August 20, 2011

The Three Musketeers (#99)

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

What I said then:

I have ridiculously fond memories of the early 90's Kiefer Sutherland/Charlie Sheen/Oliver Platt/Chris O'Donnell/Tim Curry film version. I doubt it was faithful though.

What I say now:

Okay, the plot is completely different, but in terms of the tone that colourful Disney film actually kinda nails it. It's bright and silly and fun (Oliver Platt as the venal braggart Porthos is a particular delight), just the same as the novel.

In a nutshell: D'Artagnan, a fiery Gascon, travels to Paris, where he meets and offends the titular Musketeers --- Athos, Porthos and Aramis --- and is challenged by them to three consecutive duels. Before the fighting can begin, some of Cardinal Richelieu's guards show up and try to arrest them: duelling is against the law. Forgetting their differences, the duellists turn on the guards and, victorious, become firm friends. Together they have several madcap adventures, most of them bound up with the competing political schemes of Richelieu and the Duke of Buckingham. They gain and lose money in bizarre ways, seemingly without a care. They pull their swords out at even the merest hint of an insult. And, memorably, they make an implacable enemy in Milady de Winter, a spy/assassin/stone-hearted-demon-bitch-from-hell who is in the Cardinal's employ.

There's not a massive amount to say about this one, because it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect. It's a chaotic riot of derring-do, dark plots, impossible escapes, and bloody demises. Buckles get swashed all over the place. Heck, one chapter even begins with the phrase "It was a dark and stormy night" ... oh, how the translator must have laughed when he got to that one! Hilariously, most of the characters' behaviour swings between the scrupulously lordly and the utterly insane: Buckingham, having fallen in love with the French Queen and been sent away to avoid a scandal, decides that England will wage an entire war on France just so he can see her face one more time ... and nobody bats an eye at his motivation.

The real highlight, though, is Milady de Winter. For most of the novel you think that Richelieu is the villain, but he at least has some sort of moral code to him. As the novel approaches its climax, though, it's Milady who becomes the main antagonist. A sociopath, pure and simple, her cold-blooded evil makes her one of the most entertaining characters you'll ever read. While D'Artagnan, Porthos and Aramis are all a bit one note, Milady and Athos, and their mysterious past, are by far the best thing about the book.

Not really knowing anything about Dumas at all before I read this, one point of interest for me was to learn that Three Musketeers is a historical novel: Dumas was writing more than 200 years after the time when his story is set. Not knowing any better, I'd always just figured he was a 17th century novelist writing about his contemporary times. In fact one of the main sources of humour comes from the prim 19th century narrator bemoaning the loose morals of the Musketeers' times, while simultaneously relating their adventures with near-indecent relish.

Seeing as it's exactly what you expect, if you think you'll enjoy The Three Musketeers, you probably will. I sure did.

(As an aside, just a few days ago I saw the trailer for the forthcoming mega-budget Three Musketeers 3D, and god it looks awful. If you want to make an effects-laden science fiction film, why would you choose Three Musketeers as your source material? It just makes no friggin' sense at all. Although, when I put that question to a friend of mine, his answer was "Because people have already heard of it," which is probably pretty close to the truth. 'Brand recognition' and all that. Ugh, Hollywood.)

Cheers, JC.

about to read: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
books to go: 98 

August 9, 2011

I Can't Stay MIFFed at You (part four)

Well, I nearly made it through the Film Festival without getting sick ... but not quite. In the end the lack of sleep and lack of vegetables got to me (when you're thinking of Nando's as 'the healthy option' you know you're in trouble ...) and I finally stumbled as I rounded the last bend. While I coughed and hacked my way through my sessions on Friday and Sunday (no doubt infecting many of my fellow film-goers --- sorry!), Saturday was a complete write-off and I had to skip the three movies I had booked. The silver lining was that I got to lie on my couch, under my quilt, with my heater on, watching the Demons ... get thumped. Hmmm, maybe it wasn't such a silver lining after all.

Maybe it's the illness talking, but my two Friday films, My Wedding and Other Secrets and Sleeping Sickness, were both pretty dreadful.

My Wedding and Other Secrets was a "wacky" New Zealand dramedy about a girl who keeps her wedding secret from her traditional Chinese parents. If anybody ever puts the word wacky in between quotation marks, you should start getting worried. The film was all over the shop, with every character having to behave in utterly ridiculous ways in order for the contrived plotline to lurch forward another step. Many of the performances were dire (I'll exempt Michelle Ang, the lead, who worked her arse off with tired, cliched material), the script was shallow as an evaporating puddle of piss, and the direction was clunky like my falling-apart couch. The nicest thing I can say about it was that it was better than The Silence of Joan.

