Monday, August 20, 2007


If we know one thing about Mel Gibson from the films he directs—he is not a fan of subtlety. Gibson likes to hammer the point home—literally. It doesn’t matter if the subject is 13th century Scots battling for independence, Jesus being crucified for two straight hours or Mayan villagers running through the jungles—you can count on Gibson to go the extra mile so you get the point, or at the least see some brutal violence.

I don’t really have a problem with that as I think Gibson is a talented man (who I admit might have problems with booze or Jews etc that I’m not going into here) and makes entertaining movies. I just wish sometimes he’d pull back just a little and not feel the need to pummel his audiences over and over and over. I am sophisticated enough to not need a jolt repeatedly to get the message. There’s always so much brutality that it becomes numbing at some point in his films.

That said, I really liked Apocalypto and am quite surprised to write that sentence. At its heart it is a survival tale, a family survival tale about a group of Mayan jungle dwellers attacked by a ferocious horde of city dwelling Mayans to be enslaved or Lord knows what once they get to where they will be taken to. They want to stay where they are that’s for sure. Gibson spends the early part of the film establishing the village life and the attack from outsiders but it is the last hour of the film that is truly special.

The extended chase through the jungle as Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) attempts to get back to his village is an exhilarating rush of suspense, thrills and violence (and a little hard to believe but hey, it's a movie). The thick green jungle is both gorgeously lush and filled with danger as Jaguar Paw uses his hunting skills to attempt to get away from this band who chase after him.

Gibson can claim this is a film about the dying Mayan culture and whatnot but that’s just bollocks. Apocalypto is what it is, a very rousing action adventure, survival tale that is both gruesome and suspenseful. There’s nothing wrong with that as it’s a visceral ride that he takes us on but the film has little to do with larger scale Mayan culture as I was led to believe when the film came out. Had I known it was just a straight up action adventure and survival tale I’d likely gone to see it in the theatre.

Apocalypto was a pleasant surprise to me, as I liked it much more than I thought despite Gibson’s urges to go full bore with grisly violence. I’d like to see him try a romantic comedy or something but I’m guessing he’d weaken at some point and have one of the characters get their skull bashed in or toss in a lovely torture scene. I’m not sure Gibson can resist no matter what the film.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

Of all the genres out there, action films are by far the least interesting to me. The problem I find with most action films made since Die Hard is the fact they have gotten progressively bigger, badder, flashier, loaded down with CGI and ultimately, dumber. There’s no real suspense in most of them—it’s just stuff blowing up “Bay” style. I find that dull, dull, dull.

The Bourne series is a completely different concept and they are bar none the best mainstream action films that have come out in the past few years. In a way, these films are higher-tech versions of action films from the 1960s and 1970s. They eschew any element of fat and exist in stories so lean and mean, there is only time for the chase, the hunt and the escape. It’s less explosion and more real stuntmen performing REAL stunts!

I’m not going into the plot of The Bourne Ultimatum as you likely know it—Jason Bourne is running from the government all over the globe as they try to kill him. He can’t remember who he is or what he was trained to do. All he knows is he’s a killing machine who has the innate ability to take out anyone coming after him. He’s on a mission to find out who did this to him and deliver some payback.

One trademark of the Bourne films (directed by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass) is the amount of hand held camerawork in the films. While it can be a bit dizzying to watch, it also creates an intimacy in the chaos and mayhem, and acts as a gritty agent to pull you into the action a lot more than a static, immobile, traditional camera might.

You won’t see me recommending a lot of full-on action films on CineRobot but The Bourne Ultimatum is a really tense, well made movie that had me keyed up from the very start. Great supporting cast as well with David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, Julia Stiles and Paddy Considine helping or hindering Bourne in his quest for truth. The Bourne Ultimatum is one action film I don’t mind ruling the box office roost, as it deserves it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Jonestown: Life and Death of Peoples Temple

Cults fascinate me. It doesn’t matter if it is Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven’s Gate, Branch Davidians or Scientologists. I particularly am fascinated by the doomsday cults for some strange reason. Maybe it was some of the fire and brimstone of my Southern Baptist upbringing rubbing off on me? The mother of all cults in the U.S. has to be Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. This is a riveting documentary that traces the history of Jones and Peoples Temple that ultimately led to the death of over 900 members in Jonestown, Guyana in an infamous mass suicide in 1978.

Jonestown starts out with Jones’ youth as an outsider in Indiana obsessed with religion, death and equality. In time he will combine all those elements but it took him over two decades to reach that point in Guyana. Jones was in the Pentacostal church early on and his sermons are very charismatic with lots of singing, dancing in the aisles and healings. His message of equality between the races attracted a lot of people who wanted to escape the binds of racism, included a huge number of African-Americans.

In the mid ‘60s the church moved to Ukiah, California and it is here that the church really blossomed as an agrarian, utopian collective. Bus trips across the country in the summer created growth and they also become more politically active in the Bay Area, which gave Jones a lot of clout. When they move to San Francisco in the early ‘70s the church becomes its largest, most powerful and rapidly develops a dark undercurrent thanks to Jones and his use of sex, God and control over the congregation. By the time the Peoples Temple uproots itself to settle in the jungles of Guyana they have fully embraced the brainwashed idea that Jones is their leader, their savior and that the government and the world is out to get them. It’s unbelievably captivating to me.

There are two main elements to the documentary that make this such a powerful look into the Peoples Temple: the open and honest interviews with survivors and the use of photographs, film and sound clips taken by Temple members.

The stories these people tell cover the entire gamut of their experiences —early joy and sense of “home” to horror as their loved ones die in their arms after taking the cyanide laced Kool-Aid. These people look the most painful and ghastly moment in their lives in the mirror and they do not blink or make excuses. Some of these people lost multiple loved ones on that day in 1978 and their directness makes what they say more believable and powerful.

On top of the stories and first hand accounts is an array of footage of images and sounds from the Peoples Temple. The sermons of Jones were interesting to listen to and watch. There is no doubt the man had a charisma in the pulpit and its easy to understand how he built up such a large, devoted church—although I’ll never grasp fully how they (or any cult member) would follow their leader to such dark places. The footage and sounds from the mass suicide is obviously the most chilling thing in the documentary. There are lots of great extras as well if you rent this on DVD.

Jonestown: Life and Death of the Peoples Temple is a gripping and captivating look at the path some people take on the way to giving up everything they own, including their children’s lives, their loved ones lives, their own lives—all because of one man led them on this path. As someone who is interested in the history and psychology of a cult, this is likely one of the best and most interesting docs I’ll watch all year.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

July movies

Waitress (2006, USA)---3
You, Me and Dupree (2006, USA)---2
The Science of Sleep (2006, France)---3.5
The Girl In A Cafe (2006, England)---3.5
American Dreamz (2006, USA)---2.5
Once (2007, Ireland)---4.5
Merrily We Live (1938, USA)---4
There Goes My Heart (1938, USA)---3
Meatballs (1979, USA)---3.5
The Swindle (1955, Italy)---4
A Trip to Bountiful (1985, USA)---3.5
The Golden Door (2007, Italy)---3
Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill! (1965, USA)---3
Cactus Flower (1969, USA)---3
The Survivors (1983, USA)---2.5
Breaking and Entering (2006, England)---3