Cinema Psycho

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Archive for May, 2005

Samaritan Girl (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 27, 2005

Directed and written by Kim Ki-Duk/starring Kwak Ji-Min, Seo Min-Jung, Eol Lee/Tartan Video

Two teenage girls go into prostitution to pay for a trip to Europe, with disastrous results.

This is an intriguing little film from Korean auteur Ki-Duk, who is developing a cult following based on his idiosyncratic films like The Isle, which will forever be known to me as “the fishhook movie”, for reasons I’ll leave you to discover. His films tend to be spare, quiet and low-key, a marked contrast to the recent crop of outrageous Asian cinema. Ki-Duk is kind of the anti-Takashi Miike.

Which makes it all the more interesting that he’d choose a subject like teenage prostitution. There’s so much potential for exploitation, and subtlety is practically Ki-Duk’s middle name. Needless to say, Samaritan Girl is hardly your typical hooker-movie fare. There’s very little nudity, and the sexual exploits of its protagonists are only dealt with in the most vague terms. If you’re looking for cheap thrills, this is the wrong place.

The story begins with Jae-young (Min-Jung) and Yeo-jin (Ji-Min), two typical teenage girls in just about every way. They dream of traveling to Europe for some reason (the same way young Americans do, I suppose) and decide that the only way to pay for it is for Jae-young to sell her body. Yeo-jin agrees to handle the business side, effectively serving as her pimp. When one transaction goes awry, Jae-young winds up dead by accident, and the grief-stricken Yeo-jin goes on a mission of redemption by tracking down her former clients and paying them back. Meanwhile, Yeo-jin’s cop father (Lee) finds out about her extracurricular activities. He’s understandably upset but is unable to confront her about it, instead choosing to harass her mostly embarrassed tricks.

This is a good film, but an extremely odd one at times. Rather than integrating its various subplots effectively, it seems to lurch from one to another almost at random. It’s as if Ki-Duk kept changing his mind about which story to tell during the writing stage – first the film follows the two girls on their misadventures, then Yeo-jin on her quest, then her tortured father. Of course it’s entirely possible that Ki-Duk intended for the film to feel exactly this way, but the result plays like a series of vaguely related short films without any overriding theme. Stuff just kinda happens, followed by more stuff that just kinda happens, followed by an obtuse ending that seems to have no point at all. It’s interesting to watch, but what the hell is he trying to say?

Maybe I’m relatively ignorant of Korean society, but I seriously doubt that this movie is a realistic portrayal of teenage prostitution in that or any other country. I could be wrong, but I strongly doubt it. Jae-young has quite possibly the sunniest disposition of any hooker in cinema history. She approaches her assignments with the high-spirited enthusiasm of a pep squad cheerleader, and insists that all of her clients are “nice guys” who she is happy to have met, despite the more cynical Yeo-jin’s protests. The girls’ decision to get into the business seems unbelievably naïve at best, with no thought of the possible consequences. It’s as if they’ve decided to open a lemonade stand or bake cookies for charity. It makes Pretty Woman look like Leaving Las Vegas.

Yeo-jin’s mission is a little strange as well. One would think that if her friend died (albeit by accident) in the pursuit of spending money, wouldn’t giving back that money amount to her death having no meaning? The clients weren’t affected at all by her death – they got what they wanted, after all. Why give the money back? She earned it. If she really wanted to honor Jae-young, she should have taken the money and gone to Europe like they planned. Maybe she wasn’t thinking that clearly (being in mourning), but nothing about what Yeo-jin does seems particularly logical. It’s as if she’s saying, “hey, my friend died being a prostitute, so not only will I become one too, I’ll give the money she earned back!” That’s just completely nonsensical thinking. And technically, she could have given the money back to the clients without having sex with them too. I don’t know, maybe the definition of “Good Samaritan” is radically different in Korea.

However, none of this keeps Samaritan Girl from being a fascinating film to watch, even if it leaves you puzzled and scratching your head afterwards. Ki-Duk is definitely a director to watch, and even if this is a minor film of his, it’s still worth a look.

