PICKS OF THE WEEK
Robin Hood (A-)
U.S.; Ridley Scott, 2010, Universal Studios
Ridley Scott's and Brian Helgeland's new take on Great Britain's most popular heroic legend -- the centuries-old tale of the deadly archer/rebel and his merry men, defying authority, robbing the rich and rewarding the poor -- is unusual.
It's a film of stunning, gorgeous imagery and bloody, deadly action, a vast panorama of lush landscapes erupting into hellish violence and sudden death, with arrows raining down from the trees and the cliffs and scything through flesh, of swords hacking off limbs, and warriors dying in mud, while aristocrats frolic and commoners suffer. It has a stern, emotionally scarred, death-dealing Robin (Crowe), some lusty Merry Men, an angry Maid Marian (here "Marion"), and some villains you can cheerfully hate.
It's as much a visionary triumph of the magic of movies, as some of Scott's best previous pictures: whether set in the nightmarish future (Alien or Blade Runner), the stormy present or near-present (Thelma and Louise or Black Hawk Down), or the distant, perilous past (Gladiator). Indeed, with its snippets of Richard the Lionheart at war, shown at the beginning of the show, Robin Hood links right up to Scott's underrated masterpiece, Kingdom of Heaven. It becomes in some ways the flipside of that medieval legend of bloody history and conflict.
But Scott's movie is more difficult, more complex, than any standard swashbuckler or tale of the Hood. Russell Crowe, the movie's Robin, and Ridley's most frequent star/collaborator, is a surlier, less buoyant, less charming and limber movie Robin Hood than either Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks. And Cate Blanchett may be the toughest, dourest and least maidenly Maid Marian ever.
But the actors can afford to take risks, since Scott and his company and his high-tech experts are taking them too.
The 12th Century world and the people that Ridley Scott has set down around his anachronistic hero and heroine becomes a vast paradise and battleground of verdant greensward, dense forest, boisterous villages full of rustic peasants and unkempt revelers, ocean-side cliffs dropping sheerly down to wave-whipped beaches suddenly seething with warriors, and castles towering in stony grandeur or ruin against the sky. It becomes so vivid a celebration of our dreams of the classical England and of English history, that the background of Robin Hood is a dominating presence all by itself.
Robin Hood has its flaws -- of drama, of emphasis or of too much violence. But this is a truly beautiful movie. And its mix of visual grandeur, jolting violence, and heroic balladry -- the way Robin Hood brings both the historic past and the popular legendry to life -- comprise the show's best defense against charges of pretension or confusion, or of travesties of history and of well-loved movie legends.
Russell Crowe is one of the smartest of today's action-worthy leading men, and he plays Robin with a wary gaze, a steady bow-hand and quick reflexes, as if he actually were a soldier facing long odds in a dangerous world. Crowe is one of the few star hunk movie actors who's also quite willing to play roles that make him look overweight, physically maladroit, intellectually fallible, emotionally vulnerable, fat and sloppy -- as long as they're great roles as in The Insider and A Beautiful Mind -- and I think that actually helps him in movies like this, when he's playing a kind of historical super-hero like Robin.
You can either be a Sean Connery, a Michael Caine or a Clint Eastwood, and play action heroes by not taking the heroics quite too seriously, or you can play it straight like Matt Damon and Daniel Craig, or you can be like Crowe, and make the heroism look hard and dearly-bought. (Extras: digital director's cut; documentary; featurettes; deleted scenes.)
U.S.: Stanley Donen, 1963, Criterion
There have been many, many pastiches and knockoffs of the suspense thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, but few as good, or as vibrantly entertaining, or as packed with their own special personality, as director Stanley Donen's and screenwriter Peter Stone's 1963 Charade. Donen gives the movie his own impeccable high-style touch, while pulling off one sparkling or tense set-piece after another. He also uses one of Hitch's favorite leading men, Cary Grant, and a leading lady whom Hitch wanted but couldn't hang onto. (Audrey Hepburn, who bowed out of Hitchcock's No Bail for the Judge project just before she made Charade, when the director insisted on keeping some gamy sex scenes.)
