Robin Hood

The Robin Hood legends give filmmakers a lot to shoot, but Ridley Scott is a rusty marksman. It’s an attempt to put a new spin on the myth: Robin Hood is a prequel to the glory days in the Sherwood Forest. But what’s the point of taking off from common knowledge if you’re going to weigh it down with footnotes? Maybe the exposition would’ve been smoothed out if the material were tackled by the Scott who shot Alien; his pacing was once virtuosic. Here, he starts with a bang—a fireball billowing up from Richard the Lionheart’s 1199 siege of Châlus, a 21st-century cliché invading the 12th—but proceeds to whimper, dawdling from scene to scene as we wait for the swords to swing. But they fail to cut through the crap.

Sherlock Holmes fared well when Guy Ritchie removed the detective’s deerstalker; but Robin seems naked without his tights. In the old days, he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor—the Tea Party’s worst nightmare. Coy as the allusion might be, it’s apropos to this adaptation, which muddies things up and makes the “history” denser, but keeps its ideals on a commercially duplicitous level. Robin soapboxes about liberty and rallies against taxation, but the taxes are levied to pay for the Crusades—a war in the Middle East. (Only socialists will be displeased with the film’s shifty politicking: The French are invading England and pilfering indiscriminately. One of the marauders, on the verge of raping a landowner, tells her, “Nobody should own 5,000 acres.” Staliniste! But the filmmakers probably aren’t worried about upsetting socialists; they don’t pay for tickets anyway, right…?) Sequences that should be rousing, if naïve, seem to have been manhandled by clammy appendages. Even the setting is too clammy. These mizzly medieval days can get so dour that I wished the Technicolor sunlight that Errol Flynn basked in would break through the heavy-handed clouds. Some of Jim Mathieson’s photography is quite accomplished—the firelit oranges twinkling on the midnight blues, the beads of water dripping from an arrow, its launch slowed down for us to savor. But Scott’s images no longer look as if seen through a frosty pane of glass, as they did in The Duellists; and they lack the dynamism of Sergei Bodrov’s in Mongol.

Scott is either above pumping testosterone out of his heroes’ pores, or he’s simply short on adrenaline; but he doesn’t replace the he-man cheerleading—à la 300—with a satiric counterpoint (which it probably deserves), or with the lighthearted warmth that made the old swashbucklers glisten. Their forces combined, this director, and the screenwriter, Brian Helgeland (Mystic River, Man on Fire), are as light as a hydrogen bomb. But Scott also isn’t the man’s-man filmmaker that Gladiator put him on the market to be; attempting to extract merriment from Robin’s men, he sputters like a shrimp lifting weights. He’s most comfortable when Russell Crowe’s Robin is schmoozing with a lady, Cate Blanchett’s Maid—er, Matron—Marian. These scenes are carried by a sweet and delicate charm, enlivened, from time to time, by Max von Sydow, that prestigious old coot. Marian wears the pants—she even slips into chain mail. (Not that this isn’t incumbent on women in every historical action picture these days—lest we think women’s rights have evolved over the eons.) Crowe, by shrinking into his bulky frame, dropping his eyes, and mumbling, is the right Robin for this conception. His muffled inflections are a peasant’s attempt at eloquence; he isn’t an extraordinary hero, but a likable common man, affected by injustice, and now elevated to a position to fight it. Crowe performs creditably; he’s human. But he’s a real person trapped in a dulled-out version of make-believe. This isn’t the extroverted Robin Hood who forsook the luxuries of high birth to champion those who couldn’t afford to fend off oppression; unlike Tony Stark, these filmmakers’ paladin fails to inspire a romantic grandiosity that is both tacky and fantastically appealing. And so does their movie.

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Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 isn’t your daddy’s superhero movie. It’s your granddaddy’s. The steady torrent of wisecracks on the screen is indebted to the ’30s screwball comedies that accelerated newly audible dialogue to supersonic speed; and in this high-grade hybrid the screws are actual screws, and the balls energy-based projectiles launched from our hero’s metallic palm. The quips fly faster than the energy balls. (If our hero has any trouble saving the world, it’s only because he’s out of breath.) This two-hour movie doesn’t linger long—which is a virtue. But it poops out early. The filmmakers are so preoccupied with sequels, spin-offs, and tie-ins that the story neither concludes nor hangs from a cliff but splits like a horny amoeba. Their verbosity is by way of apologizing for the sale. I had a good time, but my ears tolled from all the ringing up.

