As of January 1, 2016, Gapers Block has ceased publication. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions over the past 12-plus years. 

TODAY

Monday, May 20

Gapers Block
Search

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr


Airbags

Blood Diamond

A couple months back, some friends of mine saw an early cut of director Edward (The Last Samurai; Glory) Zwick's latest, and all reported back to me that it was one of the most violent and brutal films they'd seen all year. My assumption was that before Blood Diamond's eventual release, the blood and guts would be toned down and trimmed out. Guess again. Blood Diamond is an unflinching look at the absolute chaos that existed in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. But lest you think this is some sort of message film, it is also one of the finest and most thrilling action offerings of the year. In fact, it will probably rank very high on my best of 2006 list.

The story of conflict diamonds is sadly the story of the deaths and mutilations of tens of thousands of Africans, many of whom are forced into slave labor, working the diamond fields in place like Sierra Leone. If these workers are suspected of trying to steal diamonds they find, they have limbs chopped off or are simply killed where they stand. It wasn't until the period in which this film is set that the Western world even acknowledged these heinous practices and diamond merchants were pressured into making assurances that their wares were not the result of such practices. Not surprisingly, many of these merchants (including one in this film played by The Queen's Michael Sheen) lied about their goods not being conflict diamonds.

Early in the film, we are shown the simple life of a fisherman named Solomon (Djimon Hounsou) and his family. Solomon is kidnapped, separated from his family and forced to work a rather rich deposit. He sees his fellow slaves slaughtered for attempting to steal even the smallest diamond, so, when he find a rather large pink specimen, he is terrified. But he also knows the money he feasibly could get for this diamond could help him find his family and get out of the troubled region. His escape is harrowing, but he manages to hide the diamond near the field with the hope of returning later to collect it.

Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio, in what easily could be his best and most fascinating performance) is a devious ex-mercenary from Zimbabwe, who has traded the life of a soldier for that of a diamond smuggler. Shortly after we meet him, he is captured attempting to smuggle product across the border and is tossed in jail. It just so happens that Solomon lands in the same jail, and soon Danny discovers Solomon has found something that could solve a lot of his problems, including owing money for his lost diamond shipment to a brutal general (The Mummy's Arnold Vosloo). The two become unlikely and uneasy partners, as Solomon agrees to take Danny to the diamond if Danny helps him find his family.

One of the film's most interesting elements is a subplot about Solomon's young son, who is taken by rebel guerrillas and brainwashed to become a bloodthirsty "child solider" for their cause. It's perhaps the most evil part of the entire film, and I'm glad Zwick and company left in those scenes (they easily could have been trimmed) because they leave you feeling ill as you contemplate the people in this world who would corrupt children like this.

I didn't think DiCaprio had any more tricks up his sleeve, but what he creates with Danny is astonishing. I'm not one who puts a lot of stock in accents, but his African accent here (think South African, but with more of the local Zimbabwe dialect mixed in) never waivers. Danny is not a man we are supposed to like, and we know that at the first opportunity he probably will betray Solomon, or possibly kill him once he has the diamond in hand. He is a man who has sold his soul many times over and doesn't really care. He knows he's going to hell, but he'd like to make a whole lot of cash before he does so. He's not a thrill seeker; he's just greedy and often mean. He's not a lovable rogue; he's an asshole.

Danny and Solomon tear through the jungle, with all manner of enemies hot on their trail. The frequent action sequences are bloody and remarkably well staged, but there are also some beautifully realized quiet moments, such as when the two stumble upon a peaceful camp for families and orphans.

I've deliberately avoided mentioning the presence of Jennifer Connelly in Blood Diamond because her role as an American journalist investigating conflict diamonds is obnoxious and unnecessary. I don't blame her performance, which is as good as it can be with this grossly oversimplified character; no other actress could have done any better with the part. And while she avoids many of the trappings of women in action films (she doesn't scream all the time or slow down the men because she's wearing high heels), she serves no purpose. Her point in the plot, I suppose, is to get Danny to give up the names of his diamond merchant connections, thus drawing a direct link from the conflict diamonds to the merchants, who claim not to deal in such merchandise. I applaud the humanitarian message of the film, but when Connelly speaks, the film stalls out. The character's blessedly limited screen time isn't enough to ruin the movie, but it does stop it from being flawless.

