When my usual movie-going partner was offered the chance to see the new Robin Hood her first question was “Who is playing Robin?” When I told her that it was Strathmore’s finest son, Russell “Rusty” Crowe, she declined suggesting somewhat uncharitably that he was probably better suited to playing Friar Tuck (or at a pinch Little John). Her favourite Robin is the 80s be-mulletted Michael Praed from the television. Mine is a toss-up between the “fantastic” sly fox in the 1973 Disney version, John Cleese in Time Bandits and Sean Connery in Robin and Marian, so Rusty and director Ridley Scott had a mountain to climb before the opening credits even rolled.
This new Robin Hood is a prequel (or an origin story in the comic book parlance). On his way back from the Crusades with Richard the Lionheart, Robin Longstocking (sorry, Longstride) heads to Nottingham to return a sword. In Richard’s absence, England has fallen in to financial and political ruin and the French are plotting to fill the void with an army massing off the coast and spies in the court.
Richard (Danny Huston) is killed in action and his weak, mean younger brother Prince John (ably portrayed by Oscar Isaac who did such a fine job as José Ramos-Horta in Balibo earlier this year) takes over. He’s not the real villain of the piece though (not even a wasted Matthew McFadyen as the Sheriff of Nottingham gets that job). In a piece of unadventurous casting Mark Strong plays evil Lord Godfrey using much the same snarl he employed in Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass and that I expect he will in the forthcoming Green Lantern. He’s not my favourite actor by any means.
Crowe is in gritty, humourless mode here (which means utterly charmless) and Cate Blanchett works hard to try and inject some passion into the proceedings but there’s no spark there at all. I can’t imagine anyone watching Robin Hood and not being disappointed.
Instead, you should seek out the stunningly effective Argentinian thriller The Secret in Their Eyes which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language picture earlier this year. Starring Argentina’s answer to Mads Mikkelsen, Ricardo Darín (it seems you can’t make a hit movie in that country without him), this is a devilishly clever film that works on multiple levels and rewards on each one. Darín plays a hapless investigator for one of the Buenos Aires courts who becomes obsessed with a case that he can’t solve — as well as his beautiful, high-class boss (Soledad Villamil).
Told in flashback as the older, present day, Darín tries to write a book about the case, The Secret in Their Eyes is a murder mystery/procedural (director Juan José Campanella has directed dozens of “Law & Order” episodes in the US and sweetly undercuts the clichés he is so comfortable with), a moving story of love that might have been and a telling indictment of Argentina under fascism. You really only need two things to make a successful film — story and character. Story and character, I say again. And The Secret in Their Eyes has both in spades. Don’t miss it.
Do, by all means, miss Please, Please Me! another example of how horrid French commercial cinema can be these days. A self-regarding performance by writer-director Emmanuel Mouret who thinks he is up there with great French clowns like Tati and, um, Clouseau is but one of the wrong things going on here. Not quite as not funny as A Pain in the Ass but close.
Sister Smile is a biopic about Belgium’s answer to Kurt Cobain, The Singing Nun, who had a massive hit in 1964 but whose career then went off the rails before it had ever really been on them. A nice performance by Cécile De France (Orchestra Seats) doesn’t save a film that suffers greatly from an unappealing and unaware central character.
Following up from Paris, je t’aime a couple of years ago the same producers have put together an art-house salute to New York called, unsurprisingly, New York, I Love You. A similar collection of indie stalwart directors (Fatih Akin — The Edge of Heaven, Mira Nair — Monsoon Wedding) along with some surprising choices (Brett Ratner — Rush Hour 3, Allen Hughes — The Book of Eli) combine to make a potpourri film about The Big Apple. I’m no more informed about what it must be a New Yorker, or even live there, but I will treasure the segment about the the bickering old couple on their way to Coney Island. Eli Wallach is 94 years old and, like Max von Sydow in Robin Hood (81), he’s still got it.
Finally, The Choir is a National Geographic production (with support from Australia’s SBS) and so could easily have reeked of television but it didn’t, thanks mostly to a really strong colour palette guided by the bright orange of the South African Department of Corrections prison uniforms.
It’s a simple enough story on the surface. The prison choir at Leeukwop medium security prison, led by charismatic ex bank robber Coleman, is preparing for the National Champs. Young hoodlum Jabalani wants to reform and the choir gives him a shot a redemption. So far, so clichéd. But there are enough twists and turns to keep you interested, director Michael Davie has the bravery to let the story continue long after what you think would be the climax and he has a genuine film director’s eye for an arresting image.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday19 May, 2010.