It’s difficult to describe the plot without mistaking it with premonitions of The Avengers or Iron Man 5, but, this time around, the hotrod homunculus has to contend with two new villains—neither of whom are very super. Iron Man’s not very altered ego—Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.)—faces off with daddy issues while stressing the bejeezus out of his sort-of significant other (Gwyneth Paltrow). Mickey Rourke’s Vanko has daddy issues, too, and avenges his father by way of a string of supercharged Hanukkah lights that he lashes Stark—and several other Formula One drivers—with. This display impresses a skeevy Stark Corp. competitor (Sam Rockwell) who pines for a military contract that Stark refuses to make; the unveiling of Stark’s high-tech suit of armor has ushered in an era of world peace, but Rockwell’s Hammer and Senator Garry Shandling (!) know that peace doesn’t pay the bills. (His name is Hammer, and he really is a tool; since the U.S. ain’t buying, and Iron Man’s off the market, he pawns off his gimcrackery to the Axis of Evil, which, unfortunately, is not the name of a comic-book cadre.)

Conniving cinematic moguls have all the money in the world and never know what they’re paying for. The misalliance between the Wall Street grub and the Soviet Bloc-head threatens Stark’s international armistice and—yada yada yada. This expression of impatience is as much mine as the filmmakers’: Jon Favreau, the franchise’s auteur apparent, and Justin Theroux, the solo screenwriter. (The 2008 prequel enumerated four.) If Iron Man wasn’t played for breezy irony, it would most likely have been because these filmmakers had lost their minds—like most of the recent superhero movies have. A sense of proportion is key. When it makes one feel indignation at a project that one’s working on, that sense can have a poisonous effect on the tone. But this crew isn’t snide or condescending; their tone is consistently sportive. Many of the players are reprising their roles from the first film, and nearly everyone seems to be in it for kicks. Downey acts in the manner of a well-born Bill Murray; his hauteur burbles like molasses. He, Paltrow, and Scarlett Johannson—playing Double Agent Romanoff (the laziest Slavic surname a writer could contrive)—practically race each other to see who can spew smart-talk fastest. (Johannson has a hypnotic hold on innuendo even after it’s left her lips.) Only Don Cheadle—who’s demonstrated more talent in better roles, and replaces Terrence Howard as Lt. Colonel Rhodes—delivers his lines in a way that seems a little too robotic. (Downey looks robotic. He’s absurdly hale for 45, but his playboy’s looks are as integral to the fantasy as the special effects. These stars shine brighter than the glossiest gossip rag.)

Of the newcomers, Rockwell’s festooned in three-piece suits that make him look like a wallflower at a ’70s disco; he’s downgraded from walk to waddle to match his chichi threads. I think it’s an homage to The Wrestler when Stark conks Vanko on the noggin with a folding chair; but I hope Rourke pays homage to that performance by not coasting through the rest of his roles. He Russifies well, but he and Eric Bana (the Star Trek nemesis) ought to form a support group for neglected adversaries. Vanko is a symptom writer’s block rather than a roadblock to our heroes; and when he blows Queens to smithereens, it hardly gums up traffic any more than the daily commute.

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Ajami

An elderly woman recently told me that when she saw The Silence of the Lambs, back in 1991, she couldn’t follow the plot. What would she think of Ajami? This Israeli import seems to be well-intended, and the international film-festival circuit tends to laud the good intentions of those whose cameras examine the streets on which downtrodden minorities attempt to peaceably cohabit. Say what you will about the conflict over Palestine, but most Israeli films that make it across the pond(s) seem to be on the ball; moral, political, and spiritual ambiguities are all accounted for in ways that—certainly before Sept. 11, and probably still today—may seem exotic to many American moviegoers. Take Ari Folman’s thoughtful, innovative Waltz with Bashir (2008), for instance, or Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (2005)—about a pair of antsy suicide bombers who underwent an American Graffiti switcheroo before detonating. The substance of Ajami—which takes its name from a seedy Muslim/Christian quarter of Tel Aviv—isn’t terribly crude or facile; but the structure is wildly overdone.

It’s the sort of synthesis that older generations would, in vain, adjust their hearing aides to comprehend: a neorealist thriller. (One could argue that classics like Carol Reed’s were in this vein, but his street scenes hosted movie stars.) The Italian neorealists who exposed the bombed-out penury of their native land generally told simple stories with a skeleton cast of nonprofessional actors. Plot-wise, The Bicycle Thief (1948) is nothing more than a poor old bloke trying to get his bike back and ending up as much the eponymous villain as the man who initially wronged him. Without explicitly falling into any partisan-political traps, Thief took society to task; a complex mess necessitates a complex solution. This seems to be the point of view of Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, who wrote and directed Ajami—and cast screen-virgin thespians, to boot. With one exception—by my calculations—all the crimes perpetrated here result from flukes; people are driven to crime by misunderstandings: by debts that, in a just world, they wouldn’t have incurred. Nineteen-year-old Omar (Shahir Kabaha) must protect his family from mafiosi that his uncle’s itchy trigger finger has offended; the Bedouin gangsters, in retaliation, whack a 15-year-old they’ve mistaken for Omar. (Omar dodges a few bullet-holes here, but the movie suffers a self-inflicted wound: We see little of how the victim’s family reacts, nor any apologia issued to them by Omar’s.) Another of the film’s protagonists—there are three of ’em—is the 16-year-old Malek (Ibrahim Frege); he’s resorted to crime because he needs to support his ailing mother. The backlash from one of the film’s two Romeo and Juliet-styled, religiously incompatible romances also helps to force Malek’s reluctant, tremulous hand.

