Saturday, May 15, 2010

Back in the Hood: Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” is Not Very Legendary

“Are you not entertained?” – Maximus, Gladiator

“Correct.” – Me, after watching Robin Hood

I don’t know too much about Robin Hood, but what I did know is that I was excited to see the Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe version. I wasn’t a big fan of Gladiator at first, but now it’s become a movie that gets better with every viewing. I like its style and grittiness and much of the same style is ported over into “Robin Hood,” another retelling of the possibly fictional, possibly real outlaw from 12th century England who “stole from the rich and gave to the poor” under the tyranny caused by King John after his brother King Richard left to fight in the Crusades. How much of this is historically accurate? I have no idea. But what I do know is that this new “Robin Hood” is as exciting as a day of jury duty (Not that I would know of course, knock on wood).

I was hoping this film would start my obsession with Robin Hood, but alas it has disappointed me. What most people don’t know and should probably know going in, is that writer Brian Helgeland has written a script that works as a prequel. And it’s profoundly confusing. I expect much better from the writer of “A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master.” We see how Robin becomes the Robin Hood that most people are familiar with. There is swordplay and lots of arrows fired, but I didn’t see much stealing from the rich or giving to the poor. In fact, what I noticed was a lot of confusion. I mean what the heck is going on in this movie? Not knowing it was a prequel didn’t help much, as nothing I was expecting of Robin Hood actually happened on screen. In fact, most of my Robin Hood knowledge comes from the Mel Brooks’ spoof “Robin Hood Men in Tights” which I don’t even really like all that much to begin with.

From what I can make out in this new flick is Robin (Crowe, very Maximus-esque) is making his way back from fighting in the Crusades with King Richard. King Richard is killed and meanwhile his brother John takes over. He’s a womanizing jerk. Robin wants to seek vengeance for King Richard’s death and the new king’s tyranny. Then there’s Maid Marion (the always reliable Cate Blanchett) who just might have the hots for Robin. They have a sort of love-hate relationship. If this is the film’s most interesting aspect that’s fine, cause there’s not much else. Oh yeah we have “Little John” in the form of the guy from “Lost” who was on the freighter. There are some comic relief jokes here and there, but nothing like the light-hearted fun that’s supposedly the staple of the very early screen versions (Of which, I have, shockingly, never seen).

Ok, so there’s nothing really technically wrong with Robin Hood. Ridley Scott is a good director and he has his distinct style and sometimes he just likes to copy it over and over again. If you’re entertained by strong battle scenes, which seemed rather intense for a PG-13 rated film, but pretty much void of gore (zzzZZZzzz) then this is for you. To be honest, I wanted to love this and I didn’t. Give me “Gladiator” anyday. GRADE: C-

Thursday, May 13, 2010

MacGuffin’ It: Going Mad for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”

“Oh, just fast-forward to the part when she gets to the motel.” – My mom
During a family vacation to Orlando, Florida we stopped by the Universal Studios theme park. It was 1993, I believe, and I was about nine or ten years old. There used to be an attraction, which sadly no longer exists, called Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. At this age I had not seen nor ever really heard much about Alfred Hitchcock or his films. My parents explained that he was a director who made suspense films. I know I loved movies and I figured hey why not? The first part of the attraction featured a film reel in 3D with a scene from “Dial M for Murder” and an attack from “The Birds.” Then you were escorted into another theater where a recreation of the Psycho set was on display. Here we learned about Hitchcock’s famous “shower scene” which of course I knew nothing about. And as part of the attraction a huge screen was lowered and they showed the scene from the movie. I can’t say that I was completely scared to death, but I was frightened and strangely intrigued. A movie about a guy who dresses as his mother while he kills people in the shower? I was so there! Universal even had a recreation of the original set of the Bates Motel and Psycho house on display at the park which I thought was so cool (Which are now located at Universal Studios in Hollywood). I even brought home a notepad in the shape of the Psycho house and a red pen shaped like a knife as a souvenir.

Months later back at home at the local video store, my mom thought it would be a good idea to rent some of Hitchcock’s films. I’m not quite sure what she was thinking, but I don’t regret it. I watched "The Birds" and loved it. I watched "Psycho" which I loved even more. I remember scoping out the videocassette at the store and noticing that it was “rated M for mature.” I asked my mom, “Am I mature?” I think she just nodded her head and laughed. I mean what ten year-old who is the son of a woman renting "Psycho" for her child, is not mature? I went home and watched the movie and I’m pretty sure I had no idea what the heck was going on. The first forty minutes seemed to be about some woman who likes to drive a lot. Finally she checks into the Bates Motel and is brutally stabbed in the shower. I remember they showed the film on AMC one night and I taped it. I had to watch the movie over and over again. And even when I had my friends come over, I’d say, “You wanna watch Psycho?” And we’d put it on and then my mother, possibly herself bored with the film’s slower first act, would insist that we fast-forward to when Janet Leigh gets to the motel.

