Monday, October 20, 2014

The Five Hoods: A Devilish Saxon Scoundrel

Some links before we get things started. Yesterday having had been a Sunday, our joint blog had a Snippet Sunday post. Krisztina had tips for caramel tipped apples and Hallowe'en party food. Shelly had lost chapters to deal with. Lorelei wrote about witches. And the Whisk had this to say about unusual angel food cake.

And now for the last of my series of reviews on Robin Hood...

“Yes, of course we could do as you suggest. But the poacher will still have his eyes, so he can poach again.” ~ Sir Miles Folcanet

“You’re so handsome when you’re angry.” ~ Marian

“Let’s settle this on a coin toss. Heads I win, tails Harry loses.” ~ Robin Hood

Every once in awhile, two movies come out within a few months of each other with similar themes or subjects. Such was the case in 1991, when two movies about Robin Hood were released. Prince of Thieves got the lion’s share of the attention, while a British film simply called Robin Hood got overlooked. Its cinematic release was confined to Europe and other overseas locations. And yet it’s the better of the two, with my personal favourite interpretation of the title character. John Irvin, who had already directed the BBC version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, came on board as director in a story that emphasized the tensions between Saxons and Normans and presented an actor who brought the right measure of a charming scoundrel to the role.

The film opens in an England after the Crusades. Richard the Lionheart is absent from the lands, and his brother John (Edward Fox) is trying to consolidate power. We first meet a poacher named Much (Danny Webb) being run down by soldiers. He is saved by a local Saxon earl, Sir Robert Hode (Patrick Bergin) and his friend Will Scarlett (Owen Teale). Robert tells the pursuing party that he has no objection to Much hunting his deer on his land, and releases him. The leader of the party, a cruel Norman named Sir Miles Folcanet (Jurgen Prochnow), demands that he apologize in person at the court of his Norman feudal lord, Baron Roger Daguerre (Jeroen Krabbe).

Robert and Daguerre are friends, and Daguerre is pragmatic, suggesting that Robert just swallow his pride, apologize to Folcanet, and that will be the end of it. Robert also happens to have something of a spark with Marian, Daguerre’s niece, played by Uma Thurman; she’s engaged to marry Folcanet. Robert’s apology goes awry when Folcanet pushes it further though, and Robert quickly finds himself insulting his Norman hosts, declared an outlaw, and must fight his way out of the castle with the help of Will. It doesn’t take long after that before the two fall in with the outlaws of Sherwood, including Little John (David Morrissey), Friar Tuck (Jeff Nuttall), the treacherous Harry (Alex Norton), and Much, who doesn’t bat an eye when Robert is introduced as Robin Hood. And so the band of outlaws find themselves taking up arms to resist the Normans.

Irvin adapted the screenplay by Sam Resnick and John McGrath, which places stronger emphasis on the differences between Saxons and Normans in the era than other films had. The classic The Adventures Of Robin Hood had looked at that theme to some degree, but not too much, and Prince Of Thieves avoided it. In this case, it’s very much front and center, with Normans being still seen as the invading conquerors, disliked by the local Saxons, who resent being second class in their own homelands. The outlaws aren’t entirely altruistic in their motivations as to giving money to the poor; it’s more done in a realistic understanding that doing so is the best way to prevent people from giving them up to the authorities. The story also weaves in themes like justice, strained friendships, romance, pride, arrogance, nobility and the common man, and equal treatment under the law. It’s a grittier world, darker and more medieval, a reminder that the time could be a dangerous one, and Irvin shoots the film in that manner.

Much of the filming was done on location in England and Wales, and the countryside looks very British. Irvin also deliberately went for a washed out, almost black and white look through most of the film; colours are muted, and there’s a sense of bleakness and foreboding to the way the film is shot. It comes as refreshing, then, in the closing moments of the film that the sun finally comes out, and colours come into themselves, a wise touch by the director. Irvin also has a good handle on filming action, managing larger crowds of fighting adversaries and the one on one action of duels. He particularly gets creative in how those duels get staged.

The costuming and props look as medieval as the settings. You see that both in the clothing of common folk and the rich linens and attire of the wealthy. It comes across in the armour and the technology of the era, so even though the crew was not working with the larger budget of Prince Of Thieves, it still feels very much of its time, lending authenticity to the production.

