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Los Angeles, California

BTL Reviews

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In Kingdom of Heaven, as realized by production designer Arthur Max, the destination location is a bustling hive that embraces all faiths with no initial indication of racial, political or cultural tension. It’s a walled fortress, but inside one senses a beating heart and a functioning society in a fashion few historic films even consider. The stores and homes, though briefly noted, provide the production with a texture that greatly enhances the story’s authenticity. The film’s production values are pristine.Apart from the sheer physical majesty of Kingdom of Heaven, one of the most striking aspects of this historical chapter of the Crusades is its relative faithfulness to known facts surrounding the taking of Jerusalem by Muslim leader Saladin circa 1187. Placed beside earlier efforts that have explored centuries of conflict for control of the holy city, the new film is a gritty, realistic documentary. It tows to recorded history as best we know it and its cast of characters is largely devoid of invention.Filmed primarily in Morocco and Spain, the Ridley Scott production has the epic size and sweep one expects from the filmmaker responsible for Gladiator. It also has intelligence. As in past efforts there is the sense of a grand adventure but the movie also attempts to deal with what propels men to take up arms in the name of God and redemption.The film’s principle bit of myth occurs in a prologue establishing what impels Balian (Orlando Bloom) to set out on the second crusade. The historic Balian was a member of the court of King Baldwin IV but here he is a humble blacksmith who learns his real father is Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a knight bound for Jerusalem. Balian, whose wife has recently committed the venal act of suicide, eventually joins the expedition in the hope of erasing his sins and those of his wife.The filmmakers opt to juxtapose the path that winds through Europe as a bleak, cold environment, perpetually overcast and battered by snow and wind against the scorched earth and blazing sun that are the hallmarks of Jerusalem and its environs. Physically there are no good arguments for shivering up to the forge rather than baking as one cultivates the soil that promises a new and better life.As realized by production designer Arthur Max, the destination location is a bustling hive that embraces all faiths with no initial indication of racial, political or cultural tension. It’s a walled fortress, but inside one senses a beating heart and a functioning society in a fashion few historic films even consider. The stores and homes, though briefly noted, provide the production with a texture that greatly enhances the story’s authenticity.The viper’s pit of the city is its court. Baldwin, dying a slow, horrible death from the ravages of leprosy, is waging a fight to maintain peace and equilibrium. Guy de Lusignan, married to Baldwin’s sister Sibylla, and his ally Reynald of Chatillon crave land and power and are more than willing to invoke papal dicta to justify heinous acts. Their sense of entitlement is ferocious and establishes Saladin as a noble adversary.Dramatically, Balian is the middle path, a man with a well-cultivated sense of decency that puts him at odds with the titled lords. He is foremost concerned with the common good.Finding the balance between spectacle and drama is the recurring bane of films like Kingdom of Heaven and there aren’t many that find as a good a fulcrum. Befitting its subject, the film has skirmishes, panoramic battles, a shipwreck and a mammoth siege, yet there’s hardly a sense of dwelling on the cleverness or superhuman effort involved in recreating such visceral delights. The production values are pristine but the same can be said for the films moral and political core.Many more people have been killed in the name of God than all the plagues, diseases and natural catastrophes that have beset mankind. Kingdom of Heaven is an apt reminder that everyone has the option to do good.For The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, costume and production designers Sammy Sheldon and Joel Collins delight in the collision of styles the material affords. There’s something bright and cheerful as a set worthy of Ikea segues into a page ripped out of Dickens, or the garish faux military Carnaby Street attire of one character shares the screen with a costume straight out of Kubrick’s 2001. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop provides a lumpish rogues’ gallery that include a manic depressive robot that in all other ways is well rounded.The end of the world is the jumping off point for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But it’s not the wrath of God or man’s own blindness that makes the planet go poof. Rather, it’s a zoning issue and a bit of clerical incompetence that signals its demise.That skewered perspective justly earned the late Douglas Adams cult status when he conceived the guide first for radio and later as a book. It was an inspired work of imagination that hobbled many filmmakers who sought to bring it to the big screen for more than two decades. The BBC version (well worth acquiring) in particular lives in the mind, and any tampering with its memory would be at the very least irritating and intrusive.Adams’ spirit thankfully has been retained in the movie version of Hitchhiker’s Guide, and as it turns out the majority of artists and craftspeople involved in the adaptation are relative newcomers to feature filmmaking. The author’s mantra in this post-apocalyptic world was: don’t panic. In bringing it to the screen, the credo is: keep it simple. Though dotted with bizarre creatures and alien environments, the thread is decidedly low tech in the spirit of Brazil rather than Star Wars.On earth’s last day, Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is about to have his quaint English home bulldozed for a new highway. At about the same moment his friend Ford Perfect (Mos Def) reveals he’s actually an alien and beams Arthur aboard a Vogon spaceship to avoid vaporization. Thus begins an adventure in which Arthur receives a crash course in the ways of the universe and learns that supposedly superior species are just as apt to human-like foibles and incompetence as any member of the British civil service.The slim thread of the piece is the search for the ultimate question having learned the answer is 42. Arthur’s fellow travelers are Ford; the vain and dim-witted president of the galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) and Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), a fellow Earth orphan and a former unconsummated date.The anarchic spirit informs every frame of film. There’s something innately satisfying about Arthur being plucked from imminent catastrophe and thrust into an Odyssian quest in the mufti of the bedroom. Both costume and production designers Sammy Sheldon and Joel Collins delight in the collision of styles the material affords. There’s something bright and cheerful as a set worthy of Ikea segues into a page ripped out of Dickens or the garish faux military Carnaby Street attire of one character shares the screen with a costume straight out of Kubrick’s 2001.Jim Henson’s Creature Shop provides a lumpish rogues’ gallery that includes a manic-depressive robot that in all other ways is well rounded. It’s an antic romp with a good-natured if lunatic spirit kept barely in check by Adams’ boilerplate and the stewardship of director Garth Jennings. I cannot reveal the answer to the question but when all else fails in making sense of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy it’s best to remember: don’t panic… and enjoy the ride.

Written by Len Klady

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