Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Robin Hood

I wanted to like Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s new Robin Hood. Really, I did. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize how much I disliked the movie. I never expected it to be groundbreaking cinema but I thought it at least looked like fun, in a “Maximus in Sherwood Forest” kind of way. And while the movie does play at times like a Gladiator/ Lord of the Rings hybrid it is nowhere near as entertaining or engaging as either of those titles.

I don’t know why we needed an origin story for the famous outlaw and, judging by Scott’s movie, I’m not sure he knows, either. Maybe he figured he needed a new angle, since the story has been told so many times. And while I would ordinarily support casting more mature actors, like Crowe and Cate Blanchett, as opposed to tweeny-boppers, I find it odd that Robin and Marian were this old and beaten down by life at the very beginning of the legend.

Based on trailers and press for Robin Hood I was expecting a gruff, tough, rugged tale. I did not expect funny, lighthearted moments but I rather enjoyed them and wished there had been more of the same. I especially enjoyed the scene where Robin and his Merry Men snag a shipment of grain in Sherwood Forest; again, it made me wish for more of the same. But since this is an origin myth we have to trod unfamiliar ground. We have to know why Robin has become an outlaw and what compels him to stand up for the little guy and defy the men in power. Which means, in this version of events, we get lots of dull, tedious political intrigue and Crowe’s Robin making rousing (not really but I guess they were meant to be) speeches about personal freedom. The parts that worked best, I thought, were the parts that every other Robin Hood movie already has. Maybe Scott should have left well enough alone.

Things pick up a little in the last half hour, with a well-choreographed battle sequence (even if it’s marred by entirely pointless scenes of a suited-up Marian going to war with the boys. This is not Return of the King and she’s definitely no Eowyn); I will confess that the sound of the arrows zipping through the sky was neat. But, just like the rousing call to arms speeches, it all seemed a bit rote. After Middle Earth and Narnia and the Roman Coliseum this movie felt too much like too many movies I’d seen before. Better movies. Movies with warmth and charm behind them. Movies that didn’t feel like cynical grabs to cash in on already proven and popular material. I found Robin Hood to be lacking in sincerity and purpose. It was wildly erratic in tone and pace and, just like the decision to cast older actors for a prequel story, the filmmaking decisions seemed random rather than thought-out. What kind of movie was Scott intending to make? Aside from one that could easily turn a profit, I honestly have no idea.

The actors make the best of it. The supporting cast seems well-suited to the material, I guess, but it’s hard to say for certain since we see so little of them. I guess Mr. Scott was banking on us already knowing who Will Scarlet, Little John and Friar Tuck are, so no need to bog down the movie with anything like actual character development. Crowe and Blanchett are adequate as Robin and Marian; had they had better material to work with I’m sure they could have been great. At least they look pretty and they make a handsome couple. There doesn’t feel like much of a spark between them but there doesn’t feel like much of a spark in the movie, period.

I will say that the closing credits were spectacular. I mean this in all sincerity. The credits are like a tiny, animated version of the story, told in a vivid, painterly fashion. The artists responsible for those credits should make their own version of Robin Hood. I think that might actually be something worth seeing.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


To date, I have seen four adaptations of Hamlet and, while I’ve never felt the urge to seek out every available version, I’ve never met a cinematic retelling of the play that I didn’t like. In 1990, Franco Zeffirelli and Mel Gibson provided my introduction, at the age of fourteen, to the melancholy Danish prince. I’d had some exposure, by that time, to Shakespeare’s work but my grasp of the Bard’s language was still tenuous at best, so I had trouble keeping up with the story. What stood out and made a lasting impression on me was Ophelia. I liked her because she was pretty and crazy. Helena Bonham Carter does both pretty and crazy well, especially in a period setting, and even if I didn’t entirely understand Ophelia’s plight, I felt for her (it was actually Bonham Carter’s performance in this movie that prompted me to seek out more of her work, so I guess I have Zeffirelli & co. to thank for my love of Merchant Ivory films and, by extension, the writings of E.M. Forster).

These days I appreciate Hamlet as a whole but my opinion of any version I see still depends, in part, on whether or not I think they get Ophelia right. I’m usually satisfied. Kate Winslet makes a fine tragi-romantic heroine in Kenneth Branagh’s comprehensive adaptation (from 1996) and Julia Stiles does admirable work with the role in Michael Almereyda’s visually arresting, modern take on the tale (2000), even if Ophelia’s already scant dialogue is whittled away to little more than a handful of lines.

In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new stage-to-screen version of Hamlet (which aired on PBS late last month) Ophelia is played by Mariah Gale, who is excellent in the role. She is able to convey both ladylike composure and childish naivete, often in the same scene; and when she goes mad it is ugly, pitiful and terribly effective. For once, however, I found myself more captivated by Hamlet himself than my beloved Ophelia, and that has everything to do with David Tennant’s raw, nervy, awesome performance in the title role.

