Robin Hood


Robin Hood

Never tell Russell Crowe that his rugby team sucks.

(Universal)  Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, Mark Strong, Danny Huston, William Hurt, Matthew Macfayden, Oscar Isaac, Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle, Eileen Atkins, Lea Seydoux, Mark Addy, Douglas Hodge, Simon McBurney. Directed by Ridley Scott

The legend of Robin Hood is central to English mythology. The character has made regular appearances on the silver screen and television, from the carefree bandit of Errol Flynn to the Kevin Costner version, with the heavy-on-the-mystical BBC series “Robin of Sherwood” somewhere in between. So how does this Robin rate?

Robin Longstride (Crowe) is an archer finishing ten years of war in the Holy Land alongside Richard the Lion Heart (Huston), the English King beloved by his people. I use the term “alongside” loosely; Richard is King and Robin is a lowly foot soldier. In most circumstances, the King would never interact with a commoner such as Robin.

However, times being what they are for the King, he can’t resist sacking one last castle, this one in the land of England’s ancient enemy, France. The English coffers are nearly bare after having paid for ten years of constant war. One evening, Robin gets into a fight with fellow soldier John Little (Durand) which is witnessed by the King and the King’s good friend Sir Robert Loxley (Hodge). The King is impressed with the honesty and bravery of both men, but Robin can’t resist speaking his mind when the King asks him to. For his honest criticism, Robin, John and Robin’s good friends Will Scarlet (Grimes) and Alan A’Dayle (Doyle) are put in the stockade for future branding and whipping.

Unfortunately during the siege the King takes an arrow through the throat and expires, throwing the ranks of the English into chaos. Robin, recognizing the situation, has a friend free the four of them from the stocks and they hie themselves hence for the coast to find passage to England before Richard’s army gets there and take all the boats for themselves.

In the meantime, the King of France (an actor who, amazingly, has gone uncredited for the role as far as I can see) is scheming with the vicious Godfrey (Strong) to assassinate the King on his way back to the coast. Of course, this is moot at this point but when Godfrey springs his ambush it is Sir Robert that is caught, innocently returning the King’s crown to England. Robin and his merry men come upon the ambush and force the assassins to flee, but not before Robin sends an arrow whistling Godfrey’s way, scarring him on the cheek. Robin comforts the dying Loxley by promising to return his sword to his father, a sword he had taken without asking. The four manage to make it to the coast and brazen their way aboard the King’s flagship by pretending to be Knights (by stealing the armor and cloaks of the dead men at the ambush) and flashing the crown. While sailing across the channel, Robin notices an inscription on the sword: Rise and Rise Again Until Lambs Become Lions.

Meanwhile back in England, Prince John (Isaac) is cavorting with Isabella (Seydoux), niece of King Phillip, irritating his mother Ellen of Aquitaine (Atkins) no end, particularly since he is married to someone else. For most of the women in the audience this was a clear sign that John is an absolute jerk, although most royals of the time dallied pretty regularly – just another reason why, as Mel Brooks once said, it’s good to be the King. However, the party really starts when Robin – now masquerading as Robert Loxley – brings the sad news of the King’s demise, which elevates John onto the throne.

Times are hard in England and about to become harder. Taxes have just about bled the populace dry, even relatively wealthy former Knights like Walter Loxley (van Sydow) who, now well into his 80s, is blind and tended to by his son’s wife Marian (Blanchett). She is on the receiving end of the tender affections of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Macfayden) and is concerned that with all the good men of Nottingham away at war, too old, too young or broken, that the town will not survive the winter. With the new Friar Tuck (Addy) taking over the local church from the ambitious Father Tancred (McBurney) who is departing for York with all the seed grain for the town in his possession, which will make the coming harvest difficult with nothing to plant. Things look bad for Nottingham and they get worse when Robin arrives with the news of Robert’s death. However, Walter seems to recognize the name of Robin and in exchange for the sword he had just brought back, agrees to tell Robin about his past.

In order to keep the crown from seizing their property (because in England at the time only sons could inherit and with Walter’s dead, Marian would lose the farm as it were), Walter asks Robin to masquerade as his son and Marian’s husband in order to maintain the illusion that there was proper succession for the property. Robin agrees, having taken a shine to Marian (who of course doesn’t care much for Robin) and things get idyllic for a little while.

However, John has made the critical mistake of trusting Godfrey with the chancellorship of England, after sending the current chancellor William Marshall (Hurt) back home. Godfrey, who aims to start a civil war by using extreme brutality in the North, takes an army to cause mischief. He does this by importing a small army of Phillip’s men. Once England is in chaos, Phillip will invade and take the divided country with a minimum of fuss. England needs a leader more than ever – and a legend will be born.

