Monday, February 26, 2007

Things I learned watching the Oscars...

Uh-oh... He's doing comedy... Quick! Hit the 'Applause' sign!

1. Penguins do good impressions of George W. Bush and also believe he wants them “to live in a desert.”

2. Somebody at the Academy actually thought penguins doing Bush impersonations would be funny.

3. It is OK to wave the flag and root for your country on foreign soil -- as long as it’s in America and you’re not from there. (Applies to Oscar winners and illegals equally.)

4. Somebody at the Academy actually thought Ellen DeGeneres doing Billy Crystal impersonations would be funny.

5. Hollywood believes in affirmative action for matronly, no-talent lesbians. Care to host and/or take home one of those shiny statues? Rent a velvet Elvis tux, put your ditsy life partner in a Vera Wang dress and you’re off to the races. Also helps to write a cheesy rock anthem for “Al Gore’s Apocalypto.”

6. I liked Will Smith better on the red carpet, where he was the only star cool enough to long-reach over the tank barricades to sign autographs, pose for snap shots, and actually return the love his fans were offering. As opposed to Will Smith inside, pretending to laugh his pants off at Ellen DeGeneres’ lame jokes.

7. Jerry Seinfeld needs to host next year. We get it already, Academy… You’re diverse. Good for you. Now get back to delivering a good show. And so help me, if I see Whoopi there again next year...

8. Al Gore looks a lot like a puffer fish.

9. Melissa Etheridge looks a lot like Hillary Clinton.

10. Ellen DeGeneres looks a lot like the cashier at the Krusty Krab.

11. Red carpet interviewers can actually get in serious trouble now for not annoying the rest of us with “Who are you wearing?” It’s the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade all over again. (You know, the “parade” of endless commercial plugs and lame Broadway numbers performed by non-parading dancers?) But we wouldn’t want to stop the flow of free bling to the stars, forcing them to dig into their own pockets for evening attire. Never mind that those gift bags they get on the way out are worth more than the GDP of most of those impoverished African countries they visit for good deals on cheap babies.

12. Will Ferrell is apparently working on a bio-pic of Art Garfunkel.

13. Only 9 percent of Americans polled saw all of the Best Picture nominees. Just 31 percent had seen any of them. SHOCKER!

14. Sometimes good things do happen to good movies at the Oscars. Congrats to Helen Mirren, Forest Whitacker and Jennifer Hudson.

15. Absolutely nothing.

Bonus thing I learned…

Those Hollywood types are hypocrites. When asked if his (Oscar-winning) character’s pornographic pro (underage) sex and drugs rants from “Little Miss Sunshine” had an effect on young star Abigail Breslin:

Alan Arkin: I didn’t say or do anything around her. I insisted she had headphones on [or wasn’t in earshot.]
Ryan Seacrest: It’s rated R, isn’t it?
Alan Arkin: I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.
Ryan Seacrest: Has she seen it?
Alan Arkin: Yeah, about 10 times, so it didn’t make a difference.

Guess what, Alan? Plenty of other kids are seeing it too.

Ah, Hollywood… Reminds me of William H. Macy on the “Tonight Show” last week, talking about how he restricts his daughter’s access to TV and movies. Like the ones he was cranking out by the dozen a year or two ago. Because the soul-sucking crap these people make for a living is good enough for the unwashed masses – and nicely pays the mortgage on that fenced-off 12-roomer in Pacific Palisades, thank you very much – but when it comes to their own kids…

OK, so maybe I already knew they were mercenary hypocrites. I just wanted to share.

Highlight of the evening…

Mickey Rooney, spotted on the red carpet on the way in. Sadly, being ignored by interviewers, from what I saw. Sure he’s on the short side… He was still the biggest star in the house.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Movieguide Awards

You can't swing a dead cat on Rodeo Drive this time of year without hitting someone on their way to a Hollywood awards show. My wife and I returned from one of the lesser known but arguably more influential galas just today -- the 15th annual Movieguide Awards of the Christian Film & Television Commission.

