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Kingdom of Heaven

1000 years ago, the Christians controlled the holy land of Jerusalem, and the Muslims wanted it back. Caught in the middle of the war is Balian (Orlando Bloom), a young, bitter blacksmith who learns suddenly that his father (Liam Neeson) is a knight in the Christian army, looking to find an heir to his title. Balian travels to Jerusalem to find faith and honor, but soon is overcome by the corruption in the armies, and the spineless nature of the new king (a dreadful Martin Csokas, “XXX”). Leading his own charge, Balian struggles to find a middle ground with the Muslims, before the conflict ends up costing the lives of everyone he holds dear.

Even before the first frame flickers in front of the projection bulb, there are already several things askew about Ridley Scott’s epic “Kingdom of Heaven.” First is the familiarity of the direction, since Scott took on a similar journey in the 2000 Oscar-winning film, “Gladiator;” while the two pictures aren’t brothers in plot or themes, the movies are unmistakably the work of the same vision. Scott runs “Kingdom” through a familiar obstacle course of vistas (snowflake and sand encrusted), bloodletting, and performances, all of which mirror the ambiance of “Gladiator” to a disconcerting degree. Scott can be a master stylist, but there’s nothing fresh to the look of “Kingdom,” which accentuates the screenplay’s already languid nature and design. This is the first time a “been there, done that” mood has permeated a Ridley Scott film.

The other nagging problem of “Kingdom” is its timing. Audiences have been barraged with ancient battle films for many years now, starting with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and ending with last year’s “Troy” and “Alexander.” “Kingdom” serves up even more visuals of computer-generated armies rushing to battle, flying arrows that blacken the sky with their numbers, and lunging catapults tossing firebombs in every direction. While the release timing isn’t Scott’s fault, his modus operandi for “Kingdom” isn’t a departure from what’s already been covered by other filmmakers, which lessens the power of the production, and disappoints an eye used to Scott’s occasionally inventive visuals.

The dense script, by William Monahan, doesn’t cloud the mind like Oliver Stone’s long-winded “Alexander,” but it doesn’t have much personality outside of the historical known quantities; this is due much in part to Scott’s hasty editing of the film to bring it down from nearly 200 minutes, to the current theatrical running time of 135. Even without prior knowledge of cuts made, “Kingdom” radiates missed steps, resulting in unease with the characters and, at times, mild confusion with the story. Balian’s romance with a queen (a wonderfully committed Eva Green, “The Dreamers”) is given a Harlequin romance novel atmosphere: immediately pairing the two up simply through immediate attraction and passing admiration. The same short-shift in attention is given to Balian’s enemies, making an already embarrassing performance by Brendan Gleeson (who shockingly resembles Sweetums from “The Muppet Movie”) all the more toxic and out of place. An already somber, colorless picture, “Kingdom” is hobbled greatly by this deletion of character and narrative foundation. I guess future DVD audiences will be the ones truly rewarded with Scott’s full vision (a “director’s cut” is planned).

In his first major leading role, Orlando Bloom demonstrates the urgent need for a non-period comedy to come his way soon. Bloom is all brood in “Kingdom,” rarely expressing anything above a cold stare, which the actor does very well. Balian doesn’t come across as the tortured soul he’s written as under Bloom’s performance, possibly due to Scott’s cuts. The actor has some great early scenes during a training sequence with his father and his murder of a nasty priest, and Bloom is supported by some reasonable talent (Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, and a masked Edward Norton appear). However, once the weight of the journey settles in, Bloom dries up and is bowled over by the size of Scott’s battle sequences.

Even under different release circumstances, I doubt “Kingdom of Heaven” would’ve connected properly. Yet, for the film to come out now, after many productions have already blazed this trail, makes the feeble triumphs of this forgettable blockbuster disappear without a trace.

Rating: C-
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Crash

In Los Angeles, a questionable traffic stop by a bigoted cop (Matt Dillon) and his nervous partner (Ryan Phillippe) leave a married African-American couple (Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard) in pieces. When Peter (Larenz Tate) and Anthony (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) carjack the District Attorney’s (Brendan Fraser) SUV, his wife Jean (Sandra Bullock) goes on a racial tear to justify her own depression. Daniel (Michael Pena) is a quiet, polite Hispanic locksmith who finds aggression from a Persian family who loses everything in a store robbery he tried to prevent. And Graham (Don Cheadle) is an African-American detective looking for his lost little brother, forced to use his skin color to tow the company line when corruption rears its head in the department.

