Monday, April 30, 2012

Robin Hood

Robin Hood (5/5)

            Most people have that one Disney film that follows him or her into adulthood.  Of course, the persistence of Disney’s films can be chalked up to cultural omnipresence or clever marketing, but I wouldn’t underestimate the fact that in its heyday the Disney factory managed to pump out one classic after another.  There’s a reason why Walt Disney has garnered the admiration of great artists like Sergei Eisenstein, John Updike, and Roy Lichtenstein: because, at his best, Walt Disney created great art.  For me, the single Disney film that never seems to exhaust itself—no matter how accurately I can recite each line word for word—the one Disney film that seems to renew itself with each passing decade is without a doubt their version of Robin Hood.

            For my money, Disney’s Robin Hood is the best adaptation of the medieval folk tale ever put to screen (sorry, Kevin Costner).  While everyone knows the basic elements that make up the Robin Hood legend, from the Sheriff of Nottingham to Sherwood Forest to Robin’s band of merry men, some of the most famous aspects of the folk tale have been haphazardly added to the story over the course of centuries.  Maid Marion, for instance, wasn’t included in Robin Hood’s legend until several hundred years after his earliest folk tales.  This loose, disparate formation of the Robin Hood tale has actually helped it survive over the centuries.  Because there is no single authoritative Robin Hood story, artists have been able to highlight and tweak different parts of the myth to their liking, mixing and matching whatever suits their particular purposes.

            Disney’s Robin Hood seems keenly aware of the mythic nature of the title character, and the film is introduced by minstrel singer Alan-a-Dale who, while leaning on the letters of an oversized book about Robin Hood, informs the audience that “My job is to tell it like it is, or was, or whatever.”  The layered, self-consciously formulated style of this introduction—the fact that Alan-a-Dale is breaking the fourth wall to tell us a story that he appears in and is also surrounded by a large print version of the same story—tells the audience that the filmmakers are aware of the ways in which legends and heroes are not born but rather made by those who choose to cobble truth and fiction together and pass it on to the next generation so they can do the same. 
And for his part, the director, Wolfgang Reitherman, and his team chose some of the best elements of the Robin Hood mythos.  This version of Robin Hood takes place during King Richard’s crusade.  While Richard is abroad fighting a hopeless war, England has been under the boot of his weasely brother, Prince John who has nearly taxed the already impoverished people into starvation.  In one particularly great scene (and the movie is filled with great scenes), the Sheriff of Nottingham waltzes into Friar Tuck’s church, opens up the donation box, and takes whatever change he happens to find.  When Friar Tuck protests that he is taking from the “poor box,” the Sheriff replies that he’s just taking it for “poor Prince John.”  The villains are particularly nasty in Robin Hood, not because they represent the essence of evil, but because they seem awfully close to anyone who takes immense pleasure in basking in their own power. 

The relationship between Robin and Marion also comes across as surprisingly effective, especially when you considered that they’re two anthropomorphized foxes.  As a child my least favorite part of the film was always Robin and Marion’s retreat to the waterfall after he whisks her away from the archery contest.  As I’ve grown with the film, the movie itself appears to change ever so slightly, and I’ve come to love this scene just as much as the rest of the film.  It serves as a well needed respite from one of the film’s most extensive action sequences, which begins with an archery contest and devolves into a big tent, three ring circus of chaos. 

But what truly sets this film apart from all other Disney animated films is the vibrant voice acting.  Phil Harris, who had previously played Baloo in The Jungle Book, reproduces his baritone here as Little John, who in this version serves as Robin Hood’s best bud and advisor in romance.  And for his part Brian Bedford puts in a great performance as the title character, and his delicate British accent seems to fit Robin’s wiry frame.  The filmmakers even got country singer Roger Miller, who is most famous for his song “King of the Road,” to voice Alan-a-Dale.  And it is, in part, because of the fine ensemble cast that the movie manages to make every one of its dozen or so talking characters seem alive despite the fact that the film barely makes it past the 80 minute mark.  Thanks to both the voice actors and the way in which the animators formed each animal around a few key associated personality traits (the rabbits are energetic, the foxes are lithe and quick, and the bears are lumbering and forceful), we feel as if each character, even if he or she has only a line or two, are a full fleshed personality.  Even ancillary characters, like the alligator who sounds like Tom Waits, feel as if they have a history behind them, a story we haven’t yet heard.

