Action fix delivered straight to the vein

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Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto leaps out of the screen, knocks you to the ground and goes for your throat. Some will consider that the best action is to shoot it dead immediately. Others will welcome being over-powered. God knows it doesn’t happen often on Planet Popcorn.

Gibson, 50 yesterday, is still a world-beating enfant terrible. Look up “prone to anti-Semitism” in the dictionary and you will find his picture next to Wagner and Borat. “Famous Catholic ex-alcoholics”: well, the list is legion. Braveheart’s highlights included a hanging, drawing and quartering. The Passion of the Christ had so much bloodletting that it leech-cured religious cinema, momentarily at least, of its pomp and prissiness. Now comes Apocalypto, an eccentric, exciting chase adventure in the Mayan language: the first cuckoo of spring, arriving early thanks to climate change.

Everything is fresh here. Gibson doesn’t use stars, casting instead unknown Hispanic and American-Indian talent. He doesn’t labour the history: we pick it up on the run. (We must be in 1519, from a brief sea scene so impudent it belongs in a Herzog film.) At the beginning Gibson barely even troubles with an establishing shot. The camera moves close in on a rustle of jungle greenery; snap, the leaves part; out rushes something hideous, the blur of a tapir, and soon the beast is a violent maelstrom of mortality, caught, cut and écoeuré – as chefs say of heart removal – by tribesmen cracking jokes in subtitled vernacular.

This is the film’s metaphorical marker. An hour later the “hero” (Rudy Youngblood), a tribesman captured with fellow villagers
by Mayan warriors, is the sacrificial beast. Lain across a slab at the top of a step-temple, amid chanting priests and somersaulting celebrants, he is marked for live organ-removal when the old King Solomon’s Mines dodge is sprung. The solar jiggery-pokery is Apocalypto’s one pardonable piece of cheek. For the plot must have a means to twist 180 degrees so that the hero, escaped though briefly spear-impaled, can spend an hour fleeing his pursuers through story twists simultaneously giddy and gory in a Gibson jungle that is part fairground, part abattoir. (A dying pursuer bitten by lethal snake is told by a friend: “Open your veins, it’s quicker.”)

What is great about this movie? The movement is great: the sense of a knock-on momentum where everything is in motion and every motion affects every other motion. The wheel of cruelty constantly turns. A modern world that has revived the age of brutal retribution – summary beheadings, taunt-filled “state” executions – needs this primitive imagery as a looking-glass. We need the shock and shame of a story where freshly severed heads roll down temple steps or where an old man waits, and we wait, and his friends wait, for his throat to be cut. Then it is cut. Welcome to 16th-century Mexico, so very like the 21st-century mundo todo. Mel Gibson may not be the man of the hour when he is descanting in a drink-bedevilled state to traffic cops. But he is the man for the hour when popular action cinema, enriched by pulpings of myth and history, needs to speak to its time.

A Prairie Home Companion, Robert Altman’s last film, is all about mortality. This comedy, scripted by Garrison Keillor, who co-stars as the woebegone host of a Minnesota radio show (based on his own) beaming its last broadcast, is near-perfect Altman. An ensemble show of many moods, it gives Kevin Kline (Chandlerish private eye), Meryl Streep (singer and off-mike drama queen), Lindsay Lohan (Streep’s daughter), Woody Harrelson (Texas crooner and cracker of blue jokes) and others cameos. Meanwhile wisps of
mortality – an old singer’s demise, a noir-style angel of death (Virginia Madsen sporting blond hair and white trenchcoat) – drift across the screen.

Humour shares space with a cracker-barrel country-western pessimism, fully ironised. “If you should ever feel really happy, be patient, this will pass,” says someone. Tommy Lee Jones turns up as a second, more worldly angel of death, the company axeman sent to close the show. Mostly, the starry cast scrap for subplots like Altman’s Nashvilleans of old. And as always with this director there is a special airwave for spoken thoughts. (Kline musing on the voluptuously tressed Madsen: “She’s what God had in mind when he said: ‘Let there be hair.’”) The film’s camera and microphone move between characters like recording angels, fleet and invisible, ensuring that in the babble of multi-layer conversation we always hear the essentials. Motley yet magical, filled with humanity’s sad music, it’s an American comedy touched by the spirit of Renoir.

Miss Potter is a film about the bestselling children’s author of all time. No, not the Miss who created Potter (Harry), but the Beatrix who created Peter (Rabbit). Hollywood’s Renée Zellweger gets a crack at another British spinster, although Beatrix Potter’s diaries, unlike Bridget Jones’s, were in code and were all about bunnies, ducks and hedgehogs.

She fell in love, we learn, with her publisher Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor). But Warne had an illness, which provides the film with its Kleenex climax. After that, will Beatrix succumb to grief and a surreal night of
the soul, in which she scatters her drawings about the floor and the maverick creatures come to animated life? Or will she find some succour in life and the Lake District?

It’s a bit soppy, a bit sweet, a bit this year’s Finding Neverland. Zellweger starts by playing the author with a weird, glee-club smirk as if to say “I know something you don’t” or “I’m trying to find my way into this character”. But she settles down to present a woman who just might have defied her parents, stomped round publishing houses and ended up raising rare sheep in the bosom of pre-tourist Cumbria.

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