Here's a good write up in the Hollywood Reporter on the whole thing, a preview of last night's event at the Beverly Wilshire.

We went last year too, when I took home a piece of the John Templeton Foundation's Kairos Prize for screenwriting. This year the past winners were invited back to enjoy the experience minus the nausea of delivering acceptance speeches on the same stage the Golden Globes are presented each year.

Yes, I realize the Golden Globes actually take place at the Beverly Hilton. I realized it literally an hour before we nearly headed off there again this year -- where we would have inadvertently crashed the Obama for President gala that had first dibs on the Int'national Ballroom this year.
The Wilshire was even more opulent, and the show even more entertaining (despite nobody slipping a $10,000 check into my SWAG bag this year).

Roz, Ioan Gruffudd, Alice Evans, and Mr. Fantastic

From hanging out at the red carpet with Mr. Fantastic himself, Ioan Gruffudd, to meeting host John Ratzenberger at the after-party, we had a memorable night. Gruffudd, forever Horatio Hornblower to us, was every bit the gent and class act you'd imagine, on hand to support fiancee Alice Evans, a nominee for her part in Hallmark Channel's The Christmas Card. Sadly, she lost out to Shirley Jones in a film I haven't seen and a role that appeared hard to beat.

(Don't miss Gruffudd this weekend in Michael Apted's Amazing Grace, produced by longtime Movieguide associate Ken Wales, a film already getting great reviews and early Oscar buzz for next year.)

Also in the house were Chris Gardner, depicted by Will Smith in blockbuster Pursuit of Happyness; the great Andy Garcia, winner for anti-communist indy The Lost City; Nativity Story scene-stealer Oscar Isaac; Rocky Balboa's Antonio Tarver; Kirk Cameron; Backstreet Boy and contemporary Christian solo artist Brian Littrell with a moving tribute to the troops; R&B artist Javen's high-energy performance that woke up the crowd as the hours wore on; and a slew of big-time producers I yet again failed to tackle and force feed a copy of my latest script.

Brian Littrell takes the stage

But thanks to my lovely and outgoing starlet wife, Roz, we ran down a few celebs, including one of her favorites, Stephen Baldwin, from whom we have final confirmation that our reality TV fave "The Mole" will never return.

No surprise his ultra-lib brother Alec wasn't present. Probably over at the Obama rally with a whole 'nuther crowd.

Which really sums up the Moviegiude Awards, come to think of it.

With Republicans welcomed and awards given both to faith-based niche films and mainstream blockbusters deemed too populist, patriotic or just plain normal for the Academy, you might call these the anti-Oscars. I like to think of them as the Oscars as they used to be and could be again if the CFTVC continues to get its message out.

Stevie B and 'Days of our Lives' star Nadia Bjorlin

'The Nativity Story' producers with "Joseph" (Oscar Isaac)

Everyone's favorite Pixar voice, retired Boston mailman and all-around great American, John Ratzenberger

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

WWJD... What would J. (Edgar) do?

Spy thriller Breach seems like the most openly religious film in recent memory. It begins with a man praying in church, ends with him asking for prayer, and depicts in between a conservative Christian family man doing all the things a conservative Christian family man does.

Granted, that man here is also a sexual deviant and the most devastatingly traitorous mole for America's enemies ever to escape a well-deserved death sentence.

Stands to reason. Guys who slam Hillary Clinton, decry the country's vulnerability to attack and exhort co-workers to draw nearer to God only see the light of a multiplex film projector when they're total hypocrites and sociopaths.

Still, it's a brilliant film.

Breach gives the play-by-play on the takedown of FBI agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), the high-ranking Cold War veteran busted in pre-9/11 2001 after a career of selling out U.S. interests to the Russians. The extent of the damage done is still classified, though we know he handed our agents over to death on at least one occasion.

By all acounts, Hanssen was an enigma and a complicated guy. Probably more complicated than merely a troubled, well-armed, Catholic version of Jim Bakker. And had his other appetites extended beyond sex tapes of his wife and a fixation on Catherine Zeta-Jones into the same-sex realm, you can bet "sexual deviant" wouldn't have even made the script.

