POSTED ON MAY 19, 2010:
Thou Aren't Good
Robin Hood and Letters to Juliet fail short of wonderment and excitement
No First Success. Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett try to live up to the steamy romance of Robin Hood and Maid Marion in Robin Hood. Note the word: try.
"Cross-platform synergy" is a term I just made up, though for all I know, it could be a bit of actual corporate speak. It's a moniker for something I've noticed lately.
Last week after getting back from Iron Man 2, I plopped down on the couch, turned on the television and started flipping through channels. There, I see Iron Man is just about to begin.
Then yesterday, I noticed a preponderance of Robin Hood flicks, most prominently the Mel Brooks comedy Robin Hood: Men in Tights. When so few media entities own almost every outlet, I guess that makes it possible for advertising and entertainment to take on this weird meta-level where a film itself becomes product placement.
But then I noticed a weird six-degrees-of-separation layer to the whole thing. When I got home from Robin Hood last night, I plopped down on the couch and started flipping through channels and noticed that L.A. Confidential was on. L.A. Confidential was written with Curtis Hanson by Brian Helgeland. Robin Hood was written by Brian Helgeland. Six-degrees-of-synergy!
Obviously there are variables (Confidential was based on the James Ellroy story and directed by Hanson), but after watching a few minutes of L.A. Confidential, it made me wonder how it and Robin Hood could have been written by the same guy.
There are some similarities. Both are rather densely written narratives, with fairly complex plots and a big cast of characters that intertwine to create a spider web of a tale. But L.A. Confidential is a propulsive, exciting, stylish joy, while Robin Hood came as close as any recent movie has to inducing sleep.
It's not for lack of trying. Apparently, I just saw more than $200 million on the screen doing it's damndest to be exciting for what felt considerably longer than two and a half hours, yet director Ridley Scott's take on the legendary bandit of Nottingham is still a lackadaisical chore.
For one thing, he's not even a bandit -- yet. At the turn of the 12th Century, Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) has been fighting in the Crusades alongside the forces of Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) for a decade.
When the King is slain, Robin escapes back to England, but not before coming across an ambush meant for the King and orchestrated by a traitorous Knight, Sir Godfrey (scenivore Mark Strong).
Robin foils Godfrey and claims the King's crown and, assuming the identity of a dying knight, returns to England. He's chosen to present the crown to Eleanor of Aquitaine and, after witnessing the succession to Richard's younger brother, John (Oscar Isaac), Robin goes on to Nottingham to return the sword of the knight whose identity he adopted.
That knight's father, Sir Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow) convinces Robin to remain his son's changeling so that his daughter-in-law, Marion (Cate Blanchett) won't have to cede her lands to the Crown.
Sounds like exciting stuff, right? I didn't think so, either. Robin Hood's biggest problem is the script. Whether it's the ancillary characters that don't really do a whole lot, over indulgence in exposition, hackneyed dialogue and situations ripped from a half-a-dozen epics of its kind, Robin Hood just doesn't bring anything new or exciting to the table.
The whole film had a spliced together feel that might have been due to over editing -- Scott's Kingdom of Heaven suffered those issues while still being more engaging -- but I never got the sense that anything hitting the cutting room floor would have helped the laborious pacing of its 140-minute run time.
While the visuals are as slick as one might expect from such a massive budget, much of what transpires is scene after scene of people explaining what's going on. The cloak and dagger of the court, the politics of the war with France and the unrest brewing due to King John's draconian taxation, the slow budding romance between Robin and Marion, and even a Magna Carta sub-plot, all take center stage in lieu of action. This all might have been better in a more economical film, but in its current form, the action bursts only accentuate the long narrative lulls. It never achieves the derring-do excitement of the serials it aspires to re-imagine.
The battles themselves are pretty well staged, but again, are re-hashed. Films like Excalibur and Braveheart repeatedly came to mind, with little nods to Rings and 300. Worse, what makes many of those epic battles in other pictures so visceral is the carnage, of which this PG-13 hack-and-slasher has nary a drop. It's violently bloodless, which is kind of a metaphor for everything about the film.
