You are currently browsing the daily archive for May 11, 2010.

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I’ll start this out with the truth: Robin Hood is not Robin Hood—and that’s not a bad thing. You’ll catch on very early once you realize the name Robin Longstride for Russell Crowe’s lead character isn’t an artistic change because it rolls easier off the tongue. No, the Loxley moniker does also exist; only it’s attached to King Richard’s right hand man, neck deep in the Crusades’ final hoorah. Throw in the fact The Lionheart himself dies within the first fifteen minutes or so—a shame since it seems Danny Huston can’t buy a large role these days despite his immense talent—and there goes the ending we all know and love from the many iterations of this classic myth. I always go back to the Disney version myself since there’s nothing like a thumb-sucking, coward of a lion getting what’s coming to him, but I’ll be honest in saying Ridley Scott’s go-round was getting pretty high up on my list. And then came the ending, subverting all the great things happening before it, transforming a uniquely constructed modern war epic take on the timeless tale of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor into a money-grabbing prequel, begging the audience to wish for a sequel in an environment more akin to Robin of the Hood of our memories.

But that inevitable follow-up won’t be quite the same as Kevin Costner’s or Errol Flynn’s vehicles—John is King. That in and of itself changes the complexion of the entire tale because Richard isn’t off somewhere trying his hardest to return to England and reclaim his crown. What they do about that is up in the air, although they still have the Sheriff of Nottingham waiting in the wings to become the villain we all know he can be. You don’t cast a guy like Matthew Macfadyen only to leave him on the sidelines for an entire film spanning almost two and a half hours, especially with it being such an inspired choice. The guy is good as a grimy sleazeball; that may be because I know him as mister suave and sophisticated in all his other roles, but either way it works. Who then, you ask, is the villain? None other then go-to antagonist of the past few years Mark Strong as Lord Godfrey, a man in the pocket of his friend King John, but even deeper in that of French King Phillip. This is where Brian Helgeland’s script works its magic by invigorating a tired old tale of yore with contemporary movie tropes such as deception, double-crossing, and complete ethical reversals, making men seeking to grab cash and retire far away from England’s army end up fighting against the government as a means to become its nations’ saviors.

Rather than pit Crowe’s Hood solely against the tax collectors of King John, the twist welcomes in the French as a new opposition. Godfrey, under allegiance to King Philip, is tasked with appealing to John’s impatience and power-hungry nature to become appointed as the collector of said tariffs, using the King’s name to burn villages and murder without remorse. He is riling up the Northern Englanders to launch a civil war that will march on London and cause enough disarray so the French won’t have any trouble coming ashore and taking out all that’s left. It’s a surefire plan beginning like clockwork, but with old stalwarts like William Hurt’s Marshall, (advisor to Richard), and newly impassioned proponents of the lower class such as Robin and his ‘Merry Men’, you know a wrench will soon be thrown into the mix. King John is eventually given the opportunity to become the leader his elder brother was; the power he seeks to wield can be his for the taking if he tones down the tyranny and turns towards a position of using his constituents for bolstering support rather than as dried up cows, milked once too many for gold or grain. England can unite against the common enemy of France or it can implode through anger and injustice, making it only a matter of time before flying the fleur de lis.

Thankfully, Scott has leaned much more on his swords and sandals masterpiece Kingdom of Heaven and less on the mainstream treasure Gladiator, a film that never hit me with the kind of force it seems to have elsewhere around the world. The battle scenes are bloody, kinetic, and gorgeous in their orchestration. To put the final climatic fight—you all know Crowe and Strong will be meeting at some point—in shallow water, between two rocking ships is quite genius. I loved the splashing liquid flying into the camera, the blood-colored drops falling from the injured brows of soldiers, and the slow motion emergences from underneath. It’s all dirty and authentic with small skirmishes sprinkled throughout the film, bookmarked by large scale sweeping battles at the front, (the final castle storming on the journey back from the Crusades), and the shores of England at the back. The soldiers all have personality too, adding comedic charm that hits its mark from Kevin Durand (Little John), Scott Grimes (Will Scarlet), and Great Big Sea frontman Alan Doyle (Alan A’Dayle). And don’t forget Mark Addy’s Friar Tuck, a man willing to go that extra step knowing God may turn and look the other way, his hives of bees bringing a chuckle due to my knowledge of his penchant for dabbling in the creation and imbibing of mead.

While the performances are stellar across the board—Max von Sydow, Eileen Atkins, and Oscar Isaac as King John round out the main cast—it was the ability to take a story I know so well and make it fresh, captivating me straight from the get-go, that stands out. Seeing Cate Blanchett as the former Maid Marion and current Marion Loxley, married to the Robert Loxley Crowe’s Robin meets on the battlefield, makes it so that anything is possible. Longstride may impersonate this man in order to return home from a ten-year war, but the chance to discover a place as honest and welcoming as Nottingham changes him into the man he was born to grow into. The truth to Longstride’s birthright is revealed and the power of voice contained within him, one as enrapturing as that of his late father, is unleashed. Those words stir a nation into readiness, giving the requisite speech all films of this ilk need to be palatable to an American, Hollywood loving population. Thankfully they get it out of the way early and let the final war on the beach exist as battle and nothing more. The fighters do circle on their horses, causing me to cringe at the assumed battle cry I can dictate in my head, but it never comes. Instead Scott and company truly surprised me with an intelligently told re-imagining of a story ingrained in our minds. I only wish new blockbuster films don’t always need to inherently carry the unoriginal ‘franchise’ label.

