“ROBIN HOOD” (2010) Review

 

“ROBIN HOOD” (2010) Review

When I had first learned that Ridley Scott planned to direct his own version of the Robin Hood legend, I merely responded with a shake of my head. The last thing I wanted to see was another take on the famous English outlaw. But since I was a fan of the director, I decided to give it a chance. 

For years, I had harbored the belief that the 1938 Errol Flynn movie, ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”, was the true story myth about the famous outlaw. Imagine my shook when I discovered I had been wrong. One of the featurettes from the movie’s DVD release revealed that there had been numerous versions of the Robin Hood folklore. With that in mind, I found it easy to prepare myself for any version that might appear in Scott’s new movie.

”ROBIN HOOD” opened in the year 1199. Robin Longstride is a common archer who had fought alongside King Richard the Lionheart of England during the Third Crusade. Following the death of Richard during a battle in which the English Army attempted to ransack a French castle; Robin and three other common soldiers – Alan A’Dale, Will Scarlett, and Little John – attempt to return to their homeland after ten years of fighting abroad. Along the way, they come across an ambush of the Royal guard by Sir Godfrey, an English knight with French lineage and allegiance. The King of France had ordered Sir Godfrey to assassinate Richard. Having discovered that the King was already dead, Sir Godfrey is chased off by the arrival of Robin and his companions. Aiming to return to England safely and richer in pocket than they left it, Robin and his men steal the armor of the slain Knights and head for the English ships on the coast under the guise of noblemen. Before leaving the scene of slaughter, Robin promises a dying Knight, Sir Robert Loxley, to return a sword to the man’s father in Nottingham.

Upon arriving in England, Robin (disguised as Loxley) informs the Royal family of the King’s death and witnesses the crowning of King John, Richard’s younger brother. Robin and his companions head to Nottingham, where Loxley’s father, Sir Walter, asks him to continue impersonating his son in order to prevent the family lands being taken by the Crown. Loxley’s widow, Lady Marion, is initially distrustful of Robin, but soon warms to him. But before long, Robin and his friends find themselves swept into England’s political intrigue between the English Northern barons and King John; along with a threat of invasion by the King of France.

I will not deny that ”ROBIN HOOD” has a few problems. If I must be honest, there were three aspects of the film that I either disliked or left me feeling puzzled. One, I did not care for the presence of Lady Marion’s presence on the battlefield between the French invaders and the English defenders. If this was an attempt to make Lady Marion’s character more action-oriented and politically correct, it did not work with me. She did not have any experience as a warrior. Nor did the movie ever made it clear that she had been trained to fight battles or handle weapons of war, like the Éowyn character in the ”LORD OF THE RINGS” Trilogy. I had no problems with the scene of Marion killing the French officer who tried to rape her. But her presence on that battlefield beneath the White Cliffs of Dover struck me as utterly ridiculous.

I also found the sequence that led to Sir Walter’s revelation that Robin’s father, Thomas Longstride, had earlier led some civil rights movement against the Crown before his death rather irrelevant. Before this revelation, Sir Walter kept hinting that he knew something about Robin. I had suspected that he would reveal that Robin was his illegitimate son or something like that. Considering that Robin seemed determined to protect the Loxleys and take up their cause against King John, I found this revelation about Robin’s father somewhat tacked on and unnecessary. My last problem with ”ROBIN HOOD” centered around the movie’s ending. Following the English army’s successful defense against the French, King John reneged on his promise to the English barons that he would sign the Charter of the Forest – a document for constitutional reforms. I had no problems with this turn of events, considering that John resisted signing the document until he added it as a supplement to the Magna Carta, some sixteen to seventeen years later. Unfortunately, in addition to refusing to sign the document, King John also declared Robin Longstride aka Sir Robert Loxley an outlaw. Why? How did the King know about Robin’s true identity in the first place? Who told him? Certainly not the main villain, Sir Godfrey, who died before he could inform John that the real Sir Robert was killed in France. Neither Sir Walter or Lady Marion would have told him. Who did? And why did the King name Robin as an outlaw? Did he decided to make this declaration upon learning that Robin was NOT Sir Robert Loxley? Even if someone could provide answers to my questions, the entire scenario regarding Robin’s status at the end of the film came off as rushed to me.

