On the eve of his first novel's publication San Francisco writer Amir (Khalid Abdalla) is called back to the Middle East for a chance to make childhood wrongs right. An extended flashback set in late-'70s Kabul Afghanistan introduces young Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) the bookish son of a forceful respected businessman (Homayoun Ershadi) who despairs over his son's tendency to let his loyal friend/servant Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) fight his battles for him. On the fateful day of the citywide kite-fighting tournament Amir's inability to stand up to bullies has heartbreaking consequences for both him and Hassan. Soon after Amir and his father flee the invading communists eventually ending up in California. Time passes but Amir's guilt doesn't fade--so when a long-lost family friend offers him the chance to redeem himself he returns to the city of his birth to face many difficult truths. One of the best things The Kite Runner has going for it is its cast of virtual unknowns; since none of them are familiar faces to American audiences it's much easier to become wholly absorbed in their story. Abdalla is earnest and solemn as grown-up Amir. Both haunted by and determined to forget about his terrible betrayal he's often hesitant and unsure of himself (except when he meets the woman who will become his wife and courts her in a series of charming scenes). More charismatic is Ershadi who imbues Amir's father with the perfect mix of honor ferocity and sentiment. And top honors go to the boys who play young Amir and Hassan. Making their screen debut (along with co-star Elham Ehsas who's coldly menacing as bully Assef) Ebrahimi and Mahmidzada are natural genuine performers who make their characters' complicated friendship both believable and heart-wrenching. With a resume that includes the tragic (Monster's Ball) the sentimental (Finding Neverland) and the surreal (Stranger Than Fiction) it's clear that Marc Forster isn't wedded to any particular style or genre. Which is fitting since The Kite Runner is so many things at once: a coming-of-age story a sweet romance a gripping war drama. Forster does a good job of balancing the story's many needs staying faithful to Khaled Hosseini's novel while also streamlining it to keep things moving. As in the book the movie's glimpses of a (relatively) liberal prosperous '70s Afghanistan are particularly compelling; audiences who only think of the country in the context of the ultra-conservative Taliban rule (and subsequent U.S. occupation) will be entranced. Later when Amir returns home to find fear despair and dusty emptiness it's impossible not to mourn right along with him.
The Crusades were a series of religious wars in which the Christians tried to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims who had conquered the Middle East in the 7th century. With the battle cry of "God wills it! " thousands of Europeans answered the call and were able to retake the fabled Holy City in the 11th century. Kingdom of Heaven begins in 1186 between the Second and Third Crusades. A fragile peace prevails mostly through the efforts of Jerusalem's enlightened Christian king Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) and the military restraint of the legendary Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). But it's difficult to maintain the peace. There are extremists within the Christian brigades--known as the Knights Templar--who want to wipe every Muslim off the face of the Earth. On top of that King Baldwin's health is failing. Once he's gone war is sure to follow. If ever there was a need for a hero this is the time. Enter the young French blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) who is in deep despair over the loss of his family. He joins the Crusades after the father he never knew Godfrey (Liam Neeson) comes back from Jerusalem and convinces him it's a quest worth fighting for. As Godfrey passes his sword to his son he also passes on that sacred knightly oath: to protect the helpless safeguard the peace and work toward harmony between religions and cultures so that a kingdom of heaven can flourish on earth. No pressure or anything though.
Orlando Bloom carries his first major motion picture very well easily handling the chores of being such a gallant conscientious and morally upstanding knight. As Balian the Troy costar plays the gamut. He broods over his lost wife and child has father-son epiphanies upholds his knightly duties on a regular basis falls in love with a beautiful but troubled princess and finally bravely defends the Holy City from the encroaching Muslim army thus becoming a legend. Not bad for a day's work eh? There are even times especially toward the end when Balian is standing before the denizens of Jerusalem urging them to fight when you swear you can see a little of Bloom's The Lord of the Rings alter-elf Legolas creep in. The supporting cast also does an adequate job painting a picture of some trying times. Chief among them: Jeremy Irons as King Baldwin's right-hand man Tiberias; Marton Csokas (The Bourne Supremacy) as the evil leader of the Knights Templar; Massoud as the great warrior Saladin; and lovely Eva Green (The Dreamers) as Princess Sibylla King Baldwin's sister who captures our hero's heart but makes some bad choices with dire consequences.
Even if these sword-and-armor epics are all blending together you've got to give props to the directors who make them. These films are massive undertakings and Kingdom of
Heaven with the expert Ridley Scott at the helm is no exception. The Oscar-winning director of course has had his fair share of recreating history first with the classic Gladiator and then with the contemporary Black Hawk Down. But in recreating the Crusades Scott faces his toughest challenge to date and takes on the responsibility very seriously. He is painstakingly meticulous with details even as he is building a 12th-century Jerusalem or corralling 2 000 heavily costumed extras for the colossal climactic battle sequences. And it is always a good thing when a historical film can teach you something you may not have known like what the heck the Crusades were really all about. No Kingdom's biggest obstacle is timing. While it certainly has more substance than Alexander it is not nearly as intense and stirring as The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the granddaddy of them all Braveheart. Too many of its ilk has come before and the concept has unfortunately worn thin.
All of Britain is abuzz as "E-Day" approaches. The day when the pound will be converted into euros and the former will no longer be accepted as a valid form of currency. Enter two brothers: wide-eyed 7-year-old Damian (Alexander Nathan Etel) and his 9-year-old fiscally precocious and shrewd brother Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon) who stumble upon a million pounds and are split on what to do with it in the short time they have. They are in agreement on one thing: They will not tell their father (James Nesbitt) about the money. Anthony just wants to spend it on material things but Damian believes the money has been delivered to them by some sort of divine osmosis a miracle from their recently deceased mother. Through the saints he claims he sees and talks to he thinks it is should be given exclusively to the homeless--or anyone deemed worthy by meeting Damian's rigorous criteria…admitting they are poor. He is later crushed to discover that the money's true origin is a heist gone awry as he crosses paths with the obligatory villain posing as a homeless man and threatening Damian to hand over the money or else pay the consequences.
There's a kind of freedom in releasing an indie film in which the biggest name belongs to the guy behind the camera. Rather than worrying about watching mega movie stars it shifts the audience's attention so they can get involved in a complex storyline. Millions is no exception to this rule. The acting is superb all the way around but undoubtedly the two biggest stars of the film are also its smallest. The interplay between two brothers--played by Etel and McGibbon in their feature film debuts--makes the viewer feel like a fly on the wall in any family's home. For such young kids they display an amazing skill at being able to capture the subtle nuances generally present in sibling relationships. Throw in the dynamic of their father--played well by Nesbitt a veteran of the British-indie circuit--and his new girlfriend (Daisy Donovan) who threatens to disrupt the family harmony and you feel like a genuine intruder on a family in crisis. But Damian's naive musings help keep the story essentially light vibrant and flowing.
Millions marks a complete about-face for director Danny Boyle. With his previous films he followed along a general path of the same moods and tones: his harrowing take on drugs and decadence in England in the groundbreaking Trainspotting; his hostage-falls-for-kidnapper caper A Life Less Ordinary; his disappointing attempt at a mind trip with The Beach; and his zombie take-off 28 Days Later. It's safe to say that a feel-good family film would not seem the logical next step. But Boyle executes Millions brilliantly showing not only his sensitive side but his flair for the whimsical. Parts of the movie even suggest hints of Tim Burton complete with sinister-sounding choral hymns in the background. With Millions Boyle establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with one of the most versatile directors around today.