Of all the fine voice acting, I have to make special mention of Peter Ustinov’s Prince John, who, in my opinion, is one of the all time great villains.  The genius behind Ustinov’s performance is that Prince John can veer wildly between a childish buffoon who sucks his thumb calling for his mother and a nasty villain who takes pleasure in hurting others.  And these two sides of his personality seem to reinforce one another.  He is like that kid with godlike powers from the Twilight Zone episode, “It’s a Good Life,” or, more recently, like King Joffrey from Game of Thrones.  Power may corrupt absolutely, but it can also create an eternal infancy.  And while there are an abundance of great lines in the film, somehow Prince John gets the best of them, from “Forgive me a cruel chuckle” to “I’ve got a dirty thumb.” 

Ustinov’s great performance is likely a result of his time in theater where his flexible voice would have been even more of an asset than in film.  And listening to him recently in Robin Hood reminded me of one of my least favorite aspects of modern day animation: celebrity voice actors.  Fair warning: I’m going into a full fledged rant.  Too often animation studios will hire big name stars to voice a few characters so that they can paste some recognizable names on the marquee, and the stars are willing to cash the check because it’s an easy gig.  In fact, at the Oscars Chris Rock recently poked fun at how “easy” voice acting is.  But the thing is, I’ve listened to Chris Rock voicing a character, and he’s terrible at it. In fact, most of his Hollywood friends have a hard time actually acting when they are voicing an animated character.  The exception to this rule is, of course, Pixar who chooses voice actors because they fit the role not because their schedule happened to be free and…why not.  Pixar then expects their talent to do some acting.  When I listen to Woody and Buzz rarely do I stop to think that they’re really Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.  But the worst offender has to be the recent Dr. Seuss adaptations that have been purposefully built around a big Hollywood star.  Once the big draw has been established, the studio cynically plugs in actors and pop musicians who will appeal to different demographics in order to have their bases covered when it’s time to market the film.  In Horton Hears a Who, for example, there is no character who actually resembles Horton from Dr. Seuss’s classic.  Instead it’s merely Jim Carrey under the guise of an elephant yelling a lot.  And what’s truly terrible is that because, as Chris Rock suggests, voice acting doesn’t take much time out of your day, wealthy Hollywood actors have been pushing out truly talented people who specialize in voice acting for a living.  Okay, that’s the end of my rant.  My point is, these animation studios could learn a lot from Robin Hood where each voice actor effortlessly captures the persona of his or her character in a way that’s becoming increasingly rare in contemporary animation.

But as I mentioned early on, Robin Hood the movie, and the legend itself, seems to renew itself with each passing year.  Disney’s Robin Hood seems to be both of its time and yet one step out of it.  The film was released in 1973 and it contains a healthy distrust of government as well as a story that pits the haves against the have nots.  The 60s counterculture obviously had a huge impact on this film.  When Alan-a-Dale introduces himself at the beginning of the film, he tells us that he’s a minstrel, which he defines as sort of like “an old time folk singer.”  And what are these woodland versions of classic characters but a bunch of hippies who hide out in the woods singing protest songs.  One song, “The Phony King of England,” is so catchy that Prince John’s right hand serpent, Sir Hiss, is caught singing it in front of his boss, a testament to ways in which music can spread both an unrelenting melody and anti-authoritarian message.  But these same issues seem even more prevalent today.  The film makes it a point to suggest that King Richard has been hypnotized by Hiss so that he would leave England to fight the Crusades, a hopeless war in the Middle East.  While the king is more concerned with foreign affairs, England falls apart.  Thankfully, we have evolved past these issues in the last millennium or so.  With the collapse of the global economy and the subsequent rise of the Occupy Wall Street protests the myth of Robin Hood seems more than a little applicable today.  At one point Prince John inverts Robin Hood’s famous motto, telling his that he plans to “rob the poor to give to the rich.”  And as we have seen wealth trickle upwards over the past thirty years, this seems like an apt phrase to explain what has happened to our once robust economy.

Unfortunately, Robin Hood didn’t have a great reputation upon its release.  Apparently, the studio wasn’t pleased with the animation, which has a rougher edge than some of Disney’s earlier films (although, I would argue that this nicely fits with its scraggy hero).  The film’s critical reception has suffered as well.  On the critic aggregation site Rottentomatoes, Robin Hood currently has only a 55% positive rating.  And yet I don’t know a single person who doesn’t love this film.  Tellingly, 78% of the same website’s users give the film a positive score, which is pretty good for a bunch of internet cynics.  Somehow I find it fitting that, while the critical elites look down on the film, the populace still loves Robin Hood as much as ever.   

