Robin Hood

Ridley Scott’s difficult epic finally reaches movie theaters after several failed attempts at reincarnating the infamous legend of Robin Hood.  The laborious project began as an investigation thriller under the title of “Nottingham,” and took the perspective of the Sheriff of Nottingham tracking the hits of the mysterious Robin Hood and his merry men.  The script was later altered to cast Russell Crowe as both Robin Hood and as the sheriff in disguise.  Finally, the movie delivered to audiences strips away a lot of its artistry and does much the same as ‘Iron Man 2:’ it exists purely and simply to ready a different, seemingly more exciting movie altogether, with little ability to stand on its own legs.

This take on the famed archer features Russell Crowe doing his very best Russell Crowe-in-Gladiator impression as a soldier named Robin Longstride, sent to deliver the sword of a fallen comrade to the man’s father in Nottingham.  Upon meeting Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), the elderly sightless fighter adopts Robin as his replacement son and forces an appearance-marriage on Robin and his daughter-in-law, Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett).  Things get sticky when the newly appointed King John (Oscar Issac) decides to lay siege to all lands that refuse an unlawful tax.  Robin and William Marshal (William Hurt), the former ruler’s adviser, take it upon themselves to dupe the king into a civil war against his most trusted military adviser (Mark Strong) that ultimately leads up to a battle of macho butchery.  Now I have to ask: does this sound like Robin Hood to you in the slightest?

No, it does not.  This prequel of sorts spends 99 percent of its running time attempting to establish a franchise, and one that I don’t think audiences are going to buy into.  Granted, at surface value, the idea of reteaming Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe for a Gladiator-esque epic sounds like a grand idea.  Their collaboration on “Robin Hood,” however, takes a devastating blow.  Scott seems intent on mixing fact with fiction, setting Robin in the middle of the Crusades as a soldier put to death for standing against his king, and having him escape only to deliver a sword and take part in a final throwdown of steel.  A lot of this feels like “Gladiator,” and the problem is that it doesn’t feel like “Robin Hood.”  This film is simply a generic Crusades epic that may only be marginally better than Scott’s own “Kingdom of Heaven.”  I read a miniature review stating that Crowe still thinks he’s on the set of Gladiator, and Scott still thinks he’s directing Kingdom of Heaven–and I honestly couldn’t agree more.  I’m all for Ridley and the studio wanting to turn Robin Hood into a trilogy or series or whatever they want, but they forgot to make it exciting and fresh.  “Robin Hood” continuously falls flat when trying to advance the story, while the action and supporting actors work their magic to hold our interest.  This installment’s greatest drawback is the lacking parallels to what audiences know and expect from a Robin Hood film and what Ridley Scott has put together here.

Walking out of the film, I wanted to say I enjoyed it as a passable action epic filled with mostly good performances, but upon closer inspection I felt as though I had been duped.  The couple of battle sequences in this film are quite good–very bloody and violent, especially for a PG-13 rating–but once the dust settles on the plot and characters culminating this project, nothing holds up.  Robin Hood is supposed to be a character who robs from the rich and gives to the poor.  As written by Brian Helgeland, directed by Ridley Scott, and interpreted through a miscast Russell Crowe, he’s a complete bore of hero with confused motivations.  The movie spends its gritty time treading through uninteresting back story before finally declaring: “This man is an outlaw!”  Then before the credits role we read: “And so the legend begins…”  All the action, gorgeous cinematography, and amazing set design can’t quite compensate for a hollow hero and a lacking story that was constructed to postpone the movie audiences are thinking they’re paying to see, but will probably never witness (since I don’t think a sequel will actually surface).  The idea of a prequel might have worked if the backstory had actually been engaging, exciting, interesting, etc. and containing familiar elements of the well-known character.  Unfortunately, “Robin Hood” mostly lulls along, splicing a few impressive battle sequences into a bare-bones plot, providing a movie about the infamous character that I don’t think anyone would care to see.  If it is marginally enjoyed, it is because viewers, like me, will be forced to forget this is a movie about “Robin Hood” until the end credits.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Have you seen this movie? Rate it!
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

2010 Summer Movie Preview

I have to thank TacoGrande and his latest poll for inspiring me with the idea for this post.  As  the blockbuster Summer season is about to kick off next weekend with the release of “Iron Man 2,” I thought I’d take a look at my top-10 (sort of) most anticipated movies over the May-August frame, where studios release some of the biggest films of the year.

