Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Tale of Three Hoods

With all the focus on the holidays, I was tempted to do a holiday movie review, however, I thought I'd do something different, given my penchant for being the maverick. I decided that I would review three Robin Hood movies, one from my childhood, a classic, one a parody of great fun, and the other a recent revision of the tale.

The first on the list is the 1938 "Adventures of Robin Hood" starring consummate swashbuckler, and sometimes infamous, Errol Flynn. I first remember watching this when I was "just a wee squit", as my dad would say, and I was enthralled. The pageantry of the epic was astounding, a true child's tale come to life. The version my dad played was colorized and full of glorious costumes, vibrant landscapes and fantastically ornate sets. I loved it with a passion and was taken by every aspect of it. The characters were larger-than-life on the screen, even without the massive LCD sets that we have today, and were perfect in a family-oriented adventure that captured the spirit of the dashing rapscallion that robbed the rich to feed the poor. The plot on this one is fairly formulaic and straightforward, Robin is a Saxon nobleman who is disenfranchised with Prince John's (Claude Rains) seizure of power after King Richard the Lionheart's capture and imprisonment in an Austrian dungeon and is forced to turn outlaw to seek justice for Saxon and Norman alike.

Errol Flynn was the perfect choice as the title role, a "rascal" in real life, devilishly charming in this epic as he pulled out all the buccaneer stops as Robin of Locksley. Even when the moves might have not been practical, the lithe Aussie swung, leaped, and showed off all of his physical prowess and flashed that dashing smile enough to make any kid believe that legends and heroes really did exist. Likewise, the rest of the cast was astoundingly fantastic. Olivia de Havilland was perfect as the virtuous and strong-willed Maid Marian, haughtily rejecting Robin in his first advances, then "seeing the light" of his outlaw ways and risking her life to save him in the end. Basil Rathbone was always a stellar actor, however, in my humble opinion, some of his most memorable roles were the villains. His Sir Guy of Gisbourne was spot-on, arrogant, dashing at first, but maddeningly devious and evil as the story progressed.

While there are scenes of torture, battle and death to be had in this version, it's strictly a family film and not by any means offensive to those wary of excess in any of those fields. There's a fun chemistry between Flynn and de Havilland, as they had many occasions to act together in several films. There are several fantastic fighting scenes and brilliantly choreographed spars, especially the final duel between Robin and Gisbourne. For the most part, however, the whole feel of the movie is light-hearted and opulent at once, showing both the majesty of this tale and the child-like optimism of the the noble rogue who defies the unjust law of the land to do what is right.

From the other side of the coin comes a fun, equally light-hearted parody called "Robin Hood: Men In Tights", a Mel Brooks fare starring Cary Elwes as the lovable outlaw and Amy Yasbeck as Maid Marian. I love this one for several reasons, one, well, Mel Brooks. The cast is also littered with random actors from surprisingly different schools of acting, and many that you might not think of as taking the roles in such a film.

This version apes the storyline of "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" with Robin Hood escaping from a Saracen prison in Palestine following King Richard's crusade. Robin makes it out with Ahsneeze (Isaac Hayes), and makes it to some palm-ridden coast and decides to make the swim back, like you do. Before he embarks, Ahsneeze elicits a promise from Robin to look out for his son, Ahchoo (Dave Chapelle). Quickly after his return, Robin finds that his lands have been taken over by Prince John (Richard Lewis) and runs afoul of the stuttering, spooneristic Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees). Robin is forced to flee into the forest and encounters a host of blundering outlaws, whom he organizes and inspires to true rebellion.

One of the memorable musical numbers from this version is "Men in Tights". Comically butch and camp, I'll let the link do the talking on that one.

The best thing in this movie is, that like all good parodies, it pokes fun at everything, from popular culture to the actors themselves. Cary Elwes, a Londoner by birth, didn't lay the accent on too thickly, but gave a definite tweak to Costner's atrocious lack thereof in "Prince of Thieves". Patrick Stewart makes a great appearance as Richard the Lionheart, speaking with a heavy Scottish brogue and laying a wet sloppy one on Maid Marian at a wedding. There are several intervals of "rapping", after which, all the "gangstas" dance around merrily to the tune of a flute and lyre. Chapelle also channels Malcolm X in his speech to rouse the men of Sherwood into rebellion.