Donen's main models, quite obviously, are those three Grant-Hitch classics Notorious, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest.
The story takes place in France and mostly in Paris, where Hepburn is a piquant, Givenchy-clad and sometimes very forward widow, whose murdered husband's corpse and other items connected to it are still being chased down by a stellar band of crooks that includes James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass. Aiding Audrey (or are they?) are two seemingly stalwart but maybe secretly equivocal characters played by Grant (the mysterious lover) and Walter Matthau (the knowing government man).
The movie, sumptuously shot by Charles Lang, and given the full Henry Mancini score and title song treatment (with Johnny Mercer lyrics), is full of witty byplay, swanky eroticism, lovely sights, top-notch acting, and finely-crafted (if mostly tongue-in-cheek) thrill scenes. Grant was never more popular than when he appeared here, still knocking them dead at nearly 60. Audrey, meanwhile, was never more beautiful. They click, definitively. We'll bet even Hitch was amused. (Extras: commentary by Donen and Stone; featurette; booklet with Bruce Eder essay.)
Forbidden Planet (A-)
U.S.: Fred McLeod Wilcox, 1956, Warner, Blu-ray
The best-reviewed and still one of the best-loved science fiction movie of the '50s -- a decade when most sci-fi cinema, Day the Earth Stood Still and this movie aside, was somewhat campy and junky, a mélange of giant bugs and outer-space shootouts -- was this lusciously mounted extraterrestrial adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, with Walter Pidgeon as Morbius, the deep space Prospero on Altair Nine, custodian of a vanished race's treasure trove of scientific advances, Anne Francis as his sexy, mini-skirted Miranda of a daughter, Leslie Nielsen as the (non-comic) starship commander who gets the hots for Anne, and Warren Stevens, Richard Anderson, Earl Holliman, Jack Kelly and James Drury among the crew. Also, brewing coffee, chauffeuring the crew, saving lives, and bootlegging booze, is the most popular and charismatic robot of the era, R2D2 and C3PO's granddaddy, Robby the Robot.
The movie was directed, with warmth and a sense of wonder, by the auteur of Lassie Come Home and The Secret Garden, Fred McLeod Wilcox, and it's intelligently written (by Cyril Hume, of Bigger Than Life), and beautifully designed and shot in color and Cinemascope, with an animated monster by the Disney Studio. The music is an experimental electronic score, Stockhausen on Herrmann. The highlight: almost any scene with Robby, and Morbius' fantastic science lesson about the secrets of Altair. (Extras: documentary Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the '50s and Us; featurettes; deleted scenes; excerpts from The MGM Parade; trailers; and two later appearances by Robby the Robot: in the 1957 feature The Invisible Boy, a mad-computer tale also scripted by Hume and directed by Herman Hoffman, and an episode of the TV The Thin Man, with Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk, directed by Oscar Rudolph, Alan's dad.)
The Secret Behind Their Eyes (A-)
Argentina; Juan Jose Campanella, 2009, Sony Classics, Blu-ray
Another of those stylish foreign-language mystery films that have been delighting sophisticated American art house audiences for the last several years. This one, directed by Juan Jose Campanella, is about a political crime and murder from the age of "disappearances" still being investigated (on his own) by Benjamin (Ricardo Darin, who played the con artist in Nine Queens), a relentless, now-retired prosecutor, who's also still in love with his old boss Irene (Soledad Villamil), still bedeviled by the same damned fascists, and still looking for vengeance for his brilliant, drunken, murdered friend (Guillermo Francella).
This engrossing movie won the 2010 American Oscar for best foreign language film (against the formidable opposition of The White Ribbon, A Prophet, and several others) -- and also picked up 13 Argentine Oscars and nine Argentine Clarins. Darin, meanwhile, holds the screen like few international stars. (Though not as handsome as either, he reminds you of Marcello Mastroianni crossed with Michael Caine.) And Campanella (Son of the Bride) has both a sure humanizing touch with actors, and lots of style. No masterpiece maybe, but a very good film and a first-rate entertainment. (In Spanish, with English subtitles.)
