Everybody knows that Mel Gibson made a fortune from The Passion of The Christ—much of it coming from Christians. Now everybody is finding out what Gibson has done with some of that money: He's made a movie even more violent than The Passion.

Apocalypto is about the decline of an ancient Mayan culture. Like The Nativity Story, it concerns the protection of a pregnant woman in a time of oppression and violence. And, like the upcoming adventure film Children of Men, it's also a furiously violent chase movie, one that barely stops to let viewers catch their breath. It's so intense, even people who don't like to read subtitles will be caught up in what may become a nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars. The dialogue is spoken in Mayan dialects. Yes, Gibson continues to demonstrate that he's a stickler for details.

Speaking of details, Apocalypto proves that Gibson is still "passion"-ately interested in the details of dismemberment. While Christian film critics are coming away with differing impressions and interpretations of the film, they're all commenting on the relentless violence.

In his review, Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) gives the film 2.5 stars (out of 4) and says, "Despite the film's two-hour-plus running time, the characters are never particularly developed; Gibson is working with archetypes, not real people, and he could just as easily have named his characters Family Man and Pregnant Wife."

Commenting on the violence, Chattaway calls Gibson "a sadist who rubs our faces in cinematic violence, and he is also a masochist who figures the best way to deal with the violence he sees in the world is to accept it and absorb it somehow. But where The Passion gave his admirers an easy out—between Jesus taking the pain and his enemies inflicting it, we side with the pain-taking, no question—Apocalypto is harder to pin down."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) comes to a similar conclusion. "Gibson is a consummate filmmaker, and the action is never less than riveting. Yet as the film repeatedly ratchets up the wince factor beyond what seems necessary or appropriate, it's hard not to feel that suffering has been reduced to spectacle. The Passion offered a redemptive context for its brutality that seems lacking here. Gibson is still seeking life amid death, but the balance is off."

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says Gibson "gives his detractors plenty of additional evidence to bolster their claim that he has an unseemly obsession with violence. What's missing this time is a larger context for the graphic images to which Apocalypto viewers are subject. No central theological debate, as in The Passion of the Christ. No ties to European ancestry and national pride, as in Braveheart. No, Apocalypto is a savage, repellent film that raises serious questions about Gibson's interest in the worst kinds of human suffering."

Article continues below

Anthony Sacramone (First Things) defends the movie: "Much attention has been paid to Gibson's allusions to contemporary events as the controlling referent for Apocalypto. … In any event, the film works on its own terms, regardless. So whatever you think of Mel Gibson, his beliefs, or his drunken rant, give Apocalypto a chance. It's not a question of whether Gibson deserves it; if you love cinema, then you deserve it."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says that in spite of the fact that Apocalypto is more violent than The Passion, "[T]he ambitious cinematic work demonstrates Gibson's talent as a filmmaker to tell a story through strong visuals." But he concludes, "If [Gibson] is trying to say something about the self-destructiveness of societies and the role of hope in the cyclical march of civilizations—and that's not at all clear—what comes across on-screen is more sanguinary than sanguine."

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) looks for what all of this violence means. "In these politically charged days, it's hard not to see an indictment of our own country's self-indulgent, violent and (some would argue) war-loving culture in his villainous Mayans." He concludes: "Yes. We get it. Don't rape the earth. Don't pillage, enslave or destroy its people. But do we really need to absorb such a blood-drenched spectacle in order to fully understand?"

Bringing a woman's perspective to the table, Jenn Wright (Past the Popcorn) says "Apocalypto avoids a common trap that modern treatments of ancient cultures often fall into: portraying them overly reverently, as sober, deep, and rather bland and humorless. Unfortunately, Gibson has wandered too far on the other side, thrusting upon ancient Mayans the locker-room man-boy humor most often associated with low budget sitcoms and '80s frat-boy flicks."

Mainstream critics are conflicted—some are ecstatic about Gibson's virtuosic direction, while others are repulsed by the film's violence. David Ansen (Newsweek) says, "Once again [Gibson] returns to his favorite theme: nearly naked men being tortured. Repeatedly. Imaginatively. At great length. … The harder Apocalypto works to shock and excite you, the less shocked and excited you become, until you may find yourself beset by the urge to giggle."

Article continues below

Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) acknowledges that Gibson's movie is about the moral decline of a culture, but he concludes that the film is "Exhibit A of the rot from within that Gibson is worried about. If our society is in moral peril, the amount of stomach-turning violence that we think is just fine to put on screen is by any sane measure a major aspect of that decline. Mel, no one in your entourage is going to tell you this, but you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. A big part."

But Anthony Lane (The New Yorker) argues, "Contrary to what his detractors say, I don't believe Gibson is roused by violence in itself. What lures him, in his dark remoldings of Catholic iconography, is breakage and restoration—the deeper and more foul the wounds, the more pressing the need to see them healed."

