Blockbusters? Who Needs 'Em?

The big summer movie season was supposed to begin with the fireworks of Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven," but the big bang turned out to be more of a whimper. An augury of things to come or just a bump in Hollywood's triumphant road? The studios are nervously awaiting the answer, because movie attendance has been slumping week after week. And why shouldn't it when Hollywood deliberately sticks to its dogs-only policy for the first three or four months of the year? Do they think moviegoers don't notice?

But why should every movie have to be a blockbuster? As George Lucas's Death Star approaches, let's pause a moment and take a quick gander at some of the other offerings out there, from the mainstream appeal of "Kicking & Screaming" to the out-of-left-field delights of "Mad Hot Ballroom." It's hard to remember, but there was once a time when there was no such thing as "a summer movie." There were just movies that came out in summer, like any other.

'Kingdom of Heaven'

Borrowing heavily from his own "Gladiator," Ridley Scott follows another grief-stricken hero (Orlando Bloom's Balian), a 12th-century blacksmith turned knight from France who wends his way to Jerusalem during a lull in the Crusades, and turns into a charismatic leader. Scott's pacifist, can't-we-all-get-along take on the Crusades avoids demonizing either Muslims or Christians (the bad guys are the warmongering military sect, the Knights Templar) but it also fails to rouse any passion. A potentially great subject is frittered away, though this being a Scott movie, there's style to spare. Jeremy Irons and an exuberantly nasty Brendan Gleeson do their best to liven things up, but the miscasting of the lightweight Bloom proves fatal: instead of galvanizing this epic, he sucks the energy out of it.

'Crash'

Paul Haggis's first film as a director (he wrote the fine adaptation of "Million Dollar Baby") is an ambitious, intense, but overdetermined exploration of the varieties of ethnic intolerance. Structured like a ronde, it offers supercharged vignettes from a day in the life of racially fraught Los Angeles. There are many scenes, especially in the first half, that have you holding your breath: Matt Dillon, as a racist cop, pulls over TV director Terence Howard and his stylish wife Thandie Newton for trumped up reasons, and humiliates them while his outraged partner (Ryan Phillippe) looks on helplessly. Later, we'll see that even racists have their noble side, and even good guys have their hidden prejudices. This is a keen, complex observation, until you notice that Haggis is determined to apply the same paradox to every one of his characters (except Michael Pena's saintly Latino handyman).

Haggis has a fine cast, including Don Cheadle as a haunted police detective, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges as a speechifying carjacker who's always decrying white people's stereotypes of black men and Sandra Bullock as the hysterical, insufferably bigoted wife of Brendan Fraser's D.A. They create compelling characters whose behavior becomes increasingly hard to believe as they're forced to jump through Haggis's pre-ordained thematic hoops.

Haggis shows a lot of promise as a director: his film is never dull. But he needs to unlearn some of the bad lessons he picked up working in TV, which demands that everything be neat, symmetrical and underlined. In "Crash," everybody expresses their ugliest prejudices openly and at the drop of a hat. But isn't the whole point of big-city racism that it's largely covert?

'Mad Hot Ballroom'

A much more sanguine view of cultural diversity emerges in this enchanting documentary directed by Marilyn Agrelo, which follows aspiring 11-year-old competitive dancers in three New York city schools: in Bensonhurst (Italian and Asian), Tribeca (a hip mix) and the mostly Dominican P.S. 115 in Washington Heights. Watching the transformation of these kids as they achieve mastery over the tango, rumba, foxtrot and swing is sweet indeed, though I wish Agrelo had been able to go deeper into their home lives. "Spellbound," to which it will be inevitably compared, cast a broader sociological net.

But what "Mad Hot Ballroom" lacks in depth, it more than makesup for in charm and vibrancy. And a couple of these kids have preternatural star power: young Wilson Castillo, a Dominican immigrant who speaks very little English, burns up the dance floor with slow, suave fire. Can you resist this movie? Don't even try.

'Kicking & Screaming'

Does it seem as if Will Ferrell is in every other movie coming out these days? I'm not complaining, if they are all as amusing as this one. Ferrell stars as a vitamin salesman who's forced to coach his son's soccer team, a last-place band of misfits. Uh oh, you think, haven't we seen this one before? Yes and no. Before director Jesse Dylan's comedy (written by Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick) arrives at its preordained (and mechanical) heartwarming conclusion, it veers off in some unexpected and interesting directions. With Robert Duvall playing Ferrell's insufferably competitive dad, it's more like a farcical version of "The Great Santini" than "The Bad News Bears" redux. Ferrell, who develops a hilarious addiction to massive infusions of coffee, morphs from victim-son to monster-coach as his rabid will to win transforms him into a mirror image of the father he hates.

It's all kept light and funny, but underlying the broad sight gags is a movie that actually has something to say about competition, fathers and sons, machismo and caffeine. Mike Ditka appears as Mike Ditka, and plays himself very well. "Kicking & Screaming" is the Hollywood summer's first pleasant surprise.

'Brothers'

One brother, Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) is a rock: an upstanding soldier and family man who is sent to Afghanistan to serve with the U.N. peacekeepers. The other, Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is the black sheep: just released from prison, alcoholic, he shows every sign of falling back into his bad old ways. But when he hears that Michael has been killed while on duty abroad, he's freed from his old role as the bad apple, and a transformation begins as he tries to comfort Michael's wife (Connie Nielson) and kids. Michael, however, isn't dead. But he isn't the same either: what he must do to survive as a prisoner of the Taliban will change him even more dramatically than Jannik.

Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier's unsettling, psychologically astute film is about many things: the nature of sibling rivalry, the effect of wartime violence on civilian life, the things we can and can't forgive ourselves. But it's as much about the wife/widow, whose life is turned upside down, as it is about the two brothers, and Nielson shows a depth and emotional transparency she's not been allowed in English-language films. Taut and unexpected, "Brothers" is gripping from start to finish.

'Mysterious Skin'

Gregg Araki, one of the bright lights of what was once known as the New Queer Cinema ("The Living End," "The Doom Generation"), is still fascinated with young, beautiful self-destructive kids. But in this adaptation of a Scott Heim novel (the first adaptation Araki has ever done) a whole new tone and style emerge. The former enfant terrible has grown up. He's still dealing with rough subjects--child molestation, gay hustling, rebellious kids--but not for their shock value.

This time he abandons his trademark Cool and dives into deep and twisted emotional waters, telling the parallel stories of two Kansas boys (beautifully played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet). Both were violated as 8-year-olds but deal with the aftermath of this traumatic event in totally different ways, one becoming a chilly, guarded but charismatic prostitute and the other, almost pathologically shy, becoming increasingly obsessed with UFOs: he thinks he was abducted by aliens during those pivotal traumatic hours he can't remember. (Chase Ellison and George Webster play the boys at age 8.)

"Mysterious Skin" explores both prepubescent and teen sexuality with an honesty that may make some people uncomfortable, which is a sign of its potency, and a badge of honor. Bill Sage plays the baseball coach obsessed with little boys, and avoids all stereotypes. His acts are as unforgivable as his humanity is inescapable. The movie sugarcoats nothing, but it doesn't revel in its own darkness either. It sheds a clear, compassionate, illuminating light.

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