Old school movie reviews: The Three Musketeers (1993)

Way back in the tail end of the nineties and beginning of the aughts there was a bunch of movies that would be played (it seemed) every few months during the ‘family’ slots on the commercial free-to-air stations, basically 7:30 on a saturday evening. For a good few years one of these films was the 1993 version of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling epic, The Three Musketeers.

I can’t in good conscious call this film epic. It’s not big enough, not grand enough. Too localised, too personal. But it is swashbuckling good fun, and that is all it needs to be.

The acting, while nothing I would call Oscar worthy, is cheerful and entertaining. Kiefer Sutherland broods appropriately as Athos and Charlie Sheen plays the relaxed, smooth-talking Aramis fantastically straight. A much younger Chris O’Donnell plays a rosy cheeked and curly-haired D’Artagnan that is endearing instead of annoying (which often seems a challenge for the generally much younger, less experienced actors required to play a brash, naive and often foolish character). Rebecca De Mornay hits the correct notes as Milady De Winter and Gabrielle Anwar does a decent job with Queen Anne, both of whom are badly underused characters. The three that I really enjoyed, however, were Tim Curry, Michael Wincott and Oliver Platt as, respectively, Cardinal Richelieu, Captain Rochefort and Porthos. Lotta commas in that last sentence. I am not rewriting it though. Anyway, Tim Curry as always brings his wonderful voice, sense of timing, flair for the dramatic and smug smile to the maniacal villain. He’s always a joy to watch and he looks fantastic in red. Michael Wincott is fantastically menacing, an appropriate foil for the fast-talking musketeers and has such an excellent voice for villainous roles as well. And Oliver Platt gets Porthos so right. I don’t know if I should be surprised that the talented character actor is able to bring such a larger-than-life persona to, well, life, but he does. Someone who revels in battle and destruction, the one who laughs in the face of danger and jokes around death, so that you never actually believe them to be in danger in the first place.

The plot is a little nonsensical but it hits the right notes (D’Artagnan pissing off and planning to duel the musketeers, Cardinal bad, possible war with England and the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Anne may or may not want to fuck someone other than the king, D’Artagnan finally becomes musketeer), but a film like this doesn’t need to be perfectly accurate to either history or its source material. You don’t expect it to, and at least it doesn’t have any fucking moronic flying warships. The fights are entertaining. Generally on a smaller scale than what we tend to expect in out swashbucklers these days, but that makes them more intimate, allowing us to see more of the characters in each fight.

It’s definitely not perfect, of course. My biggest gripe is that Milady De Winter, Queen Anne and Constance, three excellent female characters, are largely delegated to the sidelines. We’re told that Milady is dangerous, but we don’t actually see her being particularly dangerous. Queen Anne spends most of her time being threatened and terrified by Cardinal Richelieu or complaining about how long it’s been since she last got some. Constance appears, I dunno four times? Once to tell D’Artagnan her name, once to tell the queen how bad she wants in her bloomers, once to pass D’Artagnan a sword and then at the very end for him to kiss her. Not exactly a compelling character, aye?

But yeah, I enjoyed watching this movie. It’s a little dated but not horribly so, and the characters are, for the most part, wonderful fun to watch hamming about on screen.

Reviewing the Old School: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

So the story I heard was that way back when, by which I mean the late nineties-early naughts after their second renaissance (which began with The Little Mermaid), Disney was in the process of shifting all their animation towards CG-3D. They’d bought Pixar but weren’t completely done with the odd bit of 2D fair. So they told their Florida animation studio, whose job had been support up until that point, to go for their life. What we got out of that are some of the most unique animated films to have come out of the House of Mouse, and a real shame that it took them years to get back on the saddle (with Wreck-it Ralph) after they shut that studio in favour of strict 3D animation. One of those films was, as you might have guessed, Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

What made this film so unique? A combination of things. Something you’ve got to remember about Disney’s renaissance in the nineties was that even their weirdest stuff was still pretty cliche (I’m using the word loosely here, bear with me). The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty were based on classic and well known fairy-tales (admittedly with much happier endings) and even The Lion King just takes the skeleton of Hamlet and goes, “but what if… LIONS!” and adds a soundtrack by Elton John. I mean, it’s all good shit, but they’re very basic, very old, very proven stories.

What Atlantis does is take the well-known legend of Plato’s fictionalised city (highly advanced city, destroyed in a day, sunk below the waves, possibly around the Straits of Gibraltar) but ignores the fictional tropes that the rest of us lowly mortals use when making up stories about the place. No, seriously, think about other stories regarding Atlantis. We think of mermaids floating around a still thriving kingdom or a crumbling city beneath the waves of the Atlantic. We don’t normally come up with a living community that is both sophisticated and primitive, intelligent but illiterate, with a culture that is both familiar and strange at the same time. We certainly don’t think about flying tuna fish.