But apart from that and a line about the investigation of Bill Clinton being a witch hunt, Breach is a serious, gripping, and remarkably non-partisan film. Presidents come and go merely as photos on the Bureau's wall. John Ashcroft is depicted in an even light. And whatever Hanssen was or wasn't outside of church, those who took him down are depicted as heroes, the rare feds genuinely looking out for the country's best interests and proud of it.

It's also a masterpiece of Hitchcock-style tension. Expect no shootouts or car chases (high speed, anyway) but an edge-of-your-seater nonetheless.

With his Shirley Temple pout, babyfaced Ryan Phillippe is hard to buy initially as the operative planted in Hanssen's office to out-spy the master spy. But that's the point. Even the paranoid Hanssen didn't see this kid coming. As the mouse one slight step ahead of the cat, and occasionally in its mouth, Phillippe turns out to be the ideal protagonist for this kind of thriller. (Enjoy the tinglies you get from seeing the killer about to enter the office our hero is ransacking for evidence? This one's for you.)

Forget cat... Hanssen was pure snake. And Chris Cooper, with his heavily lidded gaze and darting red tongue embedded in a colorless face -- tip of the hat to cinematographer Tak Fujimoto for the cold-blooded look of the film -- somehow nearly becomes one. He's spectacular, the spookiest spook since Hannibal Lecter, the original.

Oddly, the film hedges its bets regarding Hanssen's ultimate motives, satisfied that "obsessed religious fanatic" is close enough. Yet Cooper's villainous mojo fuels a thinking man's thriller, a subtle character study already fascinating for its true crime grounding. Yes, including the religious angle... Now if only the filmmakers hadn't had such a good time working it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Getting nervous here...

Should I be starting to worry about '24'? Sure it's produced by conservatives, but here we go again last night with the white guys in suits. If Big Oil or Business ends up the ultimate villain here, I'm burning my Jack Bauer underoos.

Hope the pressure isn't getting to Joel Surnow and company.

Actually, more annoying to me is the way the show seems to be buying into the Bush Administration's blind faith that democracy will always trump deeply held religious beliefs. Nothing trumps deeply held religious beliefs, certainly not for Islamo-fascists. Good luck getting even American-born so-called moderate Muslims to come down on the so-called extreme wing of the faith. It just doesn't happen.

And I'm still none too happy about Jack's weenie brother being named Graham, albeit "Graeme." Such a load of crap. We're always villains in the media. Like albinos and cavemen. Sign my petition and join me on the Million Graham March on D.C. later this year.

Still, a great and meaty two hours last night. The presidential intrigue -- by far the best part of last season -- looks to be heating up nicely. And I may be wrong. Surnow and Gordon may just be suckering us in with the dodge Left only to weave Right in the end. Hope so, because I love those underoos.

Monday, February 12, 2007

World's 10 Worst Dictators

What? Fidel doesn't even get an honorable mention in '07 after so many years of dedicated service?? Expect heads to roll at the Cuban Revolutionary Party Ministry of PR. (And what a shame the world doesn't have Saddam Hussein to kick around anymore, eh?)

Also conspicuously MIA is Hugo Chavez. Give him another year to really get the swing of this dictating thing and he'll be playing with the big boys in no time -- and to be fair, Hillary hasn't even been elected yet.

Other than that, a fine list. Apart from the fact guys like Mugabe get the wagging finger for not improving the "health and well-being of his people" instead of for, oh, I don't know, killing them off? Guess we can thank our lucky stars this wasn't the New York Times' compilation or we'd have Dick Cheney heading the list. In case you're wondering, I was also planning on posting the NYT's "2007 Top 10 Heads of State Most Likely to be Framed by the Bush Administration" and the U.N.'s "Least Likely to Pose a Threat" lists, but they're all pretty much the same.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Review: The Last Sin Eater

With The Nativity Story playing to nothing but the chirping of crickets over the Christmas holiday (way to support the home team, church folks), studios have to be confused – and nervous. After Passion of the Christ made a mint, several had just launched Christian divisions for the overlooked faith market. Then that market up and overlooked the sure-bet “prequel” to Passion.

