law jokes” in a fifteenth century dead-language epic.) It wasn’t until all the hallucinatory depravity in the Mayan temples kicked in that suddenly I wanted to hide under my chair—and what’s scarier than the little grace note of the fat, spoiled child, cheering on the beheadings? This man seriously knows how to horrify.

I tread lightly here, because I don’t wish to rekindle our Passion Of The Christ argument, as it’s frankly a fight I’m sick of having with people. (That movie has become like arguing with somebody about abortion or Iraq, you’re eight drinks in and everybody’s screaming and there’s just never going to be any common ground.) But these films are so fundamentally similar, and yet the reception has been so drastically different, I would argue that Apocalypto becomes a much simpler, easily digestible experience after it turns into a Rambo movie. What made The Passion such an overwhelmingly powerful film experience for me is that it used almost identical blunt-force action movie techniques, but instead of the simple retribution of Apocalypto, The Passion applied the same macho swagger to Jesus’ endless capacity for forgiveness. He stood up at that whipping post and turned the other cheek with the same rousing fanfare we get when Jaguar Paw rises from the water and gets all cocky after the waterfall stunt. Jim Caviezel was granted the same heroic camera treatment as Rudy Youngblood, but always in the context of kindness—watch him re-attach the centurion’s ear, or speak kindly to The Good Thief on the cross in the midst of some unspeakable torture! Apocalypto is a much easier, lesser movie because Jaguar Paw fights back. The Passion was a tale told in the vernacular of the action picture, but one that frustrated and confounded that vernacular. If you’re wondering why this one goes down easier, I think that might be the key.

AD: Considering how offensive I found the violence in The Passion (and I’m pretty far from squeamish) I was amazed at how similar depictions here were like water off a duck’s back. In its rhythms (family man is wronged, gets revenge on those who hurt him) the film’s not all that different from Death Wish or any of the hundreds of films that have included the line “This time it’s personal” on the poster. Whether that undercuts the film’s own worth, by more or less “devolving” into just an action film, is a question Matt addressed in his own review, although I think the boldness of the filmmaking supersedes any clichés or the film may tread in. Frankly I feel a little guilty about the amount of enjoyment I derived from the film; I now wonder if the film is destined to be seen as a Hostel for the subtitles crowd.

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AD: Anyway, how’s your Liberal Guilt treating you these days? More importantly, when was the last time you thought about where the diamonds you bought come from? I mean really thought about them? Because should you ever somehow get your hands on something that precious, you better make damn sure that no one lost their hands for it.

The most misguided socially-conscious film of the year, Blood Diamond finds director Ed Zwick (The Last Samurai) spending an ungodly amount of money to chronicle exploited minorities, exotic cultures and under-represented global strife, while explaining how all of these things serve to enrich the lives and deepen the souls of photogenic white people. Here we have Leonardo DiCaprio, rocking K-Fed facial hair and a Dutch accent, as he lies, steals, cheats, kills and routinely threatens to skin Djimon Honsou en route to learning what’s important in life. This all would be especially odious if DiCaprio (who between this and The Departed is having a banner year, giving performances better than the film they’re featured in) wasn’t so damn irresistible playing a snake. Using his boyish good looks to gloss over a lot of appalling personality traits, Leo’s Danny Archer spends much the film charming people who clearly despise him, playing upon the knowledge that no matter how much he’s fucking them over, they can feel confident that someone else is getting it worse. It’s a total Bogart performance, a trait that seems to be in demand this month.

Of course, the over-stuffed and overlong Blood Diamond has more important matters to tackle than Leo the war profiteer, taking swipes at everything from western indifference, to hoarding by diamond companies to raise demand to the horrific practice of warlords recruiting young children into militias. When contemplating alternate titles for the film, one imagines simply Africa was tossed around. It’s the sort of film where waves of faceless poor blacks are mowed down by jeep-mounted machine gun without much of a second thought, and we’re supposed to be wrapped up in the plight of rascally Leo’s search for a pink diamond the size of an acorn and the equally lily-white Jennifer Connelly’s desire to tell the important story of Africa. Left with barely any material with which to construct a human face to all of this death and destruction is Honsou (in a bafflingly overpraised performance) who rages demonstratively at the injustices levied at him and his family, but ultimately fails to exist beyond enabling his white companion. Sean, I know I’m not doing this patronizingly dull film justice. Take the ball and run with it.

