Tag: adventure (page 2 of 4)

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Robin Hood

A little something different this week… thanks to Jonny at Non-Social Media.

Original Text:

Spoiler
Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

You wouldn’t think, at first glance, that the actors Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes and Russell Crowe have all that much in common other than their profession. We are, after all, talking about actors from different genres and even eras of film. However, they have now all portrayed versions of perhaps the most famous rogue of British folklore: Robin Hood. Flynn’s Robin was a man of high adventure, Costner’s was barely British and Elwes was in a spoof. As for Russell Crowe, his Robin was the central character in Ridley Scott’s 2010 more ‘historical’ adaptation of the story, and by ‘historical’ I mean that very special kind of history that conflates years of people and events into something that fits a theatrical running time and the attention spans of your typical movie-going audience.

While in the past Robin has always been at least peripherally attached to noble title and lands in Nottinghamshire, this time around our hero is plain Robin Longstride, an archer in Richard the Lionheart’s army of the Third Crusade. Robin himself isn’t much of a holy warrior, though, and when he makes his distaste for the slaughter of innocents over the name given to inscrutable omnipotent beings known to his sovereign, he’s put in the stocks. Richard gets himself killed and Robin takes it upon himself to escape, but not before stumbling across a few plot-relevant items that give him a way back to England. Events unfold around him that will set him on the path of becoming an outlaw whose fame will live on hundreds if not thousands of years after he’s dead.

Historical fiction is a road both Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe have walked down before. Crowe has been a lifelong fan of the legendary archer, but was never quite satisfied with the way Hollywood portrayed him. Scott, on the other hand, found a spec script in 2007 that tried to take the legend in a new direction. However, he eventually became dissatisfied with the evolution of the story, and what had begun as a revisionist film of the legend called Nottingham became a film simply entitled Robin Hood, styling itself as a Crusades-era Batman Begins.

For the most part, this actually works. We have a brilliantly talented cast, with nuanced and interesting characters delivering well-paced and balanced dialog in period settings that feel, for the most part, authentic. I get the feeling that this sort of thing has become something of a comfort zone for Ridley Scott, and all of the main selling points of Kingdom of Heaven are present here. From gorgeous shots of the English countryside to the inclusion of historical figures like Eleanor of Aquitaine, this film has a lot going for it.

Of course, true history buffs are likely to be somewhat put off by Scott’s interpretation of historical events. Things take place years before they actually happened, perpetuated by different people. Some figures meet ends differently than they did in life and liberties are taken with important documents and items. And like Kingdom of Heaven, at least in the theatrical release, some elements of the plot feel cobbled together with rubber cement and a staple gun. There’s at least a couple bits missing that would have smoothed out rough patches in the story, and some elements feel like holdovers from the original Nottingham notion. That’s not likely to be the case, however, as the writers of that original treatment were shouldered out of the production entirely. Now you’ll need to poke around online to see what they originally had in mind.

As much as it seems harsh that the original creative spark for the movie was removed from the hands of those writers, the end result could certainly have turned out worse. Prequels, by and large, have earned a stigma for being unnecessary works of fiction that fill in too many of the blanks audiences would probably prefer to populate themselves. While I can’t help but agree with the spirit of this sentiment, if a work is aiming to present the origins of a character in an intelligent, relatable and at least somewhat unique (but not superfluous) manner, I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. Like the aforementioned Batman Begins or X-Men: First Class, Robin Hood gives us a look at a character we think we knew in a way that we can understand, relate to and cheer for. Prequels may not always be necessary stories, but if the job is done well enough, the story will still feel worth telling.

While the mileage of this film with the individual film-goer is likely to vary, I do feel that Robin Hood does its job with more than adequate aplomb. Some of the moments in the third act feel a bit over-the-top, most notably King John’s declaration at the end, and I am curious as to how a Director’s Cut of this movie would compare to its original release. However, in its theatrical version, the story is relatively free of overt contrivance, the characters are solid and the acting is poignant without being melodramatic. Some may feel there are too many echoes of Braveheart or Gladiator or other movies here, but Robin Hood manages to find its own place and I feel it’s worth seeing since its merits do outweigh its flaws.