10. ROBIN HOOD (5/14):  In all honesty I have little interest in another take on Robin Hood.  But with Russell Crowe returning to his ‘Gladiator’ roots, and Ridley Scott behind the lens, maybe there’s hope for this mega-budget epic.  Ridley is trying to go the ‘King Arthur’ route and present his take on Robin Hood as the ‘real story behind the legend.’  ‘King Arthur’ was a domestic flop, and Scott’s own “Kingdom of Heaven” starring the star-that-never-was Orlando Bloom was a box-office disaster when it kicked off Summer, 2005. The previews for “Robin Hood” look a little bit like a montage of tamed battle sequences taken right out of ‘Gladiator,’ but I can’t deny being intrigued by a major epic reteaming of Ridley and Russell.  I really do want to know, however, what happened to the project’s original incarnation of “Nottingham” where the story was reversed and focused on Crowe playing a heroic version of the Sheriff of Nottingham.  Regardless, this movie looks epic, and the action should be great.  Add in the brilliant Cate Blanchett as Maid Marian, and this movie could potentially be awesome.

9. THE LAST AIRBENDER (7/2): The other “Avatar” movie hits theaters over July 4th weekend in converted 3D.  I have to admit that I know nothing of the anime series, but the previews alone have swayed me into an intrigued state, especially with M. Night Shyamalan taking a stab at the material.  While the infamous director has given us enough reason to hate anything he touches over the last few years, we can always look back to a happier time with Signs, Unbreakable, and The Sixth Sense.  Hopefully he’s got enough ‘bad-movie-itis’ out of his system to deliver an entertaining adventure film. I have faith in him yet, but this man seriously needs some salvation of credibility, and hopefully this movie is at least a small revival for him.  Visually, this movie looks plenty fun.

8. SPLICE (6/4): Sci-Fi has to be my favorite genre, and while I can’t tell if “Splice” is going to be a good movie per se, I can say that the premise intrigues me.  A month ago I knew nothing about this project.  After seeing a few trailers, I’m sold on the idea.  Since the film isn’t exactly being talked about a lot, I will tell you the plot centers on two scientists (Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley) who experiment on forging human DNA and animal DNA, creating a humanoid organism hybrid.  Things must eventually turn deadly, as this is sci-fi horror, but I have to say the trailers are effective, and I am very interested to find out if this is any good.

7. THE A-TEAM (6/11): Hopefully we get enough wit and laughs for all the explosions and stunts coming our way with “The A-Team” starring Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, and Jessica Biel among others.  The action sequences look a little heavy, but I have faith that this movie will be one of the best kick-back popcorn rides of the Summer, low on brain-power and high on thrills and humor.  This will all depend on the chemistry of the cast–if it works and audiences respond in kind–expect a franchise to form.

6. THE OTHER GUYS (8/6): Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as two cops trying to compete with Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson as two gung-ho cops in a comedy from Adam McKay (Anchorman).  Count me in.  Casting Wahlberg is an inspired choice, and I’m looking forward to him and Ferrell exchanging some great banter.  Wahlberg may be an awkward dramatic actor in Max Payne, The Happening, and The Lovely Bones.  But he was great in The Departed and very funny in Date Night.  So I can see him having a blast with this, and I think audiences will like the pairing of him and Ferrell.  With ‘Anchorman 2’ getting the axe this week, this may be the best we can hope for from McKay and Ferrell.  And as for Ferrell lately, with his last three movies finding serious hate from me (Semi-Pro, Step Brothers, Land of the Lost), this should be a sure-fire hilarious rebound.

