too deep: (l-r) DiCaprio and Hounsou in Blood Diamond.
By Ann Morrow
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.
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
What Women Want?
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.