Last year, writer Paul Haggis left audiences thunderstruck by the power of his screenwriting adaptation of the heartfelt Oscar winner, “Million Dollar Baby.” With “Crash,” Haggis returns behind the camera (after years of television work), and once again delivers a masterful moviegoing experience.

While covering a multitude of arguments and ideas, Haggis’s theme for “Crash” centers on the thought of faulty human communication; the film suggests that people have grown cold to affection and respect, instead immediately using hatred and paranoia as a way of communicating with their fellow man, almost always with disastrous consequences. The L.A. backdrop to the film explores the intense racial loathing and confusion that plagues the city, and while I’m not a fan of using the tired metropolis as a location for any film, “Crash” almost couldn’t be set anywhere else. The setting has just the right melting pot flashpoint posture to sell this seething tale, instilling the film with a realistic take on racial claustrophobia. Like many films, “Crash” makes Los Angeles look like hell on Earth. Yet, Haggis doesn’t give in to that fear, and manages to find a palpable sense of hope behind the shattering of cultures and furious intolerance.

The magic of “Crash” is that it balances melodrama and realism in a seamless way. Haggis and his brilliant cast often perform loudly and uncomfortably to generate the sickening feeling of despair that is being sought by the filmmaker. This is a film that deals with blinding rage, and while the story dangerously straddles the line between cartoonish and insightful, Haggis never lets the tone out of his control. He keeps the truth of the situation bubbling behind every scene, and exploits the audiences’ own personal prejudices with his scripted moments of aggravation, bitterness, and incorrect racial assignment. These characters aren’t simply evil people, just products of their environment, family, and frustrations; they ache in very human ways to connect and protect, but are stunted by their own fears and anger. Haggis’s script marvelously connects the stories through an oft-used multi-character, crisscross structure (a favorite of Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman), but the cinematic showiness of the associations found in the film are erased instantaneously by the emotional wallop the movie routinely delivers.

As the film moves along (quite swiftly too), “Crash” grows stronger and stronger, until it feels that the screen has become one with the audience. I dare anyone not to recoil in horror as Jean yells about the untrustworthiness of a Mexican handyman, or as Anthony decries the negative Caucasian viewpoint of African-Americans while carjacking any automobile he can. In addition, some in the audience might need heart medication after witnessing Daniel and his angelic daughter at the business end of a gun in the picture’s best sequence. The events in “Crash” roll forward without stopping, at times unbearably, yet they register strongly with their frankness and integrity. The honesty might be uncomfortable to watch, but through Haggis’s careful vision, the picture cannot be easily dismissed.

“Crash” isn’t a simple film to digest, and with its uncomfortable ideas of intolerance and resentment, it also won’t be a film completely accepted either. However, for a minuscule production, this is a masterpiece of substantial proportions. In the glut of summer product, “Crash” an easy film to miss. I strongly urge everybody to take the time and seek it out.

Rating: A+
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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Mild-mannered Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, “The Office”) is having a rough day at home, but soon there is no home, after Earth is blown to bits by a bureaucratic race of aliens known as the Vogons, making room for a hyperspace expressway. Dent is saved by his alien friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def, “The Italian Job”), who hitchhike their way onto a spaceship called The Heart of Gold. It’s there that Dent meets two-headed galaxy president Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), earthling Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), and depressed robot Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman). Faced with the destruction of his home, Vogons on his tail at every turn, and endless existential questioning on the meaning of life, all Arthur really wants is a proper cup of tea and some sanity.

Where’s does one start with a film this immense, yet so direct in its ideasr Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhiker” tales have crossed over every form of media, from a BBC radio series to popular novels to a questionable television miniseries (the theme of which cameos here). Yet, this is the first time the “Guide” has been brought to the narrow confines of the silver screen, which gives it money to expand Adams’s limitless universe; but the adventures taken must be chosen carefully, due to its limited running time and newcomer patience. Not being a follower of the Adams sci-fi comic bible myself, I can say without a doubt that the clever madness that fans are so protective over has made it to the big screen in one piece. Yet, is it faithfulr That’s a question I cannot answer.