5. TOY STORY 3 (6/18): Pixar movies have become just about as much of an event movie for me as any, and they are returning to their best film–“Toy Story” after more than 10 years since “2.”  Just think, the original “Toy Story” came out 15 years ago.  10 year-olds then would be 25 now, and possibly taking their little one to this latest installment.  “Toy Story 3” should be huge, especially with all the major voices returning (including Tom Hanks and Tim Allen), as well as the reliability of the Pixar brand.  While I don’t expect it to be as brilliant as the first film or some of Pixar’s recent movies, I imagine this being good-old nostalgic fun with a lot of heart and humor, and one of the biggest blockbusters of the year.

4. KINGHT AND DAY (6/25): Finally we have the return of Tom Cruise.  While 2008’s ‘Valkyrie’ managed to keep him on the map, luckily the former biggest-star-in-the-world returns to blockbuster action territory.  It appears as though he’s playing an action-junkie spy trying to protect Cameron Diaz’s character, and the results look very funny and very entertaining.  Some of the trailer mirrors “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and it very much gives off that vibe, and I’m totally fine with that.  Cruise is playing a character about as crazy as everyone thinks he is, and I think with him having a ball playing a role like this, it should turn out to be another solid $100 million for him.  I still think he’s a great actor despite all of his negative publicity since his Oprah days five years ago, but hopefully ‘Knight & Day’ will get him back on track.  Under the direction of James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line), I think it’s possible.

3. THE EXPENDABLES (8/13): Fans of Cobra, Rambo II, Commando, and other classic cheeseball action flicks can rejoice–“The Expendables” are coming this August.  Of course I’m dying to see this throwback to 80s action flicks, if not just for the scene that finds Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in a single frame together.  Add in Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Jason Statham, and a whole cast of macho superstars in a major over-the-top action flick–and this is shaping up to be the event action movie of the year.  Back to classic real-life stunt work, pre-Bourne editing, and larger-than-life action stars in all their glory.  I’m so there.

2. IRON MAN 2 (5/7): While ‘The Dark Knight’ may have shadowed the enormous popularity of ‘Iron Man’ in 2008, this year is all about Tony Stark, as this sequel looks to be the highest grossing movie of the year–I see $400 million on the horizon.  Even though TDK is the fan-favorite of 2008, if I had my choice of watching the gloom-and-doom of Christopher Nolan’s superhero flick or the hilarious, roller-coaster ride of Jon Favreau’s, I am more than likely to take the ‘Iron Man’ route.  What an entertaining surprise that film was two years ago.  Robert Downey, Jr. has ten times more charisma and chops than Christian Bale, and ‘Iron Man 2’ should have just as much wit and fun as the last film.  Don’t get me wrong, ‘Dark Knight’ is brilliant and objectively the better film, but ‘Iron Man’ is a lot more fun.  Cheers to you Mr. Stark.  I will be trying to catch this one on an IMAX screen, and not a fake one…

1. –TIE– So what if I’m cheating… I can’t decide between my two most anticipated movies of the Summer, so you’ll just have to get both.

PREDATORS (7/9): I have been pining for another “Predator” installment for a long time (I should admit 1987’s ‘Predator’ is my all-time favorite guilty pleasure movie), and I can’t believe it’s actually happening.  It’s been 20 years since “Predator 2,” and after two horrid “AVP” movies, finally Robert Rodriguez looks to deliver a proper standalone sequel to the Predator universe.  While the trailer has me thrilled just knowing a new installment is in existence, I wasn’t completely blown away by what the studio has to show just yet.  Luckily, the story takes place on a jungle planet (much like the setting of the first movie), and will feature lots of predators facing off savage human killers from Earth.  Add in some bankability with Oscar-winner Adrien Brody and Laurence Fishburne headlining the cast, and I think this could actually turn out to be the sequel                                                       I’ve been waiting for.


