Robin Hood: Accents and Origins

As I said recently, moving country does strange things to your movie going. In some cases, that means you feel well behind on some of the films you want to see – for example,  Green Zone, only just released here in South Africa. In other cases, it means you do start to see a film through the eyes of different expectations and experiences. Robin Hood gave an example of that. Listening to and reading British opinion on it, the predominant theme was Russell Crowe’s accent – which, it’s true, seems to veer between Irish, North-East England, Yorkshire….and just about everywhere else except the Nottingham area. The UK’s favourite movie podcast (which I’m still addicted to) spent at least 20 minutes on the subject.

Watching it abroad, and your priorities change. Even as a Brit, you notice the accent, but it scarcely matters. No-one around you can tell a Bognor accent from a Belfast one, so it just ceases to be of importance. You start to realise the self-importance of banging on and on and one about one aspect of the film – yes, it could and should have been better, but there’s so much else to admire and enjoy here.

Really, the film should be called Robin Hood Begins. The entertainment industry in general is undergoing an obsession with origins. Maybe it has its roots in DVD extras, but over the past few years we haven’t been able to move for special editions of albums and films tracing the genesis of great (and not so great) works. This spilled over into super-heroes:  witness X-Men’s Wolverine movie and Christopher Nolan’s admirable Batman reboot. Add in to that mix James Bond going back to the beginning. Now we have the story of what made Robin Hood. We spend a long time in France – King Richard on his way home from the Crusades, leading an assault on one more castle, is shot through the throat by a French cook (factually correct). Robin and friends get the crown safely to the bereaved Queen and from then on it’s intrigue, back-stabbing and the introduction of Marion (Cate Blanchett – with a spot-on accent). She and Robin are bought together in an identity-swapping sub-plot straight out of Shakespearean comedies that shouldn’t work but does.

Re-tellings of classic stories and myths tell you more about the age they are made in than the historical background itself. So here we have post-imperialist, post-Bush guilt at Middle-Eastern meddling; a cry for fair-trade and rights for workers and commoners and the sort of world-weary cynicism that means the film ends with Robin free but outlawed, with a lying manipulator wielding power over the people. That’s not to say the film isn’t fun or gripping – it’s some of the former, and a great deal of the latter. What it manages to be, most of all, is gloriously immersive. Be it Gladiator, Bladerunner, Alien or just about anything else, what Ridley Scott can do better than anyone is create a world you totally believe, with just enough echoes of your own to give you pause for thought. It ends where most Robin Hoods start – clearly hoping and longing for a cash-friendly sequel. Whether one is granted will tell us how well this has been received – there’s romance and adventure here, but not the easy access, slip-down-easily Kevin Costner version.

So as you might expect, this is Robin Hood for our times. It’s not perfect, and at times the attempts at a lighter touch jar slightly; but in the end it is both fun and gripping. Let yourself be swept up into it. In the end, how much does one man’s accent really matter?

Iron Man 2: In Praise Of The Little Things

I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it as long as I need to. If a film-maker is going to make his central character an unlikable, obnoxious idiot, then he needs to provide the viewers with some … well, enjoyable to spend time with. Jon Favreau has exactly that problem with Iron Man 2.

The first film was one of the more enjoyable comic-book adaptations. Centered around a clever performance from Robert-Downey Junior and a neat play on the search for WMD in the Middle East, it even survived the charisma vacuum of Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance to entertain while not insulting intelligence. This sequel take the story forward a while, to a time when the central character is holding himself responsible for world peace. His ego is out of control as his quietly deteriorating health. He has a shock in the form of Mickey Rourke’s eastern European nemesis on the horizon, and the scene is set for a Transformers-style cash of the big metal things.

All that works well, and would be fine if there was someone for us to sympathise and engage with, but there isn’t. Pepper Potts (Paltrow) doesn’t have enough to do to really get noticed, and the always amiable Don Cheadle’s character manages to do something on the surface honourable by being deceptive in favour of the US military. That’s never going to fly too well for many of us.

So it doesn’t quite make sense that the film just about works. It’s only disappointing because I enjoyed the first one so much; there’s enough here to allow you not to notice the lack of sympathetic characters just long enough to sweep you up. It’s only when you stop to notice one little character in the background that you realise how good this could have been if the director had the courage to give that one person more scope. That one person is Jon Favreau himself, in the role of bag man to the company director, playing the dead-pan straight man to perfection. There’s more light and shade in his few minutes of air-time than the rest of the movie put together. Had Favreau been uncharacteristically arrogant enough to give himself more to do, than we really could have had something good here. Instead, you just hope for more next time.

Kick-Ass: Laugh or Cry?

Moving half-way across the world can do strange things to many different parts of your personality. Not least your movie going. Three and a bit months after making the move to Cape Town, we’re starting to settle in our house, and able to turn our attention to important stuff, like films. So the first film we pay to see on the African continent is Kick-Ass. Of all the questions and thoughts about movies I’ve been concerned I may be missing while unpacking and hoping for a phone-line to be installed, I can’t say I ever found myself wondering what a super-hero film made by Tarantino would look-like. I can, though, rest assured that I now know.

I’m sure many of us will find the controversies that have dogged this film’s release well documented elsewhere. They broadly revolve around just what it’s right to expect a 12-year old child performer to do and say in the name of her chosen profession. As one part of an ultra-violent crime-fighting duo, Chloe Moretz is certainly called upon to say and do some shocking things. The first thing to say is that she acts her on-screen father, Nic Cage, off the screen. Not difficult, you might argue – he’s been on autopilot since Leaving Las Vegas – but she has frightening assurance that makes her perfect for the part. Also brilliant: Aaron Johnson, star of Superbad and the like, in brilliant form and playing his reputation cleverly as a want-to-be super-hero whose only power is ‘being invisible to girls’. That’s a joke that comes in the opening section of the film – for my money, the best part. At the very least, though, you can say that this is a film which has the courage of it’s blood-soaked convictions. Throughout, the combination of Tarantino-style dialogue & action, high-school romance and super-hero story is pulled off with a confidence and aplomb that sweeps you up almost irresistibly.

So to the violence. It’s been argued that this shows the true consequences of violence – well yes, that’s true. Up to a point. There is real pain here – but really only for those on the receiving end from the bad-guys. The goodies wreak havoc on the evil with bloody alacrity, but there’s no pain – just righteous laughter. Good people hurt, bad don’t. So what the violence becomes is a slightly ham-fisted form of moral capitalization – THESE ARE THE ONES YOU’RE NOT MEANT TO CHEER FOR…..YOU CAN TELL BECAUSE THEY  DON’T ACTUALLY FEEL STUFF.

Really, that’s just a bit lazy. The moral panic the film has triggered has as usual missed the point. The cartoon nature of much of it doesn’t glorify or make light of the clearly outlandish subject matter. It’s clearly an alternative reality. What’s more disturbing is the way we’re encouraged to revel in ‘deserved suffering’…..which isn’t really sore, just spectacular. It’s bread and circuses for a tabloid morality. Which just makes the amount I enjoyed it worry me all the more. I laughed, I covered my eyes once or twice, and wanted justice exercised. I’d love to think director Matthew Vaughn‘s intention was to pose me those questions. I’m not sure though; I think he was enjoying himself too much to know. We’ll have a better idea in five films’ time, when we’ve learnt his voice and style. For now, though, I can’t remember the last time I was this worried by how much I enjoyed one film.