The cast is largely of British or Irish origins, though there’s a bit of a continental influence in certain characters. Edward Fox gets a cameo as Prince John, touring the lands to raise taxes. He plays the part as other actors have done before and since: a vain, self absorbed, sneering man who holds others in contempt. Alex Norton turns up as Harry, a member of the band who is particularly hostile to Robin and Will from the start. He snarls and bites at every opportunity, playing the role as a greedy, backstabbing traitor who thinks nothing of betraying those around him.

David Morrissey is an interesting choice as Little John. He’s softer spoken than most actors who have taken on the role, more thoughtful in what he has to say. He’s done a lot of stage, television, and film work as an actor; American television audiences might know him best as The Governor in The Walking Dead series. The writer, actor, and activist Jeff Nuttall plays Friar Tuck as many have before: a priest given to drink, boisterous in character, but also with a very clear sense of right and wrong. There’s a darkly funny moment late in the film when he and a number of the outlaws confront a dying adversary, and he proclaims: “welcome to hell.” Considering the way the outlaws look at that moment, it’s entirely appropriate. Owen Teale is a good choice for Will Scarlett, who in this case is the archer’s best friend and gets caught up in his friend’s misadventures. He plays Will as loyal to a fault, courageous, and a man who still believes in his country and wants it back.

The film changes things around with the traditional adversaries; instead of a Sheriff of Nottingham and a Sir Guy of Gisbourne, we get original creations with different relationships to the outlaws. One of them is sympathetic, the other is not. Jurgen Prochnow is unsympathetic as the Sir Guy influenced character Sir Miles Folcanet. He’s played various villains, antagonists, and complicated characters in films like Air Force One, The Da Vinci Code, and Das Boot. His character is vindictive, arrogant, and petty, a man easily enraged who takes every perceived slight personally (it doesn't help that Robin re-opens the same wound, literally). Folcanet is supremely self absorbed, and tends to behave like you might expect a rattlesnake to act. Prochnow brings all of these qualities to his performance, and the end result is a very good villain.

Baron Daguerre is more complicated, taking the traditional role of the tax collecting sheriff, but the story gives him more depth as a man torn between two people. He’s more sympathetic, pragmatic in nature. Early on we see that he and Robert are old friends, and Daguerre seems genuinely eager to see both Saxon and Norman get along with each other and move forward as one people. He’s placed into a position where he must hunt old friends, where he finds himself on the opposing side. Jeroen Krabbe, who was so good in films like Immortal Beloved and The Fugitive, plays this sense of division and sympathy in the character in just the right way.

Uma Thurman was a very good choice for Marian. When we first meet her, she’s a bit distant; Robin must get to know her first, and the audience with him, even if we already know where things will end up. She plays the role as a woman with strong opinions, giving her a courageous, impulsive streak. Her Marian is radiant, bold, even aggressive, and very much a feminist in her thinking. She takes her fate into her own hands, makes decisions for herself, and even engages in her own fisticuffs. Perhaps no blow strikes harder though, than her words at a pivotal moment in the film, words that have the effect, almost, of castration on Folcanet. They’re humiliating words.... and they leave the audience smiling. It also helps that she has great chemistry with her leading man as they share the screen.

Patrick Bergin comes from Irish stock, and his work at this period included the monstrous ex-husband of Julia Roberts’ character in Sleeping With The Enemy and the leader of the Irish terrorists making Harrison Ford’s life hell in Patriot Games. More of his work since has been done in the British isles, though international audiences might recall him more recently from Ella Enchanted, in which he played Sir Peter. He’s ideally cast as Robert/ Robin, playing the part as a man of principle and pride, giving the character the right balance of the devilish scoundrel and charming outlaw. There's a glint of the rascal in his eyes and an amused smile from time to time, just as you'd expect of the character. Robin finds himself cast out more because he doesn’t want to swallow his pride, but it’s not a pride that crosses over into arrogance; it’s a firm pride in himself and his people as Saxons. Yet even cast out, he comes into his own, believing in justice and in hopes for a better land. He emerges as a natural leader, handy in a fight, and the sort of man who uses psychology as a weapon just as easily as he does a sword and a quiver of arrows. Bergin’s take on the character still stands as my favourite interpretation of the legendary outlaw. He’s a rogue, but such a compelling rogue.

