Crash is a triumph
By Lady Liberty
Kingdom of Heaven
* 1/2 out of ****
Ridley Scott, who brought us the Oscar winning Gladiator, helmed this epic story of the Crusades. It's an interesting parallel between then and now that the Middle East of even a thousand years ago was a hotbed of political intrigue and religious infighting — though the battles then were even dirtier and more personal than they are today. It's also true that in both times we see men of reason who do their best to counteract men of fanatic beliefs. That, of course, simplifies the circumstances of both time periods a great deal, and leaves much important albeit shaded nuance on the sidelines. The same is true of the movie.
Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) is a poor blacksmith who is recently bereaved of his wife and infant child. Even as he grieves, he's paid a surprise visit by the father he never knew. Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) is a Baron who fights and guards pilgrims and the king in the Holy Land. He's sought out his son to beg his forgiveness for deserting him and his mother. He asks Balian to join him to give the two some small opportunity to get to know each other, but Balian declines both to forgive him or to go along. But circumstances — not least of which is his strong desire to obtain forgiveness from God for the suicide of his wife — changes Balian's mind.
Godfrey and his men begin to refine Balian's sword fighting techniques on the journey, but his education is both sealed and cut short when Godfrey is seriously injured in a fight. Balian is knighted and, ready or not, made Baron in his father's stead. After a dangerous trip across the sea, Balian finds himself in the Holy Land, a place utterly foreign to him in virtually every way. The Hospitaler (David Thewlis) — a member of a monastic brotherhood that caters to pilgrims — proves a wise advisor to the young Balian as does Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), the military advisor to King Baldwin (Edward Norton in an uncredited role).
But nothing can prepare Balian for the fatalism of the first Muslims he meets (among them is Naris, played by Alexander Siddig, who teaches Balian a lesson of honor he'll never forget), or for the instant attraction he feels to the Princess Sibylla (Eva Green). Unfortunately, Sibylla is married to Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas). Although the marriage is a loveless one arranged by Sibylla's own mother, the alliance it cemented is an important one, and both Balian and the princess are helpless to change their circumstances.
Among other unflattering things, Guy de Lusignan is a Knight Templar. Though the King has managed a truce with Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), the leader of the Saracens, the Knights Templar would prefer a war to any kind of peace with the "infidels." Along with Reynald de Chattillon (Brendan Gleeson), de Lusignan works behind the scenes to ignite conflict. The King, who suffers from leprosy, is likely not long for the world, and the Knights Templar intend to be ready to take over policy when he finally dies. Only Balian and Tiberias argue against such precipitous action, but their voices won't be enough to stop what will almost certainly turn to the slaughter of all of those who live in Jerusalem, the fabled "Kingdom of Heaven."
Orlando Bloom is all right as Balian of Ibelin. It helps that, at the age of 28, he's finally starting to look more like a man than a very pretty boy. Eva Green is attractive enough, but seems to have little range beyond looking wistfully into the camera with her big, beautiful eyes. Jeremy Irons, however, does a fine job embodying a grizzled war veteran, and Brendan Gleeson is just terrific playing the manic and war-mongering Reynald. Edward Norton, though wearing a mask and extensive clothing to cover his leprous body, is surprisingly effective in body language alone. Of course, as with many movies of this nature, the biggest star of the film is probably the epic battle scenes which are loaded to the gills with imperceptible CGI (lest you wonder, "imperceptible" in this context means "virtually flawless").
The problem with Kingdom of Heaven isn't in its superlative special effects or its perfectly acceptable acting. It's in a script that's bizarrely barren of impact. One early review I read called the movie beautiful to look at, but lacking in substance. I liken it to a prettily wrapped package that, once opened, proves an empty box. There's little excuse for this in the depiction of a time with so many wrenching stories to tell and which was filled with battles of both personal and political nature. If you want to see some excellent costuming, sets, and medieval battles, by all means take a look at this movie. But if you want to be entertained or to come away from the theatre with some reminder of something meaningful, this isn't the movie for you.
POLITICAL NOTES: Much of the politics of a thousand years ago is strangely apropos to the politics of today. As the Christians, Muslims, and Jews fight over a land that's holy to all of them, it's all too simple to wonder why it is they can't all simply respect the hallowed ground of the other. It's also easy to see why a battle that has essentially raged for more than a thousand years isn't going to be easily settled with a few peace talks.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Kingdom of Heaven is rated R for "strong violence, [and] epic warfare." Some of the battle scenes are quite graphic, and blood aplenty is spilled. There are also tremendous gaps in the storyline which most adults will probably manage to fill in of their own knowledge but for which children won't be able to compensate. Although there are likely more than a few "tween" and teen girls who will want to see Orlando Bloom in his latest starring role, I certainly can't recommend the movie for many of them, particularly not those who are sensitive at all to scenes of a violent nature. Kingdom of Heaven is really for those of about age 15 or 16 and up, though in honesty, I don't really suggest anyone of any age bother with this one.
*** 1/2 out of ****
As an independent film (it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival), there apparently wasn't a lot of money behind publicizing the opening of Crash this weekend. Oh, I'd seen a few commercials, but nothing that piqued my interest enough to consider seeing it. And then I saw a preliminary review that said, among other flattering things, that Crash was a "must see" movie. The review was just enough to get me to shrug my shoulders and buy a ticket just for the hell of it. What a lucky stroke that decision proved to be!
The tagline for the movie Crash is surprisingly effective and, as it turns out, descriptive of the movie: "Moving at the speed of life, we are bound to collide with each other." In Los Angeles, with its many streets and highways, the collisions all too often involve motor vehicles in one way or another.