This movie isn't about anything relevant or deep social commentary, it's about pure fun and laughs. In a year where there there were very few parodies and the legend of Robin Hood had never been tackled in farce, at least intentionally, it was long overdue. This wasn't Mel Brooks' magnum opus by any means, nor did it garner random quotations by nerds aplenty, however, it is something that always come to mind when I think of Robin Hood movies nowadays, and it's always a good pick-me-up when life becomes too dreary and serious.

The last is the most recent incarnation, starring Russel Crowe and simply titled "Robin Hood". While there are plenty of anachronisms and historical fudgings, I've resigned myself to the fact that it's a bad idea to expect accuracy out of Hollywood. No, Richard did not hate his mother, Richard really didn't have a deep connection to England, nor the people, he was French by birth and merely held the throne. He might have spent all of three months there. And he didn't die on the battlefield. There's a list, of which I could wax lyrical about the missteps, assumptions and overall Hollywood silliness, but I'll refrain. I did, however, enjoy some of the little things that they did try to throw in there and tie into the legend.

This revision tells the beginning of Robin Hood's story. We meet a common archer, known as Robin Longstride, fighting for King Richard's army in France with his comrades. After being punished for his honesty and some disorderly conduct, the king is slain the following day after a lucky crossbow shot, and Robin and his fellows sneak out of the stocks to head home. On their way to the coast, they come across the scene of an ambush, where a nobleman and confidant of Richard, Sir Robert of Loxley, has been transporting the king's crown back to English shores. The political intrigues of the medieval courts are displayed in all of their nefariousness as Robin catches up with the driven assassin Godfrey (Mark Strong), who is working for the French crown to capture the English throne for Philip. Robin retakes the crown, assumes Loxley's identity as a means for returning, and makes a hasty retreat. When he and his men do manage to get on English shores, however, the responsibility of Loxley's identity comes to bear, leading Robin to make a choice that would ultimately have him leading a guerilla war against John Lackland.

First, let me say, I loved the action scenes. Most of my movie collection is comprised of action movies, and I'm not beyond cheering and loving a dumb, blow-'em romp that has little to no value in terms of mental gymnastics. The battles at the castle, the ambush in the woods to steal Richard's crown, the face-off against Godfrey and Philip's troops on the beach...I loved it, and Ridley Scott never fails to deliver on those to set your heart pounding.

Despite that sentiment, I did have a few complaints. Russel Crowe, while better on his bad days than many actors could ever hope to be, seems a bit subdued for this role. It may be his way of trying to play a man who feels as though he is adrift and out of his depth, but it comes off as a bit lackidasical. The supporting cast does a fantastic job, with Cate Blanchett as Maid Marian and Max Von Sydow as Sir Walter of Loxley who guides Robin in his charade. Cate does a great job as the feisty Marian, but gives her a bit of wistfulness and soul that makes her a little more than the "strong woman" cliche that Hollywood tends to utilize. Von Sydow is lovable and amusing as the quirky Sir Walter but yet manages a dignified, regal air at the same time. Robin's "merry men" are somewhat underdeveloped, and Matthew MacFayden as the Sheriff is definitely underutilized, but all still give great performances. Mark Strong is wonderfully psychotic, and almost unrecognizable for the first few minutes, as Godfrey. He's fast becoming one of my favorite actors to play villainous fiends.

Scott's use of the scenery and cinematography is breathtaking, as always, and he manages to display a true respect for the material, despite historical flubs. Once again, Hollywood...whaddya gonna do?

Overall, I'd say that despite its lack of accuracy and faults, I thoroughly enjoy this version. It has at once a grittiness and lofty beauty that resonates on both ends of modern sensibilities. We want to feel as though we're looking at a "realistic" epic of the time, something with a basis in reality, but yet transported to another realm in the media of film and able to escape from the humdrum, worker-bee existence that many of us occupy. It succeeds as an action flick and a story and does credit to the beginning of a legend that has inspired and intrigued throughout the centuries.

So there are my reviews....hope you enjoyed.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Image is least to some people

Lots of people have stereotypes, stereotypes about race, age, religion, creed, what have you. Some stereotypes can be negative, some can be "positive", but it all stems from the same thing: ignorance. Ignorance about a lifestyle, an orientation, a choice or maybe something that's not even a choice, and ignorance that could often be dispelled quite easily with a little education of one form or another.