But despite these misgivings of ”ROBIN HOOD”, I ended up enjoying it very much. Ridley Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland did a pretty damn good job in portraying the Robin Hood legend from a new and completely fresh point-of-view. Well, perhaps it was not completely fresh. After all, the movie is obviously an origins tale about how one Robin Longstride became “Robin Hood”. I have seen a similar origins tale in the 1991 Kevin Reynolds film, ”ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES”. However, Robin’s origin tale was merely rushed in that film’s first half hour. Scott and Helgeland decided to create a more in-depth story about the outlaw’s origin in this film. In fact, the movie only featured one scene in which Robin and his friends actually participated in an act of theft. It involved the return of grain confiscated by the Crown. I would not be surprised if many had complained about this, considering that it went against the traditional grain of what to expect in a movie about Robin Hood. However, I was too busy enjoying the movie to really care.

Another aspect of ”ROBIN HOOD” that I found very admirable was its complex portrayal of the English Royal Family. Most versions of the Robin Hood tale tend to have conflicting views of the two Royal brothers – Richard and John. John is usually portrayed as a sniveling and greedy prince who resented the reputation of his older brother. And Richard is usually portrayed as the older and noble brother – something of a “straight arrow” type. Scott and Helgeland somewhat skewered these portraits in the movie. Superficially, Richard is portrayed as noble, popular with his men and pure at heart. Yet, a closer look at the monarch revealed him to be avaricious, thin-skinned and somewhat petty. After all, the movie did start with him leading an attack against a French noble’s castle in an attempt to ransack it for riches to add to the Royal coffers. And when Robin Longstride revealed his true feelings about a vicious battle led by Richard in Jeruseleum upon the monarch’s urging, the archer and his friends found themselves locked in a wooden stock during Richard’s last battle. Prince (later King) John is portrayed as an arrogant and selfish young man only concerned with his desires and ego. Yet, the second half of the movie also portrayed him as a man willing to fight alongside his men in the defense of England and willing to occasionally listen to good advice. Neither Richard nor John are portrayed in a one-dimensional manner. Which I found very satisfying.

In fact, I would go as far to say that ”ROBIN HOOD” is a somewhat complex and tale about the effects of the Third Crusade upon the English Royal Family, its adversarial relationship with France, which ended up lasting for centuries, and the clash between the Crown and the country’s Northern citizens. Mind you, some of these plotlines have popped up in other Robin Hood movies. But Scott and Hegeland managed to weave all of these aspects into the movie’s story with surprising skill. Mind you, they did not achieve this with any perfection, but it turned out to be a lot better than most movies are capable of handling. And all of this culminated in a superbly directed sequence in which King John, Robin and many other Englishmen defended the country’s shores against the invading French. The only aspect that slightly spoiled this scene was the presence of Lady Marion in battle. Some critics have compared this movie unfavorable to the 1938, accusing it of being lifeless and grim. Hmm . . . perhaps they were thinking of another Ridley Scott film. Because ”ROBIN HOOD” struck me as the liveliest film that he has ever directed. It did have its dark moments. But I had no problem with that. Liveliness mixed with some darkness has always appealed to me. I have always had a problem with the lack of darkness in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”. It prevented that movie from having an edge of darkness that I usually like to see in an adventure film.

The movie’s technical aspects were superb. I especially have to give kudos John Mathieson for his beautiful photography. I had feared that ”ROBIN HOOD” would end up with a slightly dark look, which could be found in the 1991 Robin Hood film and even in part of ”GLADIATOR”. Mind you, the France sequences did come off as slightly dark. But once Robin and his friends reached England . . . oh my God! The photography was just beautiful. I can think of three scenes that literally blew my mind – the journey up the Thames River to London, Lady Marion and the Loxley hands working in the fields with the threat of a thunderstorm brewing in the background, and the English Army’s journey to the South East coast near Dover. I also enjoyed Janty Yates’ costumes, as well. Were her costumes historically accurate? I have not the foggiest idea. That particular period in history has never been familiar to me.