There are some universal things present here, outside of the legend of Robin Hood: Don’t get into a swordfight with Russell Crowe, don’t make Kevin Durand (here playing Little John) angry, and most of all, do not mess with Cate Blanchett anywhere near a forest. You piss off Galadriel or perpetuate wickeness in her wood, you are entering a world of pain.

Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

I miss pulp adventure stories. I miss uncontrived, straight-forward yarns with two-fisted, dashing heroes working against megalomaniacs to rescue leggy dames. Yes, these stories were simple and could be campy or hammy or just plain boring at times, but their simplicity was a strength, their tales unfettered by an artifice of philosophy or an undercurrent of cynicism. Films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Rocketeer understood that broad, epic tales don’t need a lot of inscrutable layers or nuances of postmodern construction to be interesting, exciting and fun. In their tradition comes Captain America: the First Avenger.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

The year is 1942. War is rampaging across Europe and, unbeknownst to the Allied powers, a particularly bent Nazi genius has decided he’s been chosen by the gods to conquer the planet. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, a skinny, asthmatic and somewhat nervous kid named Steve Rogers is trying – and failing – to join the Army. At his fifth attempt, a kindly if somewhat eccentric doctor asks why a kid with his conditions is so eager to kill Nazis. “I don’t want to kill anyone,” Steve replies. “I just don’t like bullies.” That doctor gives him the opportunity to become a super-soldier, and the results of the experiments cause Steve to be reborn as Captain America.

So Steve is a nice guy. He’s a scrawny, smart and brave young man who wants to do his part to take down the biggest bully the world has ever seen but his body isn’t living up to the demands of his spirit. Who he is – the 98-pound weakling – is very different from who he wants to be. And every time he tries to face this disconnect, cross his Shadow as it were, he’s slapped down by either the bureaucracy or the closest bully. And then, he gets his chance. He crosses his Shadow. The question is, does this transformation change him?

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Not sure what I like more: wearing fatigues over the costume, or the aw-shucks grin.

It doesn’t, and that’s what makes Captain America at once a failure and a success as a character. In terms of character growth and progression, once the procedure is complete, he’s done. He has to get used to his new proportions, strength and agility of course, but he requires no other growth to be the man he’s always wanted to be and his personality doesn’t change at all. He’s still sweet, still shy around girls, still willing to do his part and still intolerant of blind ignorance and hate. Removing his physical flaws in an artificial way, in lieu of a more gradual and familiar arc, has lead to anything interesting about the character also being removed.

At least, that’s how it should work. He should stand there as a big beefy wish fulfillment fantasy for fat Americans in the audience itching to punch out terrorists, or failing that, the nearest brown person. Yet, Captain America is actually not all that American, when you think about it. Many Americans now are belligerent, loud, violently opinionated and fervently religious folk who are primarily concerned with shouting down anybody who disagrees with the opinions fed to them by talking heads in soapbox programs that masquerade as news, and the world’s perception of the country, for better or worse, has put this greasy face on the country. Captain America, on the other hand, stays soft-spoken, confident without being arrogant, more concerned about the well-being of others than himself and uses the power he’s been given with wisdom and precision. In other words, he is what Americans could have been, and perhaps could still be if they’re willing to look past their own selfishness and strive for something better.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Marvel’s own Band of Brothers.