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Square

The Square (4/5)

The Australian film, The Square, is well versed in the long and storied history of film noir.  It takes its basic narrative outline from Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Double Indemnity—the kind of films familiar to non-film buffs, even if it is second hand information gathered through parodies and borrowed snippets in other films.  And while the story is nothing new, the film orchestrates each bad decision with such craft that it’s hard not to be won over by such a well made film.

Like some of the above films, The Square begins with an illicit tryst.  As the movie begins, Ray and Carla appear to have been carrying on an affair for some time.  There is an age and class difference between the two.  Ray manages a construction site and has slipped into a comfortable upper middle class lifestyle, where Carla, while not poor, is married to a low level gangster.  Ray appears to be about a decade Carla’s senior, and while it isn’t entirely clear what Ray finds so mundane about his typical middle class existence, I’m sure Carla’s age is part of her allure.  The two have been talking about running away together for some months, and an opportunity arises when Carla comes across a duffel bag full of cash hidden in the crawl space of her house.  The two plan to steal the bag, hire someone to burn down the house in order to hide the theft, and then run off together.

The director, Nash Edgarton (brother to the Joel Edgarton, actor and screenwriter), smartly avoids too much exposition.  We don’t need to know what problems Ray has been having with his wife, or what it is exactly that Carla’s husband, Greg, does that makes it necessary for him to have a coterie of seedy friends, so the filmmakers don’t tell us.  The movie is appropriately streamlined.  Obviously, the plan to steal the duffel bag full of money and burn down Carla’s house doesn’t work as planned, which sets each character against the other.  Part of the appeal of film noir is the manner in which choices veer off into unforeseen consequences.  A major theme of the genre tends to be our own lack of control, how we are often carried along the stream of life and when we attempt to change course we too often encounter eddies and currents that override our intentions.  The Square is a film about the irrevocability of choices.

The Edgarton brothers are mostly known for work in front of the camera than behind it (director Nash has done both acting and stunt work while his brother Joel has started making inroads acting in large Hollywood fare).  But judging by the well crafted nature of The Square, these two should team up more often as a writing and directing team.  Film noir is often the chosen genre for eager young directors who are looking to prove themselves.  There’s a reason why Quentin Tarantino, Brian Singer, and, of course, the Cohen Brothers (who would go on to make film noir their own little playground for years to come) started their careers by making taunt film noir thrillers: film noir is the perfect test of a director’s skills.  Early film noir established a clear visual style, and since its inception in the mid-forties, the genre has had a sense of formalism about it.  In order to master the genre, you had to first show that you understood how the language of film worked while simultaneously applying your own spin on the themes of love, lust, murder, and the underside of capitalism.  Likewise, Nash Edgarton understands the genre well, and he convinces us that each small decision these characters make, which appear reasonable on their own, could spiral into unthinkable mistakes.  He also tells the story visually, never wasting words when a subtle camera movement will do.  For us outsiders, Australia is often viewed as a rugged desert full of sun hardened men and women.  I can think of fewer settings more suitable to film noir. 

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Green Lantern

Green Lantern (3/5)

Over the last decade, the summer and holiday months have been littered with the cast off remains of failed franchises.  Eager for the consistent influx of cash that popular series like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Twilight bring in over the course of years, or even decades, studios have been caught counting their chickens long before they have hatched, hoping that whatever rebooted 80s cartoon, young adult novel, or underused superhero will leaven the strain of actually producing new material.  Some of these failures have taken on the veneer of cult success (I would argue this in the case of the Wachowski’s Speed Racer or Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer), where others fail to live up to the promise of their source material (such as Jonah Hex or The Golden Compass), and still others should never have been put into production in the first place (Prince of Persia, Battlefield Earth).  And while there have been rumors of a Green Lantern sequel, I have the feeling that the first film’s poor showing at the box office will dissuade the bean counters from risking another go at DC’s space cop.  And that’s a shame, not because the first film was such a triumph, but because, despite plenty of flaws, there’s a lot of potential in the Green Lantern, even if much of it is squandered by the movie’s end.

I watched Green Lantern after reading some damning reviews, so imagine my surprise when, for at least the first half of the film, the movie turned out to be an engaging balance of sci-fi spectacle and carefully executed character building.  We begin the film in the far reaches of space where some alien astronauts stumble upon a trapped entity known as Parallax who feeds on these victims and escapes.  Parallax proceeds to chase down and mortally wound the Green Lantern who had trapped him in the first place, Abin Sur.  Sur manages to escape from Parallax and crash land on Earth where he, knowing how little time he has left, instructs his ring, the source of a Green Lantern’s power, to find a suitable replacement. 