This is the most unusual Robin Hood you’re ever likely to see. There is no stealing from the rich to give to the poor and very little of Sherwood Forest. There is no swashbuckling or derring-do; Russell Crowe is not the first name I’d call for actors who do that kind of thing. Crowe is more of a brooder and his Robin of the Hood does a whole lot of that; at least when he’s not perforating, slicing or dicing the French.

However, Blanchett makes a marvelous Marian, full of spunk and steel. She essentially runs the Loxley estate and takes no crap from anyone; if anyone tries to touch her, she’ll emasculate them as she tells Robin (or worse, as one of Godfrey’s men finds out later). She is elegant when she needs to be, rough and tumble when she has to be and feminine throughout.

Von Sydow is terrific in his role as the aging Knight, bringing his career full circle in some respects – you may be reminded that he once played a knight of the crusades who plays chess against death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and while the roles are nothing alike, I was reminded of it somewhat perversely. Regardless, von Sydow is nearing the end of his own career and yet remains as much a force as he has always been.

Strong, for my money, is the best villain working in the business today (although Danny Huston may give him a run for his money). Bald and scarred, he just looks terrifying without saying a word. Ambitious and amoral, his Godfrey would sell his mother if it would get him ahead – not that there’s much of a market for that sort of thing.

There are some very good action sequences, particularly the climactic battle between the French and the English. The movie is well over two hours long but still felt like it was missing some pieces; I got the distinct impression that there were some scenes that might have better explained things in the movie that were left on the cutting room floor, although if there are they will certainly wind up on the “Director’s Cut” edition that is sure to follow on the home video front.

This is more of an origin story than any Robin Hood to date, and more or less sets the tone of the times. There is no Errol Flynn leaping out of a tree, giving a jaunty salute and exclaiming “Welcome to Sherwood” with a twinkle in his eyes. This is a cross between Braveheart and Gladiator with a healthy dose of Kingdom of Heaven; the last two of which, not un-coincidentally, were directed by Scott as well. Like most films of the 21st century, this version of the character wallows in the dark side, brooding like the Renaissance Faire edition of Bruce Wayne. That’s okay by me, even if it’s becoming a little cliché. Still, I can’t fault a filmmaker for trying a new take on a venerable character as long as the essence of who that character is remains intact and I think Ridley Scott succeeds in that regard. This may not be your father’s Robin, or even your grandfather’s but it is Robin Hood nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: A different take on the Robin Hood legend with a bit of political intrigue. Blanchett is magnificent as Marian, and von Sydow is delightful in a supporting role. Mark Strong may be the best villain in the movies at the moment.

REASONS TO STAY: You get the feeling a good deal of exposition hit the cutting room floor. Crowe broods too much at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, particularly of the battlefield variety, as well as some suggestion of sexuality and rape; there’s enough here that I’d think twice about bringing the impressionable sorts but most mature teens should be able to handle it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tune whistled by Godfrey as a pass code to the French soldiers is “Frere Jacques.”  

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly the climactic battle should be seen on the big screen, but much of the movie foregoes the epic scope.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Cinema365 will be on temporary hiatus while I am vacationing in China. We will resume our daily movie reviews, previews and features starting on Friday, June 4th with a review of Soul Men.

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The Warlords (Tau Ming Chong)


The Warlords

A blood oath is taken.

(Magnet) Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Jinglei Xu, Bao-ming Gu, Xiaodong Guo, Zhaoqi Shi, Dong Dong Wang, Kuirong Wang, Zongwang Wei, Bo Zhou. Directed by Peter Chan

Blood brotherhood is not a bond to be taken lightly. It is a vow that infers a relationship that is as close – if not closer – than blood. It is a bond that lasts until death.

In the 1860s China was in the throes of its own civil war. The Taipeng Rebellion had torn the country in two and the weak, ineffectual Ching Dynasty was hampered by political bickering and in-fighting from gathering a large, effective Imperial Army. When General Pang Quingyun (Li) leads his army into battle against the Rebels, the supporting army led by General Ho withdraws about 30 miles away and refuses to help. Pang’s army is slaughtered and he is the only survivor, escaping by playing dead which is a very shameful act in the culture of the Chinese military.

Dazed and self-described as dead inside, Pang wanders aimlessly with fellow refugees until he collapses to the ground from his injuries. He is taken pity upon by a beautiful woman named Lian (Xu), a young woman who had been sold into a brothel but had run away to avoid it. She nurses him back to health and a bond forms between them, leading to a sexual relationship. He wakes up one morning and she’s gone.

He waits for her for some time but when she doesn’t come back, he goes searching for her. He comes upon a village which, like most villages of the time is beset by extreme poverty and starvation. He sells his sword and most of his things and goes to find some sustenance. As he does, a group of bandits rides in led by the charismatic Wen-Xiang (Kaneshiro). The bandit announces that whoever should fight for them would be well-fed and proceeds to hand out food, most of which had been stolen. Wen-Xiang notices Pang’s fine boots and picks a fight. When Pang acquits himself well, Wen-Xiang invites him to join them.