The acting in ”ROBIN HOOD” was superb. I could say ”of course”, but I have come across movies with an exceptional cast that ended up featuring some pretty bad performances. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about this movie. Russell Crowe was superb as Robin Longstride. His performance was not as flashy as the likes of Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner or even Patrick Bergin. But I am thankful that it was not, because such a performance would not suit him. His screen chemistry with Cate Blanchett sizzled. I found this surprising, considering that the two actors from Down Under never worked together. Or have they? Anyway, Blanchett was just as superb as Crowe and gave an interesting take on a Lady Marion who was older and more experienced in life than the previous takes on the character. Mark Strong portrayed the traitorous Sir Godfrey. He gave his usual competent performance, but I have to admit that I found nothing exceptional about his performance. One performance that did caught my attention belonged to Oscar Isaac, who gave a complex and interesting portrayal of the young King John.

I also enjoyed Eileen Atkins’ sardonic portrayal of John and Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It seemed a pity that her role was not that large. I am glad that Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle and especially Kevin Durand got a chance to strut their stuff. Their performances as Robin’s friends – Will Scarlet, Allan A’Dayle and Little John – really enlivened the film. It helped that Crowe had recruited Doyle for the film, due to the latter’s musical collaboration with the actor. And considering that Crowe, Doyle and Grimes are all musicians as well, I suspect they must have had a merry time with some of the film’s musical interludes. Another performance that enlivened the movie came from Swedish actor Max Von Sydow, who portrayed Lady Marion’s father in-law, Sir Walter Loxley. There seemed to be a constant twinkle in his eyes in most of his scenes that made his presence enjoyable. There was one performance that left me feeling unsatisfied and it belonged to Matthew McFayden’s portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham. I am not saying that McFayden gave a poor performance. I am merely saying that his presence was nothing more than a waste of time. McFayden appeared long enough to sneer and make a pass at Lady Marion, attempt to placate the invading French troops in a cowardly manner and express surprise and fear at the first note received from the new “Robin Hood” near the end of the film. Like I said . . . a waste of time.

Considering that ”ROBIN HOOD” did not utilize the usual myth found in other films about the English outlaw, I am not surprised that many would dismiss it as one of Ridley Scott’s lesser films. Well, they are entitled to their opinion. I had a few problems with the movie. But overall, I was more than pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it very much . . . considering my initial assumptions about it. Once again, director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe failed to disappoint me and delivered a very entertaining film.

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“FROST/NIXON” (2008) Review

 

“FROST/NIXON” (2008) Review

Beginning on March 23, 1977, British journalist David Frost conducted a series of twelve (12) interviews with former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, in which the former commander-in-chief gave his only public apology for the scandals of his administration. Some 29 years later, Peter Morgan’s play – based upon the interviews – reached the London stage and later, Broadway, with rave reviews. Recently, Ron Howard directed the film adaptation of the play, starring Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. 

I first became interested in Nixon and the Watergate scandals in my mid-teens, when I came across a series of books that featured columnist Art Buchwald’s humorous articles on the famous political scandal. As I grew older, I became acquainted with other scandals that had plagued the American scandal. But it was Watergate that managed to maintain my interest for so long. Ironically, I have never seen the famous Frost/Nixon interviews that aired in August 1977 – not even on video or DVD. But when I saw the trailer for ”FROST/NIXON”, I knew I had to see this movie. There was one aspect of the trailer that put me off – namely the sight of Frank Langella as Richard Nixon. For some reason, the performance – of which I only saw a minor example – seemed rather off to me. However, my family went ahead and saw the film. And I must admit that I am glad that we did. Not only did”FROST/NIXON” seemed only better than I had expected. I ended up being very impressed by Langella’s performance. And Michael Sheen’s portrayal of Frost merely increased my positive view of the film.

