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Column Fri May 14 2010

Robin Hood, Just Wright, Letters to Juliet, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, and Lourdes

Robin Hood

I'm kind of over people (critics and others) who see the film world in black and white terms (unless, you know, they're talking about a B&W movie). There are so few films that come out in a given year that are so without merit that they warrant the label "suck." All of the digital ink that has been wasted on people trying to explain how terrible Iron Man 2 is or Top 5-10 lists of how it could have been better--give me a fucking break. I'm not saying it's a classic effort, but is it really so terrible that it deserves this much attention? Of course not. But here's the big secret: negativity in the extreme translates into readership.

I have literally looked someone in the face while they told me they were so-so on a film who then turned around a gave that same film a scathing review. Why would they do that? Simple. Because being luke warm on a film doesn't grab anyone's attention. Recommending someone "Rent It" is boring. And that's a shame because most of the films I see in a given year fall into that middle zone. And while I've certainly been known to thrash on a shitty film from time to time, I try to save my venom for films that actually deserve it and not for ones that simply missed the mark. And it's these so-so works that deserve the most attention because inevitably there are some very good components to such films along side whatever shortcomings they may have, and to be fair and balanced, one should talk about the good and the bad of every film.

Does everyone's opinion have to agree with mine? Of course not. It is possible for someone to truly hate a film that most people like? Without a doubt. I'm also not here to defend or talk about Iron Man 2 today; I'm simply saying that if you see a startlingly negative headline over a film review, nine times out of ten, that's about as strong as the negative opinion gets. Pick your battles, people. Otherwise, you just look like cynical douches, and we all know that Conan O'Brien hates cynics.

Case in point, I've heard a few people railing on Ridley Scott's Robin Hood. While this is a talky, slightly overlong work that might only truly appeal to those who care about English history and British law of olden times, it still features massive battles helmed by the single-greatest large-scale action director living today. No one can hold a candle to Scott when it comes to staging warfare, and Robin Hood is proof of that--maybe not the best proof, but there you go. And with the exception of Russell Crowe, who plays the title character in a timeframe prior to the more familiar adventures that have been portrayed in films countless times, all of the performances are particularly strong and interesting. Due to his age and his apparent contempt for the material, Crowe is simply the wrong choice to play Robin Longstride, a returning Crusader under King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), who comes back to England with no prospects or skills beyond being a soldier.

There are issues with Brian Helgeland's script, but I don't think they are so problematic that they are the culprit that keeps this film from being great. And I don't mind the prequel idea of watching Robin become a protector and supplier of people under the cruel fist of England's new ruler (after Richard's battlefield death) King John (Oscar Isaac). We are all familiar with the story of Robin Hood, so I didn't mind not getting it retold to me yet again. Instead, we get the story of how Robin met Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett) and Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) and these particular Merry Men (Kevin Durand's Little John, Scott Grimes' Will Scarlet, and Alan Doyle's Allan A-Dayle). The Sheriff of Nottingham is on hand, although not nearly as terrifying as he's been portrayed in the past, and a handful of new names join the fold.

I like the idea that Robin took the name Loxley from a dead man and was asked to do so by the dead man's aging, blind father (the fantastic Max Von Sydow), who explains that the only way his son's widow, Marion, can keep the land when Max kicks it is to have it appear that his son made it home alive from the Crusades. Despite what you've seen in the trailers, King John isn't only a raging maniac intent on taxing the life out of his subjects and killing anyone who refuses to pay. That's close to what he is, but there's a bit more. He's cunning and smart enough to know when to keep quiet when he senses the crowd is turning against him. It's nice to have a filmmaker decide to have a classic movie villain at the heart of his film without making him an idiot, driven purely by emotion. King John is capable of looking at the long term. He also knows how to make promises to calm the storm against him, even if he has no intention of keeping them. There's a complexity to him that surprised me and I found refreshing.

Blanchett is probably the best thing in Robin Hood., but that statement is almost without meaning since Blanchett is usually the best thing in any movie she's in. There's a bitterness about her character's station in life that I'm guessing many women felt at the time. Marion barely knew her husband before he left to fight, so news of his death doesn't crush her. But she's also very much devoted to his family and will do what she has to to protect them. Unfortunately, Blanchett is also at the center of one of the worst scenes in the movie involving her joining the climactic battle between French and English forces. I didn't buy it, and there's absolutely nothing leading up to that moment that would lead us to believe Marion would try anything resembling what she does in this movie. Her charging into battle feels like Scott & Co. trying way too hard to entice women to see this movie. Just tell the story and stop worrying so damn much about the demographics of your audience.