One of the stereotypes that has had me thinking quite often about image is the stereotype of the "biker". Now, when someone says that, most people have two images that break the surface immediately, either it's the rebel, "one-percenter" as they're known, scruffy, long hair, tattooed to the gills, swathed in leather as though he emerged from the womb that way and straddling an enormous chopper thundering down the road. Or it's the "stunt biker", the young, wild guys that run tricks down the public highways on "crotch rockets", weaving in and out of traffic, and generally doing things that make most of us riders say, "Ooooo, can you say 'road-pizza' in a minute?"

Stereotypes often have a basis in the reality of a few individuals. If anyone's watched the local news in Dallas/Ft. Worth lately, you've seen the blurbs about "stunt biker gangs" terrorizing the highways in Dallas. Whether it was the sensationalism of the death of one of their numbers due to some great stupidity (he ran into the back of another vehicle at a dangerous rate of speed while racing) or just more people have brought it to the attention of the media, they've been tagged quite a bit in the public eye. These are the guys that will zoom by your vehicle at 100 mph, zip through lanes, jump out in front of your car with no warning, and wheelie down the road. Generally, they're young, male, and riding some modified Japanese "crotch rocket." Overall, they're not too bright riding like that, and while some can be experienced, even the most experienced rider knows that a trick, no matter how often you've practiced it, can go bad very quickly, ask Indian Larry. Riding can be dangerous alone, even without any distractions, stunts or daydreaming. All it would take would be a stray rock, an inattentive motorist, or something malfunctioning to turn one move into a death sentence. There's also recent speculation that some of these guys are involved in a theft ring as well.

That being said, not all young men, or women for that matter, who ride crotch rockets are reckless stunt fiends. My husband worked with a rider of a crotch rocket who never broke the speed limit on his bike. It's a stereotype, perpetrated by a few, blown up by the media, and feared by hardline drivers that see all bikes as evil and unworthy of sharing "their" road.

Now, let's address the other stereotype, the "one-percenter". If anyone's curious as to the origin of this name, it reportedly came from the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) in response to a riot in 1947 where they stated that 99% of all motorcyclists were law-abiding, good citizens, and only those involved in the riot, purportedly in Hollister, were among the bad 1%. The AMA denies it and says it has no record of such a statement. Since then, outlaw motorcycle gangs, the Hells Angels, the Banditos, the Mongols, et cetera ad nauseum, will wear the "1%" patch signifying that they are the rebels, the outlaws and renegades against societies order, and will live by their own rules and code. Now, the reality of that is, if you do encounter a one-percenter, make no mistake, they are tough cases, and you shouldn't mess with them. They are often entangled in drug and weapons trafficking, prostitution, and other forms of organized crime. If you're looking for the bad boy with the heart of gold, I'd say look elsewhere. The one-percenter has been romanticized by Hollywood, but the grim reality is that often times, they lead a violent existence that involves prison time and some pretty dirty deeds.

The other part of that reality is, they don't comprise the bulk of riders, either. We make up a diverse group, from the people who ride cruisers, the baggers, the crotch rocket riders to the sport bike riders. We come from all backgrounds and places. I never rode until three years ago, had never grown up with bikes (my parents thought they were too dangerous as a kid, go figure), and my first ride was a Honda Shadow Spirit 750. That's a big bike to start off with for a woman, as I've learned, but she was my baby and I loved her dearly. She made it through the mountains and wind-beaten plains with no problems, and took me 16,000 of the 23,000 miles that I've ridden. Sadly, her time was ended on 7/11/09, when I almost met my own end. My husband has been riding since his early twenties (he's 34 now, but you'd never hear that from him) and has owned a variety of bikes. He currently rides a Honda Shadow Spirit 1100, which I bought for him about two years ago. Our neighbors across the street are Harley riders, practicing Christians, and all around some of the best people you'll find, but without the usual snobbery that you see from such "Hardly" riders. I kid, really, I do. Last weekend, we attended the Denton Toy Run, and an elderly gentleman, a perfectly respectable-looking senior citizen, approached my husband asking his advice about riding in the run, since it was his and his wife's first. We've met many people that ride, from the weekend warriors to the die hards that will take their rides through sleet, wind, snow and rain, all for the love of the road. We're somewhere in the middle of all that, we'll ride to work if we can, we take the road trips, and we enjoy going on the toy runs and jaunts to nowhere in particular. However, if it's snowing, sleeting or pouring, you won't find us on our bikes. We've been there, done that, multiple times, and it ain't fun.

