Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Apocalypto (2006)

Directed by: Mel Gibson
Written by: Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia
Starring: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez

Color, 139 minutes
Rated R

Grade: B+

Over the course of his last three directorial efforts, Mel Gibson has established himself as some kind of bizarre, masochistic visionary. He is a highly manipulative filmmaker, never afraid to fall back on good old slow motion to get a point across, and at times it even seems as if he enjoys wallowing in the extreme violence that he displays on screen. In spite of all this, Gibson's talent shines through. Like Clint Eastwood, Gibson's ability behind the camera has already begun to outshine his teachers. There are quite a few negative things that could be said about Gibson the filmmaker, but you certainly can't say he's a coward. It takes a certain amount of balls and conviction to bring such a singular vision to the screen once, let alone multiple times.

Apocalypto is the latest addition to that particular vision, and it's a wild one. The Christian right across the country come out in droves and bought out entire screenings of Gibson's previous film (I don't think I need to remind you what that was), making it a box office smash, but, oddly enough, they stayed away this time. I guess people are willing to sit through an extremely violent, two and a half hour subtitled film as long as it's about Christ, but if it applies to any other subject then you can forget it. I digress, and descend from the soapbox because I too admired The Passion. It was a flawed film, for sure, but the technical aspects were stunning, and the same thing could easily be said of Apocalypto.

Set near the end of Maya civilization, the story focuses on a young man named Jaguar Paw (Youngblood) whose existence is severely threatened when his village is attacked by another tribe. Images of horror and destruction abound as limbs are hacked off, throats are slit, and children are swung by their ankles. Jaguar Paw is resourceful enough to lower his pregnant wife (Hernandez) and young son into a cave, but he is eventually captured along with the rest of the survivors, and taken on a journey to a great Mayan city to meet his doom as he's sacrificed to the gods. Jaguar Paw, of course, has other ideas, like getting back to his family, and the film culminates with a 45 minute run through the jungle.

While it's plot doesn't have a shred of originality to it, and Gibson and Safinia enjoy throwing in every jungle cliche imaginable (quicksand, waterfalls, etc.), Apocalypto is a wholly unique film. This film gives us a glimpse of a civilization we've never seen in cinema. Whether it's entirely accurate or not is irrelevant, and I could personally care less. Gibson and his cinematographer Dean Semler create very weird, almost surreal images that will burn themselves into your memory. Using high definition instead of film, Semler mixes crane and handheld camera work to great effect, and comes out with the best jungle photography ever put on screen. Production designer Tom Sanders (Bram Stoker's Dracula, Saving Private Ryan) is at his peak here, providing lavishly textured sets filled with eye popping detail. The great city itself is a work of art. The costumes by Mayes C. Rubeo are intimidating, frightening, and extremely beautiful. In fact, one could write an entire review praising the visual aspects of this film alone.

Going The Passion of The Christ one better, not only does Gibson retain the authentic Yucatec language, this time he gets amateurs to do the acting. This doesn't hinder the film, though, it only adds to it. Rudy Youngblood brings a vitality to this film that's missing in most of these kinds of period films. He has the grit of Kirk Douglas in Spartacus and the intensity of Gibson in Braveheart, but he's more effortless and charming than they were. His athleticism is obviously a big help in a role like this, but Youngblood is a naturally engaging performer, and I would like to see his career take off because of this. The entire supporting cast is great, most notably Rodolfo Palacios as the evil Snake Ink, who takes a special pleasure in torturing Jaguar Paw.

Unfortunately, Gibson has a tendency to lay it on pretty thick. He relishes in giving us close ups of wounds, blood, and torture. On top of this, we get too many lingering shots of crazy looking people staring directly into camera, most notably in the ridiculous scene with the prophetic, plague infested, demon girl. Gibson's flair for excess hampers the flow of the film, and threatens to really hurt the picture at times.