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection: Prohibition Era (A)
U.S.; various directors, 1930-1939, TCM/Warner Bros.
Three quintessential variations on the classic Warners gangster rise-and-fall tale, plus a lighter-hearted gangster comedy, all packed with blood, guts, booze and gunfire, all starring Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson or both. (Bogie sneaks into one of them as well.) You're better off with the earlier Warners gangster sets, which are more complete, but this set's a real treat for the budget-minded. (Extras: commentaries; documentaries; vintage short subjects, newsreels and cartoons; trailers.)
Little Caesar (A-)
U.S.: Mervyn LeRoy, 1930
From W.R. Burnett's great, terse, hard-boiled novel about a Capone-like gangster's rise and fall, with Edward G. Robinson superb as the bestial Rico, supported (maybe) by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Sidney Blackmer and Glenda Farrell. Try not to feel a chill when Robinson moans "Mother of Mercy (or God), is this the end of Rico?"
The Public Enemy (A)
U.S.: William Wellman, 1931
Cold as ice, hot as whiskey, hard as stone: another matchless hoodlum rise-and-fall epic with another star-making performance: Cagney's as the feral thug Tom Powers. Donald Cook plays Tom's Brother. (Cook was the original star, and Cagney had the "brother" role, but they switched parts.) With hot blond babes Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell and the movies' most famous grapefruit victim, Mae Clarke. What an ending this one has!
Smart Money (B-)
Alfred E. Green, 1931
Robinson is a naturally lucky, brash barber/gambler who gets fleeced by the city slickers and smashes the card-sharps back in a milder, funnier version of the Little Caesar rise-and-fall story. Cagney, in an amazingly physical and balletic turn, is his tough sidekick/brother. (It's their only pairing.)
The Roaring Twenties (A)
Raoul Walsh, 1939
Cagney and Bogart are World War I army buddies who thrive and dive during Prohibition and its aftermath, which sees their boozy rise and violent fall. The rest of the salty Warners cast includes Jeffrey Lynn (as the straight arrow in the foxhole), Priscilla Lane (of the Lane Sisters), Gladys George and Cagney's off-screen pal, Frank McHugh. This is Walsh at his best: tough fast, racy, deluxe storytelling. It's top-chop Walsh-Warners too, with that great terrifying dance of death ending.
TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection: James Cagney (A)
U.S.; various directors, 1935-49, Warner Bros.
Second of the two TCM Greatest Classics Warners Gangster Collections that came out last week -- two sets of four genuine Warners gangster movie classics apiece, with archetypal performances by James Cagney, supported by the matchless Golden Age Warners repertory company. As Cagney says, in the blow-away climax of the 1949 masterpiece White Heat, "Top of the world, Ma!" All movies are U.S. releases. (Extras: commentaries by Richard Schickel, City for Conquest, Drew Casper, White Heat and others; documentaries; vintage short subjects, newsreels and cartoons, including early Chuck Jones; radio plays; trailers.)
William Keighley, 1935
Cagney, accused of playing too many sexy gangsters, plays a sexy G-man in this deliberate image switch. It works. The public bought it. But Public Enemy is still much better. With Margaret Lindsay, Ann Dvorak (Cesca in Scarface) and Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham in King Kong).
Each Dawn I Die (A-)
William Keighley, 1939
Hard-as-nails prison drama about the tight-as-a-fist relationship between framed Cagney and prison kingpin Raft. All the archetypes are here, but it's a slugger: Warners factory work at peak efficiency and impact. This movie was also a big favorite of Joseph Stalin, which, considering the lousy way his minions treated Russian cinema geniuses Eisenstein and Dovzhenko, should show you where his head was at.
