If The Shoe Fits

The plot of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (20th Century Fox, 5.6) is on the complex side, but if you let yourself think plain like Tom Joad and avoid getting smeared with your own intellectual whipped cream, it all boils down nicely.
Aside from the upscale distinction of being a Ridley Scott film in the big-canvas Gladiator mode, Heaven is a 12th Century armies-on-horseback movie about Eastern vs. Western forces. You know…one of those Muslim vs. Christian, olive-skinned natives vs. white-guy invader type deals, taking place during the Crusades and set in war-torn Jerusalem.

Orlando Bloom in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven.

It’s also one of those pageant-type flicks about a really cute brave guy (Orlando Bloom, as a French blacksmith who eventually comes to be called Balian of Ibelin), and how he falls in love with a foxy, well-born hottie (Sibylla, the princess of Jerusalem, played by Eva Green) and then gets to be El Cid-like when push comes to shove.
Or something along these lines. I’m fairly sure Bloom whups ass. You have to figure after he played a girlyman Paris in Troy his agent wouldn’t let him go there a second time.
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Balian of Ibelin was a Crusader knight who led the defense of Jerusalem in 1187. His formidable opponent was a Muslim leader named Saladin, who defeated him. With this element Kingdom sounds a bit like a 12th Century Black Hawk Down, about white guys in armor and shields getting their butts kicked by the Muslims in their tunics and turbans and curved swords.
I’m not a scholar on the Crusades and I haven’t read William Monahan’s Kingdom of Heaven script, but c’mon….how can anyone not see cultural parallels between Scott’s tale and the fighting going on now between U.S. forces and native guerillas in Iraq? You’d have to be suffering from enzyme blockage to say they aren’t there.
The Christian Crusaders were arrogant in presuming to claim and run the Holy Land in the first place, and the Saracens were in a more spiritually justified place in their battle against these Bible-reading, pale-faced invaders.

Can anyone think of another occupying Anglo force that went into a Middle Eastern country for bogus reasons and is probably fated to leave with its tail between its legs?
New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman explored this issue in a story that ran on 8.12.04.
“With bloody images of Muslims and Westerners battling in Iraq and elsewhere on the nightfly news, it may seem like odd timing to unveil a big-budget Hollywood epic about the ferocious fighting between Christians and Muslims over Jerusalem in the Crusade of the 12th Century,” Waxman’s story began.
“While the studio has tried to emphasize the romance and thrilling action, some religious scholars and interfaith activists…have questioned the wisdom of a big Hollywood movie about an ancient religious conflict when many people believe that those conflicts have been reignited in a modern context.”
I got into a dopey argument the other day with a guy who says it’s journalistically sloppy to point to Kingdom‘s present-day allusions. I found it staggering that he would even argue this point.
If a history professor were to show his class a movie about the Crusades (Christians vs. Muslims in the Holy Land) and ask his students to point out current echoes in a term paper, I said, he would be right to flunk any student who doesn’t at the very least mention Bush-Rummy-Iraq.
The guy replied that Kingdom was developed before Bush was elected and was greenlit before the U.S. went into Iraq. The Crusades, therefore, have nothing to do with Iraq, he said…unless, of course, the person making this connection is a fringe whack-jobber.

You’re tap dancing too much on this thing, I replied. Your thinking is too pretzel-like. You have to boil it down to basics. Anglo army occupying Middle Eastern territory, shouldn’t be there, natives hate them, etc.
9/11 was three years and three months ago, the invasion of Iraq happened in March ’03, and principal photography on Kingdom of Heaven began in Morocco last January. And in the minds of Scott and his creative team, the U.S. vs. Iraqi insurgent situation didn’t weave its way into the film on this or that level?
This is certainly an allowable interpretation, I argued, given the basic bones.
That said, I can’t wait for Kingdom of Heaven, which looks great in the trailer and cost around $130 million. After Bloom and Green, the costars are Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis and Chassan Massoud as Saladin.
There isn’t much happening right now on Kingdom of Heaven‘s official site , but it’s a start.


