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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Apocalypto

Can there be anything worse than having to admit that somebody you positively can’t stand did a good job at something? It’s like choking on air. What could be worse? But here I am, forced to tell you that everybody’s favorite Tequila-swilling, drunk-driving, anti-Semitic, misogynistic homophobe, Mel Gibson has actually created … dare I say it? ... a masterpiece with Apocalypto, now playing at the Essex Cinemas.

Mel’s not actually acting in the movie (Thank God!), but as the director he is the one showing his familiar, albeit craggy face in all the saturation
advertising on television for the film. In it, he looks directly into the camera and tells us that Apocalypto means ‘new beginning.’ I doubt that. Any other culture with a variation of the word ‘apocalypse’ in it universally shares the same meaning: ‘the end of the world’, and I am sure that this take is simply Mel’s greatest hope for his career, which has teetered somewhere near the edge of a sewage treatment plant ever since his high profile arrest and subsequent tirades were made public this Fall. Apocalypto was his (ahem) crap shoot, as it were, and would determine if he had any future or credibility with movie-going audiences again. I know many people who still say they are going to boycott Apocalypto based on their personal feelings about the director, but this bias can’t change the fact that the movie itself is a brilliant piece of art.

For those not in the know, Apocalypto is an epic production with the same broad overview of history as Gibson tried to show (less successfully) in his recreation of Jesus’ final days with The Passion of the Christ. Here he focuses on the decline of the Mayan empire itself, slowly narrowing his spotlight onto the life of one man in particular, Jaguar Paw, played by 25 year old Texan championship grass dancer Rudy Youngblood, a Native American descendant of the Comanche, Cree and Yaqui tribal nations. Youngblood is a terrific find as an actor and as an athlete. The part required an unbelievable stamina as he ended up doing his own stunts, and this is definitely an action movie if ever one deserved the title, packed full of dangerous and stunning stunts.

Apocalypto begins with an introduction to Jaguar Paw’s tribe as the men are out hunting one afternoon. The initial scenes set a tone that shows a communal life full of balance and strong with a sense of extended familial affection as the men joke amongst themselves, proving that even in the 16th century, in what many would classify as a land of “savages”, there existed practical jokers and nagging “in-laws”. Gibson no doubt did this on purpose as a way to lure his audience into identifying with these peace-loving indigenous people who are willing to graciously allow another tribe to pass through their valley without trouble rather than do battle as many might have expected. This tribe may live primitively, but they share many similarities to modern man in terms of their family values, and by “family values” I mean the broad sense of importance to bonding with one another within a community and NOT the hijacked meaning that is probably more likely to arouse Mel and his buddies like Jerry Falwell, but I digress.

Once we understand that these Mayans are the happy (think ‘Blue State’)
Mayans, it is inevitable that the hostile forces of the war-mongering (think 'Red State') nation barrels in and does its own version of human clear-cutting, taking the women as goods to be sold as slaves and rounding up the men for the always popular custom of human sacrifice.

I suppose Mel felt obliged to use up whatever Max Factor faux plasma he may have had in storage since The Passion of the Christ, but he seems to have gone way overboard with this plan. For the faint at heart this may be too much, though for those who snicker at Saw or hoot at Hostel the graphic images of multiple beheadings, not to mention (but I will) the rending of hearts from the chests of the living as offerings to the gods, this may prove simply a walk in the park. For everyone else, definitely plan on finishing your popcorn or nachos in the first half of the movie because by the second hour you are definitely not going to be hungry.

The gist of the story from the point of the conquest by the Republi… I mean the warrior tribe is about Jaguar Paw’s daring attempt to escape from the city and return to the ravaged shell of his former home where he hid his very pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Fernandez) and his four year old son Turtles Run (too cute for direct viewing without sunglasses, Carlos Emilio Baez) down a deep crevice in the forest’s floor as the attack on the village was going on a few days earlier.