City for Conquest (A-)
Anatole Litvak, 1940
High-style left-wing near-noir, and a quintessential Warners '40s tough-guy classic. (Try not to choke up at the end. I dare you.) Based on a John Dos Passos-James T. Farrell-style urban novel by Aben Kandel, written smartly by later black list victim John Wexley (Angels With Dirty Faces), directed with lots of verve, style and a blistering pace by the underrated Litvak, it has a super Warners cast, all at the top of their game. Cagney, who's wonderful, is Danny, the sweet self-sacrificing welterweight boxing contender who goes blind in the ring; Sheridan is his girl Peg the dancer; Arthur Kennedy is Danny's much-loved Gershwin-style composer-brother Eddie (his concerto is by Max Steiner); Donald Crisp is the fatherly fight nabob; Anthony Quinn is the mean wolf of a ballroom dancer who disses Danny and steals Ann; Ward Bond (who else?) is a tough cop; Frank Craven has an odd "spirit of New York City" narrator role; and future director Elia Kazan has a terrific supporting turn as likable mobster and Cagney neighborhood pal Googi. It's Kazan's best movie acting role. Not only does he have a great taxicab scene here -- paralleling Brando's in Kazan's On the Waterfront. He even has a great signature line: "Oooh, I never figured on that at all!"
White Heat (A)
U.S.; Raoul Walsh, 1949
One of the peaks of both film noir and the gangster movie, with rat cop Edmond O'Brien, slut Virginia Mayo, heel Steve Cochran, monster ma Margaret Wycherley and, above them and above us all, an overpowering, ruthless, magnificently crazy lead performance by Cagney as gangster and Oedipal killer/psychopath Cody Jarrett, a piece of classic Cagney movie acting that has to be seen to be believed.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Jonathan Parker, 2009, Screen Media
One of the cleverest comedies I've seen about the contemporary art world -- not that there are all that many of them -- is (Untitled), an untitled work by the writer-director/writer producer team (Jonathan Parker and Catherine DiNapoli) who were behind the 2002 Crispin Glover film of Melville's Bartleby.
(Untitled) is about an "artiste" named Adrian Jacobs (Adam Goldberg), an angry young composer of John Cage-ean concept music, who gets involved with the impeccably sexy, blond, and deliriously pretentious Chelsea art gallery boss, Madeleine Gray (Marley Shelton, in one of the year's best comic performances). Madeleine handles Adrian's brother Josh (Eion Bailey) and his highly popular abstract corporate art (but won't hang it in her gallery).
And she becomes interested in Adrian as well, despite the fact that his dissonant, crash-the piano, smash-a-glass compositions irritate the hell out of even the paltry audiences that come to them, and also seem to baffle his collaborators. All Adrian's music, by the way, was composed by David Lang, a composer friend of Parker's, and a Pulitzer Prize winner.
The jokes in this movie are a bit like Woody Allen's art gallery seduction humor, except they go on for the whole movie. There's the concept artist who takes household items and titles and hangs them. There's Vinnie Jones' machismo-besotted taxidermy artist Ray Barko, a Brit sadist who uses stuffed animals and bedecks them with stuff. Parker is able to make fun of these types so successfully because he's not unsympathetic to this gallery world -- much more sympathetic, in fact, than I would be.
For my money, Goldberg's Adrian is too surly in the movie. But Shelton's Madeleine is as perfect as a Vermeer mirror. (Untitled) is also stunningly photographed by Svetlana Cvenko, a cinematographer who should be on call whenever anyone wants to shoot a Chelsea gallery. Or even the Guggenheim.
Camp Rock (D)
U.S.; Matthew Diamond, 2008, Walt Disney
Wasn't there a time when rock 'n' roll was the music of rebellion, nonconformity and the underclass? This awful, sugary hit Disney Channel TV Movie is about a summer camp for young middle-class (and above) rockers, with teen rock hopeful Mitchie (Demi Lovato) getting snubbed by upper-class rockers, falling in love with fellow nice teen rockers, helping her caterer mother feed the whole rockin' camp, and finally rocking out with her incredible composition "We Rock," in a rock-star contest finale to end them all. (We can only hope). Costarring young star rockers the Jonas Brothers.
