Saturday, January 13, 2007


Over the last couple of years, we've seen extensive media coverage of a number of quite public celebrity meltdowns. The Tom Cruise Is Nuts website was in existence long before the man jumped up and down on Oprah's couch, but that episode prompted worldwide questioning of whether Cruise really was a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. His subsequent media tour to promote 'War of the Worlds' ironically ended up alienating him from Steven Spielberg, due to his irrepressible desire to hold forth on such topics as the relevance of scientology, and, even more bizarrely, Brooke Shields' post-natal depression.

The manner of Cruise's marriage to Katie Holmes, and also the subsequent mysterious birth of their baby, has done little to dim the media spotlights surrounding the Cruiser. In fact, although he was dropped by his studio following his fallout with Spielberg, he has since been appointed at the reins of a large Hollywood production company, and PCMR would argue that he is now even more famous than ever before. (Incidentally, now that Cruise has been bestowed with the power of the green-light, what price on the imminent development of 'Battlefield Earth 2'? We live in fear!)

Mel Gibson, too, has had a very public meltdown recently. Driving under the inflence, escaping from police officers on foot, a rather comprehensively loopy anti-semitic rant, and the now legendary 'sugar tits' remark added up to a story the National Enquirer couldn't have invented in their wildest dreams. In one of it's more prescient moments, SouthPark pre-empted this episode of lunacy with one of their own, lampooning Gibson for being completely bonkers after the success of 'The Passion of the Christ'. In the sensitively titled episode 'The Passion of the Jew', Gibson appears in Braveheart make-up dressed only in his underwear, ranting and babbling to the four mountain town kids after they demand their seven dollars admission fee back. Stan, shocked, declares that "this guy is crazy." PCMR could be wrong on this call, but believes that this episode was made before the whole sugar tits debacle... possibly following either Trey Parker or Matt Stone running into Gibson in some Hollywood get-together.

That's not to say that being crazy is necessarily bad for the potential of Gibson's artistic output. I would argue that his decision to limit his appearances in front of the camera in favour of working behind it, is actually evidence of a rational mind. His more recent forays as an actor ('Conspiracy Theory', 'The Patriot', 'We Were Soldiers') have generally been in awful movies. 'Signs' wasn't all that bad, but you get the impression his acting career would soon be in need of the potential box office jolt provided by Lethal Weapon 5, god help us..

His career behind the camera, however, has been an entirely different matter. After cutting his teeth with 'The Man Without a Face', Gibson made a giant creative leap forward with 'Braveheart' two years later, and promptly picked up an Oscar for his troubles. Possibly due to the difficulty of following up such a career-defining project, Gibson waited some ten years before making his next directorial venture, the ubiquitous 'Passion of the Christ'. Vilified and adored in equal measure, 'The Passion' provoked extreme reaction from zealots and pagans alike, proof that religious themes will not lose their controversial edge for some time to come. Despite the personal and professional vilification Gibson endured with the Passion, it went on to rake in cash hand over fist at the box office, and was probably the biggest hit of 2005, considering it's relatively meagre $30 million budget.

And so, we come to Gibson's difficult decision to follow up what will most likely be the biggest success of his career. With the creative and financial freedom afforded by one of the biggest movies of 2005, Mel announces... Apocalypto, a film about the implosion of the Mayan people, without a single recognisable Hollywood name, and shot entirely in the ancient Mayan language... PCMR can only conclude that Mel is straddling the line between complete lunacy and cinematic genius here, but after seeing the trailer a few months ago, I was definitely keen to evaluate the results of Gibson's potential folly... Now, finally, the results are in. PCMR has survived a viewing of 'Apocalpyto'... so what's it to be: depraved lunatic or misunderstood genius?

Well, the idea of making a movie like Apocalypto, depicting the demise of the ancient Mayan people, was probably considered to be lunacy in Hollywood. I'm sure the critics that Gibson attracted with both 'the Passion' and his D.U.I. episode were rubbing their hands with glee at the the likely imminence of Mel's career implosion. However, the fact that Gibson even managed to get the movie made, and with a budget of $40 million dollars to boot, must be a reflection of his strength of conviction in the movie's worth and relevance. So at this stage of proceedings, the jury is out on Gibson's sanity, and they're out probably out watching the movie before they deliver their verdict.