Robin Hood might not have gotten the notice that its counterpart got in 1991, but it is the much better of the two films, taking itself more seriously, feeling more authentic as it takes on themes in a full way that have never really been explored before in a Robin Hood film. It has a particularly nasty villain, a sympathetic antagonist, and a supporting cast that inhabit their roles in the best of ways. And it has a leading pair of actors playing their characters as two people who genuinely like each other even as they’re falling for each other. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Five Hoods: Is That An English Accent?

Some links before we get started today. Yesterday Parsnip had a Square Dog Friday. Hilary had the divine Lucy front and center the other day. Mark wrote about lawn mowing. Lorelei wrote about Jack O'Lanterns. And the Whisk asked who you'd fight.

Now then, time for the next in my series of reviews on movies about the archer from Sherwood Forest...

“A wise man once said there are no perfect men in the world, only perfect intentions.” ~ Azeem

“Why a spoon, cousin? Why not an axe?” ~ Sir Guy of Gisbourne 
“Because it’s dull, you twit. It’ll hurt more!” ~ Sheriff of Nottingham

“How is it that a once-arrogant young nobleman has found contentment, living rough with the salt of the earth?” ~ Marion 
“I’ve seen knights in armor panic at the first hint of battle. And I’ve seen the lowliest, unarmed squire pull a spear from his own body to defend a dying horse. Nobility is not a birthright. It’s defined by one’s actions.” ~ Robin Hood

Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves is the 1991 action adaption of the Robin Hood story from director Kevin Reynolds, taking the screenplay and story from Pen Densham and John Watson and telling the story of a modern Robin Hood fighting a particularly bad tempered sheriff of Nottingham, with the fate of all England at risk if he fails. It’s cheesy and goofy, but fun, featuring a leading man who quickly gives up on trying to maintain an English accent, and a villain played by an actor who seems to be enjoying himself playing such a rotten person.

Things start out in Jerusalem, where the nobleman Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner) is a soldier in the army of King Richard, imprisoned with his friend Peter for a few years. They escape with the help of a fellow prisoner, a Moor named Azeem (Morgan Freeman), though Peter is mortally wounded. Azeem vows to stay with Robin, who has saved his life, and the two set sail for England. It’s been years since Robin last saw his home, but his father, with whom he parted on bad terms, has been killed and his lands taken by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) and his cousin Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Michael Wincott).  Robin learns from Peter’s sister Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) what has been happening in the land, and he, Azeem, and his blinded servant Duncan flee into Sherwood Forest, pursued by Gisbourne and the soldiers of Nottingham.

There they meet a band of outlaws. Little John (Nick Brimble) leads the group. Robin makes a good impression on Little John and the others by besting him in a quarterstaff duel, but finds himself the subject of hostility from Will Scarlet (Christian Slater). Later Friar Tuck (Michael McShane) enters the picture and joins the band. Robin takes charge of the group, rallying them to stand up in resistance to the ambitious Sheriff, reasoning that they are all free men fighting for England as it should be.

Reynolds and his crew filmed most of the production on location in the United Kingdom and France, along with some interior sets done in England. Some of the locations are quite lovely places- the locations for Sherwood, in particular, have a green and alive feeling to them. By contrast, other locations, have a bleaker feel, such as the arrival on the coast of England, or the lair of the Sheriff’s witch. Reynolds has a particular skill with action films; he later directed The Count Of Monte Cristo, and worked with Costner again on Waterworld and Hatfields & McCoys. There are creative touches in the way he films things, such as the arrow’s point of view as it’s being shot towards its target. He  brings his skills as an action director to the table, and it does show.

The crew make things feel medieval, and that shows itself in the details. Sets certainly look of their time, and the same applies to costumes and props; the Witch Mortianna in particular looks dreadful. The outlaws and the common people look very common, musty, and grimy, as if they haven’t had baths in awhile (Marian does tell Robin to take a bath, after all). Castles have an oppressive air to them, badly lit and filled with hidden passages, dark dungeons, and secret occult chambers. Celtic warriors look like savage barbarians (the Scots would not like how their forebears were portrayed as wild, vicious thugs for hire). The music score by Michael Kamen is one of his best works, a thrilling, romantic, thoroughly dashing collection of themes that fit the film well- and gave rise to a certain Bryan Adams song that has played at countless weddings ever since.

