'Robin Hood' shoots a little off the mark

Whether it's men in tights or Gladiator haute couture, the legend of Robin Hood is mythic, the stuff of high adventure. Hollywood has been enamored of this character for decades, always eager to give the tale a new twist, or give the actor du jour an opportunity to don costume and take up residence in Sherwood Forest.

The recent incarnation of "Robin Hood" searches for originality with Ridley Scott ("Alien," "Blade Runner," "Gladiator," "Black Hawk Down," and "Kingdom of Heaven") directing and Brian Hegeland ("L.A. Confidential") writing the script.

Scott and Hegeland, deciding to add to the legend, set about answering the central backstory question: who was Robin before he was, well, Robin, before the time when he and his band of outlaws were ensconced in Sherwood Forest from whence they stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Today it's called wealth distribution.

Because Hollywood practices revisionist history with conviction and insouciance, the year, instead of 1185, is 1199. But who's counting? Robin (Russell Crowe), we are told, is Robin Longstride, a commoner and master archer with the army of King Richard the Lionheart, who, after a decade-long crusade in the Holy Land, is on his way back to England. Crossing France, he lays siege to a well-defended castle. It is during that battle that the film opens and where we meet Longstride and what will eventually be his crew of Merry Men — Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes) and Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle).

Longstride and his crew conclude, after King Richard is killed when a French castle cook drops a pot of stew and takes random aim with a crossbow, that they have served the crown long enough and decide to make their own way back to England. It is on that trip that Robin's future is changed forever.

It's tempting to recount what proves to be a convoluted tale. Suffice it to say that he lands in London under an alias, Robert of Loxley, and makes his way to Nottingham, where he returns a sword to Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), father of Robert. He also meets Robert's widow, Marion (Cate Blanchett). Chemistry is afoot.

Thus far, the story of how Robin Longstride becomes Robert of Loxley/Robin of Loxley is appealing; however, it lacks a sharp edge. There is, eventually, palace intrigue, perpetrated by the newly crowned John, Richard's brother. And there is the duplicitous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), newly anointed chancellor and tax collector, who prepares, surreptitiously, to betray England to France for power and fortune.

Nevertheless, even with the signature battle scenes, for which director Scott is famous, the film is missing something at its center.

Crowe, always a bit distant and laconic and now all but middle-aged and beefy, never conveys jeopardy or urgency as he did in "Master and Commander" and "L.A. Confidential." Even with the epic battle on the English shore, fending off a French army prepared to invade England once again, there is an absence of the tension that Scott is so brilliant at creating, examples being "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down."

That isn't to say that "Robin Hood" lacks a certain intensity. It is, after all, a Ridley Scott film, one brought to life by some of the finest actors working today.

And keep in mind that as this story ends, King John declares Robin an outlaw prompting Robin to retreat to Sherwood Forest where he will take up his bow and his sword against King John and cohorts. So, wait for the sequel. Hopefully soon. Crowe is not getting any younger.

Letters to Juliet

"Letters to Juliet" is a nice surprise. There have been so many mediocre if not downright awful romantic comedies of late, the assumption was that this film would take its place next to the detritus that has come before. It doesn't.

Of course the movie is all about love, that most human and elusive and fragile emotion. And then there is Verona and the Veneto region of Italy, awash in a haze of golden glow. The film shimmers with optimism.

Briefly, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a young fact-checker for The New Yorker, arrives in Verona as part of a pre-honeymoon trip with her fiancé, Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), an obsessed chef and restaurateur. While he is off on a wine-buying trip in the south of Italy, Amanda, left alone for the day in Verona, serendipitously finds a letter left behind in the sandstone wall near the assumptive home of Shakespeare's Juliet, a place possessing a magnetic draw for heartbroken women who write their emotional missives and leave them behind.

Amanda takes the found letter, written in 1967, carefully from its weathered envelope. Fascinated, she reads the words of Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), a teenage schoolgirl, who fled back to England rather than follow her heart and embrace her summer love, Lorenzo Bertilini (Franco Nero). She has lived with the regret ever since.

Amanda answers the letter, prompting Claire, now a widow living in England, to come to Verona and try and find Lorenzo, having no idea if he is still alive, or if he will even remember her after so much life has happened.

With Claire's grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan), a thirty-something English businessman, the three drive through some of the most gorgeous Italian landscapes imaginable: sun-kissed vineyards covering gently rolling hills; quaint cobblestone towns, the roofs covered in red tile, all beneath cobalt blue skies; the three of them sharing long afternoons, drinking enticing red and white wines, studying a map filled with dots and possible locations of a man named Lorenzo Bertilini.

Redgrave is luminescent as Claire, an actress of enormous talent, her lovely face only made lovelier by the lines of age and experience; she anchors the film. Seyfried, who has appeared in some four movies over the past year (most recently "Dear John"), is perfect as the vulnerable yet feisty Sophie who encourages Claire to pursue her quest and risk the possible heartache that may be the result of not finding Lorenzo. Charlie bridles at the idea from the beginning, and, naturally, he and Sophie are oil and water.

Of course, love is in the air, but not between Victor and Sophie. Destiny has now taken charge, leading to an ending that is sweet and completely expected — how could it end any other way? An ending that is telegraphed so far in advance, it's just a matter of waiting as the characters to discover what the audience already knows.

Tangentially, in 1967, Franco Nero and Redgrave starred in the popular film "Camelot," he as Lancelot and she as Guinevere. They had a child soon after the film was completed but did not marry until 2006. Theirs has been a romance of a lifetime. Life imitates art imitates life, and the circle is squared.

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