The best bet for spreading cheer across multiplexes this holiday season, The Holiday (*** out of four) is a finely polished piece of romantic cinema, with a generosity of spirit so all-encompassing that it's easy to forgive its occasional excesses.
Writer-director Nancy Meyers, whose previous hit was the similarly sharp Something's Gotta Give, clearly writes from a privileged perch: Her characters tend to be perversely rich, impeccably groomed and fabulously good-looking. Yet because she has the ability to imbue these high-and-mighty figures with flaws and doubts and in the process make them recognizably human, it's always easy to warm up to her players. Besides, a good love story knows no boundaries -- salary range, job title and zip code have nothing to do with it -- and in The Holiday, Meyers gives us two such tales for the price of one admission ticket.
Because this is a high-concept Hollywood product, the expository sequences are needlessly busy and in the end strain credibility anyway. But the thrust is that workaholic Amanda (Cameron Diaz), who cuts movie trailers for a living in LA, and mopey Iris (Kate Winslet), a journalist who lives out in the British countryside, are both unlucky in love and seeking to get away from the heartbreak of their daily lives. Simultaneously coming across a "home exchange" Web site, both women realize that they'd be happiest spending the Christmas season far from their troubles. Therefore, Amanda heads to Iris' quaint Surrey cottage while Iris ends up at Amanda's luxurious Hollywood mansion.
Initially, men are the farthest commodities from both women's minds, but, well, this is a rom-com, so a pair of guys do enter the scene. For Amanda, that means Iris' brother Graham (Jude Law), who initially appears to be a womanizer looking for an easy score. And for Iris, it means Miles (Jack Black), a film composer blessed with a quick wit but burdened with a beautiful but unappreciative girlfriend (Shannyn Sossamon). Taking momentary breaks from all the flirting and wooing, the film also introduces the character of Arthur (Eli Wallach), an Academy Award-winning screenwriter who fondly reminisces about Hollywood's Golden Age and uses the magic of the movies to teach wallflower Iris how to blossom as the "leading lady" in her own life.
On paper, The Holiday threatens to be drastically one-sided in the appeal of its twin storylines. How could the tale of perfect, pretty people Diaz and Law possibly compete with the plot strand involving the far more quirky Winslet and Black? Fortunately, both sides of the celluloid coin are equally entertaining, a desirable trait in a film that initially ran the risk of an inconvenient imbalance. Diaz, normally an underrated actress anyway, displays her comic chops as a frosty career woman who thaws under the gaze of a good man, while Law, never more charming, provides his character with an unexpected puppy-dog demeanor that softens those eyes that have been used to predatory effect in past titles like Closer and Alfie. Winslet, meanwhile, continues to shine no matter what the role -- though in both this and the recent Little Children, she's been cast as the frumpier of the two leading ladies (in Children, it's Jennifer Connelly playing the other woman), which is almost risible given her luminescent beauty. As for Black, he was an interesting choice to play the vulnerable music composer, and he contributes some of the film's funniest moments (including a choice sequence set in a video store, complete with a clever cameo by an award-winning actor).
At times, Meyer's script comes across as too calculated -- when Amanda states that she's been unable to shed a tear since she was a young girl, we know that the climax will feature waterworks. Meyers also lets a few hoary clichés slip past her: Amanda's dash across a field to be reunited with her love goes on for so long and takes her over so much terrain that we almost feel like we're watching an outtake from Chariots of Fire. But for the most part, her writing is so skilled that even moments that might have been shameless in lesser hands (such as an awards banquet held for the elderly Arthur) end up moving us.
At one point, Arthur does something sweet for Iris, then worries that it might have been too corny a gesture. "I like corny," replies Iris. And so do I, when it's presented as desirably as in The Holiday.
MEL GIBSON MAY or may not be a sorry excuse for a person, but as has been the case since the first brutish caveman painted a beautiful mural on the cavern wall, it's as important as ever to separate the individual from his artistry. And for the first sizable chunk of Apocalypto (**), it looks as if director Gibson has succeeded in creating something special.
Flush from making gazillions from his garish snuff film The Passion of the Christ, Gibson used his clout to create a film that under any other circumstances would have been laughed right out of the studio boardroom: a lengthy, subtitled period epic about the Mayan civilization. It's a risky sell for multiplex acceptance, but for those interested in alternative cinema, it held the promise of something unique.