Complicating things is the fact that Jaguar Paw has made a very distinct enemy in the High Priest’s version of Dick Cheney, Hanging Moss (Ariel Galvin), who is an expert torturer-gatherer when it comes to slaves and is not at all happy over the fact that JP managed to embarrass the family by refusing to let Hanging Moss’ son slay the would-be sacrifice because that was simply what basic etiquette dictated. Rather, Jaguar Paw had the nerve to kill the young man so that he could escape instead and flee home.

From this point
Apocalypto shifts gears and becomes a high-powered testosterone-fueled jungle version of The Fugitive as Jaguar Paw is forced to run from Hanging Moss and his posse of bloodthirsty warriors who are determined to seek vengeance on JP. Here, Gibson and his Cinematographer Dean Semler (Click) outdo themselves with breakneck camera movements that weave effortlessly through the jungle as if on the wind. The points of view intertwine between the hunters and the hunted, winding over and under the lush greenery with complete fluidity and in perfect rhythm to James (Titanic) Horner’s pulsating score.

Kudos must also go to the enormous make-up and prosthetics department who managed to create detailed tattoos, scarifications, piercings, and wounds for hundreds of on-camera characters and keep these appliqués fresh on a daily basis for weeks if not months on end to maintain the illusion of authenticity that is completely essential for a movie like this.

Until now Hollywood has ignored this chapter in history almost entirely and so Gibson’s willingness to take on the challenge of not just presenting it to the public but doing it respectfully and with a story guaranteed to have broad appeal is a credit to his obvious caring about the subject matter. That’s not to say he got everything right,
however. While the visuals are beautiful, some basic facts about the Mayans are common enough knowledge that his hanging plot points on misinformation is hard to swallow from a historical perspective. The major turning point of the film’s story, for example, relies on the audience accepting that the Mayans would cower and be awed by the appearance of a solar eclipse when it is a well-documented fact that the Mayans were the best astronomers in the pre-modern world and would have obviously been capable by this time of predicting any upcoming eclipses and understood what was happening.

Other, more cinematic suspension of disbelief is required as well in scenes related to the very long, long chase the men mount to retrieve Jaguar Paw. I mean, really. These guys are in great shape, sure, but they run all day and then all night and then continue into the following day without taking a break ~ despite the fact that some of the men are injured. Please. I cancel with my hairdresser when I have a hangnail. I can’t imagine running anywhere with an arrow wound in my side! Not even for a date with Hugh Jackman. Well, okay, maybe for that, but he better plan on plugging the hole if I make that kind of effort.

Yet, despite things like these obvious mistakes, I will give Jose Cuervo’s best friend ever credit for having the guts and patience to film his work in the original Yucatec Maya language, a brave thing considering that nearly 90% of the people in this country would rather stick pins in their eyes than sit through a movie with subtitles. In this case, the subtitles work for the movie rather than against it as the language of the people is basic, and if the characters were to speak their lines rather than emote them, the words would probably sound inane or too simple within the context of the situation. Somehow though, the brief snippets of words at the bottom of the screen seem less intrusive than one might expect and tend to be more like “affirmations” to assure the viewer that he or she is keeping up with what’s going on more than anything else. The story itself, at least most of it, is so visually well-told the words come second.

So damn that Mel Gibson! How can someone who obviously has so many demons inside him also have so much talent in spite of himself? Or is the question better looked at from the flip side: How can someone with so much talent be so bedeviled with hate? Gibson shows an amazing eye for magnificence in nature, a reverence for the objects of his films, and a definite discipline in his ability to create art the way he wants the world to see it. So why can’t he see the “real” world with
the broad vision and objectivity he brings to his work? It’s too easy to blame his last year on the booze as he has hoped to do. His previously reported slurs about women and gays long predated this latest dust-up with the law in 2006, and nobody’s liver could have held up as long as reports of his misogyny go back. Even David Crosby couldn’t drink that much. Mel’s got problems, and I’m sure he’ll be fodder for gossip columns and water cooler conversations throughout the New Year, but for your own satisfaction, do yourself a favor a put that aside and see Apocalypto at the Essex Cinemas. Judge it on its own merits. It’s a master work and an incredibly involving adventure from beginning to end.

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