SB: Dude, you already know better than anybody that the only girl who ever stamped her feet and demanded diamonds from me was also so mercenary that she wouldn’t mind if there was an entire village’s worth of chopped-off African baby arms included the equation, just so long as they didn’t compromise the view from her Box Seats at Fenway Park. However, none of this changes the fact that Edward Zwick is a truly horrible filmmaker. Seriously bro, who else could make a boring samurai movie?

The problem with Blood Diamond is that it’s a great idea for a 105 minute Walter Hill potboiler, and the underlying plot is straight outta Sergio Leone, but Zwick turns it into a bloated, Oscar-grubbing term paper. As such, he employs all the expected genre tropes, while at the same time the guy wants us to feel so guilty that he denies us any of the genre satisfactions. Blood Diamond is even more annoying because, as you’ve noted, DiCaprio is such a great Han Solo. What I feel the Scorsese collaborations have missed (yes, even my dear Departed) is that conspiratorial wink and hustle this kid is capable of when he’s acting like an amoral shitbag. He’s such a smoothie that his presence elicits the first-ever interesting performance from Jennifer Connelly. She’s usually a blank, weepy porcelain goddess, and yet Leo seems to kick her into a new flirty, frisky arena I’ve never seen before from this actress.

But has there ever been a “chase movie” wherein everybody gets to camp down for the night so bloody often? There’s an overwhelming abundance of pace-killing sunrises and sunsets in this flick. Everything that should take one scene requires no less than three… and usually a couple more days, thanks to Zwick’s stumblebum direction. The only way to play this material is breathlessly, and Blood Diamond is full of pregnant, production-designed pauses, ones that do nothing but foreground the background, strangle the pace and call attention to how much money everybody spent. I feel like there’s some sort of essay to be written comparing DiCaprio’s exits from The Departed and Blood Diamond—one extolling the virtues of efficiency, and how much more can be accomplished with fewer over-emotive Oscar clips.

As for why Stephen Collins and Michael Sheen dominate the third act of an ostensible jungle adventure in their Senate hearings, I have no explanation, other than the ugly truth that Zwick wants to give us an easily vanquished white-guy villain, thereby shortchanging the serious issues he wasted a lot of our time trying to address in the first place. Blood Diamond lacks the honesty to be an action picture and the guts to be a social drama. Like most of Zwick’s work it is stuck merely in-between, infuriating to everybody.

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AD: Switching tracks completely from the dismemberment fun of the last two films is The Holiday, the latest exercise in real estate porn from Nancy Meyers who inexplicably has emerged as the most commercially successful female director in history after 2000’s Mel Gibson telepathy-film What Women Want and 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give, which is founded on the even more improbable scenario of Diane Keaton being lusted after by both Jack Nicholson and Keanu Reeves. I give Meyers credit for tapping into a zeitgeist and creating a formula that’s a proven earner: of petulant, career-oriented women who stomp around their palatial McMansions working themselves into screaming fits over the immature men in their lives that’s a proven earner.

The film is, of course, quite awful even by the lax standards of the “commercial chick flick” genre wherein seemingly intelligent, cultured and affluent individuals debase themselves through a series of pratfalls and forced whimsy in their quest to get that elusive groove back (apparently this is a set-up which is no longer mono-gender exclusive, as Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott more or less made half this film earlier in 2006 as A Good Year). What’s ultimately so frustrating about The Holiday though is how close-minded the film is about the treatment of its two female leads.

