Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Man For All Seasons

Year 5, Day 5 - 1/5/13 - Movie #1,305

BEFORE: From the kings of France to a king of England, from Louis XIII to Henry VIII.  I know some of the details here, but I admit I've got a big gap in my knowledge when it comes to British kings.  I never remember who succeeded who, and I never learned the difference betwen Thomas More and Thomas Becket.  So let's take a step toward changing that tonight.

THE PLOT: The story of Thomas More, who stood up to King Henry VIII when the King rejected the Roman Catholic Church to obtain a divorce and remarriage.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Lion in Winter" (Movie #1,115) and "The Other Boleyn Girl" (#1,120)

AFTER: Well, I'm still unclear on how, exactly, the British government works.  Er, worked.  What's the difference between a chancellor, a prime minister, and an archbishop?  They're all under the king, but who's in charge of whom?  And then where does Parliament fit into the picture?   (EDIT: The Lord Chancellor is an Officer of State and Cabinet member, who is appointed by the King, on the advice of the Prime Minister.  Still sounds like a confusing mess.) 

Of course, this is set during a very particular time period, when Henry VIII kept trying different wives in hope of producing a male heir.  Or perhaps he just liked having sex with different young women, and then was forced to marry them to save face.  Right, and then behead the current wife or find her guilty of some treasonous act to make room for the new one - the guy was a class act.

This did not sit well with the Catholic Church, since he kept asking for dispensation after dispensation, and finally led to a split with Rome and the founding of the Anglican Church, which he himself was the head of, so it really cut down on the paperwork, as I understand it.

Thomas More was caught in the middle of all this - succeeding Cardinal Wolsey as Chancellor (and here's where I get confused, since the previous Chancellor was also an archbishop, but More was a lawyer) he was asked to help Henry request divorce from Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, and he refused.   (EDIT: Back in the day, the Lord Chancellor served as presiding officer of the House of Lords, and was on the Judicial Committee - so he was involved in all three branches of government, and was often also a church official.  Ample opportunities for conflicts of interest!)

It takes a lot of guts to stand up to the king, but it's obviously a losing battle.  This is a guy who has people beheaded, and those are the ones he LIKES!   But More's concern is for his soul, if he compromises his principles, and has to answer to God.  Gee, that sounds a lot like the quandaries in "Les Miserables" - speak up and be condemned, or remain silent and be damned.  (silly people, what if there is no God?  No, they don't even think that way.)

Unfortunately the subject matter here is much more dry and boring - this takes place at the intersection of history (yawn) and the finer points of the law (double yawn).  But it's man's law vs. God's law, and you can see how this conflict sort of led to the (alleged) separation of church and state in the U.S.  I say "alleged" because there are still Congressmen who vote according to their religious beliefs, because they're unable to make the separation in their own minds.  Voting against abortion, for example, may help a Senator sleep at night, or may make him popular at Sunday mass, but it's not what his constituents want or need.  But jeez, if you can't bring yourself to vote for abortion, at least support birth control and sex education so there won't be as much need for abortion - nope, they're against those too. Madness.

What comes around goes around, even if people can't see it at the time - at the start of the film, More wouldn't let his daughter marry a Lutheran, which to him was the equivalent of a heretic.  Later on, he's on trial for his own religious beliefs, when they're in conflict with what the king wants.  (definition of "heresy": what the other guy believes) A spoken rundown before the closing credits reminds us that his prosecutor, Oliver Cromwell, was later beheaded for treason, and the King also met his end a few years later, as a result of syphilis.  Makes all the fighting seem rather pointless, doesn't it?

But hey, another Best Picture Oscar winner crossed off, bringing my total to 60, with two more to follow in the next week.

Starring Paul Scofield (last seen in "The Crucible"), Robert Shaw (last seen in "Black Sunday"), Leo McKern (last seen in "The French Lieutenant's Woman"), Orson Welles (last seen in "The Lady From Shanghai"), John Hurt (last seen in "The Proposition"), Wendy Hiller, Susannah York, with a cameo from Vanessa Redgrave (last seen in "Venus").

RATING: 4 out of 10 rowboats

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Three Musketeers (1935)

Year 5, Day 4 - 1/4/13 - Movie #1,304

BEFORE:  And a fourth version, because there were really four Musketeers, if you count D'Artagnan.  I nabbed this one off of TCM to fill the DVD with the 2011 version.