Actually, I know they’re nervous. Just last month, one of Fox Faith’s first outings, the well-made psycho-thriller Thr3e, was ruthlessly yanked from theaters less than two weeks out of the gate for failing to break the bank. It deserved better support from the distributor and viewers.

Luckily, believers still claiming they'll support solid, faith-based entertainment when it’s offered have a second chance to put their money where their mouth is this weekend. The Last Sin Eater, the film version of Francine Rivers’ best seller, opens in many mid to larger markets nationwide Feb. 8.

The story, directed by veteran “Christian movie” helmer Michael Landon Jr., focuses on an isolated Welsh community in 1850’s Appalachia and the personal tragedy at the center of one family, a tragedy that puts 10-year-old Cadi Forbes in search of the “Sin Eater” – a shadowy figure in Welsh social tradition invoked to voluntarily take the sins of the dearly departed upon his own damned soul.

Think you can see where this one’s headed already? You’re right. Sort of.

But like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village – which I suspect inspired the film’s tone as much as anything in the book – there’s more going on than meets the eye in this sleepy cove of farmers, bee keepers and porch-settin’ old folks.

Tragedy runs deep in old school Appalachian bluegrass music, and one appeal of Sin Eater is watching the source material for some of those songs in the action. It’s an uplifting story ultimately, with an effective catharsis mounted by the steady-handed Landon and a well-crafted screenplay.

At this level of the biz, of course, forget big-star name recognition. There’s Henry Thomas (E.T., All the Pretty Horses, Gangs of New York) and Academy Award winner Louise “Nurse Ratched” Fletcher, about as far from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as humanly possible. But Thomas is a glorified cameo, and Fletcher is hardly Oscar-worthy here, laboring through a measured Gaelic brogue more Swedish Chef than Old Country Welsh.

But there the criticisms end.

The cast is strategically comprised of actors you’ll recognize but probably need to figure out why. With one or two exceptions, they’re stellar – particularly the Sin Eater himself, played with dark, Phantom of the Opera-like gravitas by the prolific TV actor Peter Wingfield.

Then there’s Liana Liberato as Cadi. A relative newcomer with a handful of previous small-screen roles under her belt, Liberato breezes through a demanding role that, while never as high-octane as anything on Dakota Fanning's resume, suggests she’s as much a natural.

Liberato plays the pre-pubescent lost soul with conviction, giving the film its greatest strength – the ability to convince us of sin’s reality and the downward tug it can have on any life, no matter how young or otherwise “innocent.”

More than the tug sin can have, it’s the tug it should have that modern viewers most take away from the experience. The power of Christ to heal the broken heart is largely lost today, even on Christians like me, in a culture that denies any need for healing in the first place.

But I can hear you now… “Sin and tragedy? Sign me up!”

Happy to report, Liberato also nails the other side of her character, a Tom and Becky-like relationship with fellow spiritual traveler Fagan (Soren Fulton, Thunderbirds). The spunkiness of their unspoken crush is fun to watch and provides a nice emotional counterpoint to the rest.

Did I mention the “purple mountain majesties” cinematography? Worth the price of admission, particularly if you live somewhere currently under three feet of snow.

One minor quibble.

I haven’t read the book so I can’t say for sure, but from conversations with those who have, it seems they jazzed the ending a wee bit here. And in a way that – for a knee-jerk conservative like me – borders on the sort of Dances With Wolves revisionism to the American experience that never fails to work me into a frenzy.

Granted, I’m a right-wing nut job (and former history major) who often sees that stuff where never intended. Nor did I approach frenzy status. Whatever its politics, this late-inning twist to the story adds nothing to the more powerful, more real, story of Cadi and her family.

Still, a solid film recommended on multiple levels. So get out there and support this film before they stop making them again.