And for a while, it does offer something fresh. Gibson, working from a script he co-wrote with Farhad Safinia, takes us back in time to the waning period of the Mayan civilization. The story drops us off in a small village in which the peaceful inhabitants spend their time hunting for food, absorbing advice from their elders, and playing practical jokes on one another. Chief among the pranksters is Jaguar Paw (an impressive debut by Native American artist and actor Rudy Youngblood), the proud son of one of the village leaders, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead).
The serenity of the village is forever shattered on the morning that a far more bloodthirsty band of Mayan warriors -- ones aligned with the ruling class residing in an actual city -- descend upon the jungle dwellers, raping the women, abandoning the children and dragging the men back to their temples to be served up as either slaves or human sacrifices. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and young son (Carlos Emilio Baez) before being captured himself, and he vows to return to them no matter what the cost. That will take some doing, though, considering he's chosen to function as the next sacrifice to appease the angry gods.
Up until now, Apocalypto has proven to be a compelling yarn marked by charismatic characters, splendid production values and Gibson's fluid direction. Yet considering that the Mayan civilization is justly celebrated for its innovations and complexities, it's puzzling how simplistic these cultural representatives prove to be. Surely, Gibson will allow the story to expand and deepen during the second half?
Don't count on it. It turns out that Gibson isn't interested in educating either us or himself; instead, Apocalypto degenerates into a straightforward action flick, one that could have easily been set in 1450 or 1650 or even 1950. For all its trappings, the movie ends up being about nothing beyond one long foot chase across rugged terrain. Worse, the switch to pure action also allows Gibson to indulge in his by-now predictable sadism. Anyone who's seen his previous directorial efforts, Braveheart or The Passion of the Christ (to say nothing of starring vehicles like Payback and The Patriot), senses that nothing titillates the filmmaker as much as pain and destruction, and Apocalypto soon turns into an orgy of unrelenting bloodlust. Certainly, such a tale warrants an adult approach, but in Gibson's mind, why decapitate just one head when 12 are available? He can't just show a jaguar killing a man; he has to show the victim's face being stretched and ripped off by the savage creature. He can't simply have another character get shot from behind by an arrow; he has to show said projectile continuing its path through the poor fellow's open mouth. Martin Scorsese is also an excessively brutal filmmaker, but the violence in his pictures is generally presented quickly and matter-of-factly -- show the bloodshed as a facet of life and move on. Gibson, on the other hand, finds arousal in suffering, as if he were a painter dabbing his fingers in the spilled crimson and lovingly rubbing it between his digits.
Oddly, the picture's excess of brutality isn't shocking as much as it's laughable; because it's so pronounced and protracted, it ultimately feels no more absurd than the sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which a knight tries to keep fighting after his limbs have all been hacked off. If the Python boys ever try to mount a remake, it'd be advisable to hire Mel Gibson as their "technical consultant" -- he's definitely cinema's reigning gore-to guy.
HOLLYWOOD'S LATEST progressive cause seems to be protesting the crimes against humanity being perpetually carried out on the African continent, which is fine when the films are so gripping that one would like to believe they can be used as agents of change (see The Constant Gardener and Hotel Rwanda). But like Catch a Fire, the recent apartheid drama starring Derek Luke and Tim Robbins, Blood Diamond (**) comes across as a public service announcement more than a motion picture experience.
The message of Blood Diamond (repeated during the end credits) is that consumers should take care not to buy "conflict diamonds," baubles obtained by mercenaries using slave labor, then smuggled out of war torn countries. Since the movie (set in Sierra Leone) establishes early on that these "conflict diamonds" are mixed in with legitimate stones at an early stage in the marketing process, it's never made clear how exactly consumers are supposed to avoid said jewels (buy roses instead?).
At any rate, the movie's lofty intentions are hamstrung by having to coexist uneasily with a trio of stock characters. Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio in a strong performance) is a devil-may-care opportunist who belatedly discovers he has a heart of gold as large as the diamond he spends the entire movie seeking. Solomon Vandy (magnetic Djimon Hounsou, once again typecast as the noble and suffering black man whose fate seems controlled by the whites surrounding him) is a fisherman brutalized and forced into mining the diamond fields. And Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly, working overtime to add spark to a thin character) is an American journalist who sounds like an Information Please almanac every time she opens her mouth.
Director Edward Zwick and his team are presumably sincere in wanting to shed some light on a tragic real-world situation, but the clumsy Blood Diamond simply doesn't cut it.