THE PLOT: The young D'Artagnan arrives in Paris, his heart set on joining the king's Musketeers. He is taken under the wings of three of the most respected and feared Musketeers, Porthos, Aramis, and Athos. Together they fight to save France and the honor of a lady from the machinations of the powerful Cardinal Richelieu.  

AFTER: This was a pretty basic and straight-forward retelling of the now-familiar tale.  Pretty boring by comparison to last night's FX blowout, but hey, it was 1935 and they probably barely had two pixels to rub together back then.  

There's the standard triple-duel challenge, and the standard love triangle between the King, the Queen and the Duke of Buckingham.  There are some generalities about war and plots, but nothing very specific.  It was tough to tell what motivated Richelieu here, or anyone for that matter, but at least there were no crazy impossible inventions. 

I admit I couldn't stay awake at the end, but in my defense, who the heck scheduled Christmas and New Year's Day to fall on Tuesdays this time around?  I had like 6 days off, then had to work on a Friday, then came a weekend, another workday on Monday, then Tuesday off again!  My body now wants to go to sleep at all kinds of weird times.  Plus I've been dealing with what we thought was mild food poisoning but may have really been a stomach flu, so I've barely been eating since Monday morning.  Or maybe the film was just that boring.

Why the heck didn't I hold out for the Gene Kelly version?  I've never even heard of any of these actors...

Starring Walter Abel, Paul Lukas, Moroni Olsen, Onslow Stevens, Heather Angel, Rosamond Pinchot.

RATING: 3 out of 10 gold crowns

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Three Musketeers (2011)

Year 5, Day 3 - 1/3/13 - Movie #1,303

BEFORE: For the third day of the year, a film that's centered on the number 3.  And since I covered two versions of this often-told story before during last year's World Tour, it happens to be the THIRD version of the famous Dumas novel in my project.  I love when stuff like this happens.

I'm also dipping back a bit further into French history, from the late 1700's to the early 1600's, or from the reign of Louis XVI to Louis XIII.

And it feels so great, so freeing, to not have to find actor links between successive films any more.  That said, Kirsten Dunst from "Marie Antoinette" was also in "Elizabethtown" with Orlando Bloom (last seen in "New York, I Love You"), playing the Duke of Buckingham tonight.   Sorry.

THE PLOT: The young D'Artagnan, along with three former legendary Musketeers must unite and defeat a beautiful double agent and her villainous employer from seizing the French throne and engulfing Europe in war.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Three Musketeers" (1993) (Movie #1,277) and "The Musketeer" (2001) (#1,278)

AFTER: We all know the typical beginning to this story - D'Artagnan sets out for Paris to become a Musketeer, but accidentally gets involved in duels with all 3 Musketeers (recently disbanded, due to budget cuts or the Fiscal Cliff or something) but then the Cardinal's guards attack, and they unite based on their common enemy.

But wait, not so fast - this film added a frontispiece, a bit of pre-story detailing an adventure of the Three Musketeers, plus Lady DeWinter, with plot and effects cribbed from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "National Treasure".  You can treat it like a short before the main feature, which neatly sets up the rivalry between Milady and Athos, plus the three heroes and the Duke of Buckingham.

Ah, but it's a double-edged sword, so to speak.  Though it introduces the characters well enough (as well as detailing their individual fighting styles), it ruins the surprise in store later, when we learn that D'Artagnan has managed to offend his personal heroes in turn, and must duel them all on the same afternoon.  What a way to step on a joke.   

Alas, it gets a bit worse.  The opening sequence sets up a special-effects driven plot piece that's not found anywhere near the original novel, but seems to be something more at home in a Jules Verne fantasy piece.  If you don't approve of steampunk (or the anachronistic use of gunpowder in a Robin Hood film), then you'll really hate this.  Looks pretty, but makes no sense.  At least steampunk takes things we have now and replicates them in a pre-Industrial Revolution world, but this...thing isn't even possible NOW, so what's it doing in 17th Century France?

There are certain words in the English language that should not be modified by adjectives - a woman can't be "very pregnant", and something cannot be "very unique".  Unique means singular, that there is only one of something, and the word is fine when it stands on its own.  Another such word is "impossible" - either something is impossible, or it's not.  Yet here I'm proven wrong - the action sequences in this film are very, very impossible.

