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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Robin Hood and Just Wright…

Robin Hood (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Ridley Scott, 2010

“To live outside the law, you must be honest,“ Bob Dylan once sang (in Absolutely Sweet Marie, from Blonde on Blonde). And that’s the credo that usually permeates the many, many screen incarnations of Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest, that most honest of outlaws, most dashing of rebels, and most enduring of British historical legends and heroes. From Doug Fairbanks, Jr. to Errol Flynn to Richard Greene to both Sean and Jason Connery, Robin, as he’s portrayed in literature, film and TV, has remained our favorite outlaw and our preferred sharer of the wealth.

Even so, 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 something special.

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, swords hacking off limbs, and warriors dying in mud, while aristocrats frolic and commoners suffer. It has a stern, emotionally scarred, death-dealing Robin, 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 Scott‘s best previous pictures: whether set in the nightmarish future (Alien or Blade Runner), the stormy 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 masterpiece, the uncut Kingdom of Heaven, becoming 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 usual 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 Flynn or Fairbanks – to name two of the sexiest archers of movie yore. And Cate Blanchett may be the toughest, dourest and least maidenly Maid Marion ever. But they can afford to take risks, since Scott and his company and high tech experts are taking them too.

The 12th century world and the people that Ridley Scott has fashioned 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, all shown in compositions that remind you irresistibly of not just of the younger Breughel (who might have painted those villages), but of other masterpieces of Dutch landscape painting somehow set to life. And it also 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.

The kingdom of heaven and hell that Scott has made — working with a superb company including production designer Arthur Max, cinematographer John Mathieson, costume designer Janty Yates, composer Marc Streitenfeld and lots of other gifted associates — lends extra color, bite and reality to the film’s roiling gallery of heroes and ladies, simple folk and royalty, villains and killers (led by Mark Strong as turncoat Godfrey and Oscar Isaac as King John).

This is a truly beautiful movie. And its beauty, 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 movie legends.

Travesty of history? I hate to break the news, but Robin Hood most probably never existed. He’s a myth, like his spiritual pal Santa Claus, with whom he‘s probably knocking back a few ales and meads in pop culture Valhalla. You can do with Robin whatever you want, and everybody has, including Mel Brooks. (There’s even a Rocket Robin Hood and I’ll bet somebody somewhere is putting the finishing touches on Hip Hop Rob of the Hood — if they haven’t already).

Anyway, if he did exist — inspired by Roger Godberd or some other historical or fictitious outlaw — he was almost certainly nothing like the Robin we tend to love best: the dashing aristocrat/rebel/outlaw played with impudent abandon, bedroom eyes and reckless athleticism by Errol Flynn in the 1938 Warner Brothers The Adventures of Robin Hood, directed by Michael Curtiz (the interiors) and William Keighley (the exteriors). Print (or film) the legend as we may, our collective Robin comes from Flynn and the rest. He’s largely a figure of fiction, a hero/outlaw who popped up in Piers the Plowman and other poems and ballads from the 15th century on, and who probably owes most of his literary heft to his appearance in Sir Walter Scott’s 19th century classic novel Ivanhoe.

Scott’s Robin Hood is a revisionist movie, just as most of the Robin Hoods of film or TV, in one way or another, have been — including (especially) Flynn’s. That terrific show, the Robin Hood that most movie fans revere and prefer, was in part a progressive spirit-raiser for a country suffering from the Depression and a cheer-leader for the New Deal and its “share the wealth” programs, which like Robin, “stole” from the rich to give to the poor — though I suppose some hardcore Tea Party enthusiast could look at the movie today and try to claim it as an early hymn to anti-tax revolt. (The ‘50s TV show, with Richard Greene, went even further, besides becoming a haven for blacklisted writers.)

Scott and Helgeland make the tale even more left-wing. Their Robin is not a persecuted aristocrat, fled to the forest, still loyal to a still-living King Richard the Lionhearted, like Flynn’s insolent Robin of Locksley. Instead, he’s a yeoman (just as he was, in his first literary appearances) and a soldier named Robin Longstride. But Crowe eventually masquerades as an aristo, pretending to be the fallen Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), who asks Robin Longstride to carry his dying message back from the wars to his father, Sir Walter Loxley (played by Ingmar Bergman’s man Max von Sydow). The Merry Men, including those bow-and-arrow-happy dudes Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and Allan A’Dayle (played by the appropriately named Alan Doyle), are fellow soldiers, a rowdy lot, and so is Robin. We first see him brawling, brooding and getting clamped into stocks.

Marion is Robert’s feisty widow, a feminist centuries before her time, who ends up, like Joan of Arc, in armor on the battlefield. (I love Blanchett, and I love her here, but the Robin-Marion romance is one of this movie’s notable shortcomings.) Prince John is a spoiled-rotten pretty boy prince-turned-king, with a quiet, sexy French minx of a wife, Isabella of Angouleme (Lea Seydoux), and a stern mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (the Kate Hepburn part, played here by the queenly Eileen Atkins, of Gosford Park), who thinks, correctly, that her son is a twit.

There‘s a nefarious Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen), but no Guy of Gisbourne, only the perfidious Godfrey, who got a nasty scar from Robin in their first tiff, and who’s trying to divide the English, and then win with the French. And Richard Lionheart is stone dead, an arrow though his neck, at nearly the start of the movie — which seems a waste, since he’s played by Danny Huston.

