The director, Bill Condon, keeps the energy up, although he chops the dances into itty bits, and half the numbers segue into montages—the girls traveling cross-country, the girls becoming sensations, etc. In the original Broadway production, there were montages, too: Michael Bennett was celebrating and parodying the language of movie musicals. But what was breathtaking on stage is business-as-usual on-screen.
Beyoncé (not an actress) does little with Deena (not a character), but I loved Anika Noni Rose’s modulations between decency and lustiness, and Eddie Murphy (as bad boy and falling star James “Thunder” Early) has a few striking moments. It’s not so much his hot-dog gyrations that surprise you. It’s the scene when Curtis brusquely dismisses his attempt at a more dangerous sound: Murphy silently takes out a box of white powder, his features slack. Have we ever seen Murphy not “on”? Have we ever seen him look this human?
Apocalypto demonstrates two things: that Mel Gibson is a hell of a filmmaker and that his imaginative world borders on the Neanderthal. The movies he directs—and many of the ones in which he has starred—follow the same template: protracted torture followed by righteous vengeance. (Well, The Passion of the Christ lopped off the vengeance part, but one of Gibson’s favorite books is Revelation, so it’s a-comin’.) Apocalypto unfolds in a pre-Christian Mexico, before the conquistadors arrived. The Mayan hero, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), is steeped in the old ways, whereby one hunts the ancient forest with one’s father as one’s father hunted with his father, one raises a son who’ll hunt the ancient forest with his son, and one plays practical jokes on infertile guys like tricking them into eating raw tapir testicles or sprinkling caustic powder on their genitals. The ribaldry ends when warriors from the Gomorrah-rific Mayan city descend on J. P.’s tribe, slit his dad’s throat, rape and kill or carry off the women, and march the surviving men to the top of a pyramid to be sacrificed by chieftains who cut the throbbing hearts out of their screaming victims.
Apocalypto is thunderously kinetic, voluptuous in its savagery. You can taste Gibson’s relish—for the harsh Yucatec Maya dialect, for the manly rites of bowmen with bones through their noses, for the mystical visions of retribution (“Beware the man who brings the jaguar!”), for the loss and triumphant restoration of his alter ego’s potency. Gibson has quite an eye for the grotesque, especially the conspicuously consumptive Mayan royal family. (Do they start all the wars?) When a wounded J. P. escapes into the forest, he uses his oneness with nature to take out his taunting pursuers (they hiss things like, “I will peel his skin and have him watch me wear it!”)—at which point Apocalypto turns into the best Rambo movie ever made. The worrisome part is that Gibson doesn’t think he’s making a boneheaded action picture. For him, torture and vengeance are the way of the world. This is Gibsonian metaphysics.
Steven Soderbergh is usually an inspired chameleon, perfectly suiting his style to his content. But The Good German is an ambitious miss. The film is a love story, a murder mystery, and a portrait of physical and moral devastation in post-war Berlin, as Americans and Soviets divide the spoils—among them scientists who served the Third Reich’s monstrous ends but could be assets in a coming war (Cold or otherwise). For some reason, Soderbergh has decided to make this the anti-Casablanca, in the style of Casablanca (with some Huston and Hitchcock thrown in). The old-movie romanticism seems meant to brush up against the harsh realpolitik and … what? I’m not sure. What does happen is that the stylization keeps you at arm’s length from the characters and their inner turmoil. George Clooney doesn’t try to give a period performance and gets by on star power, but Cate Blanchett, her face half-shadowed, drops her voice and sounds like Carol Burnett doing Dietrich. It’s all very beautiful, high-minded, and remote.