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4 Stars Movies

Repent Later: Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott’s video introduction to the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven claims it is more than a merely extended version of the film. The Director’s Cut represents his intentions, and is “the best version” of the film. The most significant restoration he singles out is a subplot involving Princess Sibylla’s son. This version is long, yes, but always engrossing and interesting. It’s incredible that this much material was shot for one movie. It must have been clear from the length of the script that much of it was going to have be cut, but the expense and dedication was there to shoot more than was needed in order to be able to shape the story later in the editing room. I might have lost my patience with a three-and-a-half hour long movie in the theater, but it’s perfect for home viewing.

Eva Green in Kingdom of Heaven
Gallic Goddess Eva Green

Kingdom of Heaven opens in France in 1184. At the time, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were sharing Jerusalem not quite in peace, but in relative stability. The wise King Baldwin IV and the cynical but basically decent Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) are barely preserving the fragile stalemate. By and large, Muslim characters are presented as more sane and civilized than the Christians. Interestingly, Jews are mentioned but are absent from the proceedings – evidently to this Dork Reporter unschooled in the relevant history, they had little political power at the time. Indeed, Christian holy men come across the worst of all. Early in the film, a preacher in a ramshackle European layover camp along the route to the Holy Land proclaims to prospective Crusaders that “To kill an infidel, the Pope has said, is not murder. It is the path to heaven.” Later, as the Christian army is about to be overrun by the Muslim army, one priest advises everyone to “Convert to Islam. Repent later.”

Balian de Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) is a widowed French blacksmith swept up in vast historical events. Bloom’s performance as the real-life historical figure isn’t bad, exactly, but he’s deadly dull. He is certainly earnest and handsome, but without the sympathetic starpower of a true leading man. Balian is a largely passive man caught up in key moments of history by the arbitrary whims of birth and luck, not unlike Forrest Gump. A plot not driven by the actions of the protagonist could be seen as a sign of bad screenwriting, but I’m prepared to accept the basic arc if it means it can hold such an interesting core concept together.

Orlando Bloom and Liam Neeson in Kingdom of Heaven
Liam Neeson teaches his young padawan Orlando Bloom the ways of the Force

Balian discovers he is the illegitimate son to the Knight of Jerusalem Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson). He inherits the mantle and is launched on a journey that makes him a knight, friend and counselor to the wise King Baldwin (Edward Norton), lover of his beautiful sister Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), and leader of the doomed defense of Jerusalem. But what’s most implausible is his sudden emergence as a master swordsman, military strategist, architect of fortresses, civil engineer of irrigation systems, and honorable lord who treats his subjects fairly. True, he is established early on as an “enginer” who despairs have having fought in meaningless conflicts and designed war machines for the slaughter of innocents. But it is absurd for this largely uneducated man to wield such knowledge and wisdom.

Moreover, Balian arguably causes more harm than good. His pride in being a good knight (as per his father’s dying instruction) leads to the slaughter of an entire army and to an evil man becoming king of Jerusalem. His piety doesn’t stop him from sleeping with a married princess, but he later hypocritically decides sleeping with her is no longer morally acceptable when her husband Guy of Lusignan (Marton Csokas) becomes king. And what kind of man would kick Eva Green out of bed?

Eva Green in Kingdom of Heaven
This review can’t have enough pictures of Eva Green

The villainous Guy is cartoonishly fey and sneering, and probably not coincidentally the most obviously French of all the characters (perhaps for the best, few other cast members attempt to affect French accents). It is suggested that he knows his son has leprosy, and callously banks on him dying and thus allowing him to be king. But what exactly does he want? If power, he gets it. So why then spark a holy war? The filmmakers’ intentions may have been to draw an analog to Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East, but Guy doesn’t seem to be the pious sort who believes it is his duty as a Christian to purge the Holy Land of infidel Muslims.

Special mention must go to Edward Norton, excellent as King Baldwin IV, whose advanced leprosy left him a faceless man in an iron mask. I don’t mean this praise as a backhanded slight to Norton; he expertly conveys intelligence and wisdom through his voice and body language alone.

Edward Norton in Kingdom of Heaven
Edward Norton as the original man in the iron mask

Interestingly for a Hollywood epic, Kingdom of Heaven actually features very few of the grand battles usually required for the genre. The tension-and-release structure of William Monahan’s screenplay is almost musical. After a long buildup, the first conflict is curtailed before it begins. King Baldwin cannily negotiates for peace by personally showing up despite his advanced (and known to the enemy) illness; also, his reputation as in intelligent man precedes him. The second battle happens mostly off-screen. Finally, very late in the film, we see the spectacular defense of Jerusalem against the Muslim army. Other directors might not have been able to resist wowing us with spectacular battles for so long, but Scott and Monahan’s interests are admirably elsewhere: in the characters.

On release in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven was lumped in with Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, only insofar as they were both historical epics. It’s a doubly unfair comparison in that Troy, a far inferior film, is set hundreds of years earlier and based on a work of literature. Kingdom of Heaven was interpreted as a direct commentary on US incursions in the Middle East, not least because one of George W. Bush’s most breathtaking gaffes (in a presidency full of them) was to cast his war on terror as a “crusade.” If he ever screens Kingdom of Heaven, perhaps he will gain a little perspective and be inspired to read up on the long, complicated three-way religious conflict in The Middle East.