Sleeping Sickness, on the other hand, was yet another of those 'Interesting Idea, Mis-handled' movies that have been the story of MIFF 2011 for me, though admittedly this one was more mis-handled than most. A German running a health program in Cameroon is nearing the end of his time in Africa. His daughter comes back from her European boarding school for a visit, his wife counts down the days until they're leaving, and a sleazy French friend (played by Hippolyte Girardot, who was also in Top Floor Left Wing) tries to convince him to stay, so the two of them can embark on some unspecified 'project.' Though meandering and slow, it's actually pretty good up until its halfway point, when it suddenly jumps forward a few years and we get introduced to a completely new protagonist. The tension is lost, all the questions we had about the German family are dropped completely, and the film never recovers, eventually petering out into a wilfully obtuse cop-out of an ending. It was a really annoying film.

On Sunday I had much better luck, seeing two films that ended up being among the highlights of my festival: Martha Marcy May Marlene and Another Earth.

Martha Marcy May Marlene tells the story of a girl being ensnared by a cult (albeit a cult of a pretty low-key variety), and then attempting to escape the stranglehold it has put on her psyche. The film begins with the girl (who has several names throughout --- hence the title) fleeing from the isolated farmhouse that is the cult's home, and from that point we move back and forth in time, witnessing her indoctrination at the farmhouse play out in parallel with her attempts to readjust to everyday life as a guest at her wealthy sister's holiday home. This back and forth structure is one of the film's key strengths: at certain points it is left deliberately ambiguous 'when' we are, highlighting the way that Martha's past is continually bleeding into, and altering her reactions to, her present. Physically escaping is one thing, but the psychological trauma cannot be left behind.

The cast are uniformly excellent, with particular props going to Elizabeth Olsen (Mary-Kate and Ashley's younger sister) for her curious mix of steel and vulnerability and John Hawkes for the low-key, sinuous charisma he brings to the leader of the cult. The film is gorgeous to look at, and director Sean Durkin keeps a firm grip on material that could easily have felt exploitative or simplistic. He's a name to watch.

Two more names to keep an eye out for are Mike Cahill and Brit Marling, who co-wrote Another Earth; he directed it, and she starred. A sci-fi concept plays out through the course of Another Earth: a planet appears in our solar system and begins to drift towards us. As it approaches, it becomes apparent that it is a perfect replica of Earth, right down to its inhabitants. Every person alive has an exact doppelganger up there on 'Earth Two.'

All of that happens in the background of the movie, though, and is touched on only briefly here and there (until the final act, anyway). The majority of the film concerns two people whose lives are brought together by a tragic accident, and who subsequently form an unlikely bond. I really liked Another Earth, though I've spoken to many who didn't. I thought the odd, tender little story that played out was  quite lovely, and though it took one too many unlikely turns, I thought the two leads were good enough to make it work. Newcomer Marling was very good, nearly good enough for me to buy her as a moody frump (when she's obviously beautiful). Playing opposite her was a guy named William Mapother, who's one of those actors that you've seen a bunch of times playing Henchman #3 type characters in big movies, but who here proves that he can actually act when he has to, and act pretty darn well.

I can understand why others didn't, but I liked it a lot. And heck, add half a star because it's got the most beautiful use of a musical saw in the history of cinema (Andy, you must see it, for that scene alone!).

And that, as they say in the classics, is that. MIFF is gone for another year, and I'll be resuming my usual round of multiplex mind-melters (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, anyone? Anyone?).

Given that I've seen less than 10% of the films playing at the festival, and given that I've been chatting to as many people as possible in the queues, I thought I'd leave you with a few recommendations for movies that I haven't seen. I've heard that these are great from several different sources, and maybe, just maybe, they'll sneak into cinemas sometime soon (or, failing that, they'll show on SBS2 at four in the morning in three years time): A Separation, an Iranian drama about a disentegrating marriage; Surviving Life, a mad Czech animation about psychoanalysis; How to Die in Oregon, a doco about euthanasia; and Michael, a harrowing Austrian drama about the bond between a man and the kidnapped child he has chained in his basement. In case my synopsis didn't give it away, that last one is not a comedy.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
books to go: 99

August 7, 2011

Marie Antoinette (#100)

Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser

What I said then:

Chunky bio of the doomed French princess.

What I say now:

I've had this sucker on my shelf since before the Sofia Coppola/Kirsten Dunst movie came out all the way back in 2006. Maybe if I'd liked the movie more it wouldn't have waited so long to get an airing, but regardless: after watching Cadel kick arse in Le Tour I decided to pull out a book on French history as a teeny tribute to him (seriously, they ride bikes up mountains ... it's pretty incredible if you stop to think about it).