That is how the character of Captain America succeeds, and Chris Evans does a fantastic job of conveying that to the audience from beginning to end. The best part is he’s not setting out to be a paragon of decency, no more so than he’s setting out to be the guy that punches out Hitler. We get a sense of gentleness about Steve due to Chris’ performance and it’s this feeling that sets him apart from the other Marvel heroes we’ve met. He’s no less heroic, he’s just heroic in a different way. The other characters turn in great performances, from Tommy Lee Jones’ taciturn Army commander to Hugo Weaving’s calculating and cruel turn as the Red Skull. And while Hayley Atwell does a phenomenal job ensuring her character rises above simply being ‘the girl’ in the picture, at least once most audience members (and characters!) will find themselves thinking only “Hommina, hommina, hommina.”

Director Joe Johnston is very much in his element with this sort of film, and the quality of it shows. Granted, these qualities may be considered by some as belonging to throwbacks, to less intellectual fare and stories that don’t have the ‘mature’ sensibilities of the works by, say, Christopher Nolan. However, Captain America: The First Avenger doesn’t seem any less intelligent than any of the other summer flicks out there, and in fact goes about telling its story in a clean and straightforward manner without dressing things up too much with effects or spectacles. It’s not a terribly cerebral picture, sure, but it cares about a good story with good characters, and that’s more than I can say for Green Lantern or Transformers 3.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
“Superheroes are the disease… and I… am the cure!”

Stuff I Liked: No modern music, and a fantastic score by Alan Silvestri. All cool gizmos and disposable goons you’d expect from a pulp adventure.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Why are the German characters speaking in English all the time? I also felt Schmidt could have used a bit more in terms of motivation or development other than being the token crazy evil mastermind.
Stuff I Loved: Marvel’s subtlety in its tie-ins – a vast improvement over Iron Man 2. The earnest performances of the cast. The tightness of the screenplay. The clean shots of the action, the sweeping sense of scale and the emotion packed into a few key scenes, particularly the ending.

Bottom Line: Definitely worth seeing and for more than just the lead-up to The Avengers. Speaking of which, stay through the credits. I probably don’t have to tell you to do that anymore but I just did. It’s worth it.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Prince of Persia

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Translating a story from one medium to another can be a tricky prospect. Video games in particular have had a rough time getting comfortably adapted from their interactive medium to non-interactive means of storytelling such as book or movies. Some seem more inclined for this sort of translation than others on concept alone – fighting games, hack-and-slashers, etc. Platforming games seem an unlikely candidate for adaptation, probably because most people remember how awful the Super Mario Brothers movie was. And yet, that’s how we got Prince of Persia. A PS2 platformer that was arguably the best in its series, Sands of Time, has become a major motion picture.

Courtesy Disney

The eponymous prince, Dastan, is a former street urchin adopted by the old king due to his uncharacteristic sense of fair play and justice. Circumstances throw his lot in with the princess of a blessed kingdom who has the charge of defending a magical artifact with powers over time itself. The king’s brother and vizier, whom nobody seems to think might be a bad influence despite the nature of the advice he gives, wants the artifact for himself. What follows is an adventure story that looks to tap the same vein as successful and even classic flicks like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Mummy, and for the most part pulls it off.

What sets Prince of Persia apart from its video-game predecessors is the basic building blocks of its storytelling. While it is unashamedly playing in the same sandbox as Theif of Baghdad or Disney’s Aladdin, the game pretty much did the same thing so the aesthetic is instantly familiar. There’s also the fact that the game itself, Sands of Time, had a solid narrative, an interesting and well-rounded main character, real chemistry between its leads and lots of fun gameplay underscoring the story points. This being a film, we need to swap out the game play for something else, and Prince of Persia wisely adds more characters rather than relying on special effects, gimmickry or blatant sex appeal.

Courtesy Disney
It’s not overly blatant

Which isn’t to say Jake Gyllenhaal or Gemma Arterton aren’t sexy. Because they are both damn sexy. I mean… damn. On top of the hotness factor, though, is some careful characterisation and really cracking dialog which keeps it right in line with its source material, even if it goes in an entirely different direction in terms of what the MacGuffin ultimately does and where it came from. Ben Kingsley as the vizier does a good job in not only being menacing but at times pulling off a few moments where you can start to understand how he’s pulling the wool over the eyes of the other characters, even as we with our thousand-foot view of things can see his villainy as being a tad obvious. And isn’t it always cool to see Alfred Molina in something? I mean, let’s put it in troper terms: we’ve got Donnie Darko and Io on the run from Ghandi, and the only person who might kind of be on their side is Doc Ock. How is that not a winning combination?

