An ode to the oral tradition of the Middle East, "The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam" is efficiently told by first-time writer-director Kayvan Mashayekh and melds the contemporary world with the historic. The family-friendly epic weaves the touching story of a young boy living with his Iranian immigrant family in Houston and the tale of the 11th century mathematician, astronomer and poet, Omar Khayyam.
The boy, Kamran (Adam Echahly), sits patiently by the bedside of his dying older brother Nader (Puya Behinaein) who carefully relates the adventures of Khayyam as their grandfather and his ancestors had done before him. Omar (Bruno Lastra) is a brilliant young man involved in a "Jules and Jim"-like triangle with the beautiful slave girl Darya (Marie Espinosa) and the fiercely devout Hassan Sabbeh (Christopher Simpson), who goes on to create the sect of the Assassins. Called to work in the court of the Sultan Malikshah (Moritz Bliebtreu), Omar becomes one of the great minds of his age as he struggles to remain above the political and religious upheaval. Inspired by the tale, Kamran is propelled on a quest to discover more about the author of the Rubiayat.
Shot primarily in Uzbekistan, the film boasts strong production values and an international cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave and Diane Baker. There is nothing extraordinary about the filmmaking, but Mashayekh's old-fashioned commitment to his and co-writer Belle Avery's story creates an overall satisfying experience.
"The Keeper," The Legend of Omar Khayyam," unrated. Some sensuality and bloodless violence. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-8669.
A bloodbath that twists expectations Alexandre Aja's "High Tension" is an efficiently made French thriller — extensively dubbed for accessibility and aimed at audiences with a taste for films of extreme violence. The MPAA has given a trimmed version of this grisly bloodbath an R rating, but it still raises the question: When it comes to the depiction of graphic grisliness and gore, for what is the MPAA saving the NC-17? For much of its duration the film is a case of intense fare done with an undeniable effectiveness and ingenuity — until it lurches into a deplorable surprise twist. (What that is will not be revealed here.)
The film follows a savage, burly, middle-aged madman (Philippe Nahon, of Gaspar Noe's "I Stand Alone") who slaughters a husband and wife and small child in their rural home in the south of France and kidnaps their teenage daughter Alex (Maïwenn). Marie (Cécile de France), a visiting friend and classmate, bravely attempts to rescue Alex from the killer's clutches. But things are not what they seem. The killer turns out to be a stereotype that is no less offensive because it is the stalest of cliches.
"High Tension," (1 hour, 25 minutes) Rated R, for graphic bloody killings, terror, sexual content and language. In general release.
Bowling is back with a big heart In his engaging documentary "A League of Ordinary Gentlemen" Christopher Browne makes bowling exciting and its stars involving as he follows the 2003 Professional Bowlers Assn. nationwide tour, culminating in a tense world championship showdown in Detroit. By 1997, when ABC stopped televising the PBA competitions, professional bowling was nearly extinct and bowling itself long past its peak popularity as a family pastime. However, in 2000, three former Microsoft executives purchased the PBA for $5 million, and hired Chief Executive Officer Steve Miller, a smart, blunt ex-football player and former Nike global marketing head to revive the PBA by making it more colorful and media friendly.
Miller is a tough guy with a clutch of right ideas, which even the film's four professional bowling subjects acknowledge, albeit grudgingly. The flamboyant style of pugnacious, wiry Pete Weber is exactly to Miller's taste, but the others are not so neat a fit. Walter Ray Williams Jr. is a tall, imposing man with a low-key style and manner; Chris Barnes is a talented, clean-cut young man given to mood swings; and Wayne Webb, like Weber and Williams, is a middle-age veteran — but unlike them he has a past strewn with broken marriages and bankruptcies; this tour will make or break his career as a professional bowler. Circumstances have forced Webb to reflect more deeply upon his life than the others, and he becomes the heart of this informativeand endearing film.
"A League of Ordinary Gentlemen," Unrated. Suitable family fare but a few blunt words. 1 hour, 38 minutes. At Regent Showcase, 614 N. La Brea Ave., (323) 934-2944.
Ex-con must pick up life's leftovers Filmmaker Ray McKinnon, an Academy Award winner for best live action short in 2002, makes a stirring feature directing debut with the Southern gothic drama "Chrystal." Billy Bob Thornton plays Joe, a former pot farmer, returning home after 20 years in prison, the consequence of a car accident during police pursuit on drug charges that left his young son dead and his wife, Chrystal, (Lisa Blount) maimed — physically and emotionally.
Thornton and Blount are excellent, wearing frozen masks of hurt as they do a slow dance of redemption. McKinnon adds some comic sadism playing a local drug lord named Snake, and Stephen Trask's original music and the roots-oriented song score compliment the rusted out surroundings of the Ozark mountain town where the film takes place. "Chrystal" unravels a bit toward the end as it becomes more fable-like, but the performances make it worthwhile.
"Chrystal," R for sexuality, nudity, drug content, violence and language. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.
One man's inner revolution Karen Shakhnazarov's handsome "The Rider Named Death" is not the film one might have expected from an adaptation of a 1909 novel by Boris Savinkov (1879-1925), who became a leader of the Combat Organization, the terrorist faction of Russia's Socialist-Revolutionary Party, whose bombings and assassinations of high government officials in the early 20th century paved the way for the Russian Revolution.
Shakhnazarov eschews suspense, passion and intrigue for a highly contemplative portrait of a reflective, coldly detached man, Georges (Andrey Panin), clearly Savinkov's alter ego, who in the course of the film acknowledges that though he may kill for an idea or a principle, his fundamental motive is that he simply wants to. He has come to see civilization as a sham and to regard people as savages driven by a desire for revenge. This means that "The Rider Named Death" is so low-key as to skirt tedium but does subtly manage to accrue a certain cumulative effect.
"The Rider Named Death" takes place mostly on a large set re-creating a section of Moscow at the turn of the last century, which means much of the action is confined to the same settings, creating an unfortunate repetitiveness. The force of the film is not as profound as Shakhnazarov clearly intended, and "The Rider Named Death" is easier to respect than enjoy.
"The Rider Named Death," unrated. Some violence, adult scenes. 1 hour, 46 minutes. At the New Beverly Cinema, 7165 W. Beverly Blvd.