*** 5/27/05

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Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 27, 2005

Directed by Lee Jong-Hyuk/screenplay by Lee Jong-Hyuk, Kim Hee-Jae, Oh Seung-Wook/starring Yeom Jeong-A, Jee Jin-Hee, Cho Seung-Woo/Tartan Asia Extreme

Two cops chase a copycat serial killer while interrogating the original murderer for clues to the crimes.

H is one of those movies where the less you know going in, the better. To detail the various plot elements would deprive the viewer of the disturbing revelations to be found within, and therefore it would be pointless for you to watch it. Even explaining what the cryptic title means (something the film itself doesn’t do until the very end) would be spilling a big secret. Trust me, you don’t want this one spoiled for you ahead of time.

Suffice it to say that this 2002 South Korean thriller starts out as your standard “cops vs. serial killer” story, and proceeds to venture into some genuinely freaky territory. And I’m not messing around when I say that. This is bizarre, bracing stuff. It’s not so much a gorefest (although the movie has its share of that) as it is just psychologically bruising material. It’s been almost a week since I watched this, and I’m still a little creeped out.

That’s not to say that this is a bad thing. If anything, that’s exactly the effect you want from this kind of movie, and so often they don’t deliver. The whole point is to potentially scar the audience for life, so that years later we’ll look back and think, “oh yeah, that was one sick, messed-up movie. Great stuff.”

Besides the shock factor, H is an engrossing police procedural as well. Of course the story involves two damaged cops (it wouldn’t be very disturbing if it featured two easygoing, happy-go-lucky cops, now would it?), Kim (Jeong-A), a veteran female detective whose original partner committed suicide, and her new partner Kang (Jin-Hee), a typical brash young hotshot with more guts than brains.

When a copycat killer starts murdering young women, they’re forced to go to Shin Hyun (Seung-Woo), the original psychopath who turned himself in after butchering six girls. Shin Hyun is easily the most memorable screen killer in years that I can think of – he’s a maddening little punk who talks in smug riddles and smirks obscenely. The kind of guy you can’t help but want to punch in the mouth.

There’s a blurb on the cover that reads, “Se7en meets Silence of the Lambs” (presumably so that Americans won’t think it’s a “boring foreign film”). That may seem like a facetious statement on the surface, but at times it does seem like the filmmakers literally tried to fuse elements of both films together. Yet it never feels like a complete ripoff of either, despite the similarities. Is H an especially original film? Not really – fans of the genre will instantly recognize its style, rhythm and conventions.

But what sets H apart is how far it’s willing to go to shock and disturb the audience, while still coming off as an extremely well-made, suspenseful piece of work. Not to mention its absolutely diabolical final plot twist, which rivals those of either of the aforementioned classics. At first it’s just a stunner – “whaaaa?” – but the more you think about it, the more sense it makes, and elements of the story that originally just seemed strange and unfathomable become much more clear. Suddenly you realize that you’ve been watching a completely different movie than the one you thought you were seeing, and that realization is exhilarating.

I actually wound up liking the movie more after I watched it than during. It’s pretty rare that a movie has that kind of effect these days, where so many films are just exactly what they seem on the surface. H is suspenseful and gripping stuff, and much smarter than the average thriller. It’s a trip worth taking – just not on a full stomach.

***1/2 5/27/05

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Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 20, 2005

Directed and written by George Lucas/starring Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christiansen, Samuel L. Jackson, Ian McDiarmid, Christopher Lee/20th Century Fox- Lucasfilm Ltd.

A dickhead is manipulated into betraying his friends and gets stuck in a suit of armor.

What, you were expecting a serious discussion? Come on, that’s not going to happen. We all know what this is about. Everyone’s going to go see it. Some people are gonna love it because it’s Star Wars. Some people are gonna hate it because it’s Star Wars. It’s gonna make about $600 million and piss off every “serious critic” on the planet. And most of us will have forgotten about it by the time War of the Worlds comes out.