As much as I would have liked to have seen Oded Fehr or Omar Sharif in this, the cast does acquit itself quite well. A lot of criticism has been levied at this movie for ‘whitewashing’ the setting and while a more diverse cast more in line with the ethnicities of the area would admittedly lend the tale more weight, at the same time I can’t fault the movie for going for a lightness of tone. This is an adventure romp based on a puzzle-platformer video game, not an epic looking to become the next Lawrence of Arabia. It certainly doesn’t take the liberties 300 did with how Persians look and act, and the accents sounded somewhat consistent (if vaguely British for some reason) instead of the situation we had in The 13th Warrior where Omar Sharif’s legitimate accent is supposed to sound like Antonio Banderas’ Spanish accent. The nature of the cast doesn’t cripple the movie, as it relies less on authenticity than it does the cast’s chemistry, combined talent and attractiveness. Because… damn.

Courtesy Disney
Yeah. I’m down with this.

Video game movies have had a rough time. They’ve ranged from vaguely mediocre to downright abyssmal. Prince of Persia is the first adaptation of a video game in recent memory, and perhaps ever, to ascend beyond the level mediocrity to something that’s legitimately good. The adventure feeling is consistent, the storytelling’s decent, it moves at a good pace and it goes some places you may not quite expect, making it a refreshing change from the likes of Uwe Boll and even Michael Bay. I’m not going to say anything about the ending, which some people may not have appreciated, but I felt it was in keeping with the nature of the story and it took me by surprise, so I have to give the movie props for that. It’s a good time, a fun little yarn, and I say you could do a lot worse by queueing it up. And even if you’re not glad to see a good video game movie or interested in a story of an urchin prince working with a snarky princess to keep a magical item from the clutches of an evil mastermind, you’ve got Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton to look at for about two hours, and, well… DAMN.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Kingdom of Heaven

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

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A cynic is likely to look at the release of the Director’s Cut of a movie, scoff openly and accuse the studio or the director of trying to milk a few additional coins out of the movie regardless of its overall merit. And really, I can’t blame them. I like most sane people fear the prospect of an In The Name Of The King: Uwe Boll’s Vision Extended Edition hitting Wal*Mart shelves because John Q. Buynlarge will see Jason Statham on the cover and think it’s going to be Crank with swords and dragons. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, a little thing dubbed executive meddling takes a director’s vision for a film, carves it up from a delicious roast into processed lunch meat and passes it off to the unwashed masses. That’s what happened to Kingdom of Heaven. Having seen both versions, I can understand why Ridley Scott wanted to get his cut into our hands. It completely and totally changes the movie.

Courtesy Scott Free Films

The plot is relatively unchanged. The year is 1184 and a young French man named Balian has recently lost his wife and child. A crusader appears at his smithy and claims to be Balian’s birth father, offering to take him to Jerusalem to leave his sorrow behind and find redemption for his sins. The journey is a perilous one, but Balian survives to become baron of Ibelin and a prominent member of Jerusalem’s nobility. An ill-advised war erupts between the Christians who hold the city and the Muslims under the command of Saladin, with Balian caught in the middle.

This being a Ridley Scott film, you can expect some liberties being taken with history and its figures. Some characters are composites of historical figures and some events turn out a bit differently than they actually did. However, this is definitely a different film from Gladiator in that Balian doesn’t challenge Saladin to single combat or anything like that. The events happen in the right order at the right time and are mostly unchanged despite the fictionalization. Also being a Ridley Scott film, there’s plenty of enjoyment for the eyeballs in terms of scenery, costuming and brutal swordplay. While Kingdom of Heaven follows the traditions of Gladiator and Black Hawk Down in humanizing grand events by giving us the point of view of a few key individuals, it breaks from Scott’s previous work in the message it’s delivering. And this message is etched into the bottom of the anvils dropped throughout the movie.