INCEPTION (7/16): Anything Christopher Nolan touches turns to gold.  I like that he takes breaks in between his Batman films to conjure up other original projects.  I also love the fact that he has clouded “Inception” in total mystery.  It has something to do with agents stealing people’s dreams, or entering their minds or something… and that’s all we know other than the movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, and Ellen Page.  The trippy trailers feature some crazy visuals that may become the invention of a new filmmaking style (ala The Matrix).  I think this is going to be the surprise juggernaut of the year and, if it’s as good as Nolan’s other work, may finally garner him the credit he deserves come award season, especially with 10 Best Picture nominations now.  But this is all too early to tell.  It could turn out to be a gargantuan flop, but I can’t doubt the man.  All I can say is, I can’t wait to see what’s in store with “Inception.”

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Have you seen this movie? Rate it!
Rating: 4.7/5 (3 votes cast)

Kingdom of Heaven

KofH posterWith America’s eyes turning toward the battle for Rifqa Bary in Florida, it seemed fitting to pull this one out of the vault. Americans are famously clueless about history, but especially so when it comes to the history of Islam and Christianity. When I was in Bar Exam preparation, the lecturer, who was your typical American WASP, aparently felt the need to vent concerning the Crusades. He said the kings and knights went off to “teach Christianity to the heathens” in the Middle East, and how they completely destroyed the “Islamic Culture” there “that had existed for thousands of years.” He then went back to legal matters, but many listening had no doubt been entrenched more deeply in very popular and very dangerous misconceptions. Circumstances prevented me from addressing him directly, but I would have liked to point out that, at the time of the Crusades, “Islamic culture” had existed for about 400 years (Christianity, for the record, had been around for about 1000), that the Crusades had nothing to do with converting anyone or teaching anyone anything, but were about reclaiming territory and securing safe pilgrimages for the already faithful, and that they had hardly been unprovoked.

Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005) is one of many films about the Crusades. It does succumb to many of the same misconceptions of past films, but  represents an improvement. One review commented that the Muslims in the film were put in a surprisingly positive light. The surprise for me was that the Christians were not portrayed as completely barbaric, as tends to be the habit of Hollywood. For instance, the Kevin Coster version of Robin Hood (1992) introduced a new character in Hazeem, a Muslim who follows Robin to England from Jerusalem (Morgan Freeman). Through Hazeem, Muslims get undeserved credit for all kinds of advances in science, including gunpowder, which came from ancient China, telescopes, which were invented in Denmark in the 17th Century, and Cesarean section. Hazeem tends to be juxtaposed against Friar Tuck, a drunken, bumbling (albeit lovable) figure of Christianity. Worst of all, at one point, Robin Makes a speech, during which he declares “One man, fighting for his home, is more powerful than 10 hired soldiers!” He then looks over at Hazeem and says “The Crusades taught me that.”

And so it goes. Throughout history, from the class room to the silver screen, Christianity is portrayed as having spread out violently from Europe, destroying the peaceful, environmentally sound cultures in its path. Will the real story ever be told?

Balian (Bloom) at the Battle of Kerak, courtessy of Wikipedia.

Balian (Bloom) at the Battle of Kerak, courtessy of Wikipedia.

Kingdom of Heaven is a definite improvement. Most of the characters we get to know are on the Christian side. Most of them are admirable. The biggest surprise was that the movie portrayed Muslims, Christians and Jews as living peacefully side by side for much of the story. One knight tells the lead, Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) that his father, Grodfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) kept Jerusalem as a place of prayer for all faiths, just as the Muslims did before them. (At least now both sides are equally misrepresented.) The villains of the story are Guy de Lusigan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), two French knights who want to provoke a war with Syria. (Those who care to check out the DVD extras will notice the real Guy, at least, wasn’t so bad) They succeed about two thirds of the way through, which leads up to the climactic battle (which, I might add, is a great piece of film-making). We don’t see enough scenes on the Muslim side to really like or dislike them. We do see a brief shot of Saladin crying over the bodies of men slain in battle. We see a lot of shots of both sides shouting “God wills it!” as they move into battle.

