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In too deep: (l-r) DiCaprio and Hounsou in Blood Diamond.

Almost a Jewel

By Ann Morrow

Blood Diamond

Directed by Edward Zwick

 

In Blood Diamond, Edward Zwick’s latest attempt at a classic epic, Leonardo DiCaprio dispels once and for all his pretty-boy, dreamy leading-man status. As Danny Archer, a diamond smuggler operating in civil-war-torn Sierra Leone in the 1990s, DiCaprio creates a magnetic and believable antihero who carries this weighty movie to the mountaintops of the Liberian border. And he does so despite the handicap of an unwieldy and occasionally incomprehensible accent that might be the actor’s approximation of Rhodesian Afrikaner.

Danny’s revelation of his violent past—he was conscripted as a child soldier of fortune by a rogue operative—is more compelling than his present circumstance as a smuggler in search of the One Last Score that will get him “off the continent.” He tells his life story, in stolen moments of intimacy, to Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), a magazine reporter investigating the trade in “conflict diamonds”—diamonds illegally obtained and exported. Though Maddy is an action-junkie-journalist cliché given a fresh spin by her sex appeal, and Archer is little more than a pulp mercenary, their interactions sizzle.

But their conflicted relationship is not the central issue of Blood Diamond. Bloodshed is—specifically, the bloodshed over Sierra Leone’s alluvial diamonds. The film opens with a horrific raid by anti- government rebels during which a gentle fisherman, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), and his family are abducted. Solomon is forced into labor, panning for diamonds for the rebels, and his young son is sent to a rebel training camp. Fate intervenes when Solomon finds a pink diamond the size of a bird’s egg. Risking execution, he is able to hide the stone before being arrested by government forces. Danny hears about it, and makes a deal with the naive fisherman (“I know people. White people.”) to locate his family in exchange for a piece of the big pink. Their search requires backtracking through the most dangerous rebel territory.

For the most part, Blood Diamond is an enlightened action-adventure movie, with breathtaking cinematography (by the great Eduardo Serra), snappy dialogue, and powerfully tense situations. It’s also a political treatise on the suffering caused by conflict diamonds, and as such, it gets in over its head with ethical implications.

Zwick’s double agenda shows at the seams; the scenes of intense realism, such as the brainwashing of captive children by homicidal rebels, are jarring in the context of the director’s more movie-ish aspirations. It seems that Zwick did not want to make another overly romanticized but immensely enjoyable chunk of hoo-ha like Legends of the Fall, or an overly romanticized and less enjoyable chunk of hoo-ha like The Last Samurai. He almost pulls it off, incorporating inspired-by-international-headlines intrigue while avoiding the execrable sanctimony of other topically righteous movies (Beyond Borders, Tears of the Sun). And as in all his movies, the director is diligent about authenticity of time and place and points of view; Danny isn’t the only battle-scarred operative who wants to get off the continent.

But Zwick is also a sucker for sentimental flourishes, and his sentimental streak is applied to Solomon, who doesn’t need it (thanks to Hounsou), resulting in a coda that extends past the film’s natural ending (and running time) with a rip-off of Amistad. By coating the story’s searing fatalism with a politically corrected resolution, Zwick dulls the most compelling thing about it.

They’re Fucked

Apocalypto

Directed by Mel Gibson

With all the hubbub surrounding Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, you’d think he had reinvented the film reel. He hasn’t. Apocalypto is just another noble-dad-rescues- imperiled-family action flick—albeit the only Mayan-language version I’m aware of.

Gibson’s decision to film the movie in the native language of its characters (as he filmed The Passion of the Christ in Aramaic and Latin), is, admittedly, pretty cool. Not everyone is thrilled at the depictions, however: Scholars have hollered about the historical inaccuracies in Gibson’s representation of 16th-century Mesoamerican civilization, and pundits have weighed in on the movie’s perceived racist and/or colonialist overtones. I can’t comment expertly on either concern but I can tell you that Apocalypto is frustratingly predictable and—for all its violence—dull. Since it seems to me absolutely insane that anyone would look to Mad Max for a history or ethnic-sensitivity lesson, it’s that last fault that grates.

