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Sunday, July 21

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Kingdom of Heaven
David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai) is probably one of my top three favorite dead directors. It goes without saying that nobody in history could direct sprawling epics like Lean. Yet, despite his frequent use of a "cast of thousands" and breath-taking panoramic views, he was able to convey a sense of geography and character that has gone unmatched for decades. In other words, you always knew where everybody was and who was on whose side. Ridley Scott is the closest thing we have today to David Lean, and he proves it undeniably with Kingdom of Heaven.

Scott's tale of the Crusades is not his best work, but it's the best he has done of this type of film. Whether you liked it or not, Gladiator was a landmark film, and Scott has improved upon that genre with Kingdom of Heaven. The story involves young peasant blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom), who discovers he is the son of the noble Lord Godfrey (Liam Neeson), a knight in the Christian army keeping the peace in Jerusalem. Shortly after meeting his son for the first time, Godfrey is mortally wounded, but before dying he passes on information and a knighthood to his son, quickly making him the favorite knight to Jerusalem's plague-ridden king. In a short time, Balian goes from commoner to warrior prince, defending key Christian cities from Muslim armies, bedding the wife (Eva Green) of his primary rival, and becoming a hero to both noblemen and peasants alike. Bloom pulls this off far better than he did in the similarly staged but far inferior Troy.

More so than in Gladiator or his modern-day war epic Black Hawk Down, Scott spends a great deal of time developing several of the main characters. Bloom's lack of confidence (due to his humble upbringing) leads to a series of events that put Jerusalem and its people at serious risk. Scott spends an almost equal amount of time with his Muslim characters, who are most certainly not portrayed as cookie-cutter villains. The only reason the Muslims are driven to war is because a ruthless lord (Brendan Gleeson) captures, tortures and murders small groups of Muslims who just happen to be traveling through the desert. They are provoked and react accordingly. I also liked Jeremy Irons as the king's (and eventually Balian's) key advisor. He is put in the unenviable position of being the go-between for the war-mongering factions of the Christian knights and the vastly superior but largely peace-loving Muslim leadership.

And then there are those magnificent battle scenes. I'm sure some of it is accomplished with special effects but boy, does Ridley Scott know how to direct massive armies of sword- and spear-wielding men. In the wrong hands, these sequences would be dust-covered, sloppy and confusing. But Scott's crew choreographs these orgies of blades and blood and fire so well that you simply hold your breath, never blink, and hope you don't get an arrow in your eye. I particularly loved the giant slingshots that fling massive fireballs hundreds of feet. And if you've ever wondered why when boiling oil is poured down on the heads of the enemy it's never lit on fire…well, let's just say you won't be disappointed by Kingdom of Heaven. This is a war film that isn't afraid of a little downtime or moments of reflection by its characters. These moments made me consider how, even today, everybody still wants a piece of this holy city. Kingdom of Heaven is the complete action-packed yet thoughtful package.

Monster-In-Law
One of the films I'm most eagerly awaiting in 2005 is Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown, starring Orlando Bloom. The film's release date was recently bumped back to the fall because the studio distributing it believes it has a real shot when award season begins. One of the main characters is Bloom's mother, played by Susan Sarandon. The role was originally offered to Jane Fonda. Undoubtedly, it would have marked the triumphant return to form for one of America's finest actresses, whose ability to inject her characters with the perfect blend of humor and warmth has made her a legend. The instant I heard that she was offered the part, I smiled at the thought. However, Fonda declined Crowe's film and made this shit instead.

From the "legendary" Australian comedy director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!) comes Monster-In-Law, a movie so uninspired, obvious and derivative, it made me long to see Meet the Fockers again. If you've ever harbored a secret desire to see a truly gifted actress squander her talents to such an extent that you wonder whether you overestimated her to begin with, you need look no further. The biggest, ugliest flaw in Monster-In-Law is that you know Fonda's character, talk show queen Viola Fields, will eventually snap out of her mean streak aimed at her daughter-in-law-to-be, Charlotte (Jennifer Lopez). So in the course of 95 minutes, Fonda's character goes from being ridiculously unlikable to annoyingly overcompensating.

All of this fuss is over Viola's son Kevin (Michael Vartan from "Alias"), who marks another in a long line of bland male leads with whom Lopez insists on being cast opposite in her romantic comedies. Let's talk about Lopez, who used to make a career of starring in risky projects, such as The Cell, Angel Eyes, U-Turn and Out of Sight. These aren't all great movies, but they weren't anything like the demographically appealing crap she's doing now. You're tempted to like her here, but her reactions to Fonda's attempt to sabotage the engagement are not believable or amusing.

Monster-In-Law's only saving grace is the presence of Wanda Sykes as Fonda's assistant. But even the unflappable Ms. Sykes, who delivers the movie's only laugh-out-loud lines, can't save this Hindenburg of a film. But maybe I'm being too harsh. I actually saw this film on Mother's Day, and the mothers and daughters surrounding me seemed to be buying into the mediocrity; maybe you will, too.

Ladies in Lavender
I was a big fan of the old Merchant-Ivory films. You know the ones I mean. They usually starred some combination of Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Simon Callow and Julian Sands, and were based on the quaint works of writers like E.M. Forster. They were films that were short on action, but strong on dialogue loaded with subtext and forbidden thoughts. Event Ishmail and James Ivory aren't making Merchant-Ivory films anymore, and these types of lace-and-petticoat tales have once again returned to PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre." Every so often a film sneaks out with many of the same Merchant-Ivory trappings: repressed lust clashing with decades of proper breeding. And Ladies in Lavender certainly wades in the same pond as those wonderful works, but doesn't quite hit those heights.

Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (co-stars in Merchant-Ivory's A Room with a View) play elderly sisters Ursula and Janet living together in a pre-WWII English coastal town outside Cornwall. Their routine consists of sipping tea, discussing the weather, and contemplating their daily schedule. Into this hectic lifestyle enters a young man named Andrea (Daniel Bruhl from Goodbye Lenin!), whose near lifeless body washes up on the shore near the ladies' home the morning after a violent storm.

Janet, who was widowed at a young age, finds her maternal instincts kicking into overdrive as she works quickly to get Andrea back on his feet. Ursula, who never married and certainly has never been with a man, suddenly feels all types of unexpected hormones kicking in as a result of this handsome man's arrival at her doorstep. But Andrea is something of a mystery. He has temporarily lost his memory, he speaks German, and he plays the violin like a master. The two sisters exchange verbal blows over Andrea, as Ursula convinces herself that she's in love. Things are thrown even more into a tempest when another visitor to the town, Polish painter Olga (Natasha McElhone), takes an interest in Andrea's playing.

With a cast like this, it's hard to go horribly wrong. Smith, Dench and McElhone, as well as David Warner and Miriam Margolyes, all play their roles quite nicely. The trouble with Ladies in Lavender is that it never really goes anywhere. You feel bad for the humiliation that Ursula endures by throwing herself at a man young enough to be her grandson, but you see it coming almost in the first 20 minutes of the film. First-time writer-director Charles Dance (a successful character actor in dozens of television and film works) doesn't have any trouble getting great performances out of his cast, but he does have issues with getting any interest out of me with this plot. The greatest accomplishment of Ladies in Lavender (opening today at the Landmark Century Center Theatre) might be that it got me thinking about many other, better works.

Short Cut to Nirvana
Who knew that spiritual awakening could be so bloody boring? Find out for yourself with Short Cut to Nirvana, a documentary chronicling the fascinating experience known as Kumbh Mela, a pilgrimage that upwards of 70 million people, mostly Indian, take every 12 years to one of four holy cities in India. The scope and importance of this event is undeniable, but this film still makes it a little too easy for me to deny it. Despite its Hindu origins, the event is an opportunity for the pilgrims to sample variations of practically every type of religion under the sun. The Dalai Lama shows up as do representatives from every continent. Our guide through this hodgepodge of cultures and spirituality is a young Hindu monk, Swami Krishnanand, who seems especially educated in the ways of many variations of the religions represented. We also meet two young Americans on their own spiritual journey. Although the American man and woman did not know each other before arriving in India, they kind of latch onto each other and the Swami, and we latch on to them.

There are aspects to Short Cut that I found fascinating. I was particularly curious about the Japanese guru who spends three days in a dark hole in the ground looking for enlightenment. When she comes out of her hole, the reaction from the throng is almost unbelievably jovial, but when she finally speaks to her followers, she has nothing of value to say. I found this with many of the alleged religious leaders in this film. They seemed more interested in how temporary lodgings are decorated than in the spiritual well-being of their followers. The film does address this duality, but with no real answers. Perhaps the most amusing thing in Short Cut is the relationship (bordering on romance) between the monk and the cute, blonde-haired American woman. The filmmakers are clearly aware that something is going on, but it so takes us out of the moment and purpose of the film that it serves as nothing more than a distraction.

Still, you cannot imagine the sight of millions of people migrating to a certain part of the Ganges River to be purified. But the repetition of the "love is the only religion" dogma from each and every person interviewed really wears on you. I love the sentiment, but 85 minutes of that goes a long way. Go for the spectacle, since it so rarely happens in history that it's worth seeing once in your life, but don't feel bad about leaving early or drifting off. Short Cut to Nirvana opens today at the Landmark Century Center Theatre, with one of the film's directors scheduled to host Q&As at the evening shows Friday and Saturday.

House of Wax
Bad, but not as bad as I'd thought it would be. As with many directors who rise up from the jungles of music video and commercial directing, Jaume Serra has a gift for visual flair and a serious shortcoming when it comes to character or plot development in his first feature, an updating of House of Wax. Trust me, this is not your grandparents' House of Wax. The truly creepy Vincent Price has been replaced by two hotties (The Girl Next Door's Elisha Cuthbert, and One Night in Paris star Paris Hilton, making her clothed debut) and a handful of himbos whose names I won't bother to mention.

I'll give the film credit for not shying away from an R rating, but it almost doesn't take advantage of the freedom that rating gives it. What the film does offer is a great aesthetic, a spectacular death scene for Hilton, and a climax involving a burning two-story actual house of wax melting under the feet of those inside as they attempt to escape. Ultimately, however, the plot and approach don't vary all that much from the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The female lead (Cuthbert) ends up in a tight white t-shirt, is abused by her captor, escapes and spends most of the film running, hiding and/or screaming. Sometimes this formula works, and this is certainly not an unwatchable film by any means, but it seems clear that none of the actors care about what they're doing or saying. Even the bad guys in House of Wax seem uninspired. The movie gets points for a decent level of gore, but a typical episode of "CSI" probably has about the same amount.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of the film is that all the fun of the original is completely missing. The story of House of Wax was never that compelling, but the strange casting of the original made it a lot of fun to watch. This version is anything but fun. It's poorly lit, grimy, and everyone in it seems miserable, even before the nastiness starts. The biggest positive about House of Wax is that suspicions about Paris Hilton were confirmed: when a giant stake goes right through the front of her head, no visible brain matter comes out the big hole on the other side.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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