Pang is taken to an even more poverty-stricken village where the bandits are holed up. They are greeted as conquering heroes by the villagers. Wen-Xiang’s brother Er-Hu (Lau) also returns at the same time. Er-Hu is the nominal leader of the bandit tribe. He takes a liking to Pang, but explains he really can’t have him stay in the village because of his military background. He agrees to let him stay the night but Pang must go in the morning.

During the evening, Pang discovers that not only is Lian in the village, she is also Er-Hu’s wife. Before he can even speak to her, the village is attacked by a group of the Ho army who steal back all of the village’s food. During the skirmish, an old woman is killed. Because the Ho army has guns (the bandits are armed only with swords, bows and arrows and farming implements), Er-Hu can do nothing.

Pang proposes that the bandits join the Ching army where at least they will be armed and fed. In this way, they can protect the village better. Er-Hu is reluctant but is at last persuaded by Wen-Xiang. The two of them, with Pang, take a blood oath to become blood brothers. Their lives will become entwined from then on, each vowing that none will harm the other on pain of death.

The three bandit warlords are taken before three lords of the Ching court, including the smooth but politically savvy Lord Jiang (Kuirong) who agrees to take the new army in, dubbing them the “Shan” brigade. Pang is made their general and they are ordered to take Chun City. A supporting army of 1,500 troops is sent to augment the 800 bandits. The general of the supporting army confides to Pang that his army is there for show only and that he won’t risk having his army annihilated by the Rebel Army and leading his Lord defenseless. Pang realizes his band of bandit brothers is on their own and through bravery and sheer guts, beats the vastly superior rebel army.

The Shan brigade is given more and more difficult tasks and as they prove successful, the scheming courtiers give it less and less support. A rift is also growing within the three Warlord brothers on how to fight, with Er-Hu wishing to fight more honorably, while Pang and Wen-Xiang leaning towards expedience and a big picture. Pang’s original goal of justice for the poor seems to be falling by the wayside, at great cost to his soul. How will these blood brothers triumph through overwhelming odds?

Very few can do big epic movies these days the way the Chinese can. It takes a great deal of organization and lots of money; less in China than is needed here (which is why these types of movies aren’t made here often). Director Chan, who is better known for romance movies, wanted to explore the love between brothers and the bond between men. It’s new territory for him and he for the most part is successful.

I also have to say a few words about Jet Li’s performance. He shows more emotional depth than he has ever shown in any movie previously and it’s a bravura, reputation-making role. He is called upon less to do the wonderful martial arts moves he is known for (although he does have a few left in him) and he is looking much older in this role than he ever has (although I think that’s intentional). Still, he shows the shame at some of the deeds he’s done, the anger and frustration at the political gamesmanship that is costing tens of millions of lives, and the love he feels for Lian. It’s definitely the kind of thing that can change people’s perception of him.

In fact, this is well-acted across the board. The relationships, particularly those among Pang, Er-Hu and Wen-Xiang, are totally believable and if that central relationship doesn’t work onscreen, the movie falls apart.

Needless to say the relationship works. While the pacing of the movie drags somewhat in the middle third, when the pacing picks up the movie is at its best. The grander, epic scenes work extremely well and the scenes of the degradation and poverty of the village are extremely effective, but it is the main relationship between the three men that you will leave this movie remembering.

REASONS TO GO: Li delivers his most powerful performance yet. There is an epic scope to this that has some resonance.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a bit in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of bloody violence and one scene of sexuality. Those who are sensitive to battlefield bloodshed or advised to steer clear.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on an actual unsolved murder of a government official named Ma Xinyi, but his name was changed so as not to upset his descendents, who believe their ancestor was actually a good man.

HOME OR THEATER: This is most definitely an epic and some of the scenes need a big screen to convey their power.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Max Payne

Angels and Demons


Angels & Demons

"What's the plot doing way over there?"

(Paramount) Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgaard, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Thure Lindhardt, David Pasquesi, Victor Alfieri, Elya Basin, Rance Howard . Directed by Ron Howard.

Any institution that is around long enough is bound to acquire opponents, if not enemies. For the Roman Catholic Church, the oldest institution on the planet, those opponents are many. But, as they say, it only takes one.

The Church is mourning the sudden and unexpected death of the pope, considered a progressive and fair-minded pontiff, beloved by his flock. As the College of Cardinals gathers to elect a new leader for their church, two very disturbing events occur. The first is the theft of a small but significant amount of anti-matter, a substance manufactured in an experiment partially funded by the Church. The second is the kidnapping of four respected cardinals, all of them considered favorites for the papal election, or as they are known more commonly in the Vatican as the preferati.