If you think you can endure the prolonged glimpses pain and human suffering, Blood Diamond is a remarkable effort, and a rare instance when a message movie is successfully merged with raw brutality. In a lot of ways, I'm shocked that a big studio is releasing this film, but bravo to them for putting out this honest work.


Apocalypto

Even before his drunken anti-Semitic comments a few months ago, a lot of people had dismissed Gibson as a filmmaker, actor and human being after he made Passion of the Christ. But assuming that you're open-minded enough to judge his work on its own merits and go see his latest film before you judge it, it's extremely unlikely you will forget any frame of Apocalypto. This sweeping and sublimely beautiful film is part chase movie, part spiritual awakening, part nature, part horror, part love story and part of end-of-days epic, all combined for the sole purpose of taking your breath away and leaving you speechless.

First off, you can't read too much into Apocalypto. As easy as it might be to draw parallels between the Mayan culture profiled here, which leaned heavily on human sacrifice to appease their angry gods, I don't think Gibson is trying to study the futility and senselessness of throwing innocent lives away for the greater good (i.e. the war in Iraq). The times in which we live may force your mind to head in that direction, but I never got the sense that Gibson was going for that message. I could be wrong. Second, as much as I warned you about how violent Blood Diamond is, this film is 10 times worse. The human sacrifice scenes alone (set in an eye-popping, more modern Mayan city filled with towering temples and filled with an array of citizens in colorful and ornate garments) may have the weak-stomached gagging in their seats. But Gibson seems to have gone out of his way to come up with some truly unique and exceedingly graphic death sequences.

There is a story too, a truly compelling one I can safely say has never been told before, at least not in this context. This subtitled work (translated from an ancient Mayan dialect) tells the story of Jaguar Paw (newcomer Rudy Youngblood; most of those in the movie are non-actors), a member of a seemingly peaceful village that is attacked by warriors from the more advanced kingdom city. Those that aren't slaughtered are taken forcibly to the city to be sold as slaves or offered to the gods for sacrifice. I've never seen any filmmaker attempt something of this grandeur or magnitude previously. The kingdom's leadership believes the gods are angry because their crops are poor, and so one by one, men are brought to the altar atop the largest temple, their hearts are torn from their chest and shown to the masses while they are still beating, and their heads are lopped off and tossed down the stairs to be mounted for display. As he did in Passion, Gibson revels, almost wallows, in the violence, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing. There are few filmmakers willing or able to make this volume of blood look so beautiful; it's almost poetic what he accomplishes.

Just as Jaguar Paw's turn at the altar arrives, a solar eclipse occurs, indicating to the Mayan priest that the sacrifices can stop. But Jaguar Paw and his fellow villagers are sent to be killed away from prying eyes, and he escapes, killing a key warrior and son of one of the top men in the city. The rest of the film is a thrilling chase through the jungle as Jaguar Paw races back to his village where his young son and pregnant wife are trapped in a pit (he put them there to escape the marauders). Gibson fills the city sequences with the most awesome collection of faces, costumes, jewelry, face paints and ornamental scarring in film history. I could watch these scenes with the sound turned off and still get a rush at seeing this long-dead other world. If for no other reason, Gibson should be applauded for opening our eyes to these wonders.

The villainous warriors track Jaguar Paw, but cannot forget a prophecy they recently heard about a man much like the one they pursue. His hard-fought odyssey through the wild is filled with deadly animals and a few natural dangers, but he is relentless in his journey. The more warriors Jaguar Paw eliminates from the hunting party, the more confident and scary he gets, as if he's fulfilling some unspoken quest on behalf of his people. The final moments of the film introduce an element I was completely unprepared for (and one I won't spoil here), but it's a bucket of cold water dumped on the viewer's head that puts into perspective exactly what is at stake here.