Their liberal casuistry simplifies issues a bit, but Copti and Shani’s perspective is not intellectually disrespectable. It’s probably closer to the truth than any other criminological catchall; and it certainly goes down more smoothly than the tripe distinction between good and evil that’s been an interminable staple of the Hollywood diet—a shoot-’em-up lineage that was upheld by John Wayne and his spur-wearing ilk, continued by George Lucas’s Jedi, and has recently clogged the arty arteries of No Country for Old Men and The Dark Knight. But the makers of Ajami have taken their sentiments, jammed them into a blender with a couple dozen plots and an enormous, multilingual cast, and then flung globs of their pâté in every direction. Their storytelling has the pacing and stability of a food fight. The framework certainly isn’t random; the plot goop eventually congeals. But it takes well over an hour to get one’s bearings, and the collation would have been a whole lot fresher if the blender had simply been omitted, and the story served up straight. Everything is chopped up just so that one can see the filmmakers’ prowess in piecing it back together; they’re like chefs who want you to admire the cooking more than the meal.

As a friend of mine griped, Ajami ticks by in Inglourious Basterds time. It’s divided into chapters, but even they are not chronologically ordered. The characters eventually Crash into one another, but not before the viewer is caught in a morass of people and subplots; and since Copti and Shani keep the audience persistently on edge, the tone is often too monotonous to parse out the essentials. By the ending credits, I “got” most of it—some things, like the details concerning a pocket watch, were a little too smudged in there or convenient for me to buy—but I would have rather spent my mental efforts observing and comprehending the flavor of life in this country. (Ajami certainly isn’t propaganda for Israel’s tourism industry.) The characters are too harried to learn much about, and some of them are a little too easily innocent. Omar’s little brother narrates the tale; his function is merely to drain our sympathies. (This little artist is so sensitive he’s clairvoyant.) He relates his life in comic-book frames—maybe that helps to explain the hyperbolic narrative. Commercial jigsaw structures work for movies like Inglourious Basterds and Shutter Island because those films were, respectively, a trifle and an analogue for psychosis. (The former may have been a symptom of psychosis.) In Ajami, the puzzling construction holds our attention for the sake of holding our attention; it helps to sell the thesis, I guess, but it doesn’t correlate with the characters’ experiences. They are not confused; they have clear motives; they know what’s up. Why must we be stuck taking notes? The movie was almost certainly conceived for international distribution, but the filmmakers’ style makes non-Israelis feel like tourists whose G.P.S. devices have failed them. We’re in a sketchy neighborhood, and without a map—too busy fretting over the best way out to concern ourselves with the plight of the locals.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

There’s no dishonor in trying to improve upon Wes Craven’s classic A Nightmare on Elm Street; cloning it is another matter. It’s a form of ablation—using Freddy Krueger’s claws as surgical tools. The innards from the 1984 original have been removed, and placed, intact, in the gloomy frames that are meant to signify the present. The content is from Craven, all right; but the style of the transaction resembles Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers—Michael Bay is one of the producers—were pod people: milling blandly about among us, beaming impersonally as they usurp our culture and institutions. Not that I’d call Craven’s film a very “cultured” work, but the campfire-story premise about a boogeyman who slaughters teenagers in their sleep is such fertile nightmare fuel that it practically is an institution; it screams out for an imaginative director to bottle those fears and make a bed-wetting cocktail. It’s a shame that the businessmen who produced this remake grabbed the ball only to drop it. They’re too milquetoast even for the tawdry prankishness of Sorority Row; their biggest turnaround from the original is a halfhearted red herring that seems there merely to goad NAMBLA.

The 20-somethings playing teenagers—particularly the sullen-faced Kyle Gallner—don’t come off too badly, and I can see why they’d want to be in this film, despite the hackneyed roles: It worked out for Johnny Depp. But even if the movie is watchable, its limp conception is sad; the commercial-minded remakers are more craven than Wes. If anyone wants to argue on behalf of its artistic aspirations, all I can say is, Dream on.