Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Oscar Nominee Review: Apocalypto

: R for graphic violence (REALLY graphic)
Starring: Rudy Youngblood, Raul Trujillo, Jonathan Brewer
Directed by: Mel Gibson
Running time: 2 hrs, 18 mins

DVD Release Date: April

Nominated for:
- Achievement in Makeup
-Sound Editing
-Sound Mixing

First off, I'd like to start out by thanking my Uncle Tony for providing me with the screener of this film. Tony, I couldn't have crafted this masterpiece of a review without you. Thanks. Also I would like to thank my producer...

..sorry, too many awards shows this season!

Let me start off by saying that I wanted to dislike this film in a major way. Ever since Mad Mel went on his drunken, anti-Semitic tirade in Malibu last July, I lost all respect for the actor & filmmaker whom I had previously enjoyed very much. But like Michael Richards, Paris Hilton, and Isaiah Washington, once you cross that line into racial, homophobic, or anti-Semitic territory, you will never be viewed the same way again by a large section of the population.

That being said I was mildly disappointed when Apocalypto, Gibson's much-maligned, Mayan language labor of love, opened to rave reviews and decent box office ($15 million) last December. I thought "how can these people flock to a subtitled movie that's full of gore & bloodshed and directed by a drunken bigot?" I know after seeing the film that the answer is because the freakin' thing is really good! Yes, as much as I wanted to hate this movie, even hoping that it would tank at the box office and send Mad Mel, who financed the whole operation, into the Jew-filled world of debt consolidation., after viewing it, I can see why it not only reaped huge critical acclaim but also has grossed a respectable $50+ million in this country to date. Factoring in overseas revenue and DVD sales, not only will 'Sugar Tits' be able to once again say "I told you so", much like with his Passion of the Christ, but with a budget of $40 million he even made money from it. Amazing.

As soon as the film begins it immediately transports the viewer to 16th century Central America, when the Mayans ruled the land before the Spanish Conquistadors came and wiped out centuries of civilization. In the first scene, we witness a small group of tribesmen hunting in the thick Yucatan jungle. The party chases, traps and ingeniously kills a huge wild tapir, which resembles a giant rat. As they start to carve the animal up, young tribesman Jaguar Paw (Youngblood) hands out certain parts- the heart, liver, and ears- to the rest of the hunters as a reward for the kill. He then slices off the testicles of the beast and hands them to Blunted (Brewer), telling him that if he eats them it will cure his maddening case of impotence. As the naive young man chomps down on the large orbs, not only did I nearly lose my lunch but I thought to myself "I guess those male dysfunction drugs aren't that bad."

The group laugh it up at Blunted's expense after informing him they were kidding about the testes healing powers when a quiet stillness comes over the jungle, followed by the sudden appearance of a wandering tribe. Jaguar Paw's father, Flint Sky, informs the travelers that this is his jungle and they'd better have good reason for passing through. They present a gift of fresh fish and ask for passage through the territory on their way to search for "a new beginning." Flint Sky accepts the offering and allows them to pass, although after hesitating Jaguar Paw appears ready to kill the mysterious young leader of the group. His father holds him off, then upon returning to their village takes his son aside and tells him "fear is a sickness...that has tainted your peace already. I did not raise you to see, you live with fear. Strike it from your heart. Do not bring it into our village."

The warning from his father would prove prophetic because soon after returning to their village he would need to summon all his strength and courage to fight what fate has in store for them. Jaguar Paw has a disturbing dream in which he is back in the jungle and sees the wandering tribesman whom he wanted to slaughter earlier; the man is standing there with a terrified look on his face, breathing heavily. "What do you want?" Jaguar Paw asks him. As the camera pans out, we see why he is panting: his stomach is sliced open and he is holding his still-beating heart in his hand. "Run!" the figure pleads to him, and he awakens with a start. I get chills just remembering that eerie scene.

Upon awakening, Jaguar Paw discovers that his village is being invaded by marauders. Initially, I thought it was the tribe that Flint Sky had let pass coming back to haunt them, but it was actually a group of warriors from a distant Mayan city. As the soldiers set fire to the houses and drag the villagers into the open to be either brutally slain, tortured, raped or taken prisoner, Jaguar Paw hides his young son and pregnant wife Seven in a nearby pit. Soon, the entire village has been plundered and Jaguar Paw, Blunted, and the remaining men & women are secured by their necks to long poles and hauled off into the jungle, leaving a trail of frightened youngsters following behind and wondering what has happened to their tranquil family life.

The party traverses dense jungle, neck-deep waters and barren landscapes on their journey to whatever the invaders have in store for them. Along the way the leader of the warriors, Zero Wolf (Trujillo), asserts his superiority over his captives and charges, threatening to kill his top soldier, the ruthless Middle Eye, for throwing one of the wounded captives over a cliff. We also learn that Zero Wolf's son, Hanging Moss, is present with them, and an interesting parallel is drawn between the two separate father/son dynamics in the saga, wise Flint Sky & innocent Jaguar Paw and evil Zero Wolf & his equally naive protege, Hanging Moss.

Before the group enters the city they come across a creepy young girl in the middle of a desolate field; she is infected by a mysterious "sickness", thus ostracised from the rest of the community. The men are instructed to avoid the girl, but she issues an ominous warning nonetheless: "Would you like to know how you will die? The sacred time is near. Beware the blackness of the day. Beware the man who brings the jaguar...the one he takes you to will cancel the sky and scratch out the earth. Scratch you out. And end your world." Once again, chills.