One of the more interesting new characters is Godfrey, played by the tremendous Mark Strong. Why Strong isn't one of the biggest names in movies is beyond me. Between this film, Kick-Ass, Sherlock Holmes and upcoming turns in John Carter of Mars and Green Lantern (he's Sinestro), he probably will be soon. Godfrey is an Englishman who has essentially sold his soul to the French, and is leading brigades of French killers across the English countryside, paving the way for the armada invasion. Godfrey is perhaps the character I was most curious about, simply because of his duplicity, and Strong adds depth and soul to a man that could have easily been played one dimensionally by another actor.

So do we get to see Robin shoot some arrows? You bet, and as I said early on, the action sequences are perfection. Scott keeps in mind something very important when he directs these sequences: he makes sure the geography of the battle is clear--who is surrounding or outflanking who, who has who outnumbered, what is the terrain. These things are always clear and they make all the difference. And I still love watching hundreds of arrows go in the air at the same time; can't help it. There are some spectacular arrow death moments, and I tended to look forward to those far more than death by boring old sword. Is there some stealing from the rich, giving to the poor activity? A little, but that really doesn't kick in until the years that come after the events shown in Robin Hood. This film is about the birth of a legend. Ridley Scott loves his history, and I'm sure there are all kinds of references to real-life people and events. But the true test is whether those moments feel real to the audience, and most of what we see here does (Marion charging into battle does not, by the way).

And while mediocrity is nothing to aim for, Ridley Scott's Robin Hood is rip-roaringly mediocre, bordering on tedious. There's a great deal to enjoy here both in the performances and storytelling, but in the end, what comes together is wildly uneven. And when you're talking about a film that clocks in around two hours and 20 minutes, uneven and tedious are not a good things to be. All of this being said, I'm guessing that Scott has got a better, R-rated version of this film saved up for a DVD release down the road, and based on the vast improvements I saw in the extended Kingdom of Heaven cut, I look forward to seeing what a longer Robin Hood has in store. The theatrical release simply misses the mark, but not enough to dismiss it entirely. Some of what Scott accomplishes with Robin Hood is quite good, just not enough of it.

Just Wright

There are two films opening today that have something pretty significant in common. They are both films that are unabashedly romance stories, and neither is based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks (although one--not this one--feels like it could have been). Now, when I say "romance," I'm not talking about romantic comedies. Almost without fail, romantic comedies that come out of America are abysmal, and strangely enough Hollywood seems to make better films when love, and not laughs, is the order of the day. I guess that makes me hopeful.

Of the two romantically inclined releases today, Just Wright is the better film thanks to strong incredibly strong, charismatic performances by rappers-turned-actors Queen Latifah (who received an Oscar nomination for Chicago) and Common (most recently seen in Date Night). It doesn't matter how strong or weak a screenplay is in a romance film (I'm overstating, but there's basically one formula); the key is chemistry, and in Just Wright, these two extremely likable personalities have it to spare. It also helps that the characters they are playing are two of nicest people you will ever see in a movie in your life; you can't help but want to see them end up together.

Latifah plays Leslie Wright, a physical therapist working in a rehab facility, and using her money to help renovate her fixer-upper house. Her best friend is the annoyingly shallow Morgan (Paula Patton, in a real step back from her work in Precious), who sets her sights on NBA player Scott McKnight (Common). The two start dating seriously, and eventually get engaged before Scott is injured during a game. The prospect of his not being able to play (i.e. earn money) leaves Morgan cold and she leaves him, but not before she hooks him up with Leslie to help him with his aggressive rehab program.

You can already tell where this is going, and that's okay. What's great about Just Wright is that we get to spend a glorious amount of time just listening to Scott and Leslie talk, learn about each other, and see each other through some less than glamorous life changes. They aren't dating. Neither one is trying to impress the other. They are simply talking, working, and getting to know each other as real people. Folks, you may not realize it, but this is an extremely rare thing in movies. This isn't a movie loaded with music montages of people trying on clothes (actually, there might be one montage, but we'll forgive it); this is about two really good people finding each other. Scott struggles a little bit with the expectations of others concerning the type of woman he should end up with. He's put to the test when he returns to the game, and Morgan shows up apologizing for running away (you can almost see the dollar signs in her eyes).

The supporting cast is also quite good, especially the actors playing the parents. Leslie's mom and dad are played by James Pickens Jr. and Pam Grier(!), while Scott's mother is played by the universal mother known as Phylicia Rashad, who is particularly good as a sensible woman with good advice and a strong feeling about Leslie. Leslie's parents open the film setting her up on a blind date, which doesn' go poorly, but it ends the way we sense most of her dates do, with the man finding her a better friend they like hanging out with than girlfriend material. That's a little tough to buy only because Queen Latifah is undeniably lovely even when she's trying not to be. Still, there's a powerful message about beauty on the inside that most of us could learn something from.