The casting of the film is quite mixed. Sean Connery turns up at the end in a cameo as King Richard, as authoritative as you’d expect him to be, and it’s a nice touch, as he and Costner co-starred in The Untouchables together. Brian Blessed is a character actor who’s done a lot of work in British films, and he turns up early as Robin’s father Lord Locksley, a father worried about his son, distressed by the estrangement between them, and still mindful of his duties as a nobleman. Walter Sparrow plays the aged servant Duncan as completely loyal, even at the expense to his own health, playing him as fragile. Nick Brimble plays a different kind of Little John, a coarse man with a wife he both loves dearly and bickers with. He certainly looks the part, a big man who looks like he’s been in a fight or two in his time. Michael McShane gives Friar Tuck an interesting take- he plays the boisterous priest with a drinking habit as you’d expect, but he’s deeply suspicious of  and hostile to the Moor in the midst of the outlaws- until Azeem gives him reason not to be.

Geraldine McEwan plays the nasty witch Mortianna as if the character is insane (she probably is) and thoroughly evil. There’s no shades of grey in her. Michael Wincott, who would later work for Reynolds again in the adaptation of The Count Of Monte Cristo, has a history of playing villains and scoundrels, and such is the case with Guy of Gisbourne. He’s much more of an underling than Basil Rathbone’s take on the character, willing to let his cousin take the lead, but he’s a nasty, cruel piece of work all by himself, and it shows in the way he treats people.

Alan Rickman gets the most fun in the cast playing the Sheriff of Nottingham. He has a wide range of roles as an actor, but three characters have become signature parts for him: Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, and this role. His Sheriff is ambitious, cruel, vile, petty, temperamental... and gets all the great lines. He rants and roars, chews the scenery, demands that Christmas be cancelled, schemes, rolls his eyes, and looks like he’s having a ball. When he’s on screen, you just can’t take your eyes off him. Sure, he’s evil, but he’s so much fun.

Christian Slater is pretty much playing Christian Slater in his take on Will Scarlet. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. He has to play the character as a young man with a chip on his shoulder and a grudge that has to be explained late in the story. There’s a snarkiness in the character at times, but also a lot of pent-up anger at the intrusion of Robin. When we learn the reason for it, it’s understandable, though you might think Robin should have just asked much sooner. Wouldn’t he have thought, “Hmm, I know why the Sheriff is mad at me, I mean, I’ve defied him, made him look bad, stole his taxes, given him a nice facial scar and all, but what’s Will’s problem?”

Morgan Freeman already had a lot of work to his name at the time, but it had been Glory a couple of years earlier that really got him attention as an actor, and when this film came his way, he started out on his streak of being one of the more interesting actors in any movie, a reputation that he has maintained to this day. His role as Azeem is an interesting one. He’s a wise man, one of courage, an outspoken outsider who finds a home among people unlike him. There’s a warmth to the character that makes him likable.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio does what other actresses have done before her with Marian. She plays her as headstrong, independent, and principled. There’s courage in her, a forceful strong will, and when we first meet her, that comes across clearly. She doesn’t know what to think of Robin at first- she just remembers him as the spoiled brat who teased her in childhood before heading off to war with her brother. It’s only when she sees the life he’s making for himself as a leader of others, as she sees that he’s living up to principles, that she sees him differently. Nevertheless, she’s charmed by the man he’s become, drawn to him, and those are qualities she conveys in her performance. 

Costner took a lot of flak at the time for the role (he got a Razzie for this one, actually). He starts out trying on an English accent as Robin, but it doesn’t last long. He also starts out in earnest, trying to be more serious early on, coming across as rather grouchy. It’s only when he ditches the accent, settles into the role, and ends up among the outlaws that he seems to come into himself as Robin, and seems to be having fun. Costner conveys himself as a leader, but there’s also the charming rogue there, both in terms of Costner as an actor and as Robin Hood the cultural figure. It’s a flawed take on the character, but not without its good sides.

There is a good deal of cheesiness to Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves. Its leading man decides early on to stop speaking with an English accent, thus exposing himself to endless ridicule in Mel Brooks’ parody later on. And yet that cheesiness has its own amount of fun to it- it’s a popcorn kind of movie with a clearly cut hero defying the oppression of a villain. And that villain is played to the hilt as an over the top nasty piece of work... by an actor who makes the most of the role.