That’s about as serious as I get when it comes to Star Wars. At this point, I think I have enough perspective that I’m just kind of amused by the whole thing. The mountains of hype, the insane and unnecessary marketing deals, the bizarre passion of the die-hard fans (standing in line at the wrong theater, for god’s sake, and refusing to move) – it’s all funny to me. It makes me laugh. But not at all in a cynical, mocking way. I just think it’s hilarious. It’s weird and wonderful. You don’t see people getting this worked up over crap like Monster-in-Law, that’s for damn sure.

It’s virtually impossible to discuss a Star Wars movie without commenting on the series’ overall impact on pop culture. Yes, we all know that Star Wars changed Hollywood permanently. Many critics would say for the worse, and when you look at how loud, stupid and ridiculous Hollywood blockbuster have become, it’s difficult to disagree. But it’s also important to remember that Lucas helped save Hollywood from a period of financial disaster that could have virtually destroyed the industry. Maybe mainstream movies were better before 1977. But the truly great films are always the exception to the rule, no matter what period they come from. Have you seen Freebie and the Bean lately? How about Myra Breckenridge or The Other Side of Midnight or, god help you, Exorcist II: The Heretic? It wasn’t all wine and roses back then, kids.

Besides, if anyone’s still concerned about Star Wars’ negative effect on filmmaking, here’s what they should do: support independent and foreign films. See them at the nearest art house. Rent them at the local video store. And when Hollywood actually makes something great (which they still do, every now and then), go see it in a theater! If you don’t do these things, then you have no right to bitch and complain. There are lots of excellent movies out there that most people haven’t seen. If you’re not willing to make a little effort, then shut the hell up. Bad news: George Lucas didn’t destroy movies – Michael Cimino did. Deal with it.

Some people are actually offended – offended, I say! – by the shameless hucksterism on display with the prequels. I guess they don’t remember when they were kids, how they had to have all the action figures of Boba Fett and Bossk and all the little freaky creatures who were on screen for all of 5 seconds. Maybe they never put together a Millenium Falcon or X-Wing Fighter model. They certainly never listened to the soundtrack, read the comic books or novelizations or even had lightsaber battles with their friends. Nooooo, their 8-year-old selves were just too pure for such crass commercialization.

Give me a fucking break. Kids are eating this stuff up with a lightsaber spoon. I’m constantly amazed at how much kids today love Star Wars, and not just the prequels either. One of my nephew’s favorite games is to re-enact the Luke/Vader duel at the end of Empire. He may not have the attention span to sit through the entire movie, but the words “Luke, I am your father” are practically sacred text to him. He’s grown up with R2D2 and C3P0 and Lando Calrissian and Jabba the Hut. I’m not the one pushing this stuff on him, believe me. It’s just as iconic now as it was then. Star Trek? He doesn’t know from any Star Trek. Maybe that will come later. Maybe not.

I don’t even know how it happened, really. I remember going for quite a long time – somewhere between 1984 and 1996 – without even thinking about Star Wars. It was all just a vague memory. If anyone even brought up the subject, it was like, “oh yeah, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Darth Vader. I sorta remember that.” But somehow it endured. So it really doesn’t bother me how many ridiculous tie-ins there are. It doesn’t affect the content of the movies, so who cares? It’s not like Lucas has the entire Jedi Council sitting around at the breakfast table eating Star Wars cereal with those goofy lightsaber spoons.

Besides, it’s all just a silly space opera – isn’t it?

That’s what struck me the most while watching Revenge of the Sith – how goofy and ridiculous it all is, even in the “serious” moments. It’s a cartoon, for christ’s sake, a Saturday-afternoon serial, an overblown comic-book fantasy filtered through the mind of a very good salesman. There’s nothing “adult” about it – not the content, not the tone, and certainly not the dialogue. It’s play time. It’s made up. It’s pulp sci-fi action/adventure. At its very heart and soul, it’s just a big goof. It’s supposed to be fun, goddammit! Why does everybody take it so freakin’ seriously?

I’ve had my issues with the prequels, like just about everyone else on Earth. I think there are some serious lapses in judgment in the first two, especially Phantom Menace. I actually don’t mind things like Jake Lloyd’s performance or even Jar Jar (though he’s still completely unnecessary) – it’s just that most of the movie’s so freaking boring. Who cares about all that political nonsense? Just get to the good stuff already! Attack of the Clones was an improvement, but I almost felt like Lucas was trying a little too hard to please the fanboys. You can feel the desperation even as you sort of appreciate the effort. There were things I liked about both movies, but I haven’t felt it necessary to sit through either one of them again.