But let me be clear, as my husband says, "Fifteen thousand bucks and fifteen minutes does NOT make you a biker". You own a bike, fantastic, but if you don't put miles on it, that just makes you an owner, NOT a rider or biker. Anyone can scoop up a bike and make it down the street. Anyone can drop several grand for the loveliest piece of metal in the show, but if you don't use it, ride it, and cherish it and the feel of the road, then you can't appreciate what any rider has been through. If you haven't earned your stripes in dropping it, wrecking it, or being so scared that you think you might turn into a gibbering fool at some given point....then you haven't earned the honor.

I can hypothesize that people cling to these stereotypes of the biker because they haven't experienced what we have and connected to something in such a way. I say this without judgment on the non-riders. It isn't for everyone, not everyone wants to, or should, do it. When we take up the saddle, there is a risk, and everyone who truly understands what they're doing accepts that risk. When you ride, you WILL put the bike down at some point, it's not a possibility, but an inevitability. But that risk has an incredible reward. When you ride, you feel the road in a way you never have before. You notice every crevice and cranny, you smell all that's around you, good and bad, and sometimes it's very bad (skunk roadkill comes to mind especially), you feel the wind on your face (yes, it gets in through the breaks in your helmet),  and your field of vision is expanded one-hundredfold. You experience the ride and all that surrounds you in an entirely different manner than in a car, which feels so limited after being in the open air.

I can also hypothesize that people use these stereotypes out of fear in some cases, seeing the outsiders and non-conformists as a threat. As a female rider, I'm still something of an anomaly even among others. Lots of women ride with their husbands, boyfriends or friends, but not that many have and ride their own, although our numbers are growing. I can understand that. It sometimes takes a lot of strength to push that beast around, and if you drop it, it's a friggin' pain in the arse to pick it up. Even though my husband will get wary looks when he's dressed in biker gear, I usually get anything from confusion to revulsion when I'm decked out and strolling through a public place. Another stereotype that exists, and I'm blaming Hollywood on this one, is of the "biker chick". We're either "loose", rowdy and flagrant, or "dykes". While yes, I'm assertive and don't mind speaking my thoughts, I certainly don't fit either of those molds. I'm not property, I ride and can handle my own, and that's the size of it.

In the end, while I've spoken my peace about this issue, I know that these stereotypes will never truly fade or evaporate from the common man's consciousness. What I do hope, however, is that some may understand a little bit more about what it means to ride and the biker's love for the road. If someone never picks up a bike in his or her life, that's their choice, and I'll respect it. But, hey, if I'm willing to share the road, maybe they'd be more willing to share it as well.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Introductions and such

Well, let's get this out of the way, for starters, I'm a nerd.

Now, you might say, "There are plenty of nerds out there, why would I read the blog of this particular, albeit self-aware, nerd?" Well, if you'll bear with me, you might get a laugh and a different perspective of things from the view of one walking conundrum. I say conundrum based on the fact that often times, once I reveal certain tastes of mine to acquaintances, sometimes even family and friends, the common response is, "wait, what?"

Let me elaborate. I love learning, nearly regardless of the topic. I love to understand the "why" of it all and what makes something work. I was always rapt during science class (especially Biology), foreign language classes, English (provided that we weren't just doing bloody vocabulary or grammar lessons), and history. My father was a history prof at my high school, and he was one of the few that seemed to manage to reach nearly every student. He could be teaching a group ranging from the straight A's to the those that eked by each semester, it didn't matter. He was in love with the subject and taught it as though it were a grand epic of Homeric proportions. My mother was a science prof at a high school in the North Cities (Twin Cities area, that is), and managed the same feat. I once had a science teacher in junior high that approached me and said, wholeheartedly, after learning who my mother was, that she was the inspiration behind the teaching career. I believe my love of knowledge and understanding came directly from those two amazing people, as well as my curiosity.

While being a nerd, and fascinated with all things historical, anthropological, linguistic and cultural, one of my favorite things in the world consists of jumping on my Yamaha VStar 950 motorcycle (my baby, I don't have a name for her yet) and just riding off into parts unknown. I love the adrenaline rush, the feel of pure freedom and the connection with the road. I don't just take the bike out of the shop every few months and claim that I ride, but in the three years (or two and half if you count out my downtime from the accident) that I have ridden, I have logged approximately 23,000 miles in nineteen states. I will ride until I am too old, have children, or am too weak to do so, whichever comes first, I suppose.