In my last review of this series, I’ll finish things up with my favourite interpretation of Robin Hood. Most of you will not have heard of it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Five Hoods: Robin, Before Sherwood

“Mother, spare me your farmyard memories. You have none and I don’t understand them.” ~ Prince John

“We can’t repay our good luck with bad grace, it invites darkness.” ~ Robin

“Once before I said goodbye to a man going to war. He never came back.” ~ Marian

Director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) took on the story of the archer from Sherwood Forest in 2010 in the film Robin Hood, which actually tells an origin story for the legendary outlaw. Starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, the film is a revisionist tale written by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, 42) and produced by Scott, Brian Grazer, and Crowe. In essence, it looks at the man before he was the outlaw.

We first meet Robin Longstride (Crowe), an archer in the army of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), coming home from the Crusades and involved in a siege of a French castle. He’s disillusioned by war, wants to go home, and finds his opportunity to leave with fellow soldiers Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and Allan A’Dale (Alan Doyle) when the King is killed in battle. The band of men withdraw in the confusion, and come across an ambush of some of the King’s officers  by French soldiers led by the treacherous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), an English knight in league with the French King. One of the dying knights asks him to return the crown to England and his own sword to his father. Robin and his comrades decide to impersonate the knights to secure their passage home.

And so home to England the unlikely band goes, where bearing the crown and the assumed identity of Sir Robert Loxley, Robin informs the royal family of the death of Richard. Prince John (Oscar Isaac) is crowned king, and Robin meets the trusted advisor William Marshall (William Hurt) before setting off for Nottingham to carry out the second request. It is there where he and his men meet Sir Robert’s father Walter (Max von Sydow) and his widow Marian (Blanchett), and where an unlikely arrangement is made to allow the impersonation to continue. Along the way they encounter the local sheriff (Matthew Macfadyen, criminally underused in the role).

Helgeland has quite a history as a screenwriter and occasional director, with an attention to detail and a preference for strong characterization. That gets its due here, along with the epic sweep of battle and the intimacy of slow romance. It certainly does play around with history- the notion of the Magna Carta is more of an idea that Robin comes up with in a proposal to the new king to unite his country, as opposed to what it was. He was actually the last screenwriter in a series to take on Scott’s project, after other scripts didn’t meet the director’s standards. His story emphasizes themes like war weariness and the balance between justice and vengeance, as well as the notion of fair treatment. Along the way things get muddied up somewhat.

Most of the film was done on location in the United Kingdom, with set pieces including castles and villages erected on site and details added as the long production process went along. It certainly does look English, with a bleak, windswept look to the whole production. Scott’s direction certainly brings with it an expertise in action and epic subjects; his camerawork is particularly effective in long views during battle sequences along the coast, giving us two opposing armies having at each other. Yet he also knows how to convey action in the midst of it all.  At the same time, Scott knows when to step back and let the actors work. There are times, though, in the story, where you’re left wondering if the bleakness of the surroundings is overtaking the film itself. 

The cast as a whole are well chosen. Danny Huston is one of those terrific character actors who makes a role interesting, and I’ve never seen him give a bad performance. He plays Richard as not quite the noble king we might expect, but somewhat devious and not quite so understanding. Oscar Isaac plays his younger brother John as the vain, insecure, and temperamental figure that he’s so often portrayed as; the real John must be spinning in his grave at how he’s been dragged through the mud in so many Robin Hood stories for centuries. Mark Strong, another great character actor with a particular skill for playing villains, cads, and ne’er do wells in films like Stardust, Sherlock Holmes, John Carter, and The Young Victoria, is delightfully nasty and cruel as Sir Godfrey, the traitorous knight with ambitions all his own. He’s really the villain of the story, a side-winding bastard out for himself, and ready to cast aside anyone in his way.

William Hurt gets a good role as William Marshall, a real life figure at the time. He’s a character who’s fair minded and wise; a good advisor who suddenly finds himself on the outside, disregarded by his new king, and yet still a man who believes in his country and understands who he can trust. Eileen Atkins plays Eleanor, mother to two kings. She’s favoured her elder son Richard, which leaves her in something of an antagonistic relationship with John, and Atkins brings the dignity of an actress with a long working career to the role. Max von Sydow, who seems to have been around forever, gets another good late career role as Sir Walter Loxley, a pragmatic man who’s basically decent and who sees something of worth in Robin. Matthew Macfadyen (Pride & Prejudice, MI5) gets underused as the sheriff of Nottingham, but when we do see him, the character is lecherous and greedy. 