Revenge of the Sith is easily the most dramatically satisfying of the trilogy. That’s damning it with faint praise, I realize, but even so it has to be said. It finally feels like he’s telling the story that we want to see. Of course all three movies are about Anakin’s rise, downfall and eventual transformation into Darth Vader. I get that. I just wish the rise and downfall had been more interesting to watch.

Beyond that, Revenge of the Sith actually feels like a Star Wars movie, not an unreasonable facsimile. The pacing finally feels right. The exposition scenes don’t feel like they drag on forever. The space battles and lightsaber duels (of which there are many) are actually kinda thrilling in that old-school way. Believe me, no one had lower expectations going in than I did, but I walked out thinking, “wow, I actually enjoyed watching that.” I wouldn’t say it gave me an orgasm or anything, but it wasn’t a chore to sit through either. That’s a considerable improvement.

So does this mean Lucas nailed it? Well…yes and no. He made a pretty good Star Wars movie, but certainly not the be-all, end-all Star Wars movie that many people are going to demand. I don’t think it’s going to make people forgive the mistakes made in the previous prequels – “oh, so that’s why Jar Jar farted!” – that would take a miracle. And I think it suffers a bit from the fact that we all pretty much know what’s going to happen, which is inevitable. It couldn’t end any other way, or there would be a fanboy riot. But there aren’t a lot of genuine surprises.

And we’re still stuck with Anakin as our focal point, which is maybe an unavoidable weak spot of the entire trilogy. Frankly, I never understood what the Jedi saw in this guy in the first place. Really, the guy’s kind of a douchebag, isn’t he? He’s an insufferably obnoxious child in Phantom Menace, and a petulant teenager with a penchant for genocide in Clones. Is anyone really shocked that he turns to the Dark Side? Anakin’s got everything handed to him on a silver platter, and all he can do is bitch and moan. I understand that he has to choose between his love for foxy Padme and the rules of the Jedi, but still…nice problem to have, am I right? Beats pod racing for pocket change. Here, he supposedly betrays the Jedi to save Padme, but you get the feeling he was just looking for an excuse. Some guys will take any opportunity they can get to act like a dick. You wish Padme would just give up on his dumb ass already – what does she see in this homicidal prick?

Lucas’ direction of the actors is still considerably lacking as well. It’s a little painful to watch Portman struggle through her clumsy dialogue here after seeing her tear up the screen in Closer (I kept imagining her saying things like, “Anakin, fuck me all night long”…maybe that’s just me). Sam Jackson still seems like he’s been directed to just stand there and speak his lines in a robotic monotone. Come on, we know these actors have more personality than this! Even the roundly criticized Christiansen put in decent performances in Life as a House and Shattered Glass. The lovey-dovey dialogue between Anakin and Padme is still absolutely cringe-worthy. It didn’t necessarily have to be realistic, but it should have at least sounded natural.

Overall though, I have to say that Revenge of the Sith is a pretty satisfying experience. It may not blow you away, but it gets the job done. Just go, have fun, get some closure and get it all out of your system. Just don’t expect it to change your life or anything. It’s only a movie, people. Relax and enjoy the ride.

And if you hate Star Wars, well, you can celebrate the fact that it’s over. Everybody wins!

*** 5/20/05

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Assault on Precinct 13 (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 18, 2005

Directed by Jean-Francois Richet/screenplay by James DeMonaco, based on the film written by John Carpenter/starring Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Maria Bello, Drea DeMatteo, Gabriel Byrne/Universal Home Video

A police station on the verge of closing down is attacked by rogue cops.

This is, of course, the recent remake of the 1976 John Carpenter cult classic. I really wanted to review this when it came out in theaters this past January, but it came and went so quickly that I didn’t get a chance. I finally caught up with it a couple of weeks after it came out – at the local second-run theater. I thought it was OK but I wasn’t extremely impressed with it, and I wondered why they thought the movie needed to be remade in the first place.