Courtesy Scott Free Films
“Our God can kick their god’s ass!”
“Um… they’re the same god, sir…”
“Blasphemy! Our God will prevail! GOD WILLS IT!”
*facepalm*

The protagonists who are pious have a significantly modern and humanistic stance on their faith while the bad guys mostly use religion as an excuse to wage war and earn booty. The rallying cry of “GOD WILLS IT!” is used on both sides of the conflict. Clearly, there’s a lesson on tolerance to be learned here, one that works quite well on the individual level but is harder to spread to a large group. There’s a scene towards the end where Saladin, entering a temple to pray, comes across a golden crucifix that was knocked the ground. He very carefully and respectfully picks it up and puts it back where it belongs. From what I understand, this scene was met with cheers and applause in Middle Eastern theaters. So much for all Muslims hating the West.

As much truth as there is in the actions and events we see, the movie isn’t perfect. It runs longer than Gladiator, especially in the Director’s Cut, but you might not necessarily notice… I’ll come back to that. Balian can come off at times as something of a Mary Sue, being that he’s a blacksmith and a swordsman and a seige-crafter and a man of virtue and looks like Orlando Bloom. That doesn’t make the mass knighting in Jerusalem (another real-life event) any less awesome. Speaking of which, some history buffs may not be able to accept the depiction of events, or the lack of detail given on one of the biggest battles of the Crusades. These are minor flaws, in my opinion, and they apply to both the theatrical release and the Director’s Cut of the movie.

Courtesy Scott Free Films
Admit it. You wish Liam Neeson was your dad, too.

The original release, which I saw a few years ago, felt disjointed and badly paced. While we get a great deal of detail on Balian, his father, Saladin, Guy de Lusignan and King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton behind a very stylish mask),one of the key players, Sibylla, is given very little screen time and characterization. It’s like she’s introduced, gets into Balian’s life and then is swept aside in favor of fluttering banners and the siege of Jerusalem. Her role in the events that unfold in the Holy Land is rendered nearly to non-existence. I never thought it was bad, per se, but I definitely ranked it below Gladiator.

In the Director’s Cut, Sibylla’s role is expanded and deepened, and her son, which wasn’t even mentioned in the theatrical release, also has a pretty significant part to play in the plot. Balian feels a bit more real and less of a Mary Sue, there’s some good payoff in his relationship with Guy, and everything I liked about my first viewing – the scenery, the shot composition, the brutal realistic fights and the message of tolerance in the face of a holy war – remained intact, if it wasn’t enhanced. This is no cash-grab. This is no pandering re-release. This is an entirely different movie, and it’s one of Ridley Scott’s best. Put the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven on your Netflix queue for any one of the following reasons: It’s a period drama, a tale of adventure, an interesting romance and climaxes in a battle that feels taken right out of the Pelennor Fields in Return of the King. It feels shorter than its three hour running time and it’s worth every minute.

Except for that Overture and Entr’acte bits at the beginning of each disk. I really didn’t like the idea of Saladin suddenly breaking into song.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Ladyhawke

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

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Ah, the 80s. A time of big hair, big money and big ambitions. It was a time when actors could be presidents, MTV actually played music, and a young writer wrapped his hands around the joystick of an Atari 2600 for the first time. Many an afternoon in my house was spent with my sisters and me navigating digital corridors and writing down maps and passwords. Good times.