The inner circle of the Merry Men (though they’re not called that) are nicely chosen. Durand has the look of a tough man who’s been around the block a few times, and he has a blunt, hard personality that suits Little John very well indeed. Scott Grimes has a very everyman sort of look to him, but it suits his Will Scarlet well. Alan Doyle is actually the front man of the Newfoundland band Great Big Sea, and brings his natural charm as a singer to the minstrel-soldier Allan A’Dale. These three actors would end up reuniting with Crowe for a guest turn on a Canadian television series of all things, Republic of Doyle (check youtube for Russell Crowe and that show title, and you can find it). The English actor Mark Addy rounds out the group as Friar Tuck, as boisterous as you might expect him.

I like Cate Blanchett’s take on Marian. She plays the character as intelligent and strong willed, capable of managing well on her own. There’s loyalty to her; she has stayed for years with her father-in-law while her husband, who she was only married to briefly before he went off to the Crusades, has been gone. And she gives the character courage and a headstrong personality.

Russell Crowe gives Robin a good amount of gravity and weight (while wavering between sounding English or Scottish). There are hints of his Maximus from Gladiator in how he plays the character: disillusioned and tired of war, a bit downtrodden by futility. The bleakness he seems to travel through weighs on him, and yet there’s more to the man. He has a certain ingenuity and quick wit, and a sense of fair play and justice. It allows him to say what he thinks- even if others don’t like what he has to say. His Robin comes alive with Marian, and yet the two actors wisely let their characters do a slow burn and get to know each other.

The film is not completely successful. The bleakness of it all is sometimes overwhelming, and playing around with history in the way that it does adds to that (though not in the overwhelming way that you get with Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot). It does feel at times like Gladiator transplanted to medieval England. And it leaves the Sheriff of Nottingham stranded in pretty much cameo status. Still, an uneven Ridley Scott film has more going for it than many other films, and as a director he’s never dull. Taken as a whole, I do like the film, though it’s not my favourite interpretation of the character.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Five Hoods: Tongue Firmly In Cheek

Some links first off before I get started. Yesterday we had a Snippet Sunday post at our joint blog. Eve wrote about acupuncture. Cheryl had some unknown flowers that require identification. And Krisztina had Hallowe'en treats at her blog.

Now then, moving on with the second in this series of Robin Hood film reviews, and we turn to the silly version.

“Robin of Loxley? I’ve just come from Maid Marian, the woman whose heart you’ve stolen, you prince of thieves, you! I knew her parents before they were taken in the plague, Lord and Lady Bahgel. You know, you two were made for each other. I mean, what a combination. Loxley and Bahgel! It can’t miss!” ~ Rabbi Tuckman

“Oh, they call me Little John, but don’t let my name fool you. In real life, I’m very big.” ~ Little John. 
“I’ll take your word for it.” ~ Robin Hood

“You know, this wasn’t a very smart thing to do, Loxley. I’ll pay for this... you’ll pay for this.” ~ Sheriff of Rottingham

Last time out I featured a classic take on the Robin Hood story. This time we find ourselves dealing with a film that lampoons the story mercilessly, along with lampooning previous versions of the story, particularly one that had come out a couple of years before. Robin Hood: Men In Tights is the 1993 parody of the Robin Hood story from director Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles). It turns convention on its head, as you might expect from Brooks, and goes for every laugh it can get along the line.

We first meet Robin (Cary Elwes) escaping from prison in Jerusalem during the Crusades. A fellow inmate (Isaac Hayes) asks him to look for his son Ahchoo (Dave Chapelle) in England. He returns home, only to find out that Prince John (Richard Lewis) has taken control of the land, including his family home; needless to say, this annoys him. Along with Ahchoo, Robin recruits Little John (Erik Allan Kramer) and Will Scarlet O’Hara (Matthew Poretta, and yes, you read that name right) into a band of outlaws to oust Prince John. Rabbi Tuckman (Brooks) completes the ensemble.

Robin also must find time to flirt shamelessly with Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck), who’s on the lookout for the man who’ll win her heart and remove her chastity belt. And he has to deal with the nefarious Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees, chewing the scenery), who has a peculiar way of speaking and a nasty disposition.