U.S.; John Jeffcoat, 2006, Ocean Park Home Entertainment
A sweet, intelligent, well-shot and sometimes very funny romantic comedy from director/co-writer Jeffcoat about an American white-collar guy (Josh Hamilton) who gets his job outsourced and has to travel to India to train his replacements. While there, he falls in love with India -- and one of the replacements. Good, but the ending is unsatisfying. A subject like this needs more bite. With Ayesha Dharker and Larry Pine.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 1 & 2 (C+)
U.S.; Ken Kwapis, 2005/U.S.; Sanaa Hamri, 2008, Warner
Two female-bonding movies for the price of one: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (the saccharine 2005 hit movie based on Ann Brashares' teen novel) and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (its sequel).
Half of Sisterhood 2 works fine, but that the other half stumbles and gets schmaltzy. Both movies focus on the four separate (and sometimes intertwined) stories of four young women: school-age buddies who share the magical reassurance of a pair of decorated jeans that passes from hand to hand and mysteriously fits all of them. This quartet includes angry young filmmaker Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), dedicated theater lover Carmen (America Ferrera), family-troubled archeology student Bridget (Blake Lively) and broken-hearted artist Lena (Alexis Bledel). All of them are well-cast and all but Bridget have man problems, ranging from possible pregnancy to broken vows.
Don't worry. Everything works out peachy-keen -- for the sisterhood, if not necessarily their pants. The two sequences that work best in 2 are the ones with Tibby (an affecting look at a relationship crisis) and with Carmen (a neat little post-All About Eve tale of backstage jealousy and triumph anchored by another pungent, right-on performance by Ferrera.)
Less successful are the stories with Bridget and Lena -- though Bridget's has the advantage of an appearance by the luminously stage-stealing Blythe Danner (who can spark up any movie) and Lena's ends with Greek scenery that knocks your eyes out.
Mars Attacks! (C+)
U.S.; Tim Burton, 1996, Warner
Tim Burton plays at being Ed Wood Jr. on a grander scale in this deliberately cheesy '50s-style sci-fi invasion movie, but he's got too big a budget to make it work right. It's the only movie I can think of based on chewing gum cards. The all-star cast includes Jack Nicholson as the president, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Annette Bening, Sarah Jessica Parker and Martin Short. By the way, there's a great Astounding Science Fiction "little green men from Mars" story by Fredric Brown, called "Martians Go Home," that Burton should have used instead.
Rogues of Sherwood Forest (C)
U.S.: Gordon Douglas, 1950, Columbia/Sony Classics
Robin Hood's son (John Derek) returns from the Crusades, discovers tyrannical chicanery afoot among King John (George MacReady) and other royal or aristocratic miscreants, woos another maid, Marianne this time (Diana Lynn), reassembles his dad's Merrie Men, and starts robbing from the rich and giving to the poor all over again. Not very good, but sort of fun; director Gordon Douglas, who went from Our Gang comedy shorts to being a kind of house director for Frank Sinatra -- with stops at Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and Them! in between -- is an unpretentious stylist who can keep a story moving. It's dubious though whether this one should be kept in motion -- especially since some of the action scenes were simply, obviously filched out of The Bandits of Sherwood Forest. One historical note: Alan Hale, who played Little John to both Errol Flynn's Robin (in 1938) and Doug Fairbanks's (1922) does John again for Derek. It was the likeably blustering Warner Brothers standby Hale's last movie role.
The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (C)
U.S.; George Sherman & Henry Levin, 1946, Columbia/Sony Classics
Another son of Robin Hood (this time, Cornel Wilde), helps his dashing bow-wielding dad and the once again reassembled Merrie Men (including Edgar Buchanan as Friar Tuck), as they all romp through the woods, drop from the trees, send down hails of arrows, avenge ambushed barons, storm the castle and battle such royal/aristo Magna Carta-hating, tax-crazy scamps as (again) frosty George MacReady and the even frostier Henry Daniell. There's another, blonder Maid, but no Marian. (It's Anita Louise as Lady Catherine.) And the Queen is played by Jill Esmond, whom Vivien Leigh stole from Esmond's husband Laurence Olivier. (Sir Larry is nowhere to be seen, which is exactly what Jill was always complaining about.) Bandit is practically the same movie as Rogues. Sometimes it even has the same scenes.