Colombiana

Serbs, white South Africans and Colombians – they’re the kind of tripartite alliance of Hollywood bad guys. They’re the go-to nations for cartoon-ish stereotype, the people you portray when you can’t be bothered to create any characters with genuine emotions or motives or personality. Ah well. In Colombiana, the lithe, balletic Ms. Zoe Saldana plays a Colombian-born assassin who’s hell-bent on finding the evil drug lords who killed her parents. The bad guys (cue slick hair, gold chains, nasally accents) are actually being protected in the US by a corrupt CIA agent. Zoe has to force them into the open, which prompts much bizarrely-plotted violence that’s supposed to mark her as brilliant but actually seems contrived and, let’s face it, risky. (murder by shark? I mean, really.)

Colombiana is not a bad film, considering the confines of its genre. I actually quite like revenge flicks – at least there’s a nominal reason for the brutality – and Zoe is kind of the female Jason Statham, mesmerizingly athletic, but with bigger hair.

Colombiana filmed in New York and Chicago, with Mexico doing stand in for Bogota. Which begs the perennial Film Commission question: when you’ve got idiot film-makers making a mockery of your country and your people, do you encourage them to film in your location, take their money and work like hell to make them at least feel a little guilty about their quasi-racist assumptions? Or do you block filming, only for the movie to be shot elsewhere where you’ve got absolutely no influence, leaving you to watch from the sidelines as your homeland is trashed? There’s no easy answer to that.

Apocalypto

It hurts me to put more cash in the pocket of Mel Gibson – that mad, bilious, drink-addled anti Semite – but Apocalypto is really worth seeing. Not for the violence (which is crushing) nor for the storyline (which is anachronistically middle class) but for the sumptuous, rich, remarkable and utterly alien world of the declining Mayan civilisation. It’s like watching the patrons of the Mos Eisley Cantina invite their mates to a street party; breathtaking.

The plot is simple; bad guys attack nice guys in idyllic rural setting. Hero hides wife and child but is enslaved and taken to decaying capital. Human Sacrifices! Hero escapes and is chased home through the jungle. However, the fact that this pared-down tale is spun with such riotously vivid and thought-provoking imagery – and in Yucatec Mayan language no less – is what makes this production so remarkable. Yes, there were the usual complaints of gross historical innaccuracies and accusations of racism. Even the offer of salvation through Catholicism slips in at the end – though of course in my personal interpretation, the arrival of the Spanish priests is an immense “oh shit” moment when you know that how ever bad things have been for Jaguar Paw and his family, they are about to get much much much worse.

Gibson filmed Apocalypto mainly in Catemaco, San Andrés Tuxtla and Paso de Ovejas in the Mexican state of Veracruz with a cast of mostly non-professional local and native American actors and extras. The waterfall scene was filmed at Salto de Eyipantla near San Andrés Tuxtla. Apparently the DVD (we saw it on pvr) includes a 25 minute documentary entitled “Becoming Mayan: Creating Apocalypto” which interviews the Mad Nazi and his co-writer Farhad Safinia about these Mexican locations and on the challenges of building the Mayan city. Other members of the creative team talk about recreating the Mayans through costumes and make-up and weapons consultant Simon Atherton discusses Mayan weaponry.

The Ruins

The Ruins starts with the typical premise of standard slasher-horror-fayre; a group of nice, naive, corn-fed American tourists wander off the beaten track and into the arms of particularly gruesome and bloody danger. The difference though is that the predatory threat here is not a mad-eyed axemurderer, but a land-locked island of mobile, talkative, carnivorous plants.

It sounds ludicrous, it is ludicrous, but The Ruins is saved by the utter conviction with which the four American leads – including the wonderful Jena Malone and angular Jonathan Tucker – carry out their roles. Their collective descent from drunken frivolity through nagging unease (sharpened by tequila hangovers) to shock to panic to absolute fear and ultimately madness is believably handled, and the choices they make (leg-chopping aside) feel honest, even if their characters are only lightly sketched by the script.

It’s a beautifully lit film – the cinematography is all bleached and intense. The plant is pretty scary, but that’s matched by the apparently blank inhumanity of the Mayan villagers who won’t let them leave. I also liked the fact that movie’s violence / horror (again, leg-chopping aside) happens so quickly, so violently and so horrifically, that you are left gasping. The Ruins does those flickers of nastiness – “did I really see that?” – really well.