Jean (Sandra Bullock) is married to LA's District Attorney, Rick (Brendan Fraser). They've just attended a dinner event in a posh part of town. Anthony (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and Peter (Larenz Tate) are young black men who've just enjoyed a meal of their own, though in somewhat less ritzy surroundings. The four meet when the young men select Jean and Rick's black Lincoln Navigator as a target for a carjacking. Rick is furious that the men are black because merely stating the fact might cost him some black voters; Jean, meanwhile, is incensed that the young man who subsequently changes the locks on the doors of their home is Hispanic and she doesn't trust him not to make extra copies of the keys for his "homies." At the same time, Anthony and Peter are self-righteous in their getaway because they only steal from white people.
In another part of town, a Korean man is up to no good with his white van. His wife, as it turns out, is also up to no good in the family car, though her sins have less to do with any real wrongdoing than it does with her stereotypical inability to drive. The latter proves a problem for a police detective named Graham (Don Cheadle) and his partner and lover, Ria (Jennifer Esposito). Graham doesn't need any more problems. His mother has serious issues on more than one level, and his brother is nowhere to be found.
Police in the area have only just been made aware of the stolen Navigator when a pair of street officers observe one of those very vehicles cruise past them. Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) opts to pursue the vehicle; his partner, Officer Hansen (Ryan Phillippe), points out that the plate doesn't match. But Ryan doesn't care. He's sure that the occupants "must have done something." They are, after all, black. Cameron (Terrence Howard) and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton) are simply returning home after a cocktail party. But being stopped by Ryan and Hansen turns into a nightmare that neither they — nor their marriage — might survive.
Meanwhile, the Hispanic locksmith (Daniel, as played by Michael Pena) leaves the well-to-do Brentwood home of the DA to fix the locks on a store owned by a Persian immigrant and his wife. He's had burglary problems in the past and wants the lock fixed. He's also had his daughter help him buy a handgun so as to be better able to defend himself and his property should another robbery attempt arise.
Interspersed into an already very, very busy storyline is the beautiful and smart 5 year-old daughter of the locksmith and her truly sweet relationship with her father; a terrible freeway conflagration that offers death and redemption in equal measures; demands that one man working to eliminate stereotypes instead do something instead to reinforce them which, in turns, provokes a shocking reaction; a shooting that proves a surprise to all, including the shooter; and a less surprising shooting that will be used for political and material gain regardless of whether or not justice is served.
If this all sounds complicated on paper, well, it is. But like a patchwork quilt, the mismatched parts and pieces all come together to create a whole that's far more significant — and, thankfully, understandable — than the mere sum of its parts. Crash was co-written by Paul Haggis, the same man who wrote Million Dollar Baby. Now, I thought that script was terrible in its shameless melodrama which made me worry a good deal that Crash would suffer some of the same problems. As it happens, Crash not only boasts a better script than Million Dollar Baby, it's easily the best script I've heard since Sideways. Haggis also makes his directorial debut with Crash, and a significant debut it is. His able direction and some excellent editing take what could have been incredibly confusing and make it fuse into a comprehensible whole.
The casting looks to be insensible at first blush. Sandra Bullock is, after all, best known for light comedic roles, and those are attributes Jean doesn't begin to possess. Brendan Fraser is also typically known for lighter fare. And yet, somehow, the two work here. Don Cheadle, though perhaps one of the more rationally cast characters, is nothing less than brilliant. In one scene, he doesn't say a word; he simply walks away. And yet the look of naked anguish on his face actually brought me physical pain as my heart broke for him. Even with a performance like that, Esposito manages to hold her own in her scenes with him. Thandie Newton is incandescent. Matt Dillon is surprisingly good as a man who exemplifies both the worst and the best of humankind; Ryan Phillippe turns out to be perfectly cast, something I wouldn't have believed before seeing the film. In fact, there's not a bad, or even a mediocre, performance in the film. Instead of insensible, I'd now call the casting for Crash inspired!
Crash actually uses its many facets to tell a story of mutual racial intolerance and of snap judgments based on nothing more or less than skin color or an accent. This is not a movie you'll walk away from with a smile, but you will leave with something to think about. When I first left the theatre on opening night, I wasn't really sure what I'd say about the movie. The only word that came to mind immediately afterward was, "Wow." And today, that's still the best word I can think of to describe the experience. I'll tell you something else: That reviewer I read earlier in the week was right. Crash really is a must see film.
POLITICAL NOTES: Bizarrely enough, though Crash comes across as anti-gun, one of its scenes actually does more to promote the idea of a firearm than to detract from it. When a person in very uncomfortable surroundings speculates aloud that the discomfort that should be overwhelming isn't, it's because there's a gun immediately at hand. A few points are also made in connection with the ubiquitous War on Terror and the instant condemnation it tends to engender. Crash also does a good job at pointing out that some cops are bad, but that some are still good, too. Unfortunately, it can be tough to determine who's who...
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Crash is rated R for "language, sexual content, [and] some violence." This is a rating I'd call a "hard" R. The film is in no way suitable for those under 17. Although its lessons are important for everyone of any age, the method of imparting those lessons isn't appropriate for children. There's violence, including violent death; and there's sexual activity and innuendo that are both sexy and horrifying by turns. There are moments of some very funny humor, believe it or not; but some instances of suspense are so well crafted that they're almost unbearable. And certainly, the repercussions some characters experience are truly awful and often very graphic in nature. I'm going to reluctantly acknowledge that sensitive adults should stay away from Crash because it is, at times, difficult or painful to watch. With that single caveat, I recommend Crash to everyone else — and I recommend it highly.
Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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