I have never seen Tennant in the role he is most associated with, that of the Doctor on Doctor Who ( but I am presently taking steps to correct that). In fact, I’d never even heard of him. I would not have guessed that the actor is in his late thirties (he looks much younger), an age that I would ordinarily consider far too old for the role of Hamlet (and yes, I’m looking at you, Mel and Ken). His youthful appearance is matched by a teenager’s vivacity, coupled with a portrait of madness that often borders on hysteria. And why not? Our hero is not only unbalanced but is playing mad for the benefit of his uncle, so it’s more than appropriate that Tennant’s performance skews towards over-the-topness now and again. His Hamlet is spry and agile, at once a morose young man and a gangly, emo teenager. The physicality and exuberance he brings to the part only enhances his excellent interpretation of Shakespeare’s text. Passages that I could only get the gist of before made perfect sense to me in this version, as if, trite as it sounds, I was truly hearing the words for the first time.

Tennant’s performance made the character of Hamlet accessible for me in a way that he had never been before. He makes the hero youthful and modern but he also speaks the lines like he actually knows what he’s talking about, like he actually feels them, thinks them. The result is near perfection.

That blend of modernity and classical sensibility extends to the production as a whole, with its swank interiors and contemporary technological flourishes. The sets are sparse and elegant, and almost every available surface, including the floor, is covered in high-gloss black paint, creating a mirrored effect. When the actors aren’t delivering their soliloquies into actual mirrors (the production makes terrific use of one large, fractured looking glass several times throughout the course of the story) or breaking the fourth wall to speak to the audience directly, they simply drop to the floor and speak to their reflections there. Given the amount of introspection in the play it’s effective to have the characters so often deliver the lines directly to themselves.

The production also makes use of CCTV, so that when someone is spying on someone else it’s almost always through the lense of a surveillance camera. Hamlet even busts out a camcorder to document his uncle’s reaction to The Mousetrap, the play within a play that aids in the eventual undoing of the villain. These flourishes worked well enough but reminded me too much of Almereyda’s modern take, in which Hamlet was a young filmmaker and always had a handheld camera at the ready. They didn’t detract in the least, they just didn’t enhance my viewing experience as much as they did in the former version. I did appreciate the suggestion that everyone was being watched, almost always. It helped foster the sense of suspicion and paranoia that is so central to the story.

The rest of the cast is superb. Patrick Stewart does a fine job as both Claudius and the ghost of the slain king. I found Penny Downie to be an especially compelling, and often sympathetic, Gertrude, and I adored Peter De Jersey’s thoughtful, sensitive Horatio, who helped make the demise of this particular Hamlet the most moving one I’ve seen.

If you enjoy Hamlet there are many, many options from which you can choose. While I certainly haven’t seen enough of them to say which is the definitive Hamlet, I think this one definitely deserves a look.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

You Don't Know Jack

If you already feel strongly, one way or the other, about Dr. Jack Kevorkian than this well-made HBO original is unlikely to change your mind about anything. The movie is meant to offer a glimpse into the private life of a polarizing public figure; it presents Kevorkian as a somewhat crotchety oddball, with a quick temper and a macabre streak (at least, if his original artwork is any indication). I actually think he’s a rather endearing figure, probably because I’m a bit of a prickly personality myself, and I also feel, very strongly, that none of his personal eccentricities diminish, in any way, his commitment to his work and his compassion for his patients.

You Don’t Know Jack makes effective use of actual footage from Kevorkian’s consultations with patients and it is stressed, more than once, that his decision to help any person end his life is never entered into lightly. He simply feels that it is senseless, cruel, barbaric even, to prolong human suffering, especially when an individual is of sound mind and wishes to end his own life. Throughout the course of the movie I never found fault with any of Kevorkian’s actions or decisions in regard to his patients; and while I cannot say for certain I assume that their families do not think his acts were performed in anything less than good faith, otherwise I don’t believe they would have given consent to have footage of their loved ones used in the movie.

Kevorkian’s detractors may disagree but I found the tone of You Don't Know Jack to be consistently objective. It presents the events in an even-handed manner without campaigning for or against the assisted suicide cause. It is to director Barry Levinson’s credit that he can take such a lightning rod of a story and transform it into a compelling, understated character study. He is helped enormously by a terrific cast. John Goodman, Susan Sarandon and Danny Huston are solid in their supporting roles and Brenda Vaccaro is especially effective and touching as Kevorkian’s sister Margo.

Fond as I am of Pacino I’ll admit that I was skeptical of him making a convincing Dr. Kevorkian but I think he’s really quite good in the role. There may have been one or two moments where I thought a “Hoo-Ah” was going to escape his lips but, for the most part, his performance is subtle and convincing.

This is another fine example of exceptional, compelling storytelling from HBO. Kudos. Hoo-Ah, indeed.