Next month, a review of Fox Faith’s next release, The Ultimate Gift.

To find a theater showing The Last Sin Eater near you, visit

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Review: Batman Begins

[Originally published in The Clovis Independent]

"A guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues,” says Bruce Wayne in a line from “Batman Begins.”

Well, no kidding. And we’ve known it for some time.

Anybody familiar with the four most-recent Batman movies can probably tell you why: boy's family is murdered before his eyes, grown boy uses family fortune to fight crime as a superhero.

What’s been lacking is exactly how the superhero part came about. Until now, fans wondering whence came those rad gadgets, vehicles and superhuman fighting skills have been asked to accept it all with a wink.

In offering good, surprisingly believable, explanations for such questions — and a few I at least never thought to ask — “Batman Begins” rises to the top of the franchise, rivaled only by memorable performances of Jack Nicholson in “Batman” and Jim Carrey in “Batman Forever.”

“Batman Begins” director and co-writer Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) is the true hero of Gotham this time, rescuing even our hero from the depths of overblown, pyrotechnical, homoerotic hell in which George Clooney and “Batman & Robin” director Joel Schumacher abandoned him in 1997.

Nolan, considered more of an intellectual “filmmaker’s filmmaker” than a commercial gun for hire, was an odd but intriguing choice to reinvent the Bat.

"Make it real" was reportedly his mantra throughout the production, Nolan pushing his creative team relentlessly to create a world viewers could relate to.

Shedding the 1940s noir-inspired look of films one through three, the setting here is modern. Abandoning the impossibly colossal backdrops of the first films, real-world Chicago now doubles for Gotham, albeit tweaked, darkened and future-embellished with strategically placed digital facades.

Consider the Batmobile. (Oh, consider the Batmobile.) Far from the polished, purring work of art we’ve known to this point, it’s been reconceived here as a tank-like mountain of metal and raw power better suited for a live-fire monster truck rally in Iraq than impressing chicks the way Robin tried to use it a film or two back.

(A word on the Batmobile: when watching, bear in mind this is no prop car. It’s a fully functioning, 2.5 ton, 15-foot, zero-to-60-in-under-five beast with 400 pounds of torque and the ability — I’m just reading the press release here, folks — to jump 4 to 6 feet for distances up to 60 feet and peel out when it hits the ground. ...Yeah, baby.)

But back to those “issues.”

Nolan’s gift for character evidently demanded he not skip in that department either.

Key to understanding Bruce Wayne’s complicated psyche is his, well, batiness. Nolan makes Bruce’s inner journey — not the freakish villains, not the hardware — the focal point of the story. For the first time, we really get the hero’s fear of his own image and experience a degree of his enemies' terror when he turns it against them.

The film also offers a few deeper observations on justice and the law — even some theological implications maybe vis-a-vis sin and salvation — themes which, while hinted at in the first film, have never really been explored until now.

The cast is a winner too, though the "best bat" debate will no doubt continue among fans of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and now Christian Bale. (Adam West may get a few votes too for nostalgia’s sake. Clooney...? Lucky to escape with a career.)

Christian Bale has always had a certain remote quality that can sink a role as often as make it. It serves him here, and could finally push the maturing Internet pinup boy to the A-list level he probably deserves.

Michael Caine and Liam Neeson steal the show repeatedly, Cain as a dimensionalised, surprisingly moving Alfred the Butler, and Neeson as Bruce Wayne’s ironfisted and equally complicated mentor Ducard.

Gary Oldman — as geeky-but-gritty Commissioner Gordon, The Early Years — a revitalized Rutger Hauer and an under-used Morgan Freeman round out the cast.

The only real casting misstep is Katie Holmes. She does a passable job as Bruce’s delicate love interest, but embodying Gotham’s hard-as-nails district attorney, she’s clearly the weak spot in the lineup.

If there’s a downside to the movie, it’s that Nolan and company have done such a good job of touching all bases in terms of story universe and narrative, that there’s a hurried feel to the pacing. It‘s understandable, and probably unavoidable, but in the end we still don’t quite walk away with the emotional kinship we shared with Peter Parker’s Spider-Man.