In the book “Unveiling Islam,” Ergun Caner, a former Muslim,  comments that this cry (Dues Volt! in Latin) was only adopted in Europe after centuries of raids and colonization by the Arabs.  Other features of Islam seem to have rubbed off on Christians about this time. For instance, the teaching in Islam that one who dies in jihad automatically goes to paradise (Hadith 4:73, 9:93:555) seems to have been adopted by Pope Leo IV, when he promised forgiveness of sins to any who fought the Muslims.

Saladin attacks Jerusalem in a great battle scene.

Saladin attacks Jerusalem in a great battle scene.

The heroes of Kingdom tend to be those who acknowledge God’s authority but insist on using cool-headed reason to end conflicts. There is a priest in Christian Jerusalem who comments “thanks to religion, I’ve seen the lunacy of madmen in every denomination be called the will of God. The kingdom God desires is here (pokes Balian in the head) and here (pokes him in the heart).” This evenhanded film is probably characteristic of the post 9/11 era where Americans want to believe all religions are the same. Today, the media can’t seem to fathom that Muslim parents, who’ve cared for their daughter for 17 years, might kill her for apostacy. As she repeatedly told an interviewer, “you guys don’t understand!”

There are a number of battles in history that I have often wished someone would make a movie out of – battles that represent some of Christian Europe’s victories over the Jihad. For instance, the Battle of Tours (A.D. 732), where the French stopped a Muslim army that had pillaged its way across northern Africa and Spain, thus saving western civilization. Or the naval Battle of Lepanto (1571) that broke the Turks’ stranglehold on the Mediterranean and liberated thousands of slaves. Or the valiant defense of Constantinople, which resisted the Ottoman empire (which terrorized the world for about 500 years) for centuries. And then, of course, there were a series of battles late in WWI that marked the final destruction of the Ottomans and the liberation of the Serbs (who are now vilified as oppressors of Muslims). Today, we’re watching the story of a young potential martyr unfold from our livingrooms.

On one hand it seems like a pipe dream to hope that these stories will ever get the remembrance and celebration they deserve in the present climate. Americans can’t seem to fathom a time when western culture was in danger of being overrun.  Still, Kingdom of Heaven might be a step in the right direction. Maybe the next Ridley Scott will read this column. Time will tell.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Have you seen this movie? Rate it!
Rating: 3.7/5 (3 votes cast)


alien_posterFew horror vehicles remain as important and seminal as Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking incarnation of the first ‘Alien’ picture.  The film came together during a time when science-fiction in film had just been regaining some traction with the enormous success of ‘Star Wars’; a time where the ‘slasher’ picture unknowingly birthed its invincible genre with John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween.’

Based on a B-movie screenplay by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett during 20th Century Fox’s race to discover the next big space opera, ‘Alien’ received the greenlight despite its glaring departure from the world and joyous ambiance of that George Lucas phenomenon. The film opens similarly to ‘Star Wars’ during an unspecified future with a giant spaceship towering its way across the screen.  The ship withholds twenty-million tons of mineral ore being brought back to earth when the crew’s voyage becomes interrupted by the interception of a signal from an unknown planet. The crew made up of seven engineers, led by Dallas (Tom Skerritt), is ordered by their governing company to investigate.  Whether the signal is an SOS call or a warning remains unclear until they reach this planet and find a stranded alien spacecraft.  Three members of the team, including Dallas, and two others (Kane, Parker) enter the craft to the discovery of a giant fossilized space pilot and a plethora of voluminous eggs.  Ultimately, the curiosity of the crew members turns to terror as ‘Alien’ unleashes a deadly monster, hidden in the shadows and vents of the humans’ spaceship.