Then I watched the original on DVD not long after to compare the two, and I was a little surprised. As a Carpenter fan, I’ve seen the original several times over the years, and I always found it very suspenseful and intense. This time, I was amazed at how slow it was. It seemed like it took forever for ANYTHING to happen! Even Carpenter says on the commentary that he wishes he’d picked up the pace a little bit.

What the hell was going on here? Had I just seen it too many times? Was I remembering it differently than it actually was? Or is the remake (gulp) actually better than the original? It sounds like blasphemy, but…is it possible?

Well, now the remake is out on DVD, and after taking another look at it, I still don’t think it’s as good as the original, even if the original isn’t as good as I thought it was. But I actually liked the remake better the second time around. Separated from any unrealistic expectations and comparisons to Carpenter’s film, it holds up pretty well as a gritty, old-fashioned action thriller. Even though I’d just seen the film four months earlier and knew what was going to happen at every point, I still found it involving and tense. A lot of movies just don’t play that well on a second viewing – this one got better.

The story is basically the same in both films, but the details are different. At first I thought a lot of these changes seemed arbitrary, but at the very least they help keep things interesting. Where the original dealt with a black cop and a white criminal teaming up against a street gang laying siege to the old police station, this time it’s a white cop (Hawke) and a black criminal (Fishburne) teaming up against a group of crooked cops laying siege to the old police station. These variations don’t seem that huge at first, but they add up to make subtle differences that clearly separate the movie from its predecessor. It may be the same movie in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t feel quite the same.

The corrupt cops (led by Byrne) are after Fishburne because they’re in league with the criminal organization he runs, and he’s about to testify against them. What exactly the cops do for him isn’t explicitly stated – the movie just takes the idea of cops working with criminals for granted, and of course that becomes a recurring theme. We’re told repeatedly that Fishburne’s Marion Bishop is a “cop killer” (apparently the worst of all possible criminals, at least as far as this movie is concerned), whereas Hawke’s Jake Roenick is just barely a cop, purposely sidelining himself to an unsatisfying desk job after a field assignment that went horribly wrong. Where Bishop is comfortable skating around the edges of morality, Roenick has lost his sense of moral superiority even if his righteous instincts are still there. Each of them is willing to work with the other to achieve the goal of survival, because the circumstances override their personal codes.

What’s interesting is that the two characters never really become friends in that typical Hollywood “buddy-cop” way. At most, each gains a grudging respect for the other, while still acknowledging their respective places in the social structure. Bishop is very much what he is, a career criminal and a cold-blooded killer, makes no apologies for it and no one expects him to change. Roenick is still very much the upstanding policeman, albeit a damaged one, and steps up to “play the hero” when it’s called for. Their normal socially acceptable cop/criminal interaction is set aside, or put “on pause” because of the extreme conditions they’re under, but at no point does either of them abandon their true nature.

The other characters provide an interesting study in behavior under pressure. The animosity between the other cops and criminals stuck in the station is palpable, and of course there’s the requisite “old-timer” cop (Brian Dennehy) who simply can’t trust or hide his disgust for the “scumbags” despite the fact that each side needs the other to survive the night. A couple of the criminals naturally see the siege as an opportunity to escape, in spite of the odds against success. The least composed is Jake’s “civilian” police therapist Alex (Bello), who is revealed to have some psychological issues and odd quirks of her own.

The remarkable thing about the movie is that each of the characters comes off as an individual human being, regardless of whether they’re considered “good” or “bad” people. At first glance, they all may seem like stereotypes from a bad TV cop show, but the writing and acting is smart enough that they avoid easy categorization, and we wind up genuinely concerned for their survival. Leguizamo’s fast-talking shtick has been annoying in other films, but here his paranoid, put-upon drug addict plays like a fully developed character that amounts to more than comic relief. The same goes for rapper Ja Rule, who managed to transcend my natural aversion to rappers acting in movies by actually playing a character, and doing it pretty well. On the other side of the coin, DeMatteo’s secretary who “fucks bad boys” and dresses like a five-dollar hooker could have been played for an easy, vulgar laugh but isn’t, due mainly to the humanity she invests in the performance. And Bello remains sympathetic despite becoming increasingly unhinged (in all fairness, she’s not used to people trying to kill her). These people get under your skin, and as the movie goes along, it becomes harder and harder to simply write them off.