By making their Robin a grim-faced yeoman/archer, instead of a scapegrace, smart alec adventurer like Flynn, Scott, Helgeland and Crowe sacrifice that bubbly humor and high spirits that made The Adventures of Robin Hood so intoxicating, and keep it evergreen. But they gain a sense of danger and disquiet, of a part-savage world ruled by tyrants and teetering on chaos, with one tough pro and his mates, and his tough lady, trying to set it right. I like that.

In any case, Robin and his Men soon sail back to England, where Robin palms himself off as Loxley to the new King John and court. Then he calls on Sir Walter and Marion at their castle — where the blind Sir Walter (who looks like a Lear down to his last Fool) asks him to keep impersonating Robert, and Marion makes it clear that playing her husband doesn’t entitle him to wantonly expand his role, or even improvise. A series of clashes between Merry Men and bad guys, while Scarface Godfrey roams around wreaking havoc, culminate in a hell of a landing-beach battle scene, which almost plays like the medieval version of Spielberg’s D-Day.

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 movie actors who’s 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 — 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, or you can be like Crowe, and make the heroism look hard and dearly-bought.

He has an unusually fine cast behind them, and Helgeland (who wrote L. A. Confidential, of course, but also, on the minus side, committed Payback) has given them all parts and lines they don’t have to mangle or embroider or be ashamed to say. Particularly good are Strong, a very able dispenser of hard-core soulless villainy (though he still can’t out-heavy a great wicked duelist like Basil Rathbone), William Hurt, who has a splendid silent “Wow-you-know-how to-hurt-a-guy” expression as canned royal advisor William Marshal, Atkins, Blanchett, and von Sydow, still a great movie actor 53 years after he played the Knight in The Seventh Seal. The technical credits are tremendous, and they‘re at the service of something ambitious and unusual. I’ve got to say it’s nice to see a big, splashy, expensive movie that, for all its action and swash-buckling, is obviously made for adults — though, if I had seen this as a kid, I would have loved it.

So what if this Robin Hood doesn‘t beguile us like Flynn’s Adventures? So what that Blanchett’s Marion isn’t an aristo-sweetie and a heartbreaker like Olivia de Havilland‘s Marian? That Crowe projects more inner turmoil than almost all previous famous Robins put together, even with Bergman’s angst-king von Sydow there to suffer along with him. So what that the villains are a little squirrelly, and that they tend to pale next to our memories of say Claude Rains‘ suave John and Basil Rathbone‘s murderous Guy in the Flynn version? So what that we can point to “flaws” of “storytelling” and commercial strategy in this multi-hundred-million dollar investment, which may make some accountants squirm and some moviegoers itchy?

For that matter, so what if the Merry Men aren’t as merry, or the jokes as funny, or the tights as tight, as the ones in Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights? You can make hundreds of comparisons, because there have been dozens of Robin Hoods. (One good one that’s rarely mentioned, John Irvin’s gritty —- film with Patrick Bergin.)

But there are a lot of gazillion dollar movies that don’t give us anything but intellectual heartburn. And there comes a time when we movie critics, especially, have to stop acting as financial advisors, a job in which we should feel uncomfortable in any case (especially these days), and give the Ridley Scotts of the industry, however reckless they may seem and however many hundreds of millions they spend, their due — just as we and our forebears should have cut slack to such notorious budget-busters, over-reachers and over-perfectionists in their day as Erich Von Stroheim and Francis Coppola. What better way to rob from the rich and give to the poor, than to make a really good expensive movie? Especially if it maybe even returns the investment?

After all, to live outside the law, you must be honest. (I know you always say that you agree. So, where are you tonight, Sweet Marie?)


Just Wright (Two Stars)
U.S.; Sanaa Hanri, 2010

Anyone for another NBA championship series?

While you’re waiting, the movies have their own version of the NBA, as perhaps influenced by Desperate Housewives, Tyler Perry and the Duke Wayne-Dan Dailey spine rehabilitation scenes in The Wings of Eagles (“I‘m gonna move that toe!“)

The big news here though is that Queen Latifah, under the tutelage of director Sanaa Hanri, here assays her first major super-romantic lead role. She plays Leslie Wright, a primo New Jersey Net fan and ace physical therapist whose unreasonably gorgeous best friend Morgan Alexander (Paula Patton), steals away Nets superstar guard Scott McKnight (played by rapper Common, the artist once known as “Common Sense“), and then dumps him before the wedding after he tears up his knee.

Guess which bounteously beautiful physical therapist is ready to move into Scott’s mansion and get his knee all primed and ready for the crucial last game of the Nets-Orlando series? (I’ll give you a hint: It isn’t Dan Dailey.)


Guess who wins the series, despite the actual on-screen presence of Orlando‘s Dwayne Wade? (Not to mention, in that game and others, “themselves” roles by Dwight Howard, Jalen Rose, Marv Albert, Kenny Smith, Elton Brand, and, at a jazz club, Terence Blanchard.) Guess which outrageously rehabilitated guard both Wade and Kobe Bryant should fear more than Hell itself? Guess which physical therapist is now the subject of a bidding war between every NBA team shamelessly willing to get mention in a Queen Latifah film? Guess who has the hots for whom?


There hasn’t been a sports movie like this since The Tooth Fairy.

Meanwhile, the big question remains: Is Queen Latifah a plausible romantic movie leading lady? The answer: Of course she is. As long as the moviemakers, for the love scenes, supply a good queen-size bed.

A bigger question: Is Common, at 6’1 ½,” a plausible superstar all-star NBA point guard? Capable of getting 16 rebounds in a single game? Well, Common drops through as lot of shots here. And he even looks a little like previous Nets superstar guard Jason Kidd. And he’s a pretty good actor. But…

– Michael Wilmington
May 13, 2010

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon