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Errol Flynn he ain’t: Crowe in Robin Hood.

No Flash or Dash

By Ann Morrow

Robin Hood

Directed by Ridley Scott

 

The latest Robin Hood—this one by Ridley Scott—originated from a script titled Nottingham. Though Nottingham, with all its cinematic and historical connotations, might have been rife with drama, what appears onscreen is a laborious concoction of quasi-history concerning the failure of King Richard’s final crusade, the less-than-noble ascension of King John, and heavy taxation that pushes Merry Old England into rebellious ferment. And, not so incidentally, the legend of an obscure archer who will eventually be known as Robin Hood. It’s a long slog that even history buffs might have trouble following, but at least Scott knows how to choreograph a battle scene, which is more than can be said for the silliness of Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

It helps that in Scott’s relentlessly overcast but picturesque England, one of the impoverished landowners is Cate Blanchett as Marion Loxley. Whilst fending off the opportunistic Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen), Marion is reunited with a childhood neighbor in a plot twist lifted from Sommersby. That neighbor grew up to be Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe), an archer in King Richard’s army who returns from the crusade disillusioned with religious zealotry. Upon his return home, he becomes disgruntled by the divine right of monarchy. But that’s after he witnesses the ignoble death of Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) while sacking a castle in France. Robin retrieves the king’s crown, escapes the machinations of Prince John’s henchman Godfrey (Mark Strong), and assumes the persona of a dead noble who entrusted him with his father’s sword. (As in Scott’s Gladiator, which this film resembles too closely, deep-seated father-son issues add more murk than modernity). Sword, rather than bow, in hand, Robin sails to England aboard a royal ship as Sir Loxley. Identity theft was Robin’s first steal from the rich? Who knew?

Due to Scott’s expertise with action sequences, the long opening build-up is exciting and intriguing, and establishes some historical authenticity despite the clunky dialogue (“I don’t care who he is, he knows too much!” fumes Godfrey after Robin’s escape). Returning the sword to its owner in Nottingham, Robin is accepted as a prodigal son by the elder Loxley (Max von Sydow, who doesn’t quite dignify a ridiculous role), and slyly woos Marion, who has been a war widow for most of her youth. Despite the fact that Robin Longstride could be more accurately referred to as Robin Longtooth, Crowe and Blanchett have a wonderful rapport that the direction doesn’t give enough attention to.

Though Nottingham is where the action is, the film cuts frequently to John’s domestic turmoil. There, John’s formidable mother Eleanor (Eileen Atkins), and a wise advisor (William Hurt), are interfering with both his affair with a French princess and his determination to raise taxes even higher. Every time the plot heats up—the Northern nobles rebel, Phillip of France secretly lands an army—it’s slowed with righteous blather about freedom and liberty from Robin (with the encouragement of old Loxley, who knows the truth of Robin’s paternity). Perhaps this is meant to draw parallels to the war-economy taxation of today, but in the context of 12th-century skullduggery, it just comes off as grandstanding.

The flummoxing script, by historical schlocker Brian Helgeland (A Knight’s Tale), manages to work in Robin’s band of bawdy peasant soldiers, with Little John (Kevin Durand) being the only who actually adds some humor to Robin’s paternally appointed quest of saving England from corruption. And the climactic turf war is as gorgeously furious as any medieval battle since Braveheart. King John, however, is not impressed, and neither will those audiences who prefer Robin Hood as a dashing outlaw rather than the unsung instigator of the Magna Carta.