Okay, the nostalgia’s out of the way. Let’s take a look at a movie born of the 80s – Ladyhawke.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

We are introduced to the medieval fortress city of Aquila, France through the eyes of young thief Phillipe Gastone, called the Mouse. Aquila is ruled by her corrupt and powerful bishop, and nobody has ever escaped from her hellish prison until the Mouse wiggles his way out at the very beginning at the movie. The captain of the guard catches up with the loquacious pickpocket only to have the arrest interrupted by a mysterious man, dressed in black and accompanied by a majestic hawk. The man’s name is Navarre, and he takes Phillpe with him to learn of a way into Aquila for a personal vendetta. By night, however, Navarre is nowhere to be found, and Phillpe instead encounters a vicious black wolf and a hauntingly beautiful woman named Isabeau.

With its setting and sparing use of magic, this is a story that could be taking place in the world of George RR Martin. Along with the trappings of the setting is a very strong ensemble cast of well-developed characters. Among other things, the movie does a good job of capturing the attitudes of the hawk and the wolf. The hawk is a spirited, beautiful creature, refusing to be bound and returning to whom she chooses. The wolf is a skilled and deadly hunter whose rage is only abated in the presence of Isabeau. I’m sure those of you who haven’t seen the film have already gotten an inkling of what’s going on, but I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the entire story. Which I do recommend you see, by the way.

“Wait,” I hear you ask. “Didn’t you recently review another fantasy movie from the 80s? And didn’t you hate its guts?” Yes and yes. Let me explain the difference.

Courtesy Warner Bros.
Navarre is French for ‘badass’.

Here we have an example of how good storytelling can compensate for things that might not age or work all that well. Rutger Hauer, Leo MacKern and John Wood were already veterans of the stage and screen before Ladyhawke, and Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeiffer went on to become household names. Not every line is a complete winner, but lines good and bad are delivered with just enough sincerity and concrete emotion that we are drawn completely into the story. Nevarre is a strong and resolute man, but he’s also a man of deep emotion. Phillipe may seem a vain and somewhat cowardly thief, but he’s also a pious and generous one. The Bishop is all the more menacing for the rigid control he maintains over his emotions, rarely speaking above an cold and edgy rasp. There’s nuance and presence to pretty much every major character we meet, and they damn near carry the entire movie on their own.

It’s a good thing, too, as the story may have suffered at the hands of some of the 80s trappings. The music is permeated by the syths of the Alan Parsons Project, orchestral sequences underscored or outright interuppted by rock riffs influenced by early digitization. It shines in places and plummets in others, causing some major distraction from the story. Some of the special effects haven’t really held up, though one sequence in particular still chokes me up. You’ll know it when you see it. Lastly, while the fights in the movie are pretty gritty and lean more towards the realistic than the flamboyant or fanastical, some of the swords used in the action shots aree clearly not the sturdy ‘hero’ blades. I know steel is meant to bend before it breaks, but the degree to which some of these blades curl had me scratching my head a little.

Courtesy Warner Bros.
The Mouse, having an argument with the Lord.

All of this fails to matter, though, when the story is this good and told this well by actors this skilled. This is the difference between a movie like Ladyhawke and one like Masters of the Universe, or Revenge of the Fallen or Attack of the Clones. At its core, Ladyhawke is all about the stories, the lives of its characters. It takes time to develop its players and weaves connections between all of them in a very deep way. Combine this compelling storytelling with good cinematography, well-done fight scenes and some moments of both geniune levity and heart-wrenching emotion, and you have a great movie. Without that story, it’d be just so much sound and fury.

The soundtrack dissonance is overcome in a few key places. The somewhat lackluster level of special effects fails to matter in the moments the story is at its best. Things like magic and curses work as framing devices for the drama, rather than shouldering the story out of its way. This is what sets Ladyhawke apart from those other attempts at film-making. This is why it succeeds and they fail. This is why, while it shows its age in places, the core of the movie is pretty close to timeless. Ladyhawke absolutely belongs on your Netflix queue, because it is one of those movies that tells its tale well no matter what the year is. In other words, it’s a classic. And classics never go out of style.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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