In the end, though, Apocalypto is a film you won't forget anytime soon. You may love it, you may not, and you can look as hard as you want for another reason to crucify Gibson, but he's here to stay. This film isn't perfect, but as a feat of action filmmaking, it's superb, and it's unlike anything you've ever seen before.


Anonymous said...

Well, we can only hope that those who enjoyed the violent, vivid and memorable scenes from The Passion, will read this blog and flock to the similar gore and ruthless violence of the Apocalypto. If that does not work, then perhaps the allure of the director with balls of steel who is so bold to extend the violent and graphic shots (similar to the nails across the chalkboard)for extended amounts of time will.

I am curious as to your obvious admiration and respect of Gibson as a director. You are ruthlessly critical and request-no, demand proof of one's acclaimed profession before recognizing it. I did not think Gibson would be added to that list Clayton-I was surprised. Not only that, but you even recognize Gibson's film The Passion as flawed. I would love for you to illustrate specifically what flaws those may be-not because I am interested in examining The Passion of the Christ, but because I am interested in what qualifies as acceptable flaws when it comes to directing.

I have only known you to be exceedingly critical when it comes to directing/directors. Let us just say that I am surprised that the self proclaimed director Gibson, has received so much wiggle room from a perfectionist who will recognize over sights, short comings, and improvements over looked by the most critical reviewers.
Perhaps Gibson should share his secret on how he managed to get his nod of approval from an usual unforgiving critic like yourself.

Clayton L. White said...

I don't think I am any more lenient to Gibson than any other filmmaker. Let me point out that I do find more and more flaws in his filmmaking with every subsequent viewing of his work.

However, if I am to defend my stance on Gibson's talent, I will say that, for me, it all comes down to his "eye," so to speak. Unlike many actors who turn to directing, he has a true personal "style." I have a tendency to be harsh towards some films, but it is apparent to me that Gibson has something special. Does he linger on violence? Definitely, and that is where many of his flaws are, but you can't deny his ambition, and that is what elevates his work in my eyes.

I can forgive flaws, I don't expect a perfect film every time I sit down to watch one, but I do expect heart. Flaws are always more forgivable when a filmmaker is baring their soul for an audience. That is why The Passion "worked" for me. It's not perfect, but it is gutsy, and it is deeply personal.

I'm not putting Gibson on a pedestal, don't get me wrong. I think it's obvious that the man knows how to make a film, he has yet to make a great one, but he hasn't made a bad one either.

I think it's unfair to say that I'm unforgiving, and acceptable flaws are flaws that do not ruin a movie.

H. Stewart said...

Gibson's a hell of a formal filmmaker, as this film shows. I think he's a poor storyteller because he's relentlessly manipulative and even corny, but this film works because it abandons the hoakiness early on (like maudlin scenes of weepy children) and lets Gibson's talent, namely for action, shine. (Not to mention he's great at mustering a crew; as you point out, the cinematography, costumes, sets, etc. in this film are astounding!)

That said, I hated The Passion, but more for theological reasons, although it too was cheaply manipulative and a bit "by the books" in its direction, which I think ultimately hurt it overall. I haven't seen it in years, though, so I can't offer a more detailed analysis.

Clayton L. White said...

I think The Passion is a bit too cheesy, and redundant in its storytelling, I think it preaches to the choir, but I think the overall effect of the film is quite shattering, and the technical aspects, like in Apocalypto, are fantastic.

I admire what it took to bring The Passion to the screen, even if it didn't completely succeed.

Anonymous said...

wow you might be mildly retarded to give this movie a B+. it was an hour and a half of a guy running through the woods!!!!

ps - your other reviews sucked are too biased and opinionated to give an honest review.

pss - you try to hard to be "witty" and "smart"...stop

Clayton L. White said...

" wow you might be mildly retarded to give this movie a B+ " I think one could easily make the same claim about a person who reduces this movie to "an hour and a half of a guy running through the woods".

"ps - your other reviews sucked too... " - Thanks for reading.