As can be expected from a Mel Brooks film, the entire story is beyond irreverent (this is a good thing). While it doesn’t quite have the same energy as his classics Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, the film is an effective spoof in and of itself. It brings in musical numbers for no reason (which, strangely enough, was a common thing during the Golden Age of cinema). It references other films, particularly in this genre, tweaking its nose at the Costner version in particular. Robin reminds everyone that unlike other Robin Hoods, he speaks in an English accent. It pokes its head through the Fourth Wall- at one point the characters find themselves taking out the film script, for instance. And it even turns the appearance of King Richard on its head by casting an unlikely Richard, but one just right for the role, in the form of Patrick Stewart.

As is the case in any Robin Hood story, the casting is essential. The comedian Tracey Ullman turns up as the repulsive witch, an advisor to Prince John who’s thoroughly repugnant, and yet we can’t help but laugh at just how repugnant she is. Richard Lewis, the stand up comedian who’s made a career out of being neurotic, is essentially playing himself as Prince John, but he’s armed with good dialogue for a whining character who’s out of his element and frustrated. Roger Rees gets to have a lot of fun as the sheriff. As an actor he’s appeared in comedies and dramas, and mostly as people who are rather unsympathetic. Here he’s a thoroughly rotten blighter with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, just the sort of person you want as a villain in a send up of the Robin Hood story.

Mel Brooks, having had spoofed the whole genre as a director, adds in his own performance as Rabbi Tuckman- a different take than making him a friar. His rabbi is a man who likes to talk (a lot), and yet is a pleasant, affable fellow. Amy Yasbeck plays Marian with a comedic sense of timing; she would work again with Brooks in his Dracula parody a couple of years later. Her Marian is less virtuous than the classical take on the role, with more adult needs and opinions; she's pretty much horny and desperate for relief.

Cary Elwes is well cast as Robin. He brings some of the same qualities to the role that he brought in The Princess Bride. He’s dashing and quick witted, calm under pressure, and he can improvise. While giving the character a rich sense of humour, he maintains a straight face throughout, something that’s rather essential in a parody like this.

And unlike other Robin Hoods, he can speak with an English accent.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Five Hoods: The Swashbuckler

Some links before we get ourselves started today. Norma has a cover for her memoir. Yesterday was a Square Dog Friday for AngryParsnip. Lorelei looks at the history of Hallowe'en. And the Whisk had a Who Am I question.

Today I start out with the first of five reviews for films about the legendary outlaw and the stories about him. Enjoy!

“Do you know any prayers, my friend?” ~ Sir Guy of Gisbourne 
“I’ll say one for you.” ~ Robin Hood

“You know you’re very impudent.” ~ Marian

“I’ll organize revolt, exact death for a death, and I’ll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England.” ~ Robin Hood

The classic film The Adventures of Robin Hood is a swashbuckling story from directors Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and William Keighley (The Prince And The Pauper). It brings together Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland for one of a number of films they co-starred in together as the outlaw from Sherwood Forest and the Lady Marian. There had been Robin Hoods on the silver screen before, and many more would follow, but for many, this classic version is the definitive take on the tale. It was a popular action film in 1938 that still endures today, well received by audiences and critics alike.

The film opens up with England at a crossroads; Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter), on his way back from the Crusades, has been taken prisoner. His brother Prince John (Claude Rains) is in the process of seizing power as a result, oppressing the common people, raising taxes for the supposed purpose of ransoming Richard, but in fact to gain control of the throne. One Saxon knight, Robin of Locksley (Flynn) opposes John’s actions. Having had already gained the enmity of Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), Robin finds himself on the run with a price on his head for his outspoken disagreement with the prince.

He and his friend Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) end up in Sherwood Forest, where they cross paths with others who have a price on their heads, including Little John (Alan Hale Sr.) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette). Robin and his band of outlaws begin their own campaign of insurrection, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, fighting for a free England until the return of Richard. This will bring them into conflict with Prince John, Gisbourne, the sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper), and a whole lot of moving targets in soldier’s garb. All while Robin gets to flirt with Maid Marian (De Havilland).