That’s why it’s a bit disappointing when the last half-hour or so turns into a game of “let’s see how many characters we can kill off”, although admittedly, this didn’t bother me as much the second time as it did the first. Even the villain of the piece, veteran cop Marcus Duvall (Byrne) comes off as a recognizable human being, if not a particularly likable one. He knows he’s doing the wrong thing, but he’s only doing it because he feels he has to. You get the feeling that he’d much rather be at home, watching TV on the couch with a beer in his hand. But if he lets Bishop live to testify, he and his fellow cops all go to prison. Not much of a choice there.

So what does the remake do that the original didn’t? Well, there’s much more of a sense of a larger conspiracy going on here, which I liked. In the original, the station is attacked by a street gang trying to get to someone inside, and the prisoners just happened to be there at the time, which feels kind of random. Here, our bad guys know that the station is closing down, which is exactly why they derail the prison bus there to get to Bishop. This eliminates the need for the entire child-killing ‘70’s-gang subplot, as well as the infamous ice-cream truck scene (which I would’ve liked to see them take a shot at, or at least something equally shocking). It narrows the focus down to what’s happening in and around the station house (except for a pre-credits sequence that details Jake’s in-the-line-of-duty mishap, which I don’t think was really needed). The bleak, snowy Detroit setting also provides a stark contrast to the original’s deceptively sunny (at first) California backdrop.

Where the remake mirrors the original is in its lack of political correctness, or even political incorrectness for that matter. Even though the races of the two main characters were switched, there’s pretty much no discussion of it whatsoever. Given that this is a Hollywood movie, I was expecting a big, preachy speech at some point about how we’re all human beings and how there are good and bad people in every race, just to offset the potentially “racist” casting decisions. Thankfully, such a speech is never delivered, and it doesn’t need to be. The movie shows us that message, simply by painting each character as an individual. Where the original showed us that a black man could be a cop and a hero, the remake shows us that a man can be a criminal and a human being. Because the movie never apologizes for who Bishop is or tries to explain him away as a victim, he never has to “redeem himself”. It simply isn’t necessary. He’s a guy who does bad things for a reason and good things for a reason, and is played by a black actor. That’s it. And no one seems to be bothered by that. In a weird way, I think that’s progress.

That’s just the kind of no-bullshit, old-school, lean and mean action flick this is. It feels like a throwback, not to Carpenter’s original but to directors like Walter Hill and J. Lee Thompson. There’s no CGI (that I’m aware of anyway), no over-the-top stunts, no unbelievable gravity-defying heroics. Precinct 13, like the original (which itself was inspired by Howard Hawks’ western Rio Bravo, but you probably knew that already), is down-to-earth, meat-and-potatoes, guns-and-guns stuff. That’s probably exactly why it bombed in theaters, and why it plays so well on DVD. But it’s also smarter than most movies of its type, and I think people who give it a second look on disc (or a first) will be pleasantly surprised by that. Not to mention that it kicks ass.

Universal Home Video has put together a decent DVD package for this, including deleted scenes, commentary and several short behind-the-scenes featurettes. My favorite of these was “Armed and Dangerous”, which details how the film’s weapons handler matched the characters’ guns to their personalities. Now that’s old-school, baby!

***   5/18/05

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Kingdom of Heaven

Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 13, 2005

Directed by Ridley Scott/written by William Monahan/starring Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson/20th Century Fox – Scott Free Productions

A medieval blacksmith takes a journey to Jerusalem and gets mixed up in a battle between Christians and Muslims.

I think it may be time for Hollywood to take a break with these historical epics. At least for a few years. Of course, if they actually make a good one, I’ll be happy to change my tune about that. But after Troy (thought it was OK), King Arthur (terribly dull), Alexander (outrageously awful) and now this mediocre pseudo-blockbuster, I really don’t want to sit through another one of these for about five years or so. It seems like general audiences feel pretty much the same way. The cycle is wearing itself out.