In addition, we've got fighting moves straight out of "The Matrix" (the 2001 version was more like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), and a planned heist that seems to reference "Ocean's 11".  On top of that, Lady DeWinter is part super-spy and part cat burglar, like a Bond girl-meets Charlie's Angel.  Any more references you guys want to throw in there to be current?  The battle from "Star Trek II"?  Don't forget "Pirates of the Caribbean"!  (note: they didn't)

It all does make for a fresh version of the story, but it's just so blatant in the attempt.  Furthermore, we've got accent problems for the third film in a row - in "Les Miserables" there were French street kids with British accents, last night we had French royalty with American accents, and tonight there's a German guy playing Cardinal Richelieu!

It's a spectacle, for sure, but it's like buying a Trans Am to run your errands - fun to drive and flashy to look at, but it makes not a lick of sense. 

Also starring Logan Lerman (last seen in "Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief"), Matthew McFayden (last seen in "Robin Hood"), Christoph Waltz (last seen in "The Green Hornet"), Milla Jovovich (last seen in "Zoolander"), Ray Stevenson (last seen in "The Book of Eli"), Luke Evans (also last seen in "Robin Hood"), Gabriella Wilde, Mads Mikkelsen, Freddie Fox, James Corden.

RATING: 6 out of 10 tankards of wine

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Marie Antoinette

Year 5, Day 2 - 1/2/13 - Movie #1,302

BEFORE: Yep, I'm hitting the ground running - I already re-organized my list, at least for the next three months, using "Les Miserables" as the new starting point.  I can't promise that there won't be breaks in the chain, but I've got an order now that I'm comfortable with, which also has the flexibility to add more films if needed, and still hit the "right" movies on Feb. 1 and March 1 as scheduled.

Upon review, this film seemed to make the most sense to follow "Les Mis", since it's also set in France, and takes place just a few decades earlier.  I'll get back to more literary-themed material tomorrow.  Also, I think this film has quite a bit of music in it, so there's another connection.

Speaking of compulsions, I know I said I wasn't going to link via actors, but Hugh Jackman from "Les Miserables" was also in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" with Danny Huston (last seen in "The Proposition"), who appears in this film.  I can't help myself.

THE PLOT: The story of France's iconic but ill-fated queen, Marie Antoinette, from her betrothal and marriage to Louis XVI at 15 to the fall of Versailles.

AFTER: OK, so this turned out to be sort of the opposite of "Les Miserables", which told the story of France's downtrodden lower class.  By contrast, this is about the royalty and high society of late-1700's France, and attempts to show that it wasn't always an easy go for them, either.

While I'm willing to concede that there may have been more to Marie Antoinette than her often (mis?) quoted line "Let them eat cake," and the attitude that went with it, I'm not prepared to cut her any slack, either.  What a tedious life it must have been - waking, being dressed by servants, dining, trying on dresses, attending banquets, and then retiring to one's country house to relax, eat bonbons and get away from it all, and maybe have an affair or two.

OK, so there was some pressure to produce an heir, which was made rather difficult since the King seeemed to have little interest in the activities that would produce one.  (Hey, Louis, you're doing it wrong...)  But this was back in the days before sex ed, or even pornos, so how was he to know what to do?  The royal doctor was even too polite to have "the talk" with him.  The movie never specifies whether this was a, umm, mechanical problem, or one of orientation. 

And another economics lesson tonight - turns out that the French, in their hatred for England, were sending money to support the American Revolution, and this may be one reason there wasn't so much money to go around in France.  Sorry about that, chaps, but you can't make an omelette without breaking a few necks - er, eggs.

No, I won't do it, I won't feel sorry for Marie Antoinette, though this film portrays her as a girl caught up in circumstance, with an arranged marriage and a feeling of being an outsider in the French court.  Why make THIS film, about THIS person, and come at it from THIS angle?  Dare I draw a connection between the subject and the director, Sofia Coppola, who is sort of filmmaking royalty in her own way? 

Since she apparently never went to film school, here's a free tip from me.  A movie is a collection of scenes organized in a fashion to ultimately tell a story, or serve a coherent purpose.  Putting one pointless scene after another for two hours, while technically still a movie, serves no greater cause.  After watching Marie loll about in the lap of luxury for an hour and a half, I was ready to storm the Bastille myself.  Unless that was the point, but I kinda doubt it.

Trying to make a sympathetic film about Marie Antoinette is a bit like making a film that depicts Adolf Hitler as a frustrated painter.  Oh, wait, someone did that too, it was called "Max". 

With regards to the music, yes, there were modern songs here, most notably Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" and songs by The Cure, New Order and the Strokes.  While it's a bit jarring, it's all used as background mood music, not as music sung by or heard by the characters, so it's technically not anachronistic, merely a convention used by the modern filmmakers.  We've also got accent problems again, with American actors playing French and Austrian people, and sounding very non-European.  Again, it's a convention, and perhaps a limitation of the form.