Having no prior knowledge of the film or series that it spawned works significantly to understanding the unpredictability of the advancing story, its impact upon its release in 1979, and its current status as a pioneer of the horror genre.  ‘Alien’ works as a rare breed, a film that takes all the time it needs to reveal its heading and its monster.  The pacing and editing are perfectly matched at building inescapable dread. The confinement of the mining ship traps the audience in its darkness.  The quiet, hovering score of Jerry Goldsmith strays from forcing the audience into the mood and tension of a scene, and rather allows the unknown and unseen to become far more effective at tantalizing the nerves.  The film also strays from the conventional in making its cast an ensemble without a dominating star or presence. The audience knows these people will be picked off in some order,  and there are survivors, but the writers intentionally left out first names in the script to allow for male or female characters.  All of them are equally endangered.

The alien creature itself remains an interesting and ambiguous design.  The eggs harvested on the alien craft birth, surprisingly, not the monster itself–but a parasite that attaches itself to the face of a living host and implants an embryo through the throat and into the chest of its victim.  Through the victim births the monster.  What an original and horrific concept.  Director Ridley Scott toys with the alien’s sexual nature: its underlying act of ultimately raping its prey to spawn its existence, and the physical design of the creature itself in shape and form.  The creature is constantly changing as well.  The parasite, following its host’s impregnation, leaves the victim and dies shortly after.  The actual monster itself begins life in a small phallic shape, but increases in mass very quickly.  The audience doesn’t see the process of this transformation, but the alien, while never fully explained, seems to have a short life-span.  Each time it takes the screen, it is bigger than its last appearance.  That notion adds more terror.  While the audience has witnessed the creature, their uncertainty continues to linger regarding what they might witness around the next corner.

alien2Even if the right elements are in place for a technically accomplished horror film, a usual downfall rests on its casting.  Not the case here.  Sigourney Weaver plays Ripley, an intelligent, by-the-book  young pilot.  She thinks before she acts, plays by the rules, and rarely investigates uncertainties. Tom Skerritt plays the captain of the ship as an experienced officer that knows the ropes and simply wants to get the job done to move on and return home.  He cares for his crew and often dismisses standard operating procedure in conjunction with instinct.  The cast rounds out with Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt and Harry Dean Stanton as the other officers, along with Ian Holm as Ash, a mysterious science officer somewhat reminding of Star Trek’s Spock character.  This cast actually proves to be very effective, carrying both the inner-terror and inquiry required to make the audience care and believe in this nightmare.

Of course ‘Alien’ is probably best remembered among all these accolades for one rattling scene that has become legendary for its time.  And without saying more for the few left uninitiated, it is still mostly a remarkable scene for the slim exception that the puppetry has not exactly held its weight in longevity for today’s audiences.  The performances and surprise of the scene have made it stand the test of time.

I will add that the version I recently viewed was the 2003 re-release cut titled “Director’s Cut” with a disclaimer by Ridley Scott that this is simply an alternate cut for the wishes of his fans, and not his preferred version.  His newly edited version slightly trims a handful of scenes and adds in a few others–with only one remaining all that significant and possibly controversial.  I enjoyed this cut immensely for this particular cut sequence toward the film’s climax, a scene that would further continuity with James Cameron’s follow-up ‘Aliens.’

‘Alien’ has spawned three varying sequels and two dopey spin-offs.  Ignoring the other works and taking Ridley Scott’s film on its own merits, it is a true cinematic classic that takes B-movie monster material and makes an involving and very realistically human film out of the science-fiction.  The film has seen its share of imitators, but none have matched the intelligence and elegance of this exceptional startler.

-MJV & the Movies

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Have you seen this movie? Rate it!
Rating: 5.0/5 (2 votes cast)