The ring eventually chooses Hal Jordan, a test pilot for experimental aircraft.  Hal’s portrayed as a womanizer whose talents as a pilot far outstrip his discipline.  He works for Ferris Aircraft and has some romantic history with the boss’s daughter, Carol Ferris, who also happens to balance her career helping run the family business with her roles as a test pilot along with Hal.  The two must run a demonstration for the government in hopes that Uncle Sam will buy their non-manned fighter pilot drones (take that China!).  While the ultimate goal of this demonstration is to show how good the drones are, Hal decides to break the rules of engagement by taking his jet much higher than permitted, which allows him to take out the drones, but also forces him to crash his plane in the process.  Naturally, Carol is upset when Hal not only uncovers flaws in their product but also trashes a multi-million dollar piece of equipment. 

Hal is played by Ryan Reynolds, who got his start as a cartoony wiseass in sitcoms and teen comedies but has since attempted to break his way into marginally more serious action work, and he has spent years trying to prove himself as a potential blockbuster lead.  Here his ability to crack a joke not only serves to accentuate his character’s freewheeling nature, but also helps ground the more absurdist aspects of a comic book character who was created fifty years ago.  The movie manages to be funny without becoming jokey.  Reynolds also happens to have great chemistry with love interest Carol Ferris, played by Blake Lively.  The two of them have a surprisingly emotionally complicated scene at a local bar for pilots that could have been sliced into a more dramatic film without much trouble.  The central love story reminded me of the scenes in another film by directors Martin Campbell, the James Bond reboot Casino Royale, whose romance between Bond and Vesper served as the heart of the film. 

It’s not long after he downs the company jet that Hal is swept away by Abin Sur’s ring and taken to the crash site of Sur’s escape pod where the dying alien tells him how to use the ring.  After figuring out the basics Hal is whisked away to the planet Oa, the headquarters of the Guardians, a race of blue aliens who forged the Green Lantern rings in order to form the Green Lantern Corps, a group tasked with policing the entire universe.  The planet Oa is beautifully filmed, a strange mixture of darkened crags, smooth surfaces of technology, and tasteful waves of color.  It is as if an aurora borealis went off in an Apple store after hours.  Here Hal learns of the history of the Green Lanterns and begins his training with Kilowog, a beast of an alien with the face of a pig, the body of a brick wall, and the voice, conveniently enough, of Michael Clark Duncan. 

It’s at this point in the movie where I excitedly awaited for the film to really take off.  Until now there had been some exciting action and nice character work.  Hal had been firmly established as a screw up, adrift in life, hoping for something bigger, and now that fate has handed him the chance to join the Green Lantern Corps, he presumably has a chance to right his course in life.  But in an incredibly contrived moment, he decides that he’s not up to snuff, quits the corps and returns to Earth (although, strangely enough, he is allowed to keep the ring).  Instead of the epic space opera I was expecting, the filmmakers decides on something far more quotidian: a superhero movie.  The rest of the film goes through the usual superhero motions: the main character reveals himself to the public by bravely saving hundreds of people and afterwards visits the love interest/damsel in distress.  Green Lantern is a decidedly schizophrenic movie.  Where the first half of the film provides the perfect set up for the “hero’s journey,” a story about one character being plucked from the mundane world and lifted into an exciting realm of adventure, the second half of the film seems content on playing superhero connect the dots.  There is even a second villain, a scientist who becomes infected by Parallax, who is obviously there to make sure the action doesn’t stray too far from Earth. 

I’m convinced that the studio didn’t really know what they had with the Green Lantern.  Unlike Batman, Spider-Man, or even Superman, the Green Lantern Corps lends itself to interplanetary superheroics more in the vein of Star Wars and Flash Gordon than Iron Man.  But this is also what makes the character exciting.  Where we have seen the basic outline of a superhero movie time and again, Green Lantern offers the chance of more science fiction tropes, which could potentially differentiate him from the glut of other superhero movies.  Instead of shying away from the imaginatively bizarre, the filmmakers should have embraced the alien aspects of the Green Lantern mythos.  Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Green Lantern is that it represents a missed opportunity.  The few moments we spend in space are exciting because of their promise of the weird, and because they are one of the few images of space made by people who have actually looked at photographs from the Hubble Telescope.  Instead of peregrine flights of fancy, the movie clings tight to formula, and suffered for it, both artistically and at the box office.