Starring Kirsten Dunst (last heard in "Anastasia"), Jason Schwartzman (last seen in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"), Judy Davis (last seen in "A Passage to India"), Rip Torn (last heard in "Bee Movie"), Rose Byrne (last seen in "Get Him to the Greek"), Asia Argento, with cameos from Molly Shannon (last seen in "Bad Teacher"), Marianne Faithfull.

RATING: 3 out of 10 harpsichord lessons

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Les Miserables (2012)

Year 5, Day 1 - 1/1/13 - Movie #1,301

BEFORE: It's a brand-new year, and I'm back with another block-rocking beat.  I survived Thanksgiving, and Festivus, Christmas shopping and Christmas.  Got to see friends and family over the holiday break, and I found lots of opportunities to overeat.

I wasn't completely idle while the blog was on hiatus - I watched a few films from the list that I thought I might have seen before, but clearly I needed to be sure.  So I (re-)watched "Inherit the Wind", the original "Miracle on 34th St." (those two films have more in common than one might think), "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka", and "Panic Room".  Turns out I was right, I had seen all of those before.  Plus I took a refresher course on "L.A. Confidential", and "Pulp Fiction" while addressing Christmas cards.  I think the 7th or 8th time you watch "Pulp Fiction" you really GET it, and you see how all the pieces truly fit together.

Plus, I hadn't seen a "Star Wars" film in four years, so I watched Episode IV: A New Hope (Revisited).  This was an edited version made by a fan who re-worked all of the effects as he saw fit, to correct some long-standing "mistakes" and others supposedly made by the Special Edition cut.  I could see the reasoning behind some of his "corrections", but I'm on the fence about others - that's a whole debate for another day.

So, here's where I stand - when I left off, I had 213 films left on the list, and in the last 2 months, that number has ballooned back up to 260, thanks to Christmas gifts and new films taped from cable.  But the list now contains mostly films from 2010 and 2011, and over the next few months, I'm sure I'll be adding a ton of films from 2012, which seemed to be a banner year for movies.  I'll never really catch up all the way, unless I start going to the theater more, and working the new films into the chain as best as I can.  Lately I've gone to the theater only about twice a year - last year just for "The Avengers" and "Paranorman". 

And surprisingly, when I made my first attempt to organize what's left on the list into a coherent chain, nearly every film fit into place thematically, with just a few stragglers.  I was going to start off with "Bridesmaids" and then transition into animated films, but I started last year's chain with animated animals, and that's too much like repeating myself.  Then my wife started asking if we could go see "Les Miserables" on Christmas Day, which wasn't possible, so I got her to hold off until New Year's.

So, since I ended last year on a literary note, with "Around the World in 80 Days", let's take care of a few other literary-based films, some that had to be cut from my World Tour.  And let's dedicate this year's films to my wife (and not just because she demanded it), who puts up with my shenanigans and my late-night movie viewing and my late-night blog posting and coming to bed at weird hours.  This film means a lot to her, the Broadway show changed her life, so in a way it's her "Star Wars".

I'm also introducing a new feature, the FOLLOW-UP - so that if the chain breaks down, or there's a thematic jump of any kind, I can just say a film is a follow-up to one I've seen last year, or whenever.  I'll still try to work thematically, and link by actor when I can, but if I get the urge to call an audible and catch a current film, I'm covered.  God knows I'll probably want to tear my planned chain apart halfway through the year and rebuild it anyway.

THE PLOT: In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean, who for decades has been hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert after he breaks parole, agrees to care for factory worker Fantine's daughter, Cosette. The fateful decision changes their lives forever.

FOLLOW-UP TO: Les Miserables (1998) (Movie #1,279)

AFTER: The 1998 film with Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush and Uma Thurman is my reference point here, having never seen the Broadway show.  My wife, on the other hand, knows the Broadway show backwards and forwards, but didn't watch the other (non-musical) film version.  So we came into it from two different directions, and I got to spend part of New Year's Day watching French people die in overly dramatic fashion. 
Apparently you can learn to speak French, but you're not really doing it right unless 99% of what you say is sung, to music that comes from everywhere and nowhere.  Oh, and it helps if everything you sing rhymes too.  I can hear the composer now, running through all the words that rhyme with "Javert" - hey there, you with the hair, bring me that chair.  This is part of the reason I've avoided films like "Moulin Rouge", with the unrealistic breaking into song.  But you do get used to it, over the course of a 2 1/2 hour film.