I also love sports, my favorite to watch, oddly enough, being tennis. I never played, except for just fun, but my husband, and fellow conundrum, knows well enough never to bother me during the Opens. I comandeer all remotes and demand complete silence of the peanut gallery. I think even our devil kitty, Kokopelli, knows better than to mess with me at those times. The World Series this year was much the same.

But I also enjoy playing sports as well, whether or not I'm particularly good at them. Softball is great, volleyball might trump it during the summertime, however. Once my husband manages to get the boat up and running, we'll be spending the summer kneeboarding and skiing on the lake. Sports were always a part of my youth, and in Minnesota, it was just something many kids did year round, in the land where football and cheerleading weren't the only choices a kid had (sorry, Texans ;)). Living out at the lake is also a huge part of Minnesotan culture during the summertime, and something I truly enjoyed and miss.

So, I'll be writing this based on the belief that someone might share or appreciate my downright weird and sometimes contradictory opinions of my guilty pleasures (movies, music, and books), life in general, sports, and anything else that comes to mind. For the most part, I won't include rants about religion or politics, as I feel the media does enough of that for everyone.

And awaaaaaaay we go....

For my first music review, I'll be covering Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's "Facing Future".
A beautiful compilation of some of Israel's (aka Iz, Brudda Iz, depending on the work) best material, in my humble opinion. It opens with the haunting "Hawai'i '78 Introduction", which features parts of an interview in which he speaks of his father's passing. However, the echoing, distant drum and lonely vocal expands the sense of sorrow and mourning, of not just his personal loss, but of the loss of the Hawaiian people and their native culture. The complete track is at the end of the album in its full glory.

Israel also lends his ukelele and smooth tenor to happier, "hapa haole" (part white) songs and traditional favorites. "Ka Huila Wai" and "'Ama'ama" jump in with up-tempo vocals, Hawaiian lyrics and lively strumming, making the listener long for those white sands and the smiling faces of the locals. If it weren't enough that the traditional tunes make any traveler, potential or not, dream of the Aloha State, "White Sandy Beaches of Hawai'i" will send anyone away with visions of Lahaina and Waikiki. "Take Me Home Country Road" has a unique "Jawaiian" (Hawaiian-reggae) spin to it that nearly renders it a new song. It's also fun to hear Israel change the place names. "Kuhio Bay" and "Ka Pua U'i" are relaxed and groovy, gently bringing even the most clueless haole into the rhythmic cadence of the traditional lyrics and sweet notes of the uke. "Maui Hawaiian Sup'pa Man" incorporates the Hawaiian mythos into a deceptive slide that sounds sooooooo typical 90's beat, and was my only real dislike of any tracks on the album, but it bears listening to, if only to see the purpose of it in demonstrating Israel's love for his people's traditions.

The crowning piece for me, besides the introduction, is his version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World". The rendition is gentle, powerful, soothing, yet so stirring as the highs and lows of the notes echo, communicating the sense of a hope not yet realized. Israel says more with his smooth delivery and heartfelt pauses than the vocal gymnastics that you'd find from other artists. Actually, when one thinks of it, the notes that he manages to reach are quite amazing, but he does it so effortlessly that the listerner could assume that they were perfectly attainable.

Israel has since passed from this world, his death was in 1997, but he has left the world the gift of his music forever. Beautiful, at times fun and goofy, but something not to be missed by the true music lover, in my opinion. It also lives and breathes the rich traditions of an endangered way of life in the islands it so celebrates. Hawaiians, as many indigenous populations, are becoming absorbed into the mainstream and their lore lost to the sands of time. With this, Israel managed to preserve some of that traditional culture, which had only begun to be appreciated by the world. This album went platinum back in 2005, and deservedly so. With so many artists polluting the boards with the same pop drivel that has been seen time and again, an entry on the list that truly has something to say and something to preserve is a blessing.

Israel, may you have found your peace and hope.

Well, that's all for tonight. If you've read and have questions, comments, bad jokes, feel free to leave them here. Like what I've shared? Fabulous.... Don't like it? Eh, I'm sure we'll both get over it. ;)