I’m not sure why I became fascinated with Hitchcock’s masterpiece at such a young age, but perhaps it was fate. I think I was destined to absolutely love the Slasher Genre. Because I think it was basically the year before or year after that I was shown “Halloween” and I was equally terrified and enthralled by it. “Psycho” is a great film for all of the reasons you’ve already heard of. It kills its lead actress in the first 40 minutes. It’s shot in stark black and white because Hitchcock insisted the film would be too gory. Hitchcock revolutionized the way people go to the movies when he employed a “no late entry” policy at theaters showing the film. If the film had started, you weren’t even allowed in. And oh that music! How could you not get chills when those stark strings churn out one of the creepiest stings in all of cinema? The shower scene is still to this day the most famous, and arguably, the best moments in American film. Norman Bates is such a memorable character mostly because of Anthony Perkins’ outstanding portrayal. And let’s not forget he would reprise his most famous role three more times. Yes there are actually a total of four “Psycho” films and I’ve seen them all. I own them. “Psycho II” is a pretty decent 80s take on the Norman Bates saga. “Psycho III” is artsy and easily forgettable but remembered for its famous director (Perkins himself!) and “Psycho IV The Beginning” is a fascinating prequel which shows Norman’s messed up childhood and how he went about murdering his own mother. The less said about the equally fascinating (because it famously used the same script and camera angles) yet horrendous remake the better.

And wouldn’t you know that 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of this classic, groundbreaking movie. (Which was just announced for release on Blu-Ray!) It was a film that shocked audiences around the world, perhaps in part that it was very loosely based on a real killer’s crimes (that of Wisconsin’s Ed Gein), and in my own living room where the memories of first watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho are as fresh as ever. Psycho is a celebration of cinematic sound and vision that will forever hold up as the granddaddy of modern horror and the perfect topping to a brilliant showman’s wondrous career. Thanks mom, for renting "Psycho." I guess a boy's best friend is his mother. GRADE: A+

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Stark Knight: “Iron Man 2” is a Fun and Worthy Sequel, But Can’t Match the Original

I wasn’t expecting too much from the first “Iron Man” movie back in 2008. I knew nothing of the character, and I figured, hey, it might just be a fun waste of time. It was certainly fun and not a waste of time at all. I was pleasantly surprised. And even thought it came out just a couple months before The Dark Knight, no one was really expecting all that much from Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of what seemed like a superhero no one really cared about. I was certainly wrong. The movie did extremely well at the box office and was a critical success. I was fascinated by Downey’s performance as Tony Stark, a hot shot billionaire and CEO of his father’s weapons business. And after a harrowing ordeal as a POW he escapes and becomes the most unlikely and narcissistic superhero of them all. Iron Man was great fun and while I loved the movie, I could honestly care less about the continuing story. Sure I wanted to see Iron Man 2, but much like the first one, I had very little expectations.

I will say upfront, that I think I enjoyed the first “Iron Man” movie, but “Iron Man 2” is definitely a worth sequel and anyone who loved the first movie is bound to like the second chapter. Downey is as wonderful as ever reprising his role as the cocky Tony Stark. I think this guy was born to play this role and it’s too bad he had to spend all those years a complete mess before getting there, but I guess it’s been worth it. We find that Stark’s arc reactor, which is that round thing in the middle of his chest that keeps him alive, is malfunctioning and is slowly poisoning him. He thinks he’s going to die soon and begins to become reckless. He even appoints his personal assistant Pepper Potts (a wonderful Gwyneth Paltrow) as CEO of his company. And he replaces her with the mysterious Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson). It seems like she seems a lot tougher than she looks. Meanwhile, Stark’s competitor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is trying to come up with his own Iron Man suit technology. The government insists that Stark give up his suit and its technology so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. And of course Hammer isn’t the nicest guy in the world and breaks out a Russian bad guy named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) who caused some ruckus in a wonder scene at a racetrack where he was able to recreate a version of Tony’s arc reactor and used electrified whips. It turns out his father used to work for Tony’s father and he’s bent on revenge for being deported back to Russia.

There is a lot going on in Iron Man 2 and maybe that is its greatest fault. It’s never too confusing, I was pretty much aware of everything going on, but it was a lot to digest. Director Jon Favreau does a good job of balancing everything and he makes scenes that should be exciting very exciting. I loved the scene of Ivan’s attack at the racetrack. And when we see Tony put on that suit with all the CGI metal transforming around him it was certainly a heroic image. Of course once we don’t see Robert Downey Jr. anymore a bit is lost as it just seems like any other fancy robot trying to kick butt. Oh wait there’s more, Tony’s friend Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terrance Howard) gets in on the Iron Man fun and uses one of Tony’s suits to help him out. And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, who exists only for the fan boys who salivate at the idea that he’s trying to recruit Tony Stark into what will eventually be an “Avengers” movie. Writer Justin Theroex who also co-wrote Downey’s fantastic hit “Tropic Thunder” juggles a lot of story in a two hour runtime which he does well enough. But it does seem a bit bloated as if he’s trying to please everyone. It works much better here than it did in let’s say “Spider-Man 3,” which felt like there was too much going on and yet it felt a little hollow.

"Iron Man 2" is a fun movie and a great way to kick off the summer movie season. People who enjoyed the first film will mostly like find something to like here. The film really works because of Robert Downey Jr.’s great performance and I really enjoyed Pepper’s expanded role this time around because she was so enjoyable in the first film as well. Johansson proves she can be an action star and Rourke is perfectly cast. “Iron Man 2” is not a deep film in the way “The Dark Knight” is and I still think the first film works better, but it’s really fun and offers two hours of explosive entertainment that won’t make your head hurt. GRADE: B