The Napoleon Dynamite DVD story is a great success with a blemish. This is because the people at Fox Home Video blew it when they ordered their initial run.
Roughly 1.4 million units were sold when the disc hit stores on 12.21, but the suits didn’t order enough of them to be pressed because the available Dynamite‘s sold out right away (in West Coast urban areas, at least) and as of Monday, 12.26, copies were still scarce.
The clerks at Laser Blazer in West L.A. are telling me people keep coming in and asking for Napoleon and they keep answering, “Sorry, man…sold out. Nope, not even a rental.” A Seattle-based guy named Aaron Stewart (one of HE’s newly engaged Discland contributors) told me yesterday that the same thing is happening up there.

Figuring an average price of $20 per DVD, Dynamite retail sales totals come to about $28 million, which is more than half of the film’s $44 million domestic earnings.
Fox spokesman Steven Feldstein was quoted as saying that when the first shipment came close to selling out, Fox ordered a motherload of new Napoleon‘s from their plant in Huntsville, Alabama, but the trucks attempting to deliver the discs got stuck in a Kentucky snowstorm. I don’t know…does this sound to anyone else like “the dog ate my homework”?
Sooner or later the trucks will make it through and the stores will have enough copies, but the Fox Video guys could have posted some kind of astronomical sales figure in the trades if they’d been more accurate in gauging public interest.

Plugging Away

If you’re looking for the key provocateurs in the sacking of Vincent Ward from the historical drama River Queen, you wouldn’t be far off if you settled on two people.
One is Richard Soames of Film Finances, River Queen‘s guarantor. He’s the guy who actually lowered the boom on the film’s director last October, and not the producers, Silver Screen Films and The Films Consortium, who were surprised at the canning and immediately tried to get Ward his job back. They eventually succeeded.
The other is costar Samantha Morton, who has been described by a source close to the production as a bit of a harridan whose hair-pulling episodes have not been limited to her behavior on River Queen.

River Queen costar Samantha Morton.

Morton clashed with Ward about this and that — rather bitterly, I’m told — during the first half of the filming. This rancor, compounded by Ward’s perfectionism and lousy weather during much of the New Zealand-based shoot, led to an atmosphere of delay and disharmony that caught Soames’ attention and led to his action.
Ward didn’t stay fired for long. He was actually re-hired in late November despite an announcement earlier this week that he’s just returned to the payroll.
Ward declined to speak about the situation, but a source close to the shoot chimed in.
Ward is now in London trying to finish the editing before the end of March. It’s that or Ward and his producers will face some kind of stiff financial penalty, as English tax laws allowed for the majority of the financing.
The expectation is that the historical war drama, set during the New Zealand Maori Wars of the 1860s and about the efforts of an Irish mother (Morton) trying to find her kidnapped child with the help of a soldier (Kiefer Sutherland), will be shown at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.
Given the title it’s a reasonable assumption that (a) Morton and Sutherland do some of their searching while traveling on a river boat, and (b) that some kind of bond develops between them, although hopefully of a different cast than the romance that occurs between Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in John Huston’s The African Queen.
River Queen is known to have been a labor of love for Ward (Map Of The Human Heart, The Navigator, Vigil). He co-wrote the script with Toa Fraser, and has tried to put together production funding for quite a spell.
Ward’s axe-ing happened in October, three weeks after Morton came back to the set after being felled by influenza.

My production source says Ward was replaced as director following a continual series of “incidents” with Morton, who had already caused the production to close down once due to her illness.
Soames stepped in to get control of things, but right away colleagues and friends of Ward’s pointed out that the project would be worthless without Ward’s input and guiding hand, and the only way for anyone to recoup was for him to be restored as director.
River Queen was directed for the final three weeks of shooting by the director of photography, Alun Bollinger (Heavenly Creatures), with day-to-day guidance from Ward by phone and email.
“One thing for certain is that the film did not go any smoother after Ward left,” the source confides, “nor did it progress any faster. The number of shots per day stayed the same, and Morton’s various illnesses and troubles continued.”