My expectations were a little higher for Kingdom of Heaven because of Ridley Scott, who should be canonized in my book just for having made Alien and Blade Runner. Plus he basically restarted this whole genre with Gladiator, a film I really loved. Of course, he also brought us 1492: Conquest of Paradise, and you don’t see that mentioned anywhere on the posters for this. I’m just saying, nobody’s perfect.

This movie, as I vaguely remember it after taking a nice long nap afterwards, is about Balian (Bloom), an 11th-century blacksmith whose wife committed suicide after falling victim to a plague. When Balian’s illegitimate father (Neeson) shows up and offers to take him along to Jerusalem, he basically tells the guy to go screw himself. But after he kills a priest for insisting that his dead wife is suffering in Hell, suddenly going on a trip doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Along the way, Balian gets involved with the ongoing war between the Christians and the Muslims, falls in love with a married queen (Green) and winds up leading the defense of Jerusalem against the Muslims after the Christian army gets slaughtered. And all without messing up his hair.

To be sure, Kingdom of Heaven is a pretty boring movie. No question. But it’s not boring because it’s long and slow-moving. It’s relatively short for this kind of epic (2:25), and quite a lot happens in it. The reason the movie is boring is because it never makes us care.

While most of the reviews I’ve read have noted how it stacks up to Gladiator, the Scott movie it reminded me of most was his overrated Black Hawk Down. Both are war movies with technically impressive battle scenes, and not much else. Whereas in the previous film, the soldiers didn’t seem to particularly give a shit about the cause they were there fighting for (so why should we?), in this movie the soldiers are fighting a brutal, bloody war for no particular reason. They’re merely trying to gain land and slaughter the Muslims because “God told them to”.

Of course, this is the whole point of the film, that a war based on religious differences is completely stupid and futile. I understand that. But that doesn’t make the characters any more sympathetic or the situation seem any less ridiculous. When the Christians go into battle against an army that completely outnumbers them, are better fighters and are determined to keep their land, it doesn’t come off like a tragedy when they get their collective asses kicked. It’s more like, “well, what did you expect, dumbass?”

It’s been speculated that the movie is meant to mirror the current situation in Iraq. Scott has denied this vehemently, and frankly, I honestly believe him. I don’t think this film actually has that much on its mind. It’s quite simply a film about a war that took place centuries ago and has no relevance to today. That’s exactly what keeps it from actually being interesting.

Because there is no real valid justification for this war (at least to anyone with any semblance of common sense), we have no particular reason to care about its outcome. We’re not personally invested in it, and it just seems like a big waste of time and effort for all involved. Whereas Gladiator was a personal story about one man’s journey against a specific historical backdrop, here Balian’s story fades into the background among all the arguments between Jerusalem’s political and religious leaders. It’s kind of like watching a medieval version of C-SPAN, and it’s even less fascinating than that sounds.

The whole thing seems like the wrong story told from the wrong point of view. After arriving in Jerusalem, Balian is mostly on the sidelines until the end of the film. What’s left seems like merely an excuse for Scott to stage “kick ass” battle scenes, despite the script’s insistence that it’s all pointless. Like Black Hawk Down, it’s the combat-cinema equivalent of gonzo porn. It’s war only for the sake of war, “sport killing”. If bloodshed turns you on, you’ll find plenty to wank off to here. The rest of us are stripped of any reason to give a shit. I can only imagine how this film’s contradictions would be articulated by its makers.

Monahan: “Isn’t war tragic and terrible?”

Scott: “Yeah, but it sure looks fuckin’ cool, doesn’t it?”

Don’t get me wrong – I understand that war is sometimes a necessary thing (though not always, George W.) It’s just not necessary in this case. There’s no reason, no purpose, no motivation, no point. So why are we watching this? What are we supposed to learn from it, other than that the Crusades were an idiotic and foolish endeavor? Any 10th-grade history student can tell you that. It’s not like the movie takes any kind of satirical point of view towards its subject. If anything, Scott seems convinced that this is a story worth telling. He just doesn’t seem to know why, and if he does have a reason he fails to communicate it to the rest of us. It’s as if he always dreamed about making a movie about this time period, but somehow neglected to have anything worthwhile to say about it.