What did I know about Marie Antoinette before I read this book? Well, the same two things I figure everybody knows about her: she said "Let them eat cake," and she ended up being guillotined during the revolution. Other than that, she was a complete blank to me ... which I guess constitutes its own implied criticism of the afore-mentioned movie (this is all I remember: jarring musical choices; converse shoes; and thinking that Jason Schwartzman should never act in period films because he's got one of those voices that can't be anything but modern). Of those two glimmers of knowledge, the first turns out to be utter fabrication (apparently the same 'cake' anecdote was being said about an unpopular Spanish queen more than a century before Marie Antoinette's time) and the second didn't happen at all the way I'd assumed.

Marie Antoinette initially led a sheltered, carefree life as the youngest daughter of the Austrian Empress. In the high-stakes game of alliance-by-marriage that the European royal families were playing, she was --- as the thirteenth child --- too junior to ever have been considered particularly noteworthy and so she was utterly neglected, particularly with regards to her education. But then several of her older sisters passed away and the task of marrying France's Dauphin (the heir to the French throne) fell to her. Belatedly they began to teach her to read and write before, at the age of fourteen, she was sent away from her family to a foreign country to be its princess, and ultimately its queen.

Rather than reading and writing, what she really needed (and never got) was an education in how the French court at Versailles actually worked. It was completely different from the Austrian system that she'd grown up in, and Fraser seems to posit that the majority of Marie Antoinette's problems stem from the utter inability of Versailles to understand her, and of her to understand Versailles. Nicknamed 'The Austrian Woman,' she was never able to overcome her outsider status.

One of the major issues was her (relatively) staunch Christian morality: having no acknowledged lovers --- the way everybody else did --- left the press of the time free to imagine her guilty of the most bizarre and unlikely couplings, rumours they spewed out with such venom for so long that she ended up despised. It's a sad irony to think that she was ultimately condemned by all the world as a despicable harlot for the precise reason that she wasn't one.

(As a side note, however horrifying the standard of the press is these days --- and if you're not horrified then you haven't been paying attention --- they've got nothing on the libellistes of Marie Antoinette's day. Essentially, she became the star of a cascade of pornographic pamphlets that linked her, in the most imaginative and energetic terms possible, to anyone and everyone she ever came in contact with. There are still a few levels lower that Murdoch and his cronies can sink.)

Of more importance to Marie Antoinette herself, however, was the lack of a sex life between she and her husband, Louis XVI. The whole point of princesses (and especially queens) was to have lots of male babies to keep the whole shebang running into subsequent generations. Louis XVI seems to have been a shy, awkward kind of a guy, and his ambivalence wasn't helped by the fact that Versailles was considered a public domain. If he wanted to visit his wife's bed (they didn't share quarters), he'd invariably have to pass an entire commentary team in the hallways. Because Louis was French and the King, and Marie Antoinette was Austrian and only the Queen, the blame for their childlessness fell to her. She wasn't tempting enough, or she wasn't fertile enough, or she wasn't doing it right. Even after she had given birth to her own young Dauphin, fulfilling her primary duty as a royal woman, accusations about the child's true parentage haunted her.

All this takes place against a backdrop of breathtaking financial irresponsibility. Fraser makes clear that the ship of the French state was going to be wrecked regardless: too much was spent on too little, for too long. Marie Antoinette's extravagancies on furniture, clothes and makeup sound incredible, but when Fraser ranks them alongside the expenditures of other nobles, it's clear that the entire aristocracy was equally at fault. I'd have liked some more information on the brewing revolution --- Fraser all but ignores it until the washerwomen of Paris are beating on the door --- but that's a minor quibble.

Once the Revolution did come, I'd always presumed that an angry mob had stormed the palace, seized Marie Antoinette and dispensed summary justice then and there. It was actually a much more complicated, much more drawn out process which, in its own way, was probably even more horrible than being torn apart by a crowd would have been. Over the course of more than two years imprisonment, she was slowly separated from everyone and everything that she valued: her friends, her husband, and lastly her children. She was given a trial, but it was a sham, the outcome pre-determined by political expediency. The cold cruelty of her accusers was breathtaking.

On the whole, probably a bit too much of the book was taken up in describing pre-Revolution Versailles politics (all the Comtesses and Princesses and Duchesses started to blend into each other after a while) that turn out to be utterly inconsequential, but it's a good read, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the period. Now I just need a Napoleon biography to follow on from this one (he's just entering the picture when Marie Antoinette gets the chop), anybody know a good one?