Music video filmmaker Garth Jennings makes his directorial debut with “Guide,” and you have to feel sorry for the guy having to start out with this tale. Much like another beloved genre smash, “Lord of the Rings,” “Guide” comes from labyrinthine source material, which Jennings has a hard time whittling down to 110 minutes. Starting with a dolphin musical number (“So Long, And Thanks For All the Fish”), “Guide” rockets off in a million different directions, with Jennings panting to keep up with the multiple layers of stories and ideas. Often, the picture will simply stop and explain what’s onscreen bluntly, to help the majority of viewers out there who wouldn’t know a Babel Fish from a Vogon. It helps in gaining a crisp understanding of Dent’s journey (and the breadth of Adams’s imagination), but has a tendency to stop the film cold, especially when the script sees fit to run off on tangents, hoping the A story will still be cooking when it returns, which isn’t always the case.

“Guide” traffics in zany, blissful images and situations, and Jennings has faithfully recreated that giddy atmosphere of Dent’s adventure well. From a production standpoint, “Guide” is a marvel; blessed with huge, colorful sets and exciting looking worlds to visit, the film never leaves the eye bored. Special attention must be paid to the alien characters, designed with true inspiration by the Jim Henson Creature Shop. In place of overused CGI, “Guide” keeps as much as it can practical, including the hulking Vogons and the bulbous Marvin. These little touches of reality in a profoundly fantastical picture bring a sense of warmth to the production, as well as crucial believability. CGI might be an easier tool, but it often has a hard time topping the realism of an animatronics figure or a puppet. Thank goodness Jennings and his production added this little touch of delight.

The film also retains a Pythonesque British sense of humor needed to pull of the comedy. “Guide” isn’t a laugh-out-loud experience as much as it is a witty film, packed with references and satire. While Americans like Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel, and Sam Rockwell have their goofy way with the characters, English talent like Martin Freeman (his reaction to a good cup of tea is worth the admission alone), the terrific Bill Nighy (as Slartibartfast), and Alan Rickman make the humor count. The performances all around are delightful, and they save the film when it threatens to cave in under all the weight of story and pretension.

“Guide” is a gigantic, bizarre, science fiction, philosophical, slapstick comedy. And it’s an extremely entertaining one at that. However, a word of warning to the uninitiated: bring a seat belt…and a towel.

Rating: B
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XXX: State of the Union

After assassins infiltrate his secret government agency, Agent Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) seeks out a new XXX agent to help him investigate a growing conspiracy plot. Gibbons turns to Darius Stone (Ice Cube), a falsely imprisoned soldier who is looking to exact a little revenge on the general (Willem Dafoe, cashing a check) that put him behind bars. Armed with weapons, sassmouth, and (I guess) unlimited resources, Darius infiltrates government levels his own way in an effort to find out who is planning to take over the presidency in the name of homeland security.

Well, if you can get past the endless racket, thunderous balls of fire, frightful acting, lousy special effects, monotone rap soundtrack, Dafoe on auto-pilot, wacky plot, a Casio-meets-Steve Vai score, some shameless pandering to the urban audience, the glorification of illegal lifestyles, and the fact that every female character has stilettos and Himalayan-like cleavage, you might enjoy one of the most needless sequels around, “State of the Union.” Of course, even at its lowest point, “Union” is still resoundingly better than 2002’s original, and appalling, “XXX.”

Ice Cube takes over the crispy action reigns for this new outing, and while Cube possesses no known acting skills, he does have a very specific charm that some other directors have figured out how to use properly. Cube is miles more entertaining than the last XXX, Vin Diesel, and in terms of small victories, that is a big one for the production. “Union” imagines Cube as a thugged-out Arnold Schwarzenegger: always quick with his fists, weapons, and a quip, and rarely breaking a smile. Cube is suited for the microscopic delights to be found in the film, and he looks like he’s having fun trying to imagine himself an African-American version of James Bond. Too bad that fun doesn’t extend to his performance, which is wooden and charmless when he’s clearly demonstrated before that he can be quite the opposite. In an effort to butch up for the role, Cube clams up, and is eventually swallowed by the nonstop fireworks bonanza Sony is trying to trick people into calling a “movie.”