Interestingly, The Ruins was filmed on the Gold Coast in Australia, though you’d probably never tell.

Vantage Point

In Vantage Point, there’s an assassination attempt on the life of the President of the United States whilst he’s attending a big anti-terrorism summit in Salamanca, Spain. This chaotic exposition of bullet and bomb unfolds piece-by-piece, via six separate points-of-view, culminating in a car chase that features some of the best stunt driving action you’ll see in a movie this year.

Hallalujah for the producers decision to portray the Babel-esque linguistic confusion of a foreign attack (rather than yet another East Coast location). However, having settled for the elegance of Salamanca, there was a significant problem with actually blowing up a historic plaza. Therefore, the decision was made to build the famous plaza from scratch, in the suburbs of Mexico City. It took ten weeks, working seven days each week, with over three hundred workers to construct the set.

Executive Producer Callum Greene explains, “We found an abandoned four-story mall which became a perfect area for us. We built our construction, carpentry, metal work, and plastic shops in the abandoned mall. Next to it was a pit where we built our Plaza Mayor….. We were able to go back to Salamanca and shoot certain scenes there; the two blended together seamlessly. You really can’t tell what was shot in Spain and what was shot on our set.”

And as Emmanuel Levy notes; the key advantage to building your own set is that everyone is excited when it’s time to blow it up. 
From a film-making perspective, Vantage Point is rather classily handled. The six sections sit together well; each witness to the assassination provides important fragments of information so that the pennies drop exactly as they should. It’s well acted too, with the Hollywood grandees of Hurt, Weaver and Quaid doing particularly good stuff. But having said all that, there’s something flawed about the film – perhaps the film makers were so focussed on creating an intelligently constructed film that they forgot to develop the characters in any significant detail.

And ultimately, the carefully-honed plot is sunk by the insipid movie-cliche of the stupid little girl who blunders her way into the path of danger. (As Time Magazine’s reviewer so wryly puts it: It’s as if Dakota Fanning had wandered onto the streets of Ronin.) Given that the terrorists had just both killed AND kidnapped the American president, blown up a historic city killing and maiming hundreds of innocents AND suicide-bombed a hotel lobby, d’ya really think they would have braked to avoid a dumb-ass kid crossing the road?

Babel

Caught Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel on tv again last night – a beautiful, gut wrenching and entirely appalling exposition of the confusions and mistakes and misunderstandings that separate us. In light of the xenophobic wrath unfolding in Johannesburg right now, it’s a timely reminder of umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – our humanity connects us, a person is a person through other persons. But then, Desmond Tutu is my hero.

Starring a toned-down Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, Babel features four stories that revolve around the central tale of an American couple on a vacation in Morocco. She is badly wounded when a bullet is fired through a tour bus window by a child playing with a gun. Meanwhile, back in America, the couple’s children travel into Mexico illegally with the family’s housekeeper, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), to attend her son’s wedding near Tijuana. They are accompanied by Amelia’s unstable nephew (Gael García Bernal). And far away in Tokyo, a deaf teenage girl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) spins through the emotional upheavals of adolescence, disability and her mother’s suicide.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=syfU7drScwg; 350 350]

Each place has its own aural and visual palette, and the fine cinematography distinctly captures the harsh light and dessicated landscapes of Morocco and the Mexican border, as well as the neon chaos of Tokyo. As the movie jumps from place to place and time to time, we learn that the narratives are intertwined and, inspite of the misunderstandings of language (the cast speak Spanish, Berber, Japanese and sign language, as well as English) that everyone is somehow linked.

There’s an interesting insight into the director’s choice of locations and the impact of those choices on the film via the production notes at Movie Grande.

A couple of things stand out for me. Talking of the experience of filming on the edge of the Sahara, Iñárritu says: “The heat was brutal and uncomfortable, but it’s precisely what this story is about. This was not only method acting but method execution.”

And at the other end of the spectrum, Tokyo -the only urban location – was rife with its own challenges. Says Iñárritu; “Things work slowly there and there’s no film commission to help you through. There’s no permission to shoot anything, so you are always escaping from the police at every corner. We had to be brave and work like a guerilla-style crew, ready to improvise, moving fast.”

And that’s why we need Film Commissions……