Finally they arrive at the destination they have been travelling so many miles to reach- a large Mayan city filled with elaborate buildings, sewage-filled streets and thousands of inhabitants. It is a far cry from the quaint, leafy village existence the captives have known all their lives. Soon after arriving the prisoners learn what is to be their fate. Some are to be sold at auction, used as slaves to mine the salt that cakes the city and workers in a thick white powder, while others will be used as bloody human sacrifices to the tribes beloved sun gods.

The entire time Jaguar Paw can think of nothing but his wife and son stuck down in the pit with no way of escape, praying that it doesn't rain and fill the hole, drowning the only family he has left. The way Youngblood's facial expressions capture his emotions is one reason the viewer is so drawn into the film- we want badly for him to escape and save his family, a sure-fire mark of an excellent movie.

It is at this point that the movie changes direction and turns into an extremely gory, extremely tense, vengeance-filled adventure. The men who are to be sacrificed are painted blue and led up to the top of a steep Mayan temple, a shrine lined with many steps that are covered in thick layers of blood. As Jaguar Paw and the others are taken to what will be their final destination, objects bounce down the steps and are scooped up by the people at the bottom. We soon learn those objects are the decapitated heads of the sacrificees, lopped off and tossed downstairs after their hearts have been removed while the bodies are arched backwards over a bloody pedestal. Grim indeed.

After several subjects succumb to this gruesome fate, Jaguar Paw finds himself next in line, and although he is at a loss to figure out how he is going to extricate himself from this predicament, he knows he must find a way in order to keep his promise to return for his wife & son. Just as he is placed upon the pedestal, a strange thing begins to happen- the sky starts to darken as the moon passes over the sun. It is a solar eclipse, an event surely predicted by the sun-worshipping tribe and used by the elders as a way to prove to the commoners that their sacrifices have worked. ("...beware the blackness of the day...") The rest of the prisoners are then spared the more disgusting method of demise and are ordered to be executed by conventional means.

The final act of the film deals with Jaguar Paw's brilliant escape from his captors and subsequent journey to rescue his family before it's too late. It is interesting to witness how the hesitant young villager has turned into a cunning and lethal hunter, thanks to the words of his father, the love of his family and the hardening of his soul after seeing such devastation and bloodshed in the city. Jaguar Paw embarks on a what many have called a Rambo-esque jungle adventure, single-handedly taking out each of his pursuers with a silent savagery that can only come from deep-seeded feelings within, from being without fear in one's heart. His vengeance is filled with heart stopping leaps, vicious animal attacks, incredible escapes and the strategic use of toad toxin.

By the time he returns to his village, Jaguar Paw has grown from wide-eyed student to steely-eyed warrior, a man who met the difficult challenges that faced his society head-on and came out on top. Whether or not he rescued his wife & son, I won't divulge here (you know I don't do spoilers), but like most of the film it's not really about the end results, it's about the journey that gets you there and how it makes you grow as a person.

Upon conclusion of the film, all I could say was "wow", another sure-fire sign of a quality film. The cinematography is breathtakingly gorgeous, the makeup, sets and costumes are incredibly detailed & authentic, the soundtrack is haunting & mood-setting and the acting top-notch. With the use of both digital HD and traditional cameras, Gibson and cinematographer Dean Semler (who won an Oscar for his work on Dances with Wolves) create a staggeringly crisp, beautiful panorama of the era and the surroundings. What amazed me the most is that there are very few wide angle shots; most of the filming is done with tight shots at intimate angles, giving the viewer a real sense of being completely immersed in the tale.

Many have been critical of Mad Mel's liberal bending of the facts in order to get his story across. For instance, the murderous actions by the city dwellers are believed to have been typical of the Aztecs, not the Mayans, a culture that came to power many years after the Mayans were removed from the region. The murals in the city were not attributed to that time period either, and the buildings were also from different periods of history. Also, the Spanish Conquistadors ships that are seen arriving at the end of the film really wouldn't have been there for hundreds more years.

But to those nitpickers I say, get over it. This is a work of fiction, not a documentary, and every film in the history of cinema that depicts a real person or event skirts around some of the actual facts in order to make the story more compelling or entertaining- that's why movies are categorized as entertainment. If you want a straight facts history lesson, watch the History Channel or take a class; don't expect a film to teach everything there is to know about a subject. Many times the actual facts are quite boring and wouldn't keep the viewer interested for very long, a sure-fire sign of a bad film.

As for the excessive violence that has caused many to disregard the film as an overly bloody mess, it's true that the movie is incredibly graphic and gory. However, it is done with the depiction of a primitive culture of people who used savage techniques to get their points across and accomplish tasks. Apocalypto is no more gruesome than carnage-filled teen flicks like Hostel and the Saw franchise, but the setting and realism may make it seem more offensive to some.

All in all, this was a masterful picture that tells many different stories and Gibson himself has said is an allegory for the troubles facing modern society. Whatever reason you choose for watching and interpreting it, just remember that it is a stunning work of fiction, a blood-soaked romp through another era wrought with pain, suffering, tragedy, triumph and survival.

Oh, and tapir balls.

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