Disregard the folk tales, the ballads and the previous screen versions. Ridley Scott's prequel Robin Hood purports to take us behind the legend, offering a fanciful look at the people, places and events that shaped the outlaw archer before he made a name for himself crossing swords with the Sheriff of Nottingham, repeatedly outwitting the simpering King John, and, of course, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
But really, were that many people clamoring to see what's basically X-Men Origins: Robin Hood? About as useful as the now-forgotten Butch and Sundance: The Early Years (and, while we're at it, Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd), Robin Hood gives us not the maverick Ridley Scott who directed such unique gems as Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise but the self-important Ridley Scott who helmed such lumbering duds as 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Kingdom of Heaven. Scott suddenly seems intent on stripping movies of their mythmaking, preferring to ground them in some semblance of what passes for "realism" on celluloid these days.
You know what I mean: Grainy battle sequences, troubling family issues (as in Iron Man 2, our hero believes his father didn't love him), wholesale use of CGI to paradoxically convey verisimilitude, and the habit of allowing every noble character to speak and act in a PC manner more suitable for the next Democratic National Convention than the medieval ages.
The definitive screen Robin will forever remain Errol Flynn, whose 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood merely ranks among the two or three greatest action-adventure films ever made. Yet even the miscast Kevin Costner (in 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) was more fun to watch than Russell Crowe, who gives a technically sound performance that
nevertheless is too one-note to stir audiences in the tradition of the best movie heroes. The same fate befalls Cate Blanchett, whose humorless Marion is a far cry from Olivia de Havilland's comparably headstrong but more engaging Marion opposite Flynn's Robin.
As for the Merry Men, scripter Brian Helgeland makes a major miscalculation in relegating them to the sidelines at frequent intervals. As seen here, Little John (Kevin Durand), Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) are so thinly fleshed out that they might as well be Huey, Dewey and Louie. Too many royal-court scenes involving the tensions between England and France only serve to drive the focus of the picture away from its central player even more, and whenever Scott and Helgeland do get around to showing him in action, it's usually in a chaotic battle sequence in which it's hard to ascertain who's on the receiving end of the sword and who's wielding it.
The climactic beachfront battle is especially ill-conceived, staged by Scott as if he were recreating the Normandy Invasion opener from Saving Private Ryan. The film wraps up exactly where one hopes it would have begun. That's a bummer, but there is an upside: Robin Hood 2 (provided there is one) is almost guaranteed to be that rare sequel that improves on the original.
LETTERS TO JULIET
Letters to Juliet immediately tips its hand that it's going to be a formulaic romantic comedy straight off the assembly line -- nothing more, nothing less. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a fact-checker at The New Yorker, heads to Italy for a "pre-honeymoon" honeymoon, a chance to spend some quality time with her fiancé before they get married. But said fiancé, a restauranteur named Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), barely pays any attention to Sophie once they reach their destination, always rushing off to meet his suppliers, bolting to learn cooking tips from experts, and daydreaming whenever she has the gumption to tell him about her day. It's apparent from the start that Victor is 100% prime jerk, begging the question, "Why is someone like Sophie engaged to him in the first place?"
The answer: Because giving Sophie a decent boyfriend, someone worth keeping, might cause audience members to feel uncomfortable when she later starts dallying with another man. It's better to saddle her with an obvious loser so viewers don't have to clutter their minds with moral quandaries or other unsavory thoughts.
The rest of the picture is just as bland, with Sophie unearthing a 50-year-old love letter and attempting to unite the woman who wrote it, a Brit named Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), with the Italian gentleman who swept her off her feet all those decades ago. Naturally, Claire has a grandson Sophie's age, and just as naturally, this lad, Charlie (dull-as-dirt Christopher Egan), and Claire bicker incessantly before falling in love. Predictable? Let's just say this is the sort of movie
where if a character is shown climbing up some shrubbery, you just know a branch will break and send him tumbling earthward.
For all its clichés, the film isn't awful, just awfully common. As compensation, there are many lovely shots of the Italian countryside and, for her fans, even lovelier shots of the radiant Seyfried. And as someone who digested many movies starring European superstar (and Redgrave's husband) Franco Nero during my formative years, it was a kick seeing him again for the first time in years. Yet these isolated perks aren't nearly enough to earn Letters to Juliet a stamp of
From Frampton to 50 Cent, the silver screen has been littered with successful musicians who wrongly believe they have what it takes to make it as an acclaimed actor. Queen Latifah, of course, has long proven herself to be one of the keepers, meaning that Just Wright needed to function as the coming-out party for her co-star (and fellow rapper) Common. But his performance turns out to be merely OK, easily allowing Latifah to retain her royal standing.
On par with the week's other imagination-free rom-com, Letters to Juliet, this one borrows from the Cinderella and Ugly Ducking playbooks to relate the tale of Leslie Wright (the Queen herself), a physical therapist who's used to seeing her best friend Morgan (Paula Patton) nab all the men while she's relegated to the status of the cool lady that guys like to hang out with but not date.
This pattern continues when both women meet New Jersey Nets star Scott McKnight (Common), who connects with Leslie but ends up dating the gold-digging Morgan, the latter dreaming of nothing but becoming an NBA trophy wife. But after Scott suffers a potentially career-ending injury to his knee, Leslie steps up with the determination to get the hoops star back on his feet before the playoffs.
This generic trifle, with a script that was obviously constructed and spit out by a computer -- hold on, my mistake; the press notes credit it to one Michael Elliot -- at least benefits from a typically ingratiating performance by Latifah. But a love story needs two sides to work -- and a love triangle, three -- and Common, until now only cast in small roles (he was last seen as a corrupt cop in Date Night), is simply unable to generate any chemistry with his co-stars: Awkward enough in the scenes in which he's not wooing the ladies, he's even more ill-at-ease opposite either Latifah or Patton. Certainly, Common possesses the demeanor and good looks of a leading man, but until he brushes up those acting chops, he won't ever be much more than just average.
Having recently returned from an extended (thanks to that volcano) vacation in London, I'm still smitten with all the lovely sights and sounds introduced to me by my grad-school-attending girlfriend. It only took a few minutes of screening Harry Brown, though, to remember that every city has its slimy underbelly, and the U.K. capital is obviously no exception.
Indeed, a pervasive sense of corrosion and corruption is one of the defining elements of this tough-minded movie, the other being the typically compelling performance by Michael Caine. The treasured thespian stars as the title character, a septuagenarian living in a particularly squalid London slum. Losing his bedridden wife soon after the movie opens, Harry is content to mind his own business and steer clear of the young hoodlums terrorizing the neighborhood. But after his best friend (David Bradley) runs afoul of these thugs, Harry, who long ago had suppressed memories of his military days in return for blessed matrimony, discovers that, even at his advanced age, he can still recall a thing or two about handling weapons.
As the steely vet stares down these punks with gun in hand, we half expect him to growl, "Do you feel lucky?" but the character is less Dirty Harry and more Paul Kersey, the role played by Charles Bronson in the 1974 hit Death Wish. But whereas Death Wish kept its vigilante theme uncluttered, this new picture gets bogged down with distracting police business (most involving Emily Mortimer's soulful detective) and culminates with a ridiculous sequence involving a handful of copout devices (including a double-cross that's laughable rather than shocking).
While director Daniel Barber gives the film a suitably grungy look, Gary Young's ragged screenplay leaves something to be desired. But Caine is able, channeling righteous indignation straight out of the Old Testament.