Or maybe we’re not supposed to. The fact we've been made to care about the issues of a guy who dresses like a bat is impressive enough.

Batman Begins
4.5 on a scale of 1 to 5

Starring: Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer

Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer

Released by: Warner Bros.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements.
Time: 2 hour 20 minutes
Playing at: UA Clovis Town Center 8, Edwards Stadium 21, Regal Manchester Stadium 16, UA Broadway Faire 10

Film Review: Kingdom of Heaven

"That's me in the spotlight... Losing my religiiiion."

(Originally published in The Clovis Independent at the film's release.)

Sir Ridley Scott should have his shining armor revoked.

There's just no excuse for botching an easy sell like a post-Sept. 11 crusader flick, particularly when you're the man behind populist hits like "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down."

The failure in question is knight's tale "Kingdom of Heaven," which continued Hollywood's 11-week industry slump last week, posting an underwhelming $20 million debut against $150 million in production costs.

It's not just that this epic spectacle on the 1187 fall of Jerusalem is so epically unspectacular. It's how flagrantly and willfully self-inflicted a wound it is.

The film opts to kick Christians in the cod-piece repeatedly while painting a glowing picture of their Muslim enemy, the Seljuk Turks, depicted here not as the expansionist power they were, but as brave, longsuffering victims of U.S. -- er, Western European -- intervention in the Middle East.

Brilliant box office strategy. (Expect solid receipts in Tajikistan and North Yemen, though.)

I'm not here to defend the Crusades in every aspect. But let's be clear how they began.

The elusive kingdom of peace Scott venerates in the film actually existed at one point – it was before the fanatical Seljuks crushed their own Fatimid Egyptian rivals, sacked Jerusalem, invaded the Byzantine Empire and cut off pilgrim routes to the Holy Land previously open to all faiths for centuries.

Yet Scott and screenwriter William Monahan bend over backward to put the "great" in Seljuk leader Saladin the Great while damning the fanaticism of the crusaders, the historically dumped-on Templar Knights in particular.

(Poor Templars, first the Inquisitors, then Sir Walter Scott, then Sir Ridley Scott. ...And Sir Ridley doesn't even give them credit as the Spartans they were, men who invariably stood to the man against overwhelming odds rather than convert to Islam.)

Scott says his goal was to "right the wrongs of history" with this picture. Sort of the cinematic equivalent of affirmative action.

The result is a "Rocky" film more concerned with building up Apollo Creed's self esteem and fight history than the under-dog appeal of a whitey like Rocky.

In "Kingdom," the best our hero can do is mount the battlements and rally the troops with a rousing "everybody deserves to win" speech.

Hooray for our side.

On the plus side, Scott may prove mortal at last, but he's still Ridley Scott. The film looks brilliant early on, promising combat action to come at least as thrilling as "Gladiator."

There are several fine secondary performances, too, particularly the magnetic Marton Csokas and a buccaneering Brendan Gleeson as tag-team Templar baddies.

Yet given the self-imposed restraints, even the final battle becomes an exercise in futility, in terms of both story and emotional resonance.

Worse, all the best characters (even the villains, so watchable because they at least have an actual point of view) die out one by one along the way, leaving us in the end with a tinfoil knight we can't bring ourselves to cheer for versus a Muslim enemy we're not allowed to root against.

When asked what Jerusalem is worth toward the end of the film, Saladin answers, "Nothing... And everything."

Scott hopes it will play as a moment of grand significance. Chalk it up instead for what it is, the rattled confusion of a fallen knight trying to fight without a horse.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Film Review: King Arthur

Ah am not a smart man, Jenny. But I know what luv is.

NOTE: The following is a reprint of my original review in a newspaper that shall remain anonymous in a city that shall remain anonymous in the Central Valley of California.

They say chivalry is dead. According to the movie "King Arthur," it never existed in the first place.