Apocalypto moved me to my core. As a person, Gibson may have compromised himself with his recent antics, but as a filmmaker, the man is untouchable. There's a sequence here in which Jaguar Paw is chased by an actual jaguar, and it is simply one of the most awe-inspiring things I've ever beheld (especially when you see how the scene plays out). Gibson's sole concern is telling the greatest story he can using some of the finest visuals to hit screens this year. The violence is a major hurdle for many, I understand. But the film also features a great deal of humor and a loving sense of community in its early moments. There are also probably a lot of people who have decided to not have anything to do with Gibson's work any longer. Fair enough. If that is your choice, you'll be denying yourself one of the great films around right now, and certainly one of the most unforgettable of the year.


The Holiday

Many women I know have been waiting months for this movie's release. And if the audience I saw this film with is any indication, women are going to flock to this overloaded and underwhelming movie. You see, The Holiday is actually two movies, connected by a pair of women who swap houses and find love in countries other than the ones in which they live. Sound like much ado about nothing? That it is.

I happen to like writer-director Nancy Myers' recent efforts What Women Want and Something's Gotta Give. So sue me. So I was half looking forward to The Holiday, thanks in large part to its cast. The idea of Kate Winslet (my ideal fantasy woman) and Jack Black (my ideal fantasy man) as a couple in a romantic comedy seemed intriguing. And while I was ambivalent about the pretty half of this equation (Jude Law teaming with Cameron Diaz), these are all great actors Myers could probably have a lot of fun with. So what went wrong? Kate (a newspaper writer) and Cameron (a movie trailer editor) are in dead-end relationships (with Rufus Sewell and Ed Burns, respectively) and decide to swap homes for two weeks around the Christmas holiday. Both make this decision spontaneously, meet on the Internet, make the deal and hop on planes the next day.

While in her quiet dwelling in the quiet English countryside, Diaz finds herself bored until Winslet's brother (Law) shows up unaware that his sister has taken off. Naturally the two end up spending the night drinking and having sex. Winslet's experience isn't quite as raucous, but she does meet a next-door neighbor, played by Eli Wallach, and former top screenwriter, who now lives alone. The two become fast friends, and he even recommends a few classics to watch that he wrote. Jack Black (about as tame and toothless as I've ever seen him) arrives as a film score composer friend of Diaz's ex-boyfriend, who comes over to the house to pick up some things. He's dating a hot actress (Shannyn Sossamon), whom he believes must be crazy or blind to be going out with a schlub like him. But the attraction between Winslet and him is immediate and undeniable.

Here's what's wrong with The Holiday: Everybody is just a little too perfect. Even their faults and shortcomings are cute and perfect and hopelessly forgivable. The Diaz-Law storyline never drew me in, despite a few laughs. Diaz spends most of her scenes acting with a nervous giggle, as if that's supposed to make her seem vulnerable. People, let's get one goddamn thing straight: Cameron Diaz is one of the hottest hotties to ever be hot. She will never be convincing as someone who lacks confidence or is unsure of what she wants. This entire storyline could have been sacrificed in an effort to throw all the focus on the far more interesting tale of Winslet and Black.

In its current state, this storyline also suffers by being classically underwritten and slightly dull. However, if the movie had just been about these two, then there might have been some hope. Winslet can pull off being desperate and pathetic, but not because she's any less hot than Diaz; she's just a better actress. This role is a slightly funnier take on her character from Little Children. She's supposed to be the plainer of the two female leads in both films, but we end up liking her far more. Her scenes with Black are sweet, a little underwhelming, but still nice. And it would have been exciting to see a film about the slow and nervous dance these two do with each other. At first, the warm and fuzzy stylings of Jack Black may be tough not to laugh at, but he grows on you with his sincerity. Of course, a guy like Black would go loopy for a woman as cool as Winslet. Who wouldn't, I ask.

But as it stands (with a running time of 130 minutes-plus, I should add), The Holiday is mostly smoke with no fire. And Meyers playing it safe simply is no fun at all. We never doubt for a second how things will end up for our players, and that's never a good thing. Taking the surprise out of even the most lightweight of romantic comedies makes it a long-ass waiting game toward the hopelessly inevitable conclusion; in this case, two inevitable conclusions. This one was a sad, if not shocking, disappointment.


