Friday, May 14, 2010

The Trotsky and Robin Hood: Hollywood Does It Better

Jacob Tierney’s The Trotsky is the latest misfire in the continuing disaster that is English Canadian cinema. Jay Baruchel plays the film's titular character, a 17-year-old Jewish Montrealer named Leon Bronstein, who is convinced that he is the reincarnation of the late Soviet Jewish Communist leader, Leon Trotsky, who, of course, was born Leon Bronstein, too. Charting out his life’s path, or rather copying the life’s path of Trotsky, Leon is determined to make a difference, whether it’s trying to get the employees at his father’s factory to go on a hunger strike for better working conditions or attempting to unionize the students at his curiously white bread Montreal West public high school. Along the way, he ignites the political passions of a jaded leftist lawyer (Michael Murphy) and pursues a ten years older woman named Alexandra (Emily Hampshire), who has the same name as, you guessed, the older woman Trotsky eventually married. Does this sound silly enough yet? Don’t worry, it gets worse.

Frankly, the conceit behind The Trotsky isn't much of one but it could still have made for a decent film if Tierney had the faintest idea of how to frame, construct and make a movie move. He doesn’t and the result is a clumsily shot, ploddingly plotted and singularly uninteresting film that saddles the talented Baruchel (Tropic Thunder, Knocked Up) with a cardboard cutout of a character, who doesn’t make a whole lot of psychological sense. Sometimes he’s aware that he shouldn’t advertise his belief that he is the reincarnation of Trotsky; at other times he’s oblivious to that fact. It’s also not especially believable that other than a tentative suggestion by his father (a broadly played performance by Saul Rubinek) that he get counseling, Leon is left to run around unsupervised and is even tolerated when he essentially stalks Alexandra, who incredibly falls for that crazy mixed up guy anyway. It would have helped if The Trotsky’s screenplay, which Tierney wrote, had allowed Baruchel to provide a glimpse of what Leon was like before his delusions took hold of him but that type of insight is sadly lacking here. The movie does make it abundantly clear that Leon is the only kid at his high school with any social conscience or political interests, which is a trifle simplistic; if nothing else, environmental concerns do tend to prevail among today’s youth.

Tierney also displays a shaky sense of time and place in the film. Though The Trotsky is set in the present, for most of the movie no one ever texts or uses a cell phone, until the vagaries of the plot kick in and demand that they do. The movie also suffers from that peculiar Canadian cinematic phenomenon of depicting big cities whose streets are almost devoid of people. (Having grown up in Montreal and a frequent visitor to the place, I can assure you that the city’s streets are anything but quiet and not just when the Montreal Canadiens win big in hockey.) And while the film is loaded with Canadian talent, very few of the cast are given anything juicy to play; the short end of the stick, in particular, going to Colm Feore as the stereotypical evil principal of Leon’s high school and Geneviève Bujold as a hapless school board commissioner.

Appearing at a Q and A in Toronto for the film, Tierney spoke about wanting to make a ‘progressive high school movie’ but I’m not sure progressive applies here since the movie never questions Leon’s adulation of Trotsky, whose dictatorial impulses rivaled those of Lenin, if not Stalin, or his espousing of an ideology that has resulted in the deaths of ten of millions of people in the 20th Century. This Trotsky is a cuddly communist, not at all like the virulently anti–American, anti–Israeli ones that exist in the real off screen world. As for Tierney’s high school movie reference, The Trotksy pales before so many better movies about high school, from the political (Massacre at Central High, Heathers) to the social (Blackboard Jungle, The Breakfast Club). Tierney also referred to his movie as a comedy, which is debatable. I laughed twice during its two hour running time.

Ultimately, The Trotsky is a Canadian commercial failure, more in the vein of Michael McGowan’s risible 50s-set coming-of-age film Saint Ralph than in the generally wretched art-house movies of Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Ararat, Where the Truth Lies). Understandably, the Canadian public usually stays away from this type of inferior local fare, but as Baruchel has some American cachet, which always plays well in Canada, this one, like Paul Gross’s equally bad anti–war film Passchendaele, might, unfortunately, stick around for awhile.

In that comparative light, Hollywood's new Robin Hood movie, which is directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down), can’t help but come across as a masterpiece, which it decidedly isn’t. It is, however, a more entertaining film than The Trotsky, or for that matter, Matthew Vaughn’s soulless, vile superhero movie Kick - Ass or Michael Haneke’s obvious, empty headed and tedious drama The White Ribbon, two other films I recently suffered through.

While Robin Hood lacks the exuberance or style of the 1938 Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, it’s nonetheless an intelligent re-working of the legend of this 12th-century hero, who is driven into exile by the nefarious King John, after his brother King Richard the Lionheart perishes in battle. This version -- which stars a glum Russell Crowe as Robin -- functions as a prequel in that it ends where all the other Robin Hood movies begin, is intent on being more authentic than the norm so there is a lot of attention paid to the details of how people really lived and fought then. This is is both fascinating and unnecessary for the plot, which is further bogged down by Scott’s inability, unlike Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson, to shoot coherently complex battle scenes. His homage, though, to the Normandy Beach D-Day opening of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, oddly enough, does work.

Flaws aside, Robin Hood delivers good performances by Cate Blanchett, as Lady (not Maid) Marian, a spirited war widow and feminist before her time; Max von Sydow as her blind father–in–law; Mark Addy (The Full Monty) as the decidedly profane Friar Tuck; William Hurt as one of the lords opposing Prince John’s ruinous taxation schemes; and the trio of Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes and Alan Doyle, who are a delight as Robin’s Merry Men. Though I wish they’d had some back stories to explain how they hooked up with him.

Brian Helgeland’s screenplay also never pushes its modern day parallels -- such as, expensive foreign wars, excessive taxation, freedom of speech issues as decreed in the Magna Carta -- too far and only occasionally panders to the audience’s formulaic expectations. It’s a well made, thoughtful, if sometimes overly sombre film, but, more importantly, it’s directed by a genuine filmmaker. While most Canadian film critics will, doubtless, (over) praise The Trotsky as the little Canadian movie that could and conversely pan Robin Hood as a typically empty Hollywood behemoth, I’d argue that it’s the latter that’s worth the look, perhaps, even by the likes of Jacob Tierney, who could learn a thing or two from Ridley Scott on how to make a real movie.

 -- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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