Apocalypto


These fellas want to talk to the critics about the negative reviews.

These fellas want to talk to the critics about the negative reviews.

(2006) Adventure (Touchstone) Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez, Amilcar Ramirez, Israel Contreras, Israel Rios, Isabel Diaz, Espiridion Acosta Cache, Mayra Serbulo, Iazua Larios, Lorena Hernandez, Itandehui Gutierrez, Sayuri Gutierrez, Hiram Soto, Jose Suarez, Raoul Trujillo, Gerardo Taracena. Directed by Mel Gibson

Hey, does anybody remember when Mel Gibson was one of the pre-eminent directors in Hollywood? When Braveheart won Oscars and he was the sexiest man alive and the darling of talk shows? I can’t think of a single actor who fell as far as Gibson did through mostly his own doing. Lindsay Lohan comes to mind but even her fall was less spectacular because she never achieved the heights that Gibson did in his heyday.

On the heels of his unexpected hit Passion of the Christ which was the first film to show Hollywood the box office power of the Christian audiences and essentially gave birth to a whole new subgenre – the Christian-funded and directed films which are largely promoted through churches and group sales, Gibson turned his attention to ancient Mesoamerica. This movie, with dialogue entirely in native languages (ancient Mayan although how accurate the language is can only be verified by scholars; I don’t remember any objecting at the time this came out) is supposedly taken from portions of the Popol Vuh, an 18th century collection of ancient Mayan myths and oral histories written down by a Spanish Dominican priest and was acted largely by a cast of locals.

Jaguar Paw (Youngblood) lives in a quiet village on the modern Yucatan peninsula with his pregnant wife and child. He is young, handsome and as the son of the tribal chief already starting to gain the respect of the tribe. While on a hunting expedition he and his friends come upon an unfamiliar tribe who ask politely for passage through their territory; their own homeland was overrun by a vicious tribe of Mayans and they are refugees trying to find a new place to settle down.

Jaguar Paw is disquieted by this and his misgivings turn out to be merited; the same vicious tribe attacks his own tribe. Jaguar Paw, already a bit paranoid, manages to secret his wife and child in a deep pit where they can’t be seen by the invaders. The rest of the tribe are raped, gutted or captured to be taken to the Mayan city to be sacrificed. Jaguar Paw knows that he has to somehow get away and make his way back to the now-deserted village or else his wife and child will surely starve to death.

Gibson is no stranger to violence and cruelty in his movies. Even his more mainstream films can show some fairly extreme brutality and this film may be the most violent in his filmography. There are hearts ripped out of chests, jaguars ripping faces off, arrows protruding into basically anywhere on the body an arrow can protrude from, people eviscerated with dull blades…the list goes on. Some critics took issue with this at the time, pointing out that the Mayan culture was also responsible for advances in mathematics and astronomy. The American South also had some of the finest writers and musicians of the 19th century but oddly enough nobody bitched about 12 Years a Slave failing to portray that part of Southern culture nor did it need to. It always blows my mind when critics miss the point so badly. I certainly disagree with the critics who said that the final images gave them a sense of relief. From my take, it was more a sense of foreboding.

Then again, Gibson was already under fire about his drunken anti-Semitic remarks for the first time, an incident that occurred while the film was in production which undoubtedly soured a number of critics on the film. Not that I agree with Gibson’s point of view in that regard, but part of what we’re supposed to do as critics is separate the work from the worker, the art from the artist. My opinions of Mel Gibson the human being shouldn’t inform my opinions of the films he directs. Braveheart is still a terrific movie. The Lethal Weapon series is still entertaining.

This is a gorgeous looking film (if you overlook all the blood and gore) and Rudy Youngblood in the heroic lead is astonishing. I thought that he had all the screen charisma needed to become a huge star but sadly that didn’t happen, or at least not yet and not here. Looking at his performance now, he captures the feeling of a smart hunter, one who operates more on instinct than intellect and one who knows the jungle and its dangers intimately. He is out of place in the city of the Mayans and the escape sequence is nothing short of thrilling.

As someone who loves history I have to applaud Gibson’s willingness to tackle an era and a place not often explored in the movies. I wish that other films since then went back to the ancient Mayan civilization and looked at it from different perspectives but to date that hasn’t really happened much. Hopefully some filmmaker with little regard for Hollywood’s restraints will go that road someday.

I have mentioned the violence and the gore several times and I will admit that as time goes by in the film you get kind of numb to it and those who are sensitive (if they last that long) may find the blood and guts wearying after awhile. However, I have to also point out that these things are part of the story and necessary to the point Gibson is trying to make. It isn’t necessarily a pleasant one and the brutality certainly gets your attention.