Cameron Diaz’s Amanda, who with her pinched, cruel-face and Barbie-doll physique has grown to embody everything I hate about my adopted home, flies off to storybook England for several rounds of earth-shaking sex with Jude Law’s soulful widower. Meanwhile, Kate Winslet, whose beauty is both undeniably physical but also seems to just emanate from deep inside of her, is stuck babysitting the old codger next door (Eli Wallach, stealing most of his best lines from Billy Wilder’s memoirs) and collecting woo from a cherubic-looking Jack Black (dialed down, but still nowhere near as charming as both he and the film seem to think he is). While the “Hollywood beauty” spends two hours shagging by the fire and moping about how on earth she, a self-made millionaire, can sustain a long-distance relationship (my god, what chance to the rest of us have?), Kate spends the film watching DVDs and pining for Rufus Sewell (of all the indignities…) who remains emotionally unavailable across the pond. I was going to say that I finally want to see a film that lets Kate get some action while the dull, statuesque beauty goes wanting, but I realized Little Children already filled that void.

The Holiday also has this nasty little habit of underlining its own prefab nature. Diaz’s character is the owner of a trailer company, allowing the film to give us frequent surrealist asides to illustrate whatever saccharine Nora Ephron-esque film predicament the character has gotten herself into, complete with baritone voice-over accompaniment (“Amanda had it all… the perfect job, a great guy, until…”), which is cute until you realize that’s how this very film is being marketed. It was also unwise to set one of the film’s key emotional arcs against the evolution of one of those noxious, ivory-tickling underscores; I spent the second half of the film mentally checking-out every time Hans Zimmer’s orchestral kicked in, unable to shake how boldfaced manipulative whenever it introduced the heroines’ themes.

Clearly you and I are not the target for this film, nor are we likely susceptible to its “charms.” But a thought did occur to me as I watched the film that at least allowed me to temporarily appreciate it. With its emphasis on slick cars, art décor, designer clothes, expensive baubles and career-oriented protagonists who aren’t emotionally suited to relationships, isn’t it fair to see these films as basically Michael Mann movies made for women? I know this place is absolutely filled with people tripping over one another to conjure up academic defenses of Miami Vice, but is there really a huge difference between Mann fetishizing a couple of go-fast boats and a jet plane swooping across the skyline and Kate Winslet running around her new home as the camera lingers on work-out equipment, home entertainment centers and swimming pools? Is the film’s series of “you go girl” moments really that different from Tubbs and Crockett smoldering in slow motion or, for that matter, your favorite medulla oblongata joke of the year? I know I’m courting blasphemy here, but at least the next time I get a dead-eyed stare from a woman after telling her how much I like Heat I’ll be able to empathize. A little.

SB: It’s an interesting notion, but you seem to be conveniently forgetting that Mann’s characters, for all their awesome hardware, in film after film, come off as fundamentally empty and miserable people, searching in vain for a deeper connection that often dooms them. Meyers, in the other hand, seems to genuinely believe in this “better living through rad architecture” philosophy, and I even found myself at a party the other night with a young lady who was asserting adamantly—though she conceded openly that Myers has no idea how to write recognizable human beings—that she still goes to all her movies on opening weekend, just to gawk at the pretty houses.

Like you, I find no point of entry here. Maybe this is just another case of a movie landing outside our wheelhouse, but I found it excruciating and endless. Whatever did happen to Cameron Diaz? Once such a bright spot—such a goofy and endearing gangly-limbed comedienne—she’s so antic and overwrought here, laboring so obviously in the service of such simple physical sight-gags, this simply cannot be the same woman from There’s Something About Mary. Years in Hollywood take their toll, I guess. What an awful, plasticine monster!

And no, despite your baiting I refuse to indulge in my typical Kate Winslet drooling, other than to admit that her grounded, glowing presence is the only thing that kept me from committing suicide during this egregiously overlong (131 minutes!) flick. It is only in the cruel crucible of Hollywood that a wowza sex goddess like Winslet would get stuck in a chaste romance with the eye-rolling, scenery-chewing Jack Black—an emotionally stunted improv comic incapable of even feigning the slightest bit of sincerity. (Really Jack, why don’t you bulge your eyeballs out really wide and say something retarded in a high-pitched sing-song voice for like the eight-hundredth time, because sooner or later it might someday become amusing.)

Finally, I do take issue with your notion that it would be remotely outlandish for Diane Keaton to be lusted after by both Jack Nicholson and Keanu Reeves. Maybe it’s just because I grew up on Annie Hall and Looking For Mr. Goodbar, but buddy, I think everybody should be lusting after Diane Keaton.