Crowe, with his variable accent, comes through on the physicality of the role, which is really no surprise. What is a surprise is how his performance seems so muted. Come to think of it, he's in L.A. Confidential, too, and as Budd White he owned every second of screen time with his ferocious performance. Here, Crowe dials it back and as a result he almost seems disconnected. Odd, since he clearly worked his butt off to get into the part.
Blanchett is lovely and cold as Marion, though her screen presence is as intact as ever. Oscar Isaac is appropriately contemptible as King John, though his performance lacked any real depth. His arc could have been articulated in a more layered way. There are some fun turns, though, from Von Sydow, Kevin Durand as Little John and Mark Addy as the bee-hive wielding Friar Tuck. Whenever one of them pops up, it's like someone turning the lights on.
Ridley Scott gave us the two of the best sci-fi films ever made in Alien and Blade Runner, and one of films biggest epics with Gladiator. My understanding is that his next project is a prequel to the first Alien film.
Let's hope he gets his head back in the game because Robin Hood might be the first time he's ever committed the cinematic sin of boring me.
Fair, Fair Juliet
If it hadn't been for the ending, I would have wound up really having very little bad to say about Letters to Juliet. It's not that it's not predictable -- it is -- but the film's grounded sense of realism up to that point was part of the reason I was buying into this charming, if far-fetched, tale of love's perseverance.
Amanda Seyfried portrays Sophie, a New York fact-checker and aspiring writer, who is engaged to her charming but self-absorbed boyfriend, Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal). Victor is a chef on the verge of opening his own Manhattan restaurant, and he decides to combine business with a pre-wedding honeymoon to Italy, where he can scout out top quality products.
In Verona, Sophie, left to her own devices, decides to go for a walk. She comes across the home of Juliet Capulet, the doomed heroine of the Shakespeare play, where lovelorn women leave notes on the wall, in the hopes that, like a wishing well, luck will intervene in their unhappiness.
Sophie discovers a group of women who collect the letters and answer them. Smelling a story, and perhaps identifying with the lonely, Sophie joins the group and soon after discovers an old letter hidden behind a loose stone, addressed to Juliet from 1957.
When Sophie reads the story of Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), an English girl sundered by fate from her lover Lorenzo, she decides to pen a reply. A week later she gets an answer in the form of Charlie (Chris Egan), Claire's stiff-upper-lip grandson, and Claire herself, who has decided to try and find her lost love.
And if that all sounds like a film aiming to send you out of the theater happy, it is. Letters to Juliet is pretty solidly formulaic, but it's also just pretty solid. Buoyed by a fine cast and its gorgeous locale, director Gary Winik (13 Going on 30) maintains a breezy pace, while crafting a lush looking film, taking full advantage of the idyllic Italian countryside.
The script by Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan melds thoughtfully drawn characters with narrative whimsy, into something that feels oddly unpretentious and fresh until it's tonally jarring end, where it finally falls prey to the bad habits it so dutifully avoided.
Seyfried looks stunning, as usual -- though I have to admit I had a hard time shaking off thoughts of Chloe. Not just for superficial reasons, because as sexy as she was in Chloe, she also turned in a strong, well-layered performance.
In Letters to Juliet, it's become clear that Seyfried is not just a perfectly shaped, empty vessel. She gives Sophie a grounded self-assurance that's a refreshing change from the one-dimensional, neuroses ridden norms of many characters of the genre.
Chris Egan is charming and likeable, though his character, Charlie, succumbs to some archetypal writing. He shares a good chemistry with Seyfried, though, and exhibits a capable screen charisma.
As Claire, Vanessa Redgrave leaves no doubts as to why she's been a screen presence for half a century. Regal and still beautiful, Redgrave carries herself like laid back royalty and imbues Claire with charm, depth and wisdom. She's a gem and a living legend.
If it weren't for the film losing its way in the last few minutes, Letters to Juliet would have done more than exceeded skeptical expectations. It would have shattered them. As it is, though, it was still a more than an agreeable night at the movies.
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