Kingdom of Heaven (15)<br/>Palindromes (15)<br/>Machuca (15)<br/>Twin Sisters (12A)<br/>Brothers (15)<br/>Andrew and Jeremy Get Married (15)<br/>Darwin's Nightmare (nc)<br/>Rebel Without a Cause (nc)

A real crusader needs the heart of a lion - not the claws of a kitten
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The Independent Culture

After Ridley Scott's Gladiator proved that there was money to be made from swords'n'sandals, producers all over Hollywood leafed through every history and mythology book in the library, only to see Troy, Arthur and Alexander get the thumbs down. Now it's Scott's turn again in Kingdom of Heaven (15), a knight's tale set at the end of the 12th century. It stars Orlando Bloom as a lowly blacksmith who is told that he's the illegitimate son of a crusader, Liam Neeson, and rides off to Jerusalem to join the family firm.

After Ridley Scott's Gladiator proved that there was money to be made from swords'n'sandals, producers all over Hollywood leafed through every history and mythology book in the library, only to see Troy, Arthur and Alexander get the thumbs down. Now it's Scott's turn again in Kingdom of Heaven (15), a knight's tale set at the end of the 12th century. It stars Orlando Bloom as a lowly blacksmith who is told that he's the illegitimate son of a crusader, Liam Neeson, and rides off to Jerusalem to join the family firm.

Visually, Scott shows his competitors how it's done: from the costumes to the scale and heftiness of the holy city's walls to the sheer number of people corralled into the crowd scenes, it all looks as real as can be. In almost every other respect, though, Kingdom of Heaven is a disappointment. The biggest chink in its armour is that it doesn't have much of a story - and certainly not one that involves Bloom's character. Perhaps because he was wary of portraying Muslims as villains, Scott keeps them in the wings for most of the film, and focuses instead on scenes of Christians bickering among themselves. The leprous king of Jerusalem (Edward Norton, hidden behind a silver mask) and his right-hand man, Jeremy Irons, are doves, but the men around them are squawking for war. Meanwhile, several miles away, the supposed hero is ensconced on the land he's inherited, where he's gainfully employed in farm management.

Nobody who isn't in Bloom's pubescent fan club will take to him. Not only is he a bland goody two-stockings, he's someone who grew up shoeing horses in a mountain village, and yet he's somehow a champion swordsman, a military tactician and a rousing leader who's au fait with all the latest developments in irrigation technology. There's a slight chance we could have gone along with all that if Russell Crowe or even Colin Farrell were beneath the chainmail, but Bloom always looks like he's a student backpacking around the East on his gap year.

Master misanthrope Todd Solondz follows up Happiness and Storytelling with Palindromes (15), the odyssey of a 12-year-old girl who runs away from home, hoping to get pregnant. The film isn't played as a tub-thumping drama, though, but as a twisted fairy tale. It's even divided into chapters, and in each one the heroine is played by a different actor, including a boy, an obese black woman, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. There's a smattering of abyss-black comedy that should appeal to Chris Morris fans, but Solondz's only satirical thrust is that people who seem to be stupid and cruel are, in fact, stupid and cruel. Any film that deals with rape, suicide, disability, fanaticism, paedophilia and abortion needs to be supported by sturdier ideas than that.

Machuca (15) is an impressive, wide-ranging drama about the upheavals in Chile in 1973, as seen through the eyes of two young schoolmates in Santiago. One is a middle-class swot, the other a charity case who lives in a shanty town. They see themselves as a real-life Lone Ranger and Tonto until the military coup forces them to ask whether such a friendship can exist outside their beloved comic books.

Twin Sisters (12A) takes us through the parallel lives of Anna and Lotte, German twins who are separated when their parents die in 1925. Anna, who grows up as a farmhand in Germany, marries an SS officer, while Lotte, who has a pampered upbringing in the Netherlands, falls for a Jewish musician. Subtle it isn't. The sort of middlebrow, sub-Merchant Ivory prestige film that wins awards for its tailoring and its orchestral score, Twin Sisters is too neat and schematic to challenge anyone, and might have been better as a TV mini-series.

Two more siblings are compared and contrasted in Brothers (15). One is an army officer with a dimpled wife (Connie Nielson) and two pretty daughters. The other is a hard-drinking troublemaker who's just out of prison. When the elder brother is posted to Afghanistan, the younger one keeps an eye on his family, but we're not sure whether he's motivated by something more than fraternal duty. It's a nerve-racking hostage thriller and a tender domestic drama in one powerful Danish package.

Andrew and Jeremy Get Married (15) introduces us to two men who signed the Partnership Register in London last year. Andrew - a former junkie and retired bus driver - and Jeremy - a literary chum of Hanif Kureishi's - have fascinating anecdotes to tell, but Don Boyd's rambling, lo-fi film is still little more than a home video. Darwin's Nightmare (nc) is a slow-burning documentary about the ecological, economic and medical disaster area that is Lake Victoria, a place where fishing, prostitution and arms smuggling flourish with a synergy that would gladden the heart of any corporate CEO.

The NFT is re-releasing Nicholas Ray's classic melodrama Rebel Without a Cause (nc) to mark its 50th anniversary. It's an untarnished monument to James Dean's pouting beauty and his furious Method acting - although it's worth noting that his character in Rebel, one of cinema's anti-establishment icons, wants nothing more than to be brought up in a traditional, patriarchal family.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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