 

Fouled Out

Just Wright

Directed by Sanaa Hamri

Undoubtedly, there are aspects of Queen Latifah’s new feature, Just Wright, that are refreshing even as they hark back to a different cinematic day. Our favorite plus-size celebrity plays Leslie Wright, a successful physical therapist and first-time homeowner who, at 35, is begrudgingly realistic about her chances at being anything other than some guy’s top homegirl. Director Sanaa Hamri actually shows us scenes in which Lesley is—hold tight now—on the job and interacting with her coworkers. There are also scenes that enhance the fact that Leslie is a good daughter and a good friend, especially to the vapid and needy Morgan (Paula Patton), who dresses up for a Nets basketball game. Determined to become the wife of an NBA superstar, Morgan quickly outdistances Leslie when it comes to charming the debonair Nets hoopster Scott McKnight (Common), even though he and Leslie had “met cute” and obviously have the love of the game in, er, common. When injury threatens to devastate McKnight’s career, Morgan convinces Leslie to become his in-house trainer, cheerleader and all around, well, homegirl, resulting in a deepened friendship and some miscommunications.

With energetic basketball sequences and an infectious soundtrack, plus the overt appeal of its two stars, Just Wright is a movie you want to like. But it’s also one hot mess. The filmmakers can’t seem to decide which approach—comedy? drama? soap?—they want to take, let alone what mood they wish to evoke. Leslie’s dilemma, being an unvalued gem, is compelling, and it would have been interesting to delve more deeply into the way in which men respond more readily to the obvious charms of a Morgan, or how peer and societal pressure might compel even a success story like Scott into denying his attraction to Leslie. One thread that was damningly left dangling was that of Scott’s mother (Phylicia Rashad) and her relationship not just to him, but to the two new women in her son’s life. At one point, she proclaims that she likes Leslie, but a few scenes later, thinking that Leslie had knowingly wronged him, she changes her opinion.

The movie chugs on to its inevitable happy ending, and allows us some sophisticated scenes between Latifah and Common, but ultimately this is a glass half-empty.

—Laura Leon

 

Return to Sender

Letters to Juliet

Directed by Gary Winick

Gary Winick’s career as a motion-picture director continues its looping spiral into irrelevancy with this regrettable romance set among the splendors of the Italian countryside. The story is a fairy tale, brought to the screen with but a few glimmers of magic. This is inexplicable: With this scenery and these stars—Amanda Seyfried and Vanessa Redgrave—a reasonably competent roomful of monkeys, armed with megaphones and sporting monocles, would have brought forth a better result.

Sophie (Seyfried), an ace fact-checker at The New Yorker, is engaged to chef Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal) at the outset, so it is reasonable to assume that they will not be together at the end. However, it is not reasonable to make the doomed relationship so transparently ridiculous as to make the star’s character seem like a complete dolt.

Sophie and her soon-to-be hubby jet off to Verona for a pre-wedding honeymoon. Victor spends all his time sniffing out the best cheeses to supply his restaurant, so Sophie, bored, starts sniffing around Verona for a story that will elevate her from fact-checker to writer.

Are you bored yet? I was.

She ends up at Juliet’s house—or, specifically, the house that is claimed as the house of the fictional Capulets in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Miserable, pretty girls from around the world flock there to leave letters asking advice of “Juliet.” She follows the woman who collects these letters at day’s end back to the office where a group of women, Juliet’s helpers, answer the letters.

Still not bored? When they find out Sophie is a journalist, they’re delighted. This is even less credible than the Sophie-Victor engagement.

Through a series of clumsily presented fairy-tale plot twists, Sophie falls in with Claire (Redgrave), a grandmother who failed to pursue her great love, a dashing Italian fellow, 50 years ago, and Charlie (Christopher Egan), Claire’s classic-English-prig grandson. Most of the picture is the three of them driving around Italy tracking down Claire’s love while Charlie and Sophie bicker their way into each other’s hearts.

It plays better than it reads because Seyfried and Redgrave and Italy are luminous. But it’s still dumb and emotionally deflating. There’s one brief shining moment, though, when Claire and her true love meet after 50 years, but only because it’s Redgrave and Franco Nero reuniting 43 years after their pairing in Camelot.

Now, Camelot isn’t a very good movie, but I’d take its three hours over Letters to Juliet’s 93 minutes any afternoon. And Camelot’s director, Joshua Logan, made a lot of problematic movies, but he’s a cinematic genius compared to Winick.

—Shawn Stone


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