I think that this is a brilliant, underrated film. If you can get past Gibson’s sins as a person and simply look at the movie as if it were directed by someone else, you may find yourself appreciating the artistry and the independence from the Hollywood mainstream. This isn’t like any movie the major studios have produced before or since and likely ever again. This is one of those movies that may take a little bit of getting used to but it is worth the investment.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully photographed. Exhilarating action scenes. A look at a time and place rarely seen in American cinemas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The violence and sadism wears on you.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some very graphic violence as well as some pretty disturbing images; not for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The digital special effects crew playfully added a single frame of Waldo from Where’s Waldo? lying on the pile of dead bodies.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $120.7M on a $40M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Road to El Dorado

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Inside Llewyn Davis

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Looking for Palladin


Looking for Palladin? Try looking for your car in this mess!

Looking for Palladin? Try looking for your car in this mess!

(2008) Drama (Monterey Media/Wildcat) Ben Gazzara, David Moscow, Talia Shire, Pedro Armendariz Jr., Angelica Aragon, Roberto Diaz Gomar, Jimmy Morales, Sammy Morales, Vincent Pastore, Joe Manuella, Robert Youngs, Dick Smith, Sofia Comparini. Directed by Andrzej Krakowski

They say you can run but you can’t hide. That’s doubly true if you’re a movie star. You may find a remote village somewhere in the middle of nowhere where few (if anybody) will know who you are but if you have box office pull, Hollywood will find you.

Jack Palladin (Gazzara) has plenty of pull. One of Hollywood’s most respected actors back in the day, he has disappeared from view as of late with rumors that he is hiding out in a Central American village. High octane agent Josh Ross (Moscow) is sent to fetch him, bearing an offer for the two-time Oscar winner of a million dollars for a cameo in a remake of one of his signature films.

The trouble is, Palladin doesn’t necessarily want to be found, and the locals whose lives he has become a part of are willing to aid him in his privacy. Josh’ disdain for them is matched by their snickers that his Gucci loafers are obvious fakes which I’m sure a lot of Guatemalan villagers are experts at sussing out.

When they do finally meet, Palladin is not inclined to take the offer; he is far too content to be the cook in the restaurant owned by Arnie (Pastore), surrounded by his pals – fellow ex-pats and locals, like the bemused police chief (Armendariz). However, it turns out that Josh and Palladin have an unexpected connection – which changes the game in a profound way.

While the name of the village is Antigua, this is actually set (I think) in Guatemala where it was also filmed. Cinematographers Giovanni Fabietti and Alberto Chaktoura make good use of the breathtaking Central American scenery and the colorful environment of a rural Guatemalan village to make a visually pleasing film.

The late Ben Gazzara takes what could easily be a fairly cliché role (well, when all is said and done it is exactly that) and gives it far more dimension than it probably deserves. I always thought he was underrated as an actor and this is the kind of performance that gives me that impression. Palladin is a gruff old codger who sometimes plays at being a kind of Central American Yoda with a SAG card but deep down is running more from his own demons than from the price of fame. None of that is in the script but Gazzara conveys it nonetheless.

The problem here is that the story is kind of rote, with Josh being a kind of goyim Ari Gold. Jeremy Piven kind of owns this role and while Moscow does the best he can ends up leaving us thinking how much better the movie might have been as an episode of “Entourage” which really isn’t his fault; there’s just nothing to distinguish his character from the HBO version.

There is a twist near the end of the movie which throws everything off-kilter and for good reason – it’s so nonsensical that when I saw it on DVD I had to rewind and watch it again just to make sure I hadn’t misinterpreted what I saw. I hadn’t. I won’t mention what that twist is but suffice to say if something like it happened to you no doubt you’d want to get your head examined afterwards.

There are a couple of things to recommend the movie – Ben Gazzara and the Guatemalan location chief among them – but only just. If the script had been tweaked a little bit and that twist pulled out altogether (there are other reasons to make Palladin consider the cameo other than the one the writers came up with) this might have been a seriously good little film. As it is it may have just enough to make you not regret choosing to watch it one night when you’re looking for something you haven’t seen before.

WHY RENT THIS: Gazzara is at his grouchy best. Nice cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing really stands out in terms of story or plot except that which is preposterous.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming The Bridge at Remagen the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia where the production was filming and Gazzara and co-star Robert Vaughn were briefly detained. After being released, they helped a Czech woman escape by smuggling her out in the trunk of her car.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,268 on an unreported production budget; even though this probably had any budget a’tall, I can’t see it being profitable on those kinds of receipts.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Bobby Fisher

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Red (2010)


Red

Here's the real reason you want to see the movie.