The movie is essentially a great piece of cinematic entertainment, and I wouldn't hesitate to compare it with Braveheart or even Gladiator, in terms of its affectionate, pain-staking reconstruction of an ancient culture. Gibson obviously has a lot of love for the Mayan culture, and from very early on in the picture, we see these tribespeople as individuals and can understand them, despite the obvious disparities between this culture and ours. For example, the tribesmen work together, they play pranks on each other, they are family-oriented, and they gather round camp-fires for a good story and a bit of a dance... these are basic versions of activities we still enjoy today... although the influence of technology has changed the appearance, fundamentally, it's the same thing.

Apocalypto is the story of Jaguar Paw and his tribe. Their peaceful tribal life is disrupted when a nomad neighbouring tribe passses through their hunting grounds in the first minutes of the movie. This tribe do not have aggressive intentions, however, but make it clear to Jaguar Paw that their lands and people were ravaged, and they need somewhere new to settle.

This episode has a profound impact on Jaguar Paw, played with ferocious intensity by Rudy Youngblood. His father sees the impact on him immediately, and advises his son how important it is not to let the disease of fear into his blood, for it pollutes, and is contagious. However, Jaguar Paw can't shake the feeling, and it proves to be portentous.

Apocalypto has received much critical press describing the level of on-screen violence, and the degree to which the director really shows us what is actually happening in the more violent scenes. I have to say however, and perhaps I was prepared to be shocked, but I didn't see any violent scenes that shocked me. There is one rather prolonged battle scene, but the evocative moments are not from the violence on screen, rather from the visceral emotions that the battle engenders. Families separated, loved ones being captured or killed, this was more traumatic to me than the actual violence, which to be honest, fit quite well with the story. There is one scene reminiscent of Wallace's torture in Braveheart, but the scene in Apocalytpo is far milder than that, for example, and PCMR doesn't recall hearing such a critical revulsion to the violence in Braveheart when it was released.

While the first act is set against the backdrop of tribal life in the jungle, the middle of the movie is the most visually stunning. This section of the movie sees Jaguar Paw travel to the stone-built centre of the Mayan people, where thousands toil on the construction of a huge stone city, and human sacrifices are offered to the gods before the eyes of a thronging city centre. These scenes are incredibly well put together and beautifully shot, and make this part of the movie quite immersive, as you're paying so much attention to the level of detail on show, it becomes quite difficult to predict what direction the story will take.

The scale of these scenes, too, is reminiscent of Gladiator. Wide shots reveal the thronging crowds, thirsty for entertainment and blood, under the guise of offering a sacrifice to their gods. This is Gibson contrasting the depraved Mayan cities with the peaceful tribes, and is a metaphor for any number of contemporary themes, none of which PCMR is going to venture!

The action in Apocalypto is very well shot, and there is a chase scene which surely will go down in the cinematic annals as one of the best. This chase is not 'The French Connection' however, for it is on foot, through the jungle. This is a signature of Mel Gibson's movies: running. Riggs had a running moment in every Lethal Weapon picture, the Scots did loads of bloody running in Braveheart, and now this! I'll forgive him this one though, for the chase scene is great, and for the third half of the movie, there really is little or no dialogue to speak of, and the action does most of the talking.

Thus, the director is the star of this movie, and the production design is the supporting actor. The script is strongest in the first third of the movie, the dialogue is so limited from then on, the action could quite easily have been shot from a story-board from about half way through. There are obvious enough weaknesses in the plot, however, such as the timescale of the action, which means Jaguar Paw experiences a couple of days that normally only reserved for the likes of Jack Bauer in '24'. That's not a major complaint however, because this is essentially an action movie after all. However, one plot point that rankled with me was in the transtion from the second to third act, where Jaguar Paw's escape becomes the chase. It felt a little forced for me, but the counter-weight is that the action continues to flow at a furious pace. The chase is quite intense, as the pursuers are never more than a few metres behind, and the jungle tends to throw up regular surprises from the flora!

Overall, Apocalypto is a great piece of entertainment, and is unique and original enough to stand proudly astride the line between genius and lunacy. It's no cinematic classic, but it is visually memorable enough to be considered a real success for Mel Gibson. I'd recommend seeing it in the cinema, but not if you're squeamish. If Gladiator was a little violent for you, then you won't like this one.

Who needs a 'Mel Gibson is Nuts' website anyway?! If he's going to continue making entertaining, visionary movies like Apocalypto, I personally couldn't care less if he was crazy.

The Verdict: Memorable, action-packed, visually amazing. Violent, but not in a gratuitous way. Worth a look, sugar tits.
The Rating: 7/10

No comments:

/** Amazon Affiliates code /** Google Analytics Code