Does Just Wright do much to steer clear of the romance formula? Not really. There's a lot more basketball in this movie than I'm guessing most movies about love tend to have, but beyond that, this isn't a movie trying to break the mold. I couldn't help but come away from this film with such a fondness for this couple; I wanted to meet them, go to dinner with them, hang out and watch movies. There's a part of me that wants to see these two actors work together again, and why not? This level of chemistry is enviable and rare, and it can make or break a film of this ilk. Fortunately, in the case of Just Wright, all of the pieces fit beautifully.

To read my exclusive interview with Just Wright star (and Chicago native) Common, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Letters to Juliet

The other romance movie of the week feels a bit more like a network Movie of the Week. Although I'm not dismissing the film thanks almost entirely to a exquisite performance by Vanessa Redgrave. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The unnecessary convoluted plot of Letters to Juliet, from director Gary Winick (maker of the fun 13 Going on 30 and the unbearable Bride Wars), begins in New York City with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a fact checker for The New Yorker, mere weeks away from her wedding to chef Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal). Since Victor is on the verge of opening up his own Italian restaurant, they pair decide to take their honeymoon before the wedding and go to Verona, where it just so happens many of Victor's suppliers are based.

Sophie wants to spend the trip being romantic and inseparable, while the energetic Victor wants to visit vineyards and cheese makers and wine auctions to round out the offerings at his restaurant. This leaves Sophie, a frustrated would-be writer, alone in this beautiful city. She's stumbles upon a wall under "Juliet's Balcony," where women with questions about love tack letters addressed to Juliet (as in "Romeo and Juliet," which is set in Verona). It turns out a few of the local ladies take the letters and respond to as many as possible with advice on everything from illness to children to husbands and everything inbetween. Sophie decides to join this circle for a day after she finds a 50-year-old letter hidden behind a brick in the wall from a woman named Claire about man she met and left because her parents would not have approved of their marriage.

Sophie's letter brings the now-65-year-old Claire (Redgrave) and her grown grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) to Verona to search for Sophie and Claire's lost love Lorenzo. Letters to Juliet lives and breathes real emotion every second Redgrave is on screen. With a simple smile, she can convey more feeling than most actors can flapping their arms around and screaming their words of affection in a rainstorm. She has a warmth in her eyes and a sly wit that does more for this paint-by-number screenplay than it deserves, and they should count their blessings every single day until the end of time that she agreed to be in this movie. There are only so many times I can look at Seyfried's giant eyes and lovely smile before I wonder if there's anything more to her than just being charming. And while Egan certainly is handsome enough, his character's cynicism and abrasive qualities come across as false. I have a tough time believing that seeing his grandmother this happy on the adventure the three end up taking across Italy looking for Lorenzo wouldn't move him to just shut the hell up and support her.

Letters to Juliet wants desperately for us to care about whether Sophie and Charlie fall in love and end up together, but I never cared even a fraction as much about that as I did about Claire's story. It wasn't even close. The only time I even considered getting a little choked up involved scenes highlighting Claire's story. And while Seyfried is a cutey and Egan is as suave as sandpaper, I never got under the surface of their relationship. And this is the key difference between the chemistry-driven Just Wright and the Redgrave-driven Letters to Juliet. Redgrave emits her own chemistry single handedly, but since there are sections of the film that don't involve her, it's a lesser work. The beautiful Italian landscapes are great, and Redgrave looks unbelievably lovely with them framing her, but that only goes so far.

One more thing that essentially sunk the film for me is that the writing is beyond lazy. I'm not talking about the formula stuff; that I can forgive. I'm talking about overused words. Let me put build a drinking game into Letters to Juliet--a movie about a writer who writes a litter and an article about her experience with Claire: any time you hear the word "amazing," take a shot. This word must feel like a dirty slut after being used so often in this film. There are other, similar words that pop up about as many times, but you should have no trouble getting blitzed sticking to "amazing." This word officially has no meaning for me any more because of its overuse in the world, so hearing it repeatedly in this movie nearly suffocated me with banality. While I consider Letters to Juliet a close call thanks entirely to Vanessa Redgrave, I can't quite recommend it because it doesn't try enough to match her remarkable nature.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money