Written by Simon Kinberg (the upcoming “Fantastic Four”), it’s almost impossible to blame the cast for their performances when Kinberg has written nothing but hammy, cliched dialog for everyone, along with dreadful one-liners to punctuate the action sequences. Director Lee Tamahori (“Die Another Day”) appears to be at a loss with the written word, so his job is to blow everything in the frame up every 10 minutes. Tamahori does this job well, but the effect grows wearisome right after the snazzy opening infiltration sequence. “Union” eventually settles on a deafening, shapeless roar for the rest of the picture, paying only casual attention to character, logic, style, and universal appeal (watch with head-slapping attention as the Caucasian weapons expert character urges everyone to “crunk” with him). By the end of the film, when Darius hilariously hops in a car to catch the President’s supertrain, “Union” becomes a flat-out cartoon, with Tamahori feverishly editing the action in a way that can only suggest that he’s embarrassed by his own movie. Heavens, he should be.

“Union” stays far away from the silly “extreme” sports angle of the original film, along with ditching director Rob Cohen’s obsession with pointing out how “uncool” James Bond is. Unfortunately, Tamahori doesn’t want to get rid of the other nagging, hostile problems that plague this rancid franchise, and while “State of the Union” aggressively goes after a new audience and star, it pathetically shares the same monster-truck-show level of grandstanding and lack of production subtlety. The ending promises a third installment, but I have a perfect way to recreate the “XXX” experience at home for cheap: simply run headfirst at top speed into a brick wall. Popcorn optional.

Rating: D
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House of D

On the eve of his son’s 13th birthday, Tommy (David Duchovny) decides to reassess his own childhood as a gift to his boy, taking him back to the year 1973, when he was turning the same age. A young man, Tommy (Anton Yelchin, “Hearts in Atlantis”) and his mentally challenged friend Pappas (Robin Williams) ruled the New York streets where they lived. However, their time of enthusiasm and mischief draws to a close when Tommy’s widowed mother (Tea Leoni) becomes suicidal and his first love (Zelda Williams) threatens his tight relationship with Pappas. Hope comes to Tommy in the form of a female convict (Erykah Badu) at the local detention center, who offers Tommy advice on his unmanageable life.

David Duchovny as an actorr A unique and dryly comic performer whose sharp wit livens up most movies he appears in. Duchovny as a writer/directorr An embarrassment. “House of D” marks the directorial debut for the veteran actor, and it shows undeniably that Duchovny should stick in front of the camera rather than behind it.

While it is an utter mess of a motion picture, “House of D” is not a mean-spirited creation. Supposedly semi-autobiographical, the film strolls down the same coming-of-age boyhood pathway taken by many movies. Yet, Duchovny’s creation is a very odd one indeed. While it includes the expected sweetness and tragedy, Duchovny’s screenplay veers wildly into weird sexual situations (Pappas gets an erection after watching a horror film), threadbare narrative devices (found in the women’s detention center subplot), and a bookending device with the adult Tommy that relies on breathlessly long voiceover stretches that only exacerbate the fragile grasp on quality that “House” holds.

The glaring problem with “House” is that Duchovny isn’t able to translate his own words to the screen with grace. For example, upon learning of his mother’s hospitalization, Tommy scoops up the cigarette butts from the toilet that his mother recently left behind, and wraps them gently in paper, somberly treasuring the last remnants of his only living parent. On paper, this would probably kick the reader in the gut with its tender power and sadness. In the film, however, the scene doesn’t lure that type of emotion, even going so far as to come off a little gross. Duchovny fills “House” with many moments like this, of such immediate poignancy, which cannot penetrate his stilted direction and are left to die in front of a rudely snickering audience.

Duchovny’s camerawork also hurts his actors. Even by low-budget standards, “House” in inexplicably murky to look at and Duchovny’s poor shot choices hang his talent out to dry. Young actor Yelchin receives the worst treatment, for his affected but charming performance is ruined in its final moments by the director’s inability to understand how to edit or cover a scene properly. What should be a sequence of an emotional wellspring shooting out of Tommy as he arrives at the end of his options becomes this awkward, grimace-inducing scene when Duchovny can’t find a respectful and effective angle to work with, but he keeps on with the moment, even though it’s fallen to pieces.

“House of D” is a heartfelt production, and a tough one to kick around, but to recommend it on intentions alone would be making many innocent people suffer.

Rating: D+
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