Good News

In the wake of my 12.17 praising of Adam Curtis’ brilliant BBC2 documentary called The Power of Nightmares, I’m happy to report it will screen in either late January or early February as a special presentation of the Santa Barbara Film Festival, which kicks off on 1.28.05.
SBFF director Roger Durling was shown a copy of the doc by Telluride Film Festival director Tom Luddy after my piece came out, and Curtis was contacted and agreed to provide a screenable copy of the film. No word as to whether Curtis will attend the festival, but he should. The San Francisco Film Festival is also reportedly mulling over a showing of Nightmares.
Author (The Whole Equation) and essayist David Thomson wrote the following about Nightmares on 12.26 for his column in the London Independent:

Nightmares producer-writer Adam Curtis (l.); a non-related plaque outside a BBC office.

“I share the sentiments behind Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, but I cannot look at or listen to Moore without smelling the demagogue. Which leads me to this point: the most arresting thing I saw in 2004 (in a poor-quality duplicated tape) was Adam Curtis’s three-part TV documentary series, The Power of Nightmares.
“The program may be prompting soul-searching within the BBC as to the function and role of that diminishing institution, but it will likely never find a large public in the U.S., because no one will be brave enough to air so lucid, caustic and comic an account of the sham of Islamic terror.
“Now, in America, as you have heard, the ordinary television watcher often has hundreds of channels to choose from. But the four networks will not touch The Power of Nightmares, because of the subsequent charge of being anti-Bush. Public television (PBS), the nearest equivalent to the BBC, will almost certainly decline because of the fear of putting their funding in jeopardy.”
“That leaves HBO, for several years now the most enterprising movie/TV studio in the world. But even there, I’m not sure that anyone has the stomach for this superb, Swiftian satire or the absolute insolence with which Curtis delivers his message.”

Dicey Intrigue

If you find these photos interesting or alluring, there’s something wrong with you.
There’s only one way to process the horror of over 114,000 people drowning from that big tsunami three or four days ago, and that’s with muted sadness and a slight shaking of the head, like you’re sitting in a church pew at a funeral for a friend.
You can’t express any kind of fascination in how the Indian Ocean tsunami might have looked or sounded because if you do you’re a pig and a creep and you have no heart.

I didn’t die from the big tsunami because I was in Los Angeles when it happened, and I don’t have any personal connections with any of the sufferers. I’m appalled by the death and the hurt and my heart goes out, but I’m curious, dammit.
I’ve never seen a real tsunami. The only kind I’ve ever seen has been Jim Cameron’s mile-high tsunami in The Abyss and that other stupid CG tsunami in Deep Impact (you know…the one that instantly flattened Maximillian Schell and Tea Leoni…which I’m thinking of watching again, in all candor, in the wake of Leoni’s performance in Spanglish).

On 12.27 there was an AP story about how news agency representatives are hunting for video of this event.
“There will still be, I think, the definitive shot, the wall of water,” Sandy MacIntyre, director of news for Associated Press Television News in London, said Monday.
APTN was said to be “competing fiercely” with Reuters to try and snag some good tsunami video footage. APTN producers were reportedly sent to six airports in Europe and Asia on Monday to ask tourists if they had captured the scene on their home video cameras, MacIntyre said.
Who knows how to process or make sense of over 114,000 people dying in the space of five or ten minutes?
I used to have nightmares about big waves when I was a kid. I would be on a beach and a tidal wave would be getting bigger and bigger and I’d try to run and my feet would be like anvils and I could barely take a step. And the approaching monster would get louder and louder.


“I’ve been reading your column for years and I must say that although I disagree with your politics and some of your film choices I admire the fact that you will push a film to the forefront for the attention it deserves. Sideways has been garnering a great deal of attention now and you were one of the first, if not the first to call it.
“You’ve also been pushing Million Dollar Baby, and you even ran a blip about it last summer, as I recall. I must admit I was not really interested in seeing this film, but then I kept reading your column concerning this picture and I finally went to the Grove Theatre and plucked down my ten bucks for a late morning viewing.