Then what absolutely killed me (spoilers here) was how the film ends! My god, what the hell were they thinking? Once the Muslims attack Jerusalem, Balian comes back into focus and rallies what’s left of the city to defend it. Then, after a long, drawn-out battle in which there are countless casualties on both sides, Balian negotiates surrender, and the remaining Christians evacuate the city! Well, Jesus Christ man, what the fucking hell was all that bloodletting for? If they were just going to surrender, why didn’t they do that in the first place, BEFORE all those lives were lost? What exactly was achieved by this huge massacre? What was the point to it all?

It doesn’t help that Scott can’t seem to decide what was more heroic, continuing to fight and die for stupid reasons, or surrendering and rendering the whole thing moot. Talk about mixed messages! I guess we’re supposed to respect Balian for rejecting the whole religious motivation for the Crusade and making the lives of the citizens of Jerusalem his priority. I can see that. But then, why wait so long to surrender? And frankly, it’s yet another example of Hollywood applying modern thinking to a time period in which such ideas would be roundly dismissed as “heresy”. It doesn’t ring true that Balian would be considered a hero for going against the prevailing wisdom of the time. In fact, they probably would have beheaded him and continued fighting down to the last Christian. War was just something people did back then, like going to work. If anybody actually questioned it, they most likely kept it to themselves.

I suppose the movie is to be admired, in a perverse way, for its evenhanded portrayals of both sides of the war. There are good and bad Christians here, and good and bad Muslims as well. Neither side is completely vilified. That may be considered a positive thing, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying war movie. It doesn’t give us anyone to root for or against. I’m not saying the Muslims had to be in the wrong – the Christians could’ve been the bad guys, and Balian could’ve joined their side, like a Dances with Wolves scenario. But God forbid (literally) either Christians or Muslims be portrayed as villains, right? Does anyone really think this movie would’ve been made in this political climate if the filmmakers had taken a side? If both sides are equally wrong and equally right, then we don’t particularly care which side wins. It may be politically correct, but it feels emotionally unbalanced.

On the other hand, some of the extreme fanatics on both sides are still going to feel like they’re being portrayed as the heroes, and some of them will still feel demonized. You can’t please everybody. So why bother trying? (Never mind that this all took place 10 centuries ago…that would require a rational perspective on history.)

But even beyond its muddled messages, Kingdom of Heaven still feels like a letdown. Yes, it looks fantastic, but all the striking visuals in the world can’t make up for a weak storyline and so-so performances. Once Neeson exits the film relatively early (the man’s got some serious gravitas) the air seems to have been let out of the movie, like a slow leak that just won’t stop. I don’t think Bloom’s a terrible actor, but his character is written so vaguely, and changes so often with the needs of the script, that we never get a strong bead on exactly what kind of guy Balian’s supposed to be. Bloom’s just not a powerful enough presence to compensate for that. Somehow the makeup department has made the gorgeous Eva Green look like a three-dollar Tin Pan Alley hooker (check her out in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers – possibly the most underrated film of last year – but make sure you see the NC-17 version. Yeow). I did enjoy seeing veterans like Irons and Thewlis in rare good-guy roles for awhile, but their efforts are wasted when you just don’t care about what’s happening on screen. The ubiquitous Gleeson and Marton Csokas chew the scenery enough to help keep you awake. Strangely enough, the best performance comes from an uncredited Edward Norton, who seems to be channeling Brando as a leper King whose face is never shown. Good thing for him that most people don’t even know he’s in the movie.

I’m not saying Kingdom of Heaven is a complete disaster. It’s not a terrible film, just a misguided and uninteresting one. I didn’t outright loathe it, but I can’t say it was very good either. It’s pretty sad when you go to a film by a director you (mostly) really admire, and you almost wish you had gone to the Paris Hilton movie instead. Almost. If that information doesn’t properly express my disappointment, I don’t know what possibly could.

**   5/13/05

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