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3 Stars Movies

Pierce Brosnin lets it rip in Richard Shepard’s The Matador

Full of suspenseful set-pieces involving assassination, The Matador is a genre film on the surface. It’s actually more of a character piece about one man about to pay the price for a lifetime of being a pathological loner (paradoxically, while indulging his lusts in every other way imaginable), and another grasping at his last chance to save both his professional and family lives.

Pierce Brosnin lets it rip as Julian Noble, a sleezebag assassin with a Magnum P.I. mustache. Interestingly, he frequently boasts of his bisexuality, but we only see him having sex onscreen with women. The is-he-or-isn’t-he ambiguity actually comes into play regarding an imporant plot point resolved near the very end of the film. Even better, the plot informs character, which is something of a rarity.

Hope Davis’ character defies cliché by enjoying a genuinely sexual relationship with her husband, but is also more openly seduced (in a platonic manner) by the exotic allure of an assassin. Perhaps Julian has lost any James Bond-like sexual allure he may have had, but discovers he can make people like him by simply revealing what he does for a living.

Disappointingly, the movie ends rather cheesily, with Julian finding some humanity deep inside his depravity.

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4 Stars Movies

Tommy Lee Jones’ almost unbearably gruesome The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Three Burials joins Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man as one of my few highly-rated westerns. Like Dead Man, its tone meanders from the darkly comic to the melodramatic, and is at times almost unwatchably gruesome. Which does nothing to explain why I liked it, I know.

Special mention to Barry Pepper for taking what must be one of the most thankless roles in movie history: his character is a onanistic racist brute, beaten, dragged by a horse, forced at gunpoint to disinter a corpse, bitten by a rattlesnake, and not the least of which, spends a good part of the movie with his pants down (come to think of it, so does Dwight Yoakam).

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Don’t leave Earth without Garth Jennings’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Yes, officer, I’d like to file a report. You see, I’m being threatened. I received word that If I don’t actually start writing stuff in my blog, I’m going to have my virtual pants pulled down in front of at least half a dozen complete strangers with well-tended blogs. Or is that if I DO actually start writing stuff… oh, I’m confused. Wait! Officer, where are you going? Oh well, I’ll just get on with a sentence or two about this DVD I just saw, and hope I remembered to put on presentable underthings this morning.

I’m one of THOSE people, you know the ones… while the rest of my peers obsessed over Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, I had my head stuck in Doctor Who and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I would drop my Nerf football or Legos every Saturday afternoon at 3 to run inside and catch Doctor Who on PBS. And for some unscheduled Brit-sci-fi fun, my collection (complete but always far from mint) of Douglas Adams paperbacks always waited for me.

So for me and my ilk, 2005 looked to be a great year — not only was Doctor Who regenerated (seemingly out of nowhere, when there was no hope to be had even by the most blindly optimistic of fans) by none other than the BBC itself, somebody at Disney (Disney?!) finally threw up their hands and actually made that Hitchhiker’s script that had been kicking around Hollywood for decades (not an exaggeration). Surely, some of my geek brethren must have grown up and scored jobs in the entertainment industry.

Not having been broadcast anywhere on this side of the planet, I’ve only managed to see less than half of the new Doctor Who season thanks to the wonders of internet piracy. I’m here to say that it is pure, glorious, totally-different-and-yet-somehow-still-Who. But Hitchhiker’s? It’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid. As a lifelong fan, it’s a bit surprising to find myself wishing the film was MORE mainstream. It’s hard to imagine anybody who had not read and reread the book (or at least already appreciative of some Monty Python-style humor) not being totally and completely bewildered by the whole production.

Some of the casting is so perfect as to be impossible to imagine otherwise: the voices of Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry, and wotsisname from The Office was surely born to play the definitive Arthur Dent. But as much as I like Mos Def, it has to be said he’s a mumbler (huh? what’d he say?). The filmmakers had the right idea to go for practical effects as often as possible, including some much-missed old skool puppet work from the Jim Henson Company, but it sometimes just doesn’t sit right paired with off-the-shelf-pow-zoom-blow-your-mind-just-like-the-last-blockbuster-you-saw-this-summer CGI.

I reread the book for the first time in years, and it struck me that the whole thing is actually quite short, focused, and satisfying. It shouldn’t have been too hard to fashion it into a movie, but evidently the producers (and Adams himself, who co-wrote the screenplay) felt otherwise, quickly abandoning the plot specifics of the novel. But if the aim is to create an easily-digested summer blockbuster story, why (just for example) introduce a seemingly significant character who incapacitates a major character, who then promptly drops out of the story and the situation is never resolved? And the whole business about Zaphod’s brain would make no sense at all to anyone who isn’t a Hitchhiker’s expert (I wouldn’t have understood it myself if I hadn’t reread the book so recently).

Anyway, I could go on but it’s late and I need to charge my iPod and myself (i.e. go to sleep). So I’m going to take my pants off anyway! Ha!