Keighley was replaced during filming by the studio, which went with Curtiz instead as director; officially the story goes that Keighley fell ill, but there’s some dispute to that. Regardless, some of the finished work belongs to both directors. Curtiz would end up working with Flynn on a regular basis. Production was done in sets and locations around California, and at one time James Cagney was meant to star in the lead- wisely this never came to be. Flynn was, after all, far better suited for a dashing hero than Cagney, whose work leaned heavily towards the gangsters.  Warner Brothers went with Technicolor for the film, a new and more expensive process, but one that worked well for the story. Sets and costumes come to vivid life.

The film contains some of the best archery and sword duels of the time- the climactic fight between Flynn and Rathbone is particularly memorable; it turns out that the fencing master behind this believed sword fights should look like sword fights, and not fencing matches, and that comes across throughout. The film also evokes the chivalry and dashing adventurous spirit of the original stories. It won three Oscars, for the score by Erich Korngold, for editing, and for art direction, and has been designated of historic significance by the Library of Congress.  

It’s something of a family film- kids will enjoy it, of course, but adults certainly will enjoy it on an entirely different level. There’s no cynicism to the story, just an exuberant energy perhaps best seen in its title character. There’s a playfulness that extends to other characters, as well as the need to show off, but those are the characters and not the actors doing that. It also brings across a clear difference between right and wrong- the heroes act for the greater good, while the villains act for their own greed and ambitions.

The casting throughout is splendid, and that’s what makes this film work so well, as is the case with any good film. Claude Rains is ideal as Prince John. He had such a rich resume of acting roles throughout his life, with each role seeming in turn to be different from the others. His John is a schemer, but one with little personal courage. Melville Cooper gives us a different take as the Sheriff than later performances, such as Alan Rickman’s signature performance in the role. He’s much more of an underling, and at heart something of a coward. Basil Rathbone, who would go on to star in his greatest role as Sherlock Holmes in several films, gets the most screen time among the villains as Sir Guy, a treacherous snake with his own ambition and next to nothing in the way of ethics. It’s a great scene chewing role for the actor, and Rathbone makes him a terrific villain, just the right counterbalance to the hero.

The other supporting performances are just as good. Ian Hunter brings nobility and fair play to his take as King Richard. Patric Knowles gives his role of Will a certain amount of humour, but at the same time, this is a man who knows who his friends are and stands by them through anything- loyalty like that can’t be bought. Eugene Pallette is as grumpy, boisterous, and at heart decent as you would expect of Friar Tuck, a character who’s come down through centuries of stories as such. And Alan Hale establishes his take on Little John as a man worthy of respect, but also knowing a good leader when he sees one.

Olivia De Havilland brings many qualities to her role as Marian. She initially holds Robin in disdain as an outlaw and a brigand, but there’s a spark there. Her feelings shift gradually, as she discovers that his motivations are for the better, that there’s a good man beneath the swagger. She’s outspoken at times, and courageous and selfless, even at risk to herself. She has great chemistry with Flynn, and that comes across on the screen, but establishes her take on Marian as someone of depth all her own. In a career filled with outstanding work, this is one of her best roles.

Flynn was early on in his career when he got this role; later on in life he became something of a caricature. It’s refreshing to see him in this role; he seems to be having fun, both as the actor and in terms of conveying what the character is feeling. His Robin is fair minded, remarking that it’s injustice that he hates, not Normans, and he believes that his country can be better than it is becoming. He’s driven by justice, but there’s a swagger to him too, as though he’s thoroughly enjoying the danger he finds himself in on a regular basis. He’s certainly fearless, and a good leader, and Flynn brings these qualities to his performance in the role.

There have been many Robin Hoods on the silver screen, but this take on the role is one of the definitive versions of the story. It did eclipse the earlier Douglas Fairbanks silent version of the story, and for decades it has continued to entertain audiences who seek it out. The film is a rousing adventure with a sense of humour and the right amount of romance, all while featuring some of the best sword fighting in movie history.

Even if Bugs Bunny doesn’t believe Errol could possibly be Robin.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Rampage Of A Hipster Leprechaun

Some links before I get myself started. Parsnip had some lovely photos at her blog. Eve wrote about pet peeves. Maria wrote about a mysterious librarian. Krisztina had this Hallowe'en treat idea. Cheryl was part of a local author's event. And Mark had some crossover fan fiction.

Today I'm doing one of those posts with assorted off kilter images for your consideration. Enjoy!