Robin Hood 8/10

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photography:
[1] RUSSELL CROWE stars in “Robin Hood”, the epic action-adventure about the legendary figure whose exploits have endured in popular mythology and ignited the imagination of those who share his spirit of adventure and righteousness. Photo Credit: Greg Williams 2010 Universal Studios
[2] Godfrey (MARK STRONG) leads his men on a bloody mission fueled by greed in “Robin Hood”, the epic action-adventure about the legendary figure whose exploits have endured in popular mythology and ignited the imagination of those who share his spirit of adventure and righteousness. Photo Credit: Kerry Brown 2010 Universal Studios

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Only Sid Rosenzweig, 360|365 Programming Committee member, could introduce himself before more than one screening as an “all-around good guy” and not have it get old. Complete with a smile spanning ear to ear, Sid’s jovial demeanor never let you see the statement as anything other than a good-natured ice-breaker, leading him into the description of whatever film he was presenting next. This attitude was prevalent amongst all involved, making it a joy to attend the 360|365 George Eastman House Film Festival‘s inaugural season, knowing that the organizers, presenters, and volunteers contained the same amount of passionate fervor as I did sitting in the audience, awaiting the next cinematic gem to flash across the theatre screen. It wasn’t a rarity to see Jack Garner, John Richardson, or anyone else catching a screening without the obligation of standing at the podium or getting onstage afterwards to conduct a Q&A either. 360|365 is a film festival for film lovers, pure and simple.

If I’m not mistaken, besides the few screenings of refurbished films from the George Eastman vault, including a newly restored presentation of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and the debut of the 1928, first screen adaptation of Huckleberry Finn, all other entries to the festival had already premiered elsewhere. I say this not as a put-down, but as a resounding positive, giving the Western New York area an opportunity to catch buzzed about films coming out of Sundance and Tribeca—award winners too, no less, often accompanied by a key figure in their creation to allow the audience insight into the history and genesis of the work. Personally, the two favorites seen in the three days I was able to attend, (I only wish I could have taken off work to spend the entire six days), were I Am Love and Cell 211, both of which screened at TIFF last year. Neither were on my radar then, but both were now eight months later. What a coup to have them in the line-up here, giving WNYers a sneak-peek at two films destined to be arthouse powers upon wider release.

My journey began with quite the treat, catching the award presentation for directing legend James Ivory. Having recently acquired the back catalog of Merchant Ivory productions to archive at the Eastman, it was only fitting to honor this man for his achievement in the medium. Genuinely touched by the standing ovation given, he spoke briefly after a clip reel with thanks and appreciation. The real prize for the audience, though—besides his fantastic new work, The City of Your Final Destination—was an extended Q&A session after the end credits rolled with 360|365‘s Jim Healy. It was an informative talk ranging from discussion on his working with Anthony Hopkins, (who always does wonders with his ‘animal noises’ on big movies, but loves working on the smaller scale stuff more), his writing process with frequent collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and how he’s hard at work getting a film version of Richard II before cameras. Stories about his late friend and colleague Ismail Merchant were the most fascinating ones to me, however. Who knew their relationship began at a film festival, long ago, showing Ivory’s short documentary about miniature Indian paintings? He hadn’t even been to India before creating the work, but it resonated enough to catch Merchant’s interest, and that was that.

The constraints of the day job necessitated my driving back to Buffalo in the pouring rain directly after that opening night screening, sadly missing the after party that surely was a great time. It was okay, however, since I’d be returning two days later for an overnight stay and seven more films before my time in Rochester was up. Shuffling my film choices around more than a few times, (so many great selections and a two mile trek between theatres with scant time to travel the main causes), I finally nailed down my Friday schedule. Saturday’s didn’t become permanent until eating lunch at Spot Coffee that day, when the prospect of walking to the Dryden Theatre officially lost all appeal.

My return to 360|365 began with a doubleheader of Mark Lewis documentaries about the film world—Backstory dealing with rear projection and Cinema Museum pertaining to the location of its name, a privately owned collection of cinematic wonders. I actually had to leave before the second was over, unknowing how much time I had to get back in line for the next show, The Secret of Kells. If I had one complaint about the festival, it’s that there isn’t enough time allotted between screenings, especially if one starts late. A good hour would suffice, allowing attendees maneuverability, (mostly for passholders to ensure their seat quota didn’t get filled in line while you were still watching something else), and the option to skip any Q&As occurring. The twenty minute gap used was murder for my enjoyment of special guests; the decision of whether to get back in line or listen to a filmmaker discuss his/her film was definitely a touch choice to make when the next screening was my most anticipated one of the festival.

