Crash and Kingdom of Heaven.

Reviews of the latest films.
May 5 2005 8:45 PM

Crash and Fizzle

Good intentions, lousy delivery in Crash and Kingdom of Heaven.

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I'd have a lot more respect for Scott if he were actually the virtuoso he pretends to be. Gladiator had lousy, disjunctive action, and Kingdom of Heaven is even more maladroit. Scott uses a strange, accelerated (rotoscoped?) look for his battle scenes, which he mixes with tacky slow motion—for those moments when the audience really needs to know what's going on. Without the splatter—or, more precisely, the jets of bejeweled blood—the battles would be totally incoherent. Where Scott excels is in single, hot-dog shots, and he has two long-lens desert dillies here: a sunlit cross around which a vast Christian army materializes, and its moonlit Muslim equivalent. Out of such compositions are reputations made.

Some people will see Crash and Kingdom of Heaven and like the politics and, therefore, like the movies, too. But the real politics here are the politics of audience manipulation, which is demagoguery, which is deeply boring, on both sides of the aisle.

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Update/Illumination: Having raised the issue of Ridley Scott's combat scenes (tacky at any speed), I am grateful to Theodore Witcher for the explication. (Of course Scott does not use rotoscoping, an ancient—in cinema terms—process; I was fishing for some modern way of achieving a similar effect.)

Witcher: "Though I haven't yet seen Kingdom of Heaven, if it looks anything like Gladiator, it's probably a combination of two things: changing the shutter angle from the standard 180 degrees to 90 or even 45 degrees (for the most pronounced effect) and some form of step-printing.

"Narrowing the shutter angle decreases the amount of time a single frame is exposed to light, which tends to isolate movement more sharply with less blur. In still photography terms (which is referred to in increments of time, like thousandths of a second), this is like the sports photographers who shoot NASCAR and basketball and such and you only see crystal-clear shots of action on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In movie terms, this becomes something of a "staccato" look... think the individual bits of dirt and debris flying up in the opening battle of Saving Private Ryan.

"Step-printing is merely manipulating the formula of twenty-four frames per second.  Every other frame, shot at 24 FPS, might be then printed twice, which will yield a "slow-motion" type effect equivalent to shooting at 48 FPS. This is done if a director wants to slow down a shot that was not originally captured in slow-motion, which is an in-camera technique; it will not, however, have the smoothness associated with slow-motion. To achieve an odd look that still runs at 24 FPS, and thus takes the same amount of time to complete, a shot might be made at 12 FPS and then step-printed (every other frame) to 24 FPS. Perhaps this last one is what Scott does in the movie.

"Why he does it, of course, is another matter entirely."

Why he does it in Kingdom of Heaven: Aye, there's the rub. Whatever Sir Ridley's compositional talents, he has always struck me as an inept director of action—that is, until Black Hawk Down, in which the combat was staged and shot in a terrifying, streaky, subjective style that was suited to both the director's strengths and the material. (The material, of course, is another matter entirely.) The return to the objective—and objectively jumbled—style of Gladiator (albeit on an even larger scale) is positively mystifying.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.