Much has been made of the live singing-while-filming approach to making this film.  I think we've all lived in a world of lip-synching for so long, we've forgotten that there's another way to do things.  Once upon a time, live singing and live recording was all we had, so this technique of filming the actual song being sung by the actual actor at the actual moment feels like both a throwback and a clever innovation at the same time.

Now, as to the differences to the 1998 film, which wrote out the Thénadiers in Act 2, and failed to mention Eponine at all.  In a way that made things easier, fewer characters to follow, one less love triangle to untangle, plus it kept the focus on Jean Valjean vs. Javert.  But then it didn't really tell the whole story, now, did it?  I read the plot summary for Hugo's novel, and they DO come back into the story, so why write them out?  The Thénadiers also provide the only comic relief in a film that vastly needs some - without them, we're left with a bunch of characters who are essentially just circling the drain, each in their own fashion, and life itself starts to look pretty bleak and, well, miserable.

(NOTE: Victor Hugo's novel is about 1,500 pages long, divided into five volumes, with each volume divided into books, and then sub-divided into about 365 chapters.  So any filmed or staged version HAS to decide what to include and what to drop.  Otherwise the film would be 10 hours long.  This film does seem to have gone back to the novel to supplement the Broadway musical with some elements)

That is the point of the story, right?  That life in post-Revolutionary France is quite bleak and hopeless?  You work and work, and at the end of the day you're no closer to improving your life.  You push that rock up the hill, and then while you sleep it slides back down again.  (Not that I'd know anything about that...) A man steals bread to feed his family, and then spends 19 years in prison - once he's out, no one will hire an ex-con, so he's forced to turn to crime again.  Plus he's pursued by a relentless Inspector who doesn't believe in personal redemption, so what's a guy to do?  He disappears, breaks parole, and re-invents himself as a man dedicated to helping others.

One recent online review called this the film where "Wolverine rescues Catwoman's baby from Borat's house, and goes on the run from Gladiator."  (God help me, but if that were a comic-book plot, I'd buy it...)  But that's a little overly simplistic - there are moral quandaries here, like when Valjean has to decide whether to let another man go to prison in his place.  If he steps forward, he will be condemned, but if he remains silent, he's morally damned.  Either way, the life that he's built for himself is about to come crashing down.

The choice is echoed late in the film by Javert's quandary - after many twists and turns, he's finally cornered Valjean, but he also owes him a personal debt for saving his life.  So, does he arrest him and uphold the law, or let him go and repay the life-debt? 

Valjean is the best character here, and it's (mostly) Jackman's movie presence and singing skills that shine.  But he seeks refuge from churches and convents no less than three times, and that's not only repetitive, it's more than a bit of "Deus ex Machina" propelling the plot.  Furthermore, there are a few too many times where people don't recognize each other after 20 years apart, and then suddenly do.  (Is Valjean the ONLY person who can lift up a big weight?  Seems unlikely, there were hundreds of them in prison...)

But there's more of an emphasis on the June Rebellion, the political uprising where a bunch of students felt they could overthrow the government, if they could just pile up broken furniture high enough (apparently).  Although this is past history, somehow this feels quite current, what with the Occupy Wall Street movement and all the talk of the Fiscal Cliff.  Do our representatives really have our best interests in mind while they jockey for position in Washington, all the time deciding how much of our paychecks we get to keep?

There's a point in the film where the French people are right on the brink of the Rebellion, and the film weaves together all of the main characters, singing about their hopes and dreams and such in a 7-part interwoven musical number (and God help me, all I could think about was the "Blame Canada" medley/montage from the "South Park" movie) and there's this momentous feeling that everyone's right on the cusp of accomplishing something, that tomorrow's going to be a turning point, good or bad.  And that's a great tie-in with New Year's Day, when we look back on the year that just ended, and feel that maybe we're on the cusp of a momentous year. 

Starring Hugh Jackman (last seen making a cameo in "X-Men: First Class"), Russell Crowe (last seen in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"), Anne Hathway (last heard in "Rio"), Amanda Seyfried (last seen in "Chloe"), Sacha Baron Cohen (last seen in "Sweeney Todd"), Helena Bonham Carter (last seen in "A Room With a View"), Eddie Redmayne (last seen in "The Other Boleyn Girl"), Samantha Barks. 

RATING: 8 out of 10 street urchins (who have British accents, for some strange reason)