Speaking of the cast, ”FROST/NIXON” had the good luck to be blessed with a cast that featured first rate actors. Matthew MacFadyen gave solid support as John Birt, David Frost’s friend and producer for the London Weekend Television. I felt the same about Oliver Platt’s slightly humorous portrayal of one of Frost’s researchers, Bob Zelnick. Rebecca Hall gave a charming, yet not exactly an exciting performance as Frost’s girlfriend, Caroline Cushing. One of the two supporting performances that really impressed me was Kevin Bacon, who portrayed former Marine officer-turned Nixon aide, Jack Brennan. Bacon managed to convey Brennan’s conservatism and intense loyalty toward the former president without going over-the-top. Another intense performance came from Sam Rockwell, who portrayed another of Frost’s researcher, author James Reston Jr. Rockwell’s performance came as a surprise to me, considering I am more used to seeing him in comedic roles. And I must say that I was very impressed.

But the two characters that drove the movie were Richard M. Nixon and David Frost. Both Frank Langella and Michael Sheen first portrayed these roles in the Broadway version of Peter Morgan’s play. If their stage performances were anything like their work on the silver screen, the theatergoers who had first-hand experience of their stage performances must have enjoyed quite a treat. As I had earlier stated, I originally harbored qualms about Frank Langella portraying Richard Nixon. What I did not know was that the man had already won a Tony award for his stage performance of the role. After watching ”FROST/NIXON”, I could see why. Richard Nixon had possessed a personality and set of mannerisms that were easily caricatured. I have never come across an actor who has captured Nixon’s true self with any real accuracy. But I can think of at least three actors who have left their own memorable stamps in their interpretations of the former president – the late Lane Smith, Sir Anthony Hopkins and now, Frank Langella. One of Langella’s most memorable moments featured a telephone call from Nixon to Frost, in which the former attempts to further psyche the journalist and ends up delivering an angry tirade against the wealthy establishment that he had resented, yet kowtowed toward most of his political career. Michael Sheen had the difficult task of portraying a more complicated character in David Frost and delivered in spades. Sheen’s Frost is an ambitious television personality who wants to be known for more than just frothy talk show host. This reputation makes it impossible for Frost to be taken seriously by Nixon, Zelnick and especially the judgmental Reston.

I also have to compliment Peter Morgan for what struck me as a first-rate adaptation of his stage play. Morgan managed to expand or open up a story that depended heavily upon dialogue. The movie could have easily turned into a filmed play. Thankfully, Morgan’s script managed to avoid this pitfall. And so did Ron Howard’s direction. I must admit that Howard did a great job in ensuring that what could have simply been a well-acted, would turn out to be a tightly paced psychological drama. Hell, the interactions between Frost and Nixon seemed more like a game of psychological warfare between two antagonists, instead of a series of interviews of historical value.

I am trying to think of what I did not like about ”FROST/NIXON”. So far, I am hard pressed to think of a flaw. Actually, I have thought of a flaw – namely the usually competent Toby Jones. Considering how impressed I had been of his performances in”INFAMOUS” and ”THE PAINTED VEIL”, it seemed a shame that his Swifty Lazar seemed more like a caricature than a flesh-and-blood individual. Perhaps it was a good thing that his appearance in the film had been short. Also, knowing that Frost had questioned Nixon in a series of twelve interviews, it seemed a shame that the movie only focused upon three of those interviews. Naturally, Howard and Morgan could not have included all twelve interviews for fear of dragging the movie’s running time. However, I still could not help but feel that three interviews were not enough and that the film could have benefited from at least one more interview – one that could have effectively bridged the gap between Frost’s second disastrous interview, until the third that led to his own triumph and Nixon’s rare admission.

”FROST/NIXON” could have easily become dialogue-laden film with no action and a slow pace. But thanks to Ron Howard’s direction, Peter Morgan’s adaptation of his play and the superb performances of the two leads – Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, the movie struck me as a fascinating character piece about two very different men who had met during the spring of 1977 for a historical series of interviews that seemed to resemble more of a game of psychological warfare.