The movie tells the story of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young Mayan man separated from his wife and child during an attack on his village by a group of strange Mayans seizing victims for ritual sacrifice. The establishing sequences present Jaguar Paw’s tribe in a cartoonishly simple noble-savage manner, but it’s less racist than just plain stupid.

The action sequences aren’t much more sophisticated: In detailing Jaguar Paw’s escape and return to his family, Apocalypto racks up a jaw-dropping number of life-among-the-primitives clichés: Eerie prophecy uttered by child? Check. Rescue by sudden eclipse? Check. Run-in with protective momma predator? Quicksand trouble? And so on.

Gibson and cowriter Farhad Sarfinia hit sour note after sour note, perhaps none so groan-inducing as when a Mayan marauder says of a dying fellow warrior, “He’s fucked.” Is the audience supposed to find this sudden intrusion of modern slang into the subtitles funny? What are we, 12?

Gibson fares better as a director. The movie is visually spectacular. The jungle is shot with an almost mystical lushness; and the Mayan city scenes are—however historically jumbled—appropriately dazzling and threatening. The actors, too, are well-shot. Smart camera placement removes some of the burden that would otherwise have fallen on an inexperienced cast. So, the drama is well served by Gibson the director. If only Gibson the writer had remembered to get more of it in there in the first place.

—John Rodat

What Women Want?

The Holiday

Directed by Nancy Meyers

For all the references to Irene Dunne, Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck in Nancy Meyers’ The Holiday, there are no glimpses of these actresses to remind modern audiences just how wonderful they—and their screenwriters and directors—were. The movie works to death the idea, voiced by screenwriter Arthur (Eli Wallach), that these actresses had “gumption,” and it’s true that’s something we don’t see that much of onscreen today. But Meyers, instead of imbuing her characters Iris (Kate Winslet) and Amanda (Cameron Diaz) with said quality, runs from the opportunity, instead treating that cunning mix of class, spunk and sexuality as something that, well, only exists in old movies.

Iris is a Brit newspaper columnist whose life has been at a three-year standstill, courtesy of her hopeless infatuation with on-and-off flame Jasper (Rufus Sewell). He’s the kind of sleepy-eyed guy who calls you when you least expect it, rattles off a few compliments, and asks you to do his laundry. Iris is the kind of girl who gets sucked in every time. When Jasper’s engagement to another woman is announced, she takes the drastic step of agreeing to a house exchange over the Christmas holidays as a way of cleansing her soul, once and for all, of this demon.

So, Iris heads to a swank L.A. mansion, complete with Olympic-size pool, gigundo home entertainment system and what have you. Meanwhile, Amanda, the owner of said mansion, tries to make a go of it in Iris’s idyllic, tiny and low-on-high-tech-gadgets house in Surrey. Highly successful, Amanda has recently dumped her boyfriend Ethan (Edward Burns), who accuses her of letting her intelligence get in the way of happiness and trust. Ouch, except that it’s true.

Within hours of arriving, Amanda meets and beds Iris’ dreamy brother Graham (Jude Law). Meanwhile, back in L.A., Iris is taking to the sun and making friends with Miles (Jack Black), a friend of Ethan’s. Thank heavens for Black, whose understated, wry performance is the only bit of freshness in this film.

Meyers spends more than two hours not moving the plot, nor adding the urgency necessary to the idea that true love could be compromised, never allowed to develop, on such a tight schedule. Instead, she spends gobs of time having her female leads monologue. For all their differences, Iris and Amanda share one thing in common: The inability to speak like real people. Every utterance is a mind-numbing speech about the state of womanhood today. Lite.

—Laura Leon


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