I'm a big fan of the way director Alex Gibney makes movies, and apparently movie audiences are as well. His previous three features were all considered hits in the relative context of the doc world. One of them--Taxi to the Dark Side--even won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar a couple years, and another of them--Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room--should have won it two years earlier. I actually liked his 2008 biography of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo, because it adapted a cavalier style that I think the subject would have approved of. In his latest high-profile work, Gibney attempts something similar with mixed results. Rather than making film in broad strokes about the gross, overt injustices committed daily by D.C. lobbyists, the filmmaker chooses to focus on one of the practice's gravest offenders, Jack Abramoff, of former Republican idea man who moved into the practice on influence peddling and ended up ripping off clients with impunity and arranging situations in which dozens of members of Congress received regular paydays and kickbacks as if it were some sort of off-the-books bonus program.

There's a strange levity to Gibney's approach which, at times, feels a little off base with the stories being told. And I get that the director is attempting to style his film to be the best possible profile of Abramoff, who had such a disdain for some of the unfortunates that passed through his life that he almost reveled in taking their money in the form of exorbitant fees. Still, there's no getting around the fact that Abramoff's life feels like fiction. Let me take that back; no one could have written a character who dabbled in such far-flung schemes as Abramoff. One of the most tragic was the bilking of Native American tribes attempting to get into or stay in the casino business. But perhaps even more tragic is the story of what appears to be U.S. government-funded and sanctioned slave labor happening on a smile island nation off the coast of China. In a matter of just a couple of years, Abramoff and his cohorts transformed this place into a private den of depravity to which they could bring their Congressional clients, who were each given brief, limited tours of the conditions in various cleaned-up factories so they could give their stamp of approval.

And the list goes on and on, and it includes such familiar names as Michael Scanlon, Ralph Reed, Bob Ney, and the apparent co-ringleader of Abramoff's dealing, Tom DeLay. And Gibney isn't speculating here; these people have been convicted. Abramoff's stories twists and turns through Russian spy rings, mob executions in Florida, and close ties to the Bush Administration that no one seemed to care about at the time. It's a fascinating and complicated story that Gibney does a fantastic job of laying out and untangling in a manner that avoids being dry and boring. The film's final minutes are a little disappointing only because they seem to say that the "characters" in Casino Jack aren't the problem. As someone in the film puts it, "It's the guys behind these guys that are the problem." To that I cry "bullshit." If the film proves anything, it confirms that these guys are very much the problem, and just because there are more out there just like them, doesn't mean they don't deserve a healthy prison sentences. Aside from these mildly mixed messages, Casino Jack is well worth checking out. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Lourdes

It's very rare that a film about faith or belief in God or some other higher power makes it to the big screen and even more rare when a film that tackles the subject with as much maturity and complexity as writer-director Jessica Hausner does in Lourdes. The town of Lourdes in the foothills of the Pyrenees is renowned for being a place of healing, primarily from its reportedly redemptive waters which bring thousands of physically afflicted pilgrims from all over the world hoping for some amount of relief. In the film, one such pilgrim is Christine (played by one of my absolute favorite French actresses, Sylvie Testud from La Vie en Rose and Murderous Maids), confined to a wheelchair but seemingly in good spirits. She is probably the least pious of her particular group of visitors, and her intentions in going on this pilgrimage seem more social than spiritual.

Hausner allows us to get to know several members of the tour group, including other afflicted persons as well as the nuns that escort them (including one played by the great Elina Löwensohn) and the soldiers that are either protecting the nuns and pilgrims or the grounds themselves. Mini-dramas unfold within the group, and an appalling idea surfaces that some members are more worthy of healing than others. When Christine is mysteriously and apparently miraculously able to walk again, no one in the group seems to think she's earned this right since she doesn't pray often or talk much of God. But the truth is that Christine seems like a perfect candidate for healing because the event stirs a rebirth of sorts in her soul as she considers the possibilities that are once again open in her life. There are hints that her love life might have been reignited as well, and this makes her glow all the more.

Lourdes has hints of criticism at the meaningless rituals (we see many of them carried out here) that have sprung up to make the pilgrims feel as if they are going through something significant. But at its heart, the film is about what it takes for us to kick start our own lives. Just as the film is wrapping up, Christine begins to show signs that maybe her restored condition isn't permanent (and many in the group seem to be okay with this, which is appalling), but the film ends before that question is answered, as if to emphasize that this is not a film about miracle cures. It's about rediscovering life. There's a quiet melancholy to the work, particularly in Testud's performance, that moved me a great deal, and any shortcomings the film might have in pacing are erased by its ability to stir something in the soul. Perhaps seeing the film is akin to a small religious experience as well. Find out for yourself. Lourdes opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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