Then there’s the rest of the aesthetic of the film. It’s set in 1914 and everything that the outsiders brings to the city reflects that. The trucks are recognisable for the era, the dress and digger are appropriately steampunk, as is the submarine. Bolt action rifles, belt-fed machines guns, British-style helmets and paper flying machines add a level of class to the action that actually keeps things grounded. And as I said the design of the city and clothes of the Atlanteans is excellent. A good mix of primitive but alien. You don’t have trouble believing this is where our culture came from.

The characters are excellent, both their designs and voices. I love Helga, Kida and Audrey (played by Claudia Christian, Cree Summer and Jacqueline Obradors respectively). Their designs are different to each other (shit, all the speaking characters have got a unique silhouette) and you never have trouble imagining that they were capable of fighting or working an engine. Helga is traditionally attractive but broad shouldered and speaks with an authoritative and deep voice. Audrey dresses practically and looks her age. Even Kida, the most traditionally designed since she’s the heroine and princess of the tale, has a long, triangular face that is both individual and expressive. Amongst the guys Sweet and Mole (Phil Morris and Corey Burton) are fun in different ways. Dr Sweet is both oblivious and empathetic, the Mole is just, well, the Mole. Milo Thatch, our hero excellently played by Michael J Fox, is excellent. He’s skinny and bookish, but not unfit. He’s brave when he has to be, stands up for his principles and his relationship with Kida is fantastic. They fall into friendship instead of falling in love right away (we never see them kiss, which is excellent), making it one of the healthiest romances in Disney as far as I can tell. As for Commander Rourke (James Garner)? Well, that would be spoiling it. My favourite by far would be Vinny, voiced by Don Novello. The flower shop owner turned demolitions expert. He has such a fantastic delivery of his lines and some of the most relaxed and conversational dialogue in the film. Love the guy.

The music is strong and memorable. The lines are great.

So yeah, great movie. Unique and interesting. Different to other fairy-tale fair. If you haven’t, grab someone younger and watch it. It’s good fun.

Reviewing the Old School: Lord of War (2005)

This film still stands as one of my all time favourites and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Released in 2005 and both written and directed by Andrew Niccol, Lord of War stars Nicolas Cage as Ukrainian-American arms-dealer Yuri Orlov in a cynically comical rags-to-riches story as he deals with warlords (most notable being Andre Baptiste and his son Andre Baptiste Jr, played excellently by Eamonn Walker and Sammi Rotibi respectively), business rivals (Simeon Weisz, played by Ian Holm) and law enforcement (the incorruptible Interpol agent Jack Valentine, played by Ethan Hawke who’s worked a great deal with the director). He marries the girl of his dreams (Ava Fontaine, played by Bridget Moynahan) and loves his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) and parents.

Perhaps I love this film because of the craftsmanship and acting. The script is excellent, the direction fantastic and the editing excellent. It’s paced so that a great deal happens without the film ever feeling rushed or overlong. Nicolas Cage is excellent in the role, as are all the others. Jared Leto plays Yuri’s limited moral compass led astray by a cocaine addiction exactly how you’d expect. Bridget Moynahan is loving and supportive yet obviously uncomfortable with the knowledge that Yuri does bad shit to support her in her own endeavours. Eamonn Walker is terrifying as the brutal dictator, able to convey barely restrained violence with a look then switching to good humour and laughter at the frightening drop of the hat, probably my favourite performance in the film. Sammi Rotibi is just crazy, but in a way where you’re not sure if his predictable predilection for violence is more or less of a threat than his father’s bare restraint. Ethan Hawke is earnest in his execution of the law and sincere in his belief in justice, you never have trouble believing him to be a character that Yuri respects.

Perhaps I like all the small details in the film. The way that the shadow of Colonel Oliver Southern (we never see more than his silhouette and parts of his uniform) is voiced by a different actor on the three occasions we see him, implying that the job is permanent even if the person filling it isn’t. Yuri revealing his lack of scruples by admitting the reason he never sold guns to Osama Bin Laden was because the Mujahadeen leader had atrocious credit. The use of loopholes and literal false flags to spirit weapons across the world and beneath imposed sanctions. Small details that build up the world in which Yuri lives and operates into something alive. Something real.

Perhaps I like the darkly comedic look at an industry that is fucking villainous if it