I don’t think I had to worry too much, though. While a sold out opening night at the Dryden packed it in, one at the Little still had a quarter of the theatre’s seats empty—those saved for an unknown number of passholders. Maybe a solution would be giving those with passes a code that they could use to get actual paper tickets; that way festival employees would know exactly how many people would be coming and you wouldn’t have to worry about being left out in the cold. I digress, though, since I personally had no problems. I eventually found that leaving during the Q&A for Monogamy to get in line for I Am Love was unnecessary, at least as far as getting a seat goes. But I do enjoy my aisle positioning near the podiums when covering a fest; it gives ample leg room and prime location for photographing any guests in attendance.

While each and every film I saw was great, if not fantastic, the opportunity to see someone like Oscar-winning editor, (and Scorsese BFF), Thelma Schoonmaker talk about her process could not be measured. Hearing the writer/producer of Winter’s Bone, Anne Rosellini, speak about what it takes to work independently—like the budget constraints, the godsend that was the RED camera, and casting processes—may be a huge boon to understanding exactly what effort went into bringing a great indie thriller to the screen, but watching clips of Goodfellas and Raging Bull with the woman who cut them together as she laser-points important aspects is a whole other level of thrill. I like to think I abhor the whole celebrity mystique of famous people, however, something about this Hollywood legend talking resonated more than up-and-comers to the scene I’d see later in the day, even though their films were great.

Schoonmaker was a complete delight, explaining her collaborative work ethic with Scorsese and the differences and similarities between the flashy cut work that wins awards, (The Aviator), and the more subtle, yet equally impressive stylings of a Goodfellas. She even began the whole lecture—along with critic and 360|365 organizer Jack Garner asking questions—by showing the extended Steadicam shot at the beginning of that famed gangster flick. Tidbits like how Marty hates using them because he wants total control over everything in the frame fly out, as do anecdotes such as how the scene needed nine takes because of Henny Youngman’s ability to continuously flub his line at the very end of the sequence. She also divulges how she began in the documentary world, learning to handle large amounts of footage to process and cull through for the perfect shots, but when it came to Hollywood work, Scorsese taught her everything she knows. That is why they work so well together with similar sensibilities; he taught her how to be a student of cinema history, watching as much as possible for inspiration.

Schoonmaker then went into detail about how little of Leonardo DiCaprio’s airplane crash in the The Aviator was real and how the actor, along with Robert DiNiro, are willing to do anything for Marty, no matter the physical abuse. She praised the expertise of sound editor Frank E. Warner and what he brought to the brilliance of Raging Bull with elephant and horse sounds in the ring, and how he never shared what he used for the flashbulb crackles. So specific in his work, he’d destroy all evidence of recorded sounds, not for fear of them getting stolen, but because he refused to willingly use the same sound twice. The editor even continued on to show a juxtaposition between her husband’s (Michael Powell) film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Raging Bull; showing how Scorsese’s hatred for sports led him to make a boxing film more about the emotions and events outside the ring than in it, abbreviating a nine round fight to around five minutes.

It was a wonderful look inside the craft of filmmaking and I’m sure a great precursor to her receipt of the Susan B. Anthony Award and presentation of The Red Shoes shortly after at the Dryden. I unfortunately had to miss that event, but I’m not too sad about it since I was able to stay at the Little straight through the day to watch three wonderful movies—the Tribeca winner Monogamy, the glorious I Am Love, and the Sundance winning Winter’s Bone. Combine those with the Oscar nominated Secret of Kells and Goya sweeping Cell 211 the evening before and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many hardware earning films in a two day period. But that was par for the course at 360|365, honoring the legacy of the George Eastman House nicely by screening what should become contemporary classics at the very birthplace of their medium. I just wish I could have seen Crystal Pix’s horror-themed egg trailer more than once. It’s use of egg cracking blew away the western and soap opera counterparts.

Here’s to year two. I look forward to more great cinema so close to home.

Reviews:
5/5/10
The City of Your Final Destination 9/10

5/7/10
Backstory 7/10
Cinema Museum 7/10
The Secret of Kells 8/10
Celda 211 [Cell 211] 10/10

5/8/10
Monogamy 8/10
Io sono l’amore [I Am Love] 9/10
Winter’s Bone 8/10

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photography:
[1] James Ivory with Jim Healy, 360|365 Director of Programming, during a post-screening Q&A.
[2] Jack Garner, 360|365 Artistic Consultant and Thelma Schoonmaker, Oscar-winning editor.
[3] Evan M. Wiener, co-writer of Monogamy, Sid Rosenzweig, 360|365 Programming Committee member, and Mollie Goldstein, editor of Monogamy.
[4] Anne Rosellini, producer and co-writer of Winter’s Bone with Jim Healy, 360|365 Director of Programming.

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