Cheers, JC.

about to read: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
books to go: 99 (Ooh, I got a little thrill of pleasure typing that. I'm down into double digits!)

August 5, 2011

Now I'm Really Getting MIFFed (part three)

It's been a bit of a slower second week to the Film Festival, with a couple of (gasp!) movie-less days while I made a swift trip back to Wangaratta for a mate's 30th.

The highlight of my last few days was an utterly charming Belgian film called On the Sly. Cathy, maybe six or seven years old, is the neglected only child of a wealthy Parisian professional couple with a magnificent holiday home in the country. After a weekend trip in which her parents have basically left her to fend for herself, Cathy gives up on them; when the family's getting in the car to leave, she opens the back door and closes it again without hopping in. Her parents don't notice, and Cathy's left watching them drive away. The majority of the film then follows Cathy as she tries to survive in the woods on the estate and avoid the eventual search parties that come looking for her.

Though there's very little dialogue between characters, a voice-over narration of Cathy's thoughts runs across basically the entire film. It's a striking stylistic decision and a brave one: it meant that the whole film would succeed or fail on the basis of a child actor's performance. Luckily Wynona Ringer (the director's daughter) is so winning in the lead role that the film just clicks. She manages to be precocious without being annoying and sweet without being saccharine, and the script nails a pretty authentic child's eye view of the world.

Also a lot of fun was Submarine, a quirky British indie coming-of-age tale. I've heard people criticise it for being a lot like other quirky indie coming-of-age movies, and it's true that at times it was a bit self-conscious (a wacky neighbour who's a sad, slightly mad, motivational speaker is a weak point) and the main character is perhaps just one step too detached and ironic. However, those minor quibbles can be easily brushed aside when a film makes me laugh as heartily (and as regularly) as this one does. Yeah, it's like a lot of other films but, y'know, I like all those other films. I'll be keeping an eye out for it on DVD ... and not just to use the subtitles to figure out some of the more impenetrable Welsh accents. 

Top Floor Left Wing and The Yellow Sea were both action movies shot through with strong elements of farce, both of which came close to excellence but narrowly missed the mark. 

Top Floor Left Wing chronicles an escalating hostage situation in a flat in a French housing estate as an Algerian father and son barricade their door for very different reasons. The son is a petty hood who is babysitting some cocaine for a local dealer; the father has been running for years from a dark secret. Their hostage turns from comic relief (for the first part of the film he continually says exactly the wrong thing) to sympathiser, to radical; he ends the film trying to lead the apartment block's other residents in a riot against his own police force. The first half of the film had a lot of promise, but ultimately the points that it made were fairly simplistic and (common problem at this year's festival) it ended ten minutes too soon. 

The Yellow Sea is incredibly violent. In this grungy gangster flick Gunam, a Joseonjok (an ethnic Korean living in China), is indebted to some gangsters. To pay off what he owes, he's smuggled into Seoul to do a hit for them.

Interesting fact: Korean gangsters don't use guns ... well, not according to this movie anyway. There are a lot of killings in this film, but they're all done with knives and hatchets, which gives them a visceral immediacy that is missing from a lot of action movies these days. Blood goes ... everywhere. And it's kind of awesome.

Killer violence aside, The Yellow Sea also takes the time during its intricate set-up to make us really care about Gunam: the reason he's in debt is that he borrowed money to send his wife to South Korea to find work. She was supposed to be sending money back to him but it never came, so at the same time as he's figuring out the details of the hit, he's also trying to track her down. When everything turns sour, we really really want things to work out for the guy.

After showing such restraint during the build-up, however, the director Hong-jin Na loses control of the film during the last third. Too many action sequences pile on top of one another, too many times Gunam is able to miraculously escape from seemingly impossible situations and, after a rigidly realist approach for most of the film, suddenly Na begins to resort to trite, absurdist gags. While it's still way better than most of the computer generated shit sandwiches Hollywood serves up, The Yellow Sea could have been one of the truly great action movies if it had just held its nerve.

And lastly comes the trippy Canadian You Are Here, a positively infuriating experience. Taking five great short films and five 'meh' short films and throwing them in a blender does not a great feature film make, but that's seemingly what the makers of this pretentious dud believe. Disconnected and surreal events happen to a bunch of people, and then ... the film ends. I'm probably so annoyed by this film because it showed so much promise. Many of the ideas it contains are lovely, and the whole thing was put together with such assurance that I really believed that there was going to be a clear purpose to all the random goings on. But there wasn't. It was a bummer.

I'm going to be finishing MIFF with a bang --- seven films in three days! Wish me luck, and I'll see you on the flipside ...

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser
books to go: 100