The History Boys

Essentially transplanted from the British stage to the screen with the cast intact, this wildly popular tale of a British prep school circa the early 1980s is a high-spirited, intelligent romp that made me feel like an ill-educated, underachieving Yank. As directed by Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George), playwright Alan Bennett's The History Boys is about the cream of the crop at this institute for higher learning, a group of young men, most of who are destined to go to Cambridge or Oxford (they are referred to as Oxbridge boys). But before they take their final exams and go for their interviews, we must endure them reciting poetry, singing witty British show tunes and discussing their fledgling, fickle sexuality.

I guarantee you that if I were British, these stories would mean so much more to me, and I probably would have gotten much more out of the film. But as my nationality was not of my choosing, the film left me cold and disinterested in these students, who, despite their various problems, issues and intelligence levels, were interchangeable. More interesting to me were the three teachers, especially Hector, played by the legendary Richard Griffiths (known to modern audiences as Harry Potter's Uncle Vernon; he also is featured prominently in the upcoming Peter O'Toole film Venus), an openly gay instructor who rests at the heart of the boys' interest in things that won't necessarily be tested on. Another long-term teacher at the school is Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), a woman who has the gift for making you feel smarter by just listening to her. The headmaster brings in a third teacher for the boys named Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore of Bright Young Things and A Good Woman fame), whose specialty is prepping young minds for the unique nature of the entrance exam and interviews for these elite universities. Irwin is closer in age to the students and offers an interesting counterbalance to Hector's less-focused but highly engaging teaching style.

When the students were in the classroom learning things, I found the material engaging. There's a terrific moment when two of the boys re-enact the final scene from Brief Encounter. When they were free-floating bodies discussing who was trying to sleep with whom, who was gay or straight, and whom Hector had attempted to fondle while giving a ride home on his scooter, I zoned right out. The rapid-fire dialogue isn't tough to follow; it's tough to believe. The perfectly timed back and forth between the characters feels, well, like a play. Every thought that comes into these characters' collective heads has a snappy quote or song lyric or exaggerated gesture to go with it. Even the treatment of Hector's character is bizarre. They gladly take turns getting rides home with him, knowing they will get manhandled, but apparently, since they're smart enough to know the guy is harmless, they let him make his idle passes. The apparently dumber among us call that molestation.

I guess in a film about an all-boys school, I shouldn't be surprised that this is world where everyone is either gay or is curious about gay activity. They are British, after all. But when one of the overly masculine students makes a pass at the married Irwin (and he does seem more than a little curious), you can't help but exclaim, "Come on!" Nothing about the film creeped me out (the way it did Richard Roeper, apparently), but it all seems rather silly and unlikely. The History Boys has its charming and funny moments, to be sure, but the movie still left me scratching my head about what the fuss was all about. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Ever Again

The issue in this slightly uneven but still terribly scary documentary is the ever-increasing number of incidents worldwide of anti-Semitic attacks and overt prejudices, and the possibility of a resurgence of sanctioned, institutionalized anti-Semitism. As narrated by famed crusader for the downtrodden, Kevin Costner (I shit you not), Ever Again is a carefully constructed, well-researched examination of its subject. Attacks on European synagogues, cemeteries, Holocaust memorials and museums are growing at an alarming rate. Even moderate Muslims who disagree with the party line about killing all Jews are being harassed. What is more disturbing and absurd is that Islamic extremists and the new wave of neo-Nazis cropping up in Europe are teaming up to fight their common enemy. That's a new one to me.

The film paints a bleak picture of the future as well, as suicide bombings take the place of gas chambers and firing squads. According to the film, the hatred is coming from both the left- and right-wing sides of the political spectrum, and it looks at how outward expressions of anti-Semitic beliefs from Nobel-prize winning writers and esteemed poets seem to go unpunished in Europe. There is no shortage of interviews with angry Muslims saying the most outrageous things about their hatred of Jews, but what the film lacks is a proper examination of where these feeling come from in the modern world. A lot of these feelings come from anger toward Israel, and the film makes the very real point that anti-Zionist statements are interchangeable with anti-Jewish feelings. Perhaps more troubling is that the film doesn't show any global efforts in place to resolve these age-old hatreds. This is more a fault of the world than of the film, but it leaves the viewer concerned and with a far bleaker worldview. The film opens today at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema.

GB store
 

About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15