The powers of the pope are invested in Patrick McKenna (McGregor), the assistant to the previous pope (or Camerlengo as the position is titled), and he is given further reason for misgiving when he receives a cryptic but menacing note, as well as a live cam feed that indicates that the missing anti-matter is somewhere in the Vatican.

To help in the investigation, Inspector Olivetti (Favino) of the Vatican Police Force recruits an unlikely ally – Robert Langdon (Hanks), the Harvard professor of symbology whose investigations in The DaVinci Code brought down the Opus Dei group and caused much embarrassment for the Church. He arrives in the Vatican along with scientist Vittoria Vetra (Zurer) who was working on the anti-matter project and whose father was gruesomely murdered during the theft. She reports that the battery-charged electronic cannister holding the anti-matter would eventually fail when the battery died; when it did, a sizable chunk of Rome would be vaporized.

Langdon determines that the note was written by the Illuminati, an ancient society of scientifically-inclined Catholics who underwent extreme persecution in the days of Galileo. Deciphering the note, he figures out that the plan is to execute the four cardinals, once every hour in four locations sacred to the Illuminati (each having to do with one of the four elements). Langdon must follow a variety of clues to discover where each cardinal is going to meet a grisly end and arrive there before said cardinals get an early opportunity to see God live and in Person.

He is opposed by Commander Richter (Skarsgaard), the head of the Swiss Guard who are kind of the secret service of the Vatican. To let you know how he feels about the situation, he growls in a voice dripping with disdain “What a relief, the symbologist is here” when Langdon arrives at the Vatican. Also conservative Cardinal Strauss (Mueller-Stahl) is suspicious of the openly non-religious Langdon.

This is a very slick-looking thriller that utilizes its Roman locations effectively (although the Vatican locations were all recreated on a set – as you might imagine, the Church refused to allow the filmmakers permission to film there). Howard is one of the best directors working today, and his skills are one of the movie’s outstanding features. The pacing is brisk and doesn’t give you time to think about all the implausibility in the script.

The script is one of the major downfalls of the film. Writers Akiva Goldsmith and David Koepp – both of whom have delivered some really well-written scripts in the past – aren’t entirely to blame for this. Dan Brown, author of the novel, is a talented writer of page turners, but sacrifices a lot of common sense for the sake of a good plot turn. Are you telling me that the combined minds of the Swiss Guard and the Vatican Police Force, who guard some of the most important people and treasures in the world, were unable to turn the note upside down to figure out that it was sent by the Illuminati?

The script is also rather talky. Hanks spends a lot of time cogitating and then delivering a pronouncement like an explanation point “Why didn’t I think of it before? The Church of San Whoever, patron saint of Earth Wind and Fire!” It’s not that Hanks does a bad job – he’s quite believable inasmuch as he can be as an academic who isn’t fazed by being shot at and have any number of murder attempts made on him. In some ways he’s more of an action hero than scholar, but Hanks makes sure the scholarly side is well-represented.

The international cast (with actors from Israel, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Italy, China, Russia, Denmark, Austria and elsewhere) are solid. McGregor just about steals the movie as the pious Camerlengo. I like him as an actor more and more in every role I see him as. Zurer is likewise solid in a role that literally has no reason to be there – she’s eye candy, nothing more but she at least makes a credible attempt at being at least physicist-like. Skarsgaard and Mueller-Stahl, veteran character actors both, lend gravitas to their roles.

I’ve really spent a lot of time dwelling on the movie’s faults, and that’s a bit unfair. Granted, they are glaring imperfections, but quite frankly this is a solid summer thriller with plenty of mindless entertainment. The trouble is it kind of bills itself as a smart thriller which is a bit of a disservice. This is the kind of movie that if you think too much about it you’re not going to like it as much. Instead, just sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s a pretty good one.

WHY RENT THIS: A nonstop thrill ride that doesn’t pause long enough for you to catch your breath. McGregor is becoming a much more watchable actor than he was in the Star Wars prequels. Breathtaking sets, special effects (particularly one sequence in St. Peter’s Square) and use of Roman locations make this extremely watchable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is full of holes and lapses in logic that detract from the action. While it bills itself as an intellectual thriller, it works better as mindless entertainment. Some egregious factual errors, particularly as to historical context and Catholic  

FAMILY VALUES: Some rather spectacular and gruesome murders occur, some of which may be too intense for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: While filming in Rome, the crew and equipment were blocking the passage of a bridal party on the way to a church for their wedding. Upon hearing about the situation, Tom Hanks personally escorted the party through the filming area and prevailed upon crew to move equipment so that the party might pass. The grateful family of the bride invited Hanks and director Howard to stay for the reception but their busy filming schedule prevented it.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a feature on CERN, home of the large hadron collider and the world’s largest particle physics factory. The crew were permitted to film on the premesis (although not in sensitive areas) and the achievements of CERN are discussed in some detail.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Soloist