Violence with a Message in Blood Diamond

Due to his riveting work in The Departed, Leonardo DiCaprio may be one of the front-runners for the Best Actor award at the Oscars in a few months. He's winning more raves for his leading role in Blood Diamond, the new thriller from Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai).

And the movie itself is winning some praise too for its challenging attempt to teach audiences about the evils of the diamond trade, and the impact of consumerism in wealthy countries on the lives of the poor in Africa. But critics aren't entirely impressed with how the film illustrates that problem. And Christian critics are again troubled by so much violence on the big screen.

Carolyn Arends (Christianity Today Movies) says it's "an ambitious movie that aspires to combine mainstream, swash-buckling Hollywood entertainment with insightful psychodrama and serious social statement. Some viewers will wonder whether heavy problems like genocide, Western exploitation and the tragedy of child soldiers should be explored in a film that also uses carnage and conflict as a source of entertainment. Blood Diamond is so relentlessly violent that it runs the risk of desensitizing its audience to the very atrocities it aims to decry. At the beginning of the film I flinched at every act of brutality, but by its end I had seen so much death depicted that the images no longer had the same impact."

And yet, the film made her think. "Still, I left the film thinking about—and caring about—a country I had never seriously thought about before."

Article continues below

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) writes, "As the credits rolled and I walked out of the theater, I wasn't thinking about Leonardo DiCaprio's studiously performed accent, I was thinking about my own younger days of romance and how they were punctuated by the flash of a diamond solitaire. … Movies change the way people think. And intense, well-crafted, brooding, war movies do it more than most. … Blood Diamond screams out a protest that should be heard and well-heeded. How does it do it, though? With graphic, sometimes gratuitous images of violence, and obscene and profane language."

Mainstream critics are split over the film. Summarizing common complaints, Manohla Dargis (The New York Times) says, "If films were judged solely by their good intentions, this one would be best in show. Instead, gilded in money and dripping with sanctimony, confused and mindlessly contradictory, the film is a textbook example of how easily commercialism can trump do-goodism, particularly in Hollywood."

Love is in the air this Holiday

The woman who directed What Women Want is thinking about that subject again in The Holiday. Nancy Meyers' movie stars Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, and Jack Black, a cast sure to make it a box office success.

But does this story have anything meaningful to say about love? According to Christian film critics, yes and no.

Camerin Courtney (Christianity Today Movies) says, " … [I]t's so delightful to see The Holiday tucked amidst all the war and gore at the local cineplex. And this isn't just your by-the-number chick flick, with the requisite gay best friend for her and gross-out best friend for him, and every Mars and Venus cliché in the book. No, this is a grown-up chick flick. … This shouldn't come as a surprise, considering Nancy Meyers did the writing and directing. Though this isn't as meaty and insightful as her previous hits, What Women Want and Something's Gotta Give, it's still refreshingly fun and engaging."

But she adds, "Unfortunately, amidst this freshness and originality, there are a few common chick flick pitfalls: a few scenes that are too cute, plotlines you can see coming practically from the previews, a few unexplored and unanswered questions."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it "a generally appealing romantic comedy … . [The director] has created some very sympathetic characters, and she elicits heartfelt performances from her cast. Refreshingly … there's a minimum of overt sexual content, a strong affirmation of family and concern for the elderly. Though there's a regrettable assumption … that it's acceptable to sleep together, the characters here show relative restraint, and in any case ultimately do the right thing."

Article continues below

Christa Banister (Crosswalk) says, " … [I]t's the great casting, not to mention an engaging storyline that makes The Holiday a step above most chick flicks. And even though Hollywood equates love with sex once again, there are still some relationship dynamics lessons that can be learned here."

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) calls it "an unexpectedly inspired take on singleness in the 21st century. As Iris, Kate Winslet brilliantly offers a telling glimpse of the tragic depths those searching for love will go to receive it, even when they know it will soon fade away. Yet it's the follow-through on that insightful point that spoils the film—namely, the lax, completely postmodern take on sex."

During this Holiday, mainstream critics are not feeling very festive.

Leave these Unaccompanied Minors alone

In the new comedy Unaccompanied Minors, when a bunch of youngsters end up stranded in an airport, it becomes clear to them, and to audiences, that grownups are idiots. And so they're off to get into all kinds of mischief.

Bob Hoose (Plugged In) says, " … [T]he movie tends to celebrate youthful rebellion and a lot of bad choices. Kids mouth off, sneak off, run away, gamble, etc. The adults aren't off the candy-cane hook, here, either. They clamber after the delinquents with as much reckless abandon as the kids and are the reason that the children are 'on their own' in the first place."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "This holiday season, there have already been two Christmas clunkers—Deck the Halls and The Santa Clause 3—that, someday when available on DVD, could replace lumps of coal as the stocking stuffer for naughty boys and girls. Now comes Unaccompanied Minors … quite possibly the worst of the lot. … The inanity insults the intelligence of youngsters and will be a chore for grown-ups 'accompanying' their minors."

Mainstream critics rate this as a minor holiday release.