...Along with basic hygiene, all standards of uniform, tactics and discipline in the Roman army, and any redeeming qualities whatsoever in the early Roman church.

Instead, the film takes a dynamite premise -- that Arthur was a real leader who fought the unwashed hordes of Saxon invaders to stave off the Dark Ages for a few more years of light in Britain after the Roman Legions left -- and then misses everything about that premise which should have made for a killer movie.

Arthur's "knights" here are only slightly less unwashed than the bottom-feeder Saxons they fight and only slightly more sympathetic. You know the names - Lancelot, Gawain, Galahad - but don't bother telling which is which. Beyond assigning them distinctive weapons and costumes ala the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the film sure doesn't.

The story follows the "one last job before retirement" action film formula, tracking Roman commander Arthur and his six remaining knights on a final mission to rescue an isolated family from the inbound Saxons.

Good stuff so far. Only, our heroes don't give a rip. They've got better things to do, like sitting around swilling cheap wine, scratching themselves and arguing over the dubious paternity of their kids. Only the prospect of getting out of the army are enough to sober them up for the road.

Which all sounds amusing, but it's a serious problem too. It's hard to root for "heroes" who have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a fight on behalf of defenseless people.

Arthur himself is a good enough soul, full of Christian piety and lofty notions of freedom and the nobility of Rome.

But where such ideals could have been the stuff of inspiring drama -- stalwart men fighting for things larger then themselves, things about to be swept away by murderous barbarian hordes -- Arthur turns out to be the lunk-head dupe his scurvy pals have labeled him all along. (So much for that "High King" image.)

The film in fact repeatedly bashes the Roman Church, laying the guilt for Rome’s pre-Reformation excesses at its feet several centuries before they occurred, even throwing in a few macabre trumped-up charges for good measure.

But at least Arthur and his men can still put on a good show on the battlefield. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is the king of action, and director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day," "Tears of the Sun," "The Replacement Killers") knows how to deliver a brilliantly bloody sequence or two. If only the script gave us more than a sequence or two.

There's a rule for action movies requiring a fight sequence at least every 10 minutes. "King Arthur" delivers maybe three good ones -- strung together by scene after talky scene of Arthur's men trying to prove to Arthur what a dupe he is.

But a King Arthur who can stay in the saddle during a fight is hardly worth a movie anyway. Make "Conan the Barbarian 7" if you want, but save the Man himself for something more significant than a better-than-average action flick.

And now for the hate mail portion of my review.

"King Arthur" also caves to the feminist requirement wherein any woman in an action film must be as tough as the men. This time we're invited to snicker our way through the notion of fair Guinevere (the sexy and waifish Keira Knightley, no less) as a vaguely-ninja Celtic warrior princess.

Come on...

There's a reason women don't play for the NFL. There's a reason even the freakishly buff Williams sisters don't face Roger Federer across the net at Wimbledon. There's a reason for the WNBA. ...Actually there's no reason at all for the WNBA, but you get the point.

If women can't face men with a tennis racquet, how long is Keira Knightley really going to last against a 300-pound Saxon swinging a five-foot piece of iron?

And don't write me about "Queen Boudicca." Sure there were Celtic women fighters, but history says they were toothless hags whose primary tactic was leaping on a man to claw his eyes out while her male counterpart attacked with a real weapon.

Besides, Boudicca lost to Rome, and better for Britain that she did.

One last beef.

In making Rome the bad guy, the filmmakers seem to forget the "Dark Ages" happened in the first place because the light of culture, technology and genuine faith -- Rome -- fell, or at least left Europe for more-defendable Constantinople, where it thrived for another thousand years.

The earliest evidence for a historic Arthur comes from the writings of a 9th century monk. There he's revered as a war leader and defender of this abandoned outpost of failing Christendom in 12 battles -- a mighty dux bellorum flying his standard of Light against a rising tide of Darkness.

Wow. Sounds like a movie in there somewhere, doesn't it?

(Note: for an honest and meaty take on the Roman roots of Arthur, try novelist Jack Whyte's "Camulod Chronicles" series.)