(Summit) Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban, Mary-Louise Parker, Richard Dreyfuss, Brian Cox, Julian McMahon, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine, James Remar, Emily Kuroda, Audrey Wasilewski. Directed by Robert Schwentke

It’s no secret that our society is extremely youth-oriented. Our elderly we have a tendency to marginalize and cast aside like a used DVD player when the Blu-Ray came out. However, we do so at the potential cost of underestimating the contributions that can still be made by senior citizens.

Frank Moses (Willis) is a retiree living in a small apartment in Cleveland. His life is a quiet one, the highlight of his day being regular phone conversations with Sarah Ross (Parker), a caseworker for the government pension plan who supplies Frank with a monthly check. It’s obvious Frank is attracted to her and she to him; she continues to talk about it while casting nervous glances around to avoid being detected by a disapproving supervisor. They make plans to meet in her home town of Kansas City.

Not long after that he shows up in her apartment, waiting for her there when she comes home after yet another epic fail of a date, babbling wildly about assassins that are after him and that they’re now after her because she’s been talking to him. When she doesn’t believe him, he duct tapes her mouth shut and kidnaps her, driving her to New Orleans. He stashes her in a hotel while he goes to visit Joe Matheson (Freeman), who lives in a rest home where he mainly ogles the nurses, and tries to find a dignified way to die from Stage Four liver cancer. They figure out that someone within the CIA has put a hit out on Frank, but nobody can really figure out why.

Neither can Cooper (Urban), a ramrod-straight CIA operative who has been tasked with taking out Frank. His boss (Pidgeon) sends him down to the archives where Henry the Records Keeper (Borgnine) holds sway. Cooper discovers the “analyst” he’s been told to take out is in reality an ex-field agent who was one of the best the CIA ever had, the kind of guy who toppled governments all by his lonesome once upon a time. Cooper, a family man, is none too pleased by this turn of events but he is, after all, a Company man.

In fact, there’s a conspiracy that goes back to a black ops mission in Guatemala in the 80s and a political situation that is a little more present-day. Frank assembles his old team including Joe, Marvin (Malkovich), a twitchy sort who developed extreme paranoia after being injected with LSD every day back in the 60s, and Victoria (Mirren), a deadly assassin who can best be described as Martha Stewart with a machine gun. There’s also Sarah, who’s now aboard with the program, and Ivan (Cox), an ex-KGB agent who once had a thing for Victoria, and an evil industrialist (Dreyfuss) who knows all the secrets behind the assassins on their tails.

The movie is based on a Warren Ellis comic book that DC published a few years back; it’s much in the vein of The Losers and The Expendables from earlier this year. Schwentke, who we last saw directing The Time Traveler’s Wife, rebounds with a movie that has much more of a fun side than that movie and is much more entertaining at its core. 

Part of that is the cast that would have made heads turn ten years ago. Willis always seems to be winking at the audience when he does these kinds of roles, kind of a John McLean/Jason Bourne love child who has Vin Diesel’s hair stylist. Parker, who of late has become best-known for her work in the Showtime series ”Weeds,” could use some “less is more” philosophy in her acting style but is solid as the romantic lead.

The supporting roles are mostly juicy and the outstanding cast makes full use of them. Freeman is wasted in a role that isn’t really drawn very completely, but Malkovich can chew scenery with the best of them and he does so here. Cox is a truly underrated actor who has become a dependable character actor, giving his character a bit of a twist on the KGB agent with a heart of gold that Robbie Coltrane nailed in the Bond movies and Mirren is…well, Helen Mirren. She can make even bad movies much better, and she takes an unlikely role and just about steals the movie.

The plot is paper thin and twists and turns, ultimately leading nowhere but it’s really meant to be a vehicle for the action sequences, which are solid although not outstanding. Red doesn’t really require a whole lot of thought and delivers a quite a lot of entertainment for the money. It may suffer from a few action movie clichés (like bad guy marksmanship disease, and plucky heroine syndrome, and perhaps a touch of dirty old man-itis) but all of that can be overlooked in the grand scheme of things. After all, nobody goes to an action movie for the plot.

REASONS TO GO: You do see the picture at the top of the blog, don’t you? Great cast, mindless action and a good deal of fun.

REASONS TO STAY: It’s a bit on the fluffy side and the action sequences really don’t add anything to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and some bad language but probably nothing I wouldn’t hesitate to show most middle school-age kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John C. Reilly was originally cast in the John Malkovich role.

HOME OR THEATER: There are a few scenes that probably work better on the big screen but overall I’d say this is more of a home video experience.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Spirit