Russell Crowe in Robin HoodROBIN HOOD

With director Ridley Scott's heavy-spirited adventure Robin Hood, the audience waits nearly an hour for its first reprieve from the grimness and grime, and when it finally arrives, the moment consists of Max von Sydow's blind land baron getting a whiff of Russell Crowe's gamy Robin and growling, "You stink." As mood lighteners go, so does that gag. And so, for the most part, does the movie.

Not that Scott's re-imagining-slash-rebooting-slash-whatever of this timeless tale is badly made, even though that winds up being one of the more irritating things about the film - you're even denied the pleasure of actively hating it. A prequel, of sorts, to the infinitely more lighthearted saga we're generally acquainted with, Robin Hood explains how the forest-dwelling do-gooder became a hero to the underprivileged and a thorn in the side of the Sheriff of Nottingham, and Scott lends the movie his usual epic handsomeness, complete with those Scott-ian wisps of smoke that drift into nearly every frame, as if someone off-camera were continually roasting s'mores. Despite the hopelessly expository nature of the work, screenwriter Brian Helgeland does an admirably cogent job of presenting reams of back story and enough royal intrigue to fill an entire season's worth of The Tudors. And even Helgeland's clunkiest lines are at least given a measure of flourish by a topnotch supporting cast that includes Mark Strong, Danny Huston, Eileen Atkins, Matthew Macfadyen, Mark Addy, and a grizzled, typically engaging William Hurt. (At one point, a character greets Hurt's Sir William Marshal with "What the devil are you doing here?", and I found myself asking the same of the actor.)

But all the professionalism and CGI-enhanced grandeur in the world can't make up for the movie's unrelenting dourness, and its unrelenting sameness; you stare at Scott's oppressive combat staging and watch Crowe seething and barking with constipated fury and think, "Didn't these two already make Gladiator?" (Even Robin Hood's most entertaining battle sequences, with showers of arrows descending upon enemy forces, are self-plagiarizing, harking back to the director's 2005 Kingdom of Heaven.) From the moment it was announced, this project seemed like a bad fit for Scott and Crowe, whose credits aren't exactly bursting with joyful, exuberant, escapist fare - just what audiences should want and hope for from an updated take on the Robin Hood tale. Still, with its tiresome bombast and deathly bloated 140-minute running length and Crowe and Cate Blanchett (portraying less a Maid than a Matron Marion) seemingly in a contest over who can be the most humorless one on-screen, the film is a turgid chore to sit through. You can't really call the movie a disappointment, as it's exactly the Robin Hood its trailers suggested, and the one we had every right to expect from a Scott/Crowe collaboration. But isn't that, in the end, its own disappointment?


Christopher Egan and Amanda Seyfried in Letters to JulietLETTERS TO JULIET

Just how extraordinary is Vanessa Redgrave in the lightly comedic melodrama Letters to Juliet? She not only makes you believe in the movie's treacly plot - which concerns Amanda Seyfried's wannabe writer looking to reunite an elderly Brit with her First True Love (and, in the process, finding her own True Love) - but makes you believe that, at age 72, she's never been livelier, more varied, or more transcendently beautiful on-screen. God knows, considering Redgrave's formidable résumé, she's been in better movies than director Gary Winick's endeavor, the narrative arc and conclusion to which can be correctly predicted, in the first reel, by any moviegoer over the age of eight. Yet Redgrave herself is utterly sublime. Suggesting a deeply contented woman who, nevertheless, yearns with an ever-unfulfilled romantic longing, this grandest of all living actresses is so marvelously textured and radiant and real that she shames the formulaic dullness of her material, oftentimes managing to appear both aged and invigoratingly girlish in the same breath. In what should merely be a throwaway trifle of a film, Redgrave gives a divinely inspiring, emotional performance, and to her immense credit, the touching and ebullient Seyfried comes dangerously close to matching her, carrying the movie's heavy load - and it frequently is a load - with sharp instincts and effortless grace.

All told, Letters to Juliet - with its amiable pleasantness, featherweight moods, and gorgeous shots of fair Verona - works rather well, and would have worked even better if Seyfried weren't romantically paired with such an unappealing chucklehead. Yet sadly, she finds herself cast here against one Christopher Egan, a young actor to whom you initially extend goodwill because he looks a lot like Heath Ledger, until you realize he's Ledger without the charm, subtlety, or, from all evidence, talent. His grouchy, argumentative prig-with-a-secret-heart-of-gold is already a badly written role - he could be a stiff-upper-lipped dandy from a '40s British World War II drama - but Egan's mannered, fraudulent portrayal does nothing to improve the situation, and he's doubly waylaid by the presence of Gael García Bernal as Seyfried's restauranteur fiancé. It's clear from Letters to Verona's start that he's not whom our heroine will wind up with at the end, but Bernal is so wonderfully entertaining in the role - blissfully intoxicated by all the Italian wines, cheeses, and mushrooms - that you hope against hope for a romantic outcome that you know you're never gonna get. It happens in real life all the time, so why can't Hollywood, just once, tell the tale of a sweet, funny, beautiful girl who winds up enjoying a (reasonably) Happily Ever After with the wrong guy?


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