“This film is one of the most powerful things I have ever seen put to celluloid. It’s a little predictable at times and uses some cliches, but it’s the way the story is told and the confidence in the way the narrative is handled that makes it great. This film deserves the good attention that it is receiving. Those naysayers that could be disciples of Kael need to let their opinion be known as well, even though they’re way off.
“Ever since I left the theatre I’ve been imploring various people to take in a viewing of this film and calling up relatives to tell them to be the first in line when it goes nationwide. It is a shame that Warner Brothers has not been pushing this gem and I thank you for bringing this film to my attention. I plan on viewing it again with friends when the holiday cycle calms down.
“Also you need to give Collateral a look on DVD. It has a great commentary by Michael Mann that has not been advertised and it would be a shame not to give it a listen. This guy is a genius and his films should be studied more. Bring on the new special edition Heat DVD!” — James Wallace


“Philip Kaufman, Fred Schepisi, Walter Hill, Brian De Palma and Robert Benton. What do these guys have in common? Nothing…except that you’ll probably find each film made by these guys have gotten a thumbs-up or something close to it from the Paulettes.
“Michael Sragow would fit nicely onto that little list that includes Charles Taylor, David Edelstein and Armond White.
“I think this has to with the fact that the French and Dave Kehr and some other guys who followed the Andrew Sarris auteurist school of thought picked up on Eastwood first, thereby making him persona non grata with the Paulettes since anything the French and Sarris (especially Sarris) gave the okay to was bound to stink according to the Kael gospel.
“Among the Paulettes there was some sort of party-line that had to be toed when it came to certain film makers. Thumbs up for the above worthies and thumbs down for Eastwood, Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, etc. They were young and easily led, I guess. And here you were thinking that film criticism was mostly about the movie!
“I think that the only Paulette to have escaped out of that cultish orbit has been Roger Ebert, and more power to him for that.” — Vinod Narayanan


“A few years back I spent some time talking about movies with Armond White and the more we spoke, the more I began to suspect his entire approach to movie, and in fact to reality.
“He kept going on about Spinal Tap and how real metal fans were offended by the film, and that Spinal Tap was a fictious band. And even when I pointed out that the guys in the movie played their own instruments, wrote the songs and even toured without a film crew, he refused to admit that at their core, Spinal Tap was as real of a band as any other ’80s metal band.

“Their songs ‘Big Bottom,’ ‘Hell Hole’ and ‘Sex Farm’ go up their with anything Ratt ever released. Sure they made up their background, but what band doesn’t fake their story? What makes Spinal Tap less real than Led Zeppelin’s ‘Song Remains the Same’? I just gave up on Armond at that point.
“And you’re right about HBO being the place to make a drama. Have you seen The Wire? Best 12-hour movie of the year.” — Joe Corey
“Armond White plays it safe and says that he likes both Kael and Sarris although that’s a bit like saying that you like the Republicans and the Democrats. He gave a thumbs up to Bloodwork and a thumbs down to both Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby and he thinks that Tomcats and Bubble Boy are masterpieces. Nuff said.
“Look, anyone who froths at the mouth in sheer untrammelled glee at the sight of a Brian De Palma film should probably not be throwing any stones ‘cuz that’s a big-ass glass house they’re livin’ in.” — V.N.

Hold Up

“Is the Napoleon Dynamite DVD shortage really as bad as you say in today’s column? I was just at the Best Buy in West Los Angeles, and there were at least 30 copies just sitting there waiting to be purchased.” — Grady Styles.
Wells to Styles: Great. The truck drivers must have finally gotten their act together. That or the people who frequent Laser Blazer and that video store in Seattle have hipper tastes than your typical Best Buy customers and therefore bought up all the available copies quicker.
Big-studio publicist to Wells: Interesting. I tried to buy Napoleon Dynamite at Borders across from the Arclight last night and they were sold out. But I found a bunch of ’em at Virgin.