The Barenaked Archives – Kingdom of Heaven

Kingdom of Heaven posterFrom 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

The Barenaked Archives are reviews that I did for two previous websites. Sadly, they are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

Ever since Gladiator revitalized the sword-and-sandals epic, we’ve been subjected to Hollywood’s notion that, if one movie in a genre is a hit, you ought to drive said genre into the ground with every script you can greenlight in the hopes that at least one of them will reproduce the aforementioned triumph.

Unfortunately, this means that we as viewers have to put up with a lot of stuff that makes the contents of a toilet after a drinking binge look good. Troy was entertaining, but hardly epic, and the less that’s said about Oliver Stone’s lackluster Alexander, the better. (And believe me, “lackluster” is being very kind.)

This weekend, the man who resurrected the genre in the first place, Ridley Scott, returns with his Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven. Of course, that means everybody’s wondering if he’ll be able to duplicate his Gladiator success.

Well, Kingdom of Heaven isn’t Gladiator. It is, however, a surprisingly good film that feels like a breath of fresh air for the genre and reinforces the idea that, if you want an epic made, go get Ridley Scott to do it.

Kingdom of Heaven is the story of Balian (Orlando Bloom), a French blacksmith who has lost his wife and child. He’s asked to accompany the knight Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) and his men to the Holy Land.

Balian is swept up in the politics in Jerusalem, which is held by the Christians in a shaky truce between King Baldwin (Edward Norton) and the Muslim general Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). However, there are factions on both sides that would rather have war. Balian must find it in himself to protect Jerusalem and its people from those that would destroy them.

The acting is solid all around, which is a great relief. Prior to this film, Orlando Bloom has had mostly supporting roles alongside heavyweights like Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. Kingdom of Heaven is Balian’s story, which means that the bulk of this movie rests on Bloom’s ability to move into the leading man slot. Fortunately, he’s up to the task, and holds his own while sharing the screen with a very strong supporting cast.

With names like Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, and David Thewlis, you certainly can’t go wrong. Edward Norton stands out as Baldwin, the leper king, who spends the entire movie behind a silver mask. Brendan Gleeson is delightful as Reynald, one of the Templar knights who wants war with the Saracens. He is what he is, and makes no apologies for it.

Visually the film is absolutely gorgeous. Massive, sweeping shots of the landscape remind you of why widescreen is a good thing. The costumes, the cities, the deserts, and the sea…all are breathtakingly real.

You can practically feel the heat coming off the screen when the army marches across the desert. They even have a scene where thousands of vultures circle over battlefield littered with the corpses of soldiers. Tell me the last time you saw that in a film.

The siege of Jerusalem near the end of the movie is fantastic, one of the most realistic depictions of a siege that I’ve ever seen on film. They make use of all the artillery (siege towers, ballistae, giant crossbows, hot oil, battering rams, you name it). The defenders of Jerusalem worry (albeit briefly) about catching plagues from the dead and whether they’ll have enough supplies to withstand a long siege.

That’s not to say that the movie is perfect; in fact, it has a few flaws. For one, you can tell they they’ve cut out a lot of the story, whether to make a shorter running time or to appeal to the masses (or both).

For instance, in the aforementioned siege sequence, I would’ve liked to see more from the preparations they had to make. The love story between Balian and the princess of Jerusalem, Sibylla (Eva Green) also feels rushed, like quite a bit has been chopped out.*

At points during the battle sequences, the movie suffers the same faults as Gladiator with lightning-quick editing and shaky camera work that makes it hard to tell what’s going on with whom.

Those searching for political messages can try to find them, but I doubt they’ll be able to find one. Scott doesn’t make the Christians the peaceful, perfect good guys, nor does he show the Muslims as evil bloodthirsty savages. The factions are balanced, with chivalrous people and warmongering people on both sides. The digs at fanatical religion are subtle but there, and it’s interesting to see that in a big-budget Hollywood picture.

Kingdom of Heaven may not be a flawless film, but it is a very well-made one that’s really solid all around. It’s more than worth the two-and-a-half hour running time and is a welcome change from what Hollywood’s been shoving at us.

*Author’s note: Guess what? I was right. Below is the review I wrote about the Kingdom of Heaven director’s cut, released in May 2006.

Director’s Cut

I don’t normally review DVDs (and this won’t be a full review), but I’m going to make an exception.

I would really like to meet whatever executive at Fox watched Ridley Scott’s 3-hour-long cut of Kingdom of Heaven and said, “It’s too long. Cut out all that character crap and keep the battles.”

Because, you know, things like “background” and “motivation” have absolutely no bearing on the story’s logic whatsoever. Why does Sibylla (Eva Green) have a complete mental breakdown? “Oh, they don’t need to know.” How come a simple French blacksmith suddenly knows how to defend a city in siege combat? “We don’t have to explain that.” What happens to Guy after he’s paraded around on the donkey? “He’s a villain. Who cares?”

The theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven is proof that somebody with veto power had absolutely no idea how to tell a story. The four-disc director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven is proof that maybe next time, they should just leave Ridley Scott alone.

The first twenty minutes alone have so much added it’s honestly a shock to see what had to be cut, and truly it’s unfortuante. It gives so much more insight into the characters, especially Balian (Orlando Bloom), the priest (Michael Sheen), and Godfrey (Liam Neeson), or at least enough that their actions make sense.

It’s the same thing with Sibylla’s character, who gets an entire subplot added. In my original review of Kingdom of Heaven, I remarked that the love story between Balian and Sibylla felt “rushed, like quite a bit [had] been chopped out.” Turns out I was right. It also turns out that Sibylla had a son, who would’ve been heir to the throne. That part alone clarifies so much about the political situation in Jerusalem, and it makes her a much more sympathetic character.

If you had problems with Kingdom of Heaven because they left a lot of things unexplained or people acted with no motivation, then check out the director’s cut. Yes, it’s almost an hour longer, but it flows so much better.

The Barenaked Archives: Elizabethtown

Elizabethtown was always one of my most anticipated movies for this year. So when negative word came back from Toronto, I was understandably worried and a little confused, especially since other reviews had been quite positive.

Since seeing it Tuesday night, I’ve come to two hypotheses that could explain the negative reviews.
Elizabethtown
1) This is a uniquely Southern movie, very much about the heartland of America, and if you don’t have much of a connection to this area of the country, you’re probably not going to get it.

2) All the critics are just cynics.

Elizabethtown is by no means perfect, or even close to it. However, despite its flaws, it’s sentimental and funny (oh boy, is it funny) and leaves you with warm fuzzies that feel like they were earned, not coerced.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is a suicidal shoe designer who’s just cost his company nearly a billion dollars, which results in him losing both his job and his girlfriend. Before he can carry out the deed, though, Drew gets a call that his father’s died and he must go to Kentucky and pick up the body. On the flight there, he meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a perpetually perky flight attendant who might be just the person Drew needs to help him reconnect with his life.

This is definitely a Cameron Crowe movie, so obviously the music is fantastic. It’s also very personal and optimistic, which could also be construed as self-indulgent and cloyingly sentimental if you’re more of the jaded and cynical type. This is a celebration of the little things that make life worth living, not the monetary success that can so easily be taken away.

There’s almost a sense of the surreal in the beginning of the movie when we follow Drew (who steadfastly repeats the mantra “I’m fine” although he’s clearly not) to his boss’s office in a complex that’s best compared to Xanadu. Alec Baldwin is deliciously fun in the beginning, as he manages to be both a disappointed fatherly mentor and a ruthless businessman who’ll hang you out to dry without any scruples.

A lot of people are wondering how Orlando Bloom will handle a role that doesn’t require some form of ancient weaponry or elf ears. This movie is about Drew’s inner journey from depression and the verge of suicide to the point where life might actually be worth living, which means he’s in just about every scene and a good part of the movie rests on his shoulders.

Bloom really pulls it off, right down to the American accent. He gets a chance here to show his chops more than in any other movie he’s done to date. It’s hilariously morbid how determined Drew is to commit suicide. Even this trip to Kentucky is, for him, nothing more than a delay of the inevitable. As a fish out of water, he perfectly portrays the overwhelming feeling a well-meaning Southern family can inflict on an unsuspecting newcomer. And, he’s got one of the funniest scenes in the movie after getting lost on his way to Elizabethtown.

Speaking of family, the scenes involving Drew’s family, especially the extended crew gathered in Kentucky for the funeral, were some of my favorites. The overpowering crush of family members, all of whom think you look just like somebody else in the family (be it a parent, cousin, or distant relative), is something those of us subjected to yearly family reunions will quickly recognize. The family is almost as important to the movie as the romance that probably comprises the most screen time.

The romance is a bit of an unorthodox one, something that comes from a chance encounter and blossoms into something more, starting with a marathon all-night phone call. Kirsten Dunst does well as the sweet and philosophical Claire, who really understands people and may know Drew better than he knows himself. But even so, her life’s not all sunny and roses and she needs rescuing almost as much as he does.

Crowe nails the setting, from the comment “Does it ever cool off?” to the noisy, noisy locusts that infest this area every summer. It warms the heart to see the South portrayed so honestly when Hollywood, for the most part, tends to ignore us. (The mere sight of Oklahoma City on a road map was enough to garner cheers from the audience at the screening.) We aren’t perfect, but we’re not a bunch of slack-jawed yokels.

However, like I said earlier, this movie has its flaws. There are some great logic-defying plot leaps, my personal favorite being the fork in the musical road map Claire gives Drew near the end of the movie. It is very self-indulgent, which might win some people over but will likely lose others. And despite being about death and suicide, it’s a surprisingly un-cynical movie, which could tickle some gag reflexes.

But, for some reason, I loved this movie despite all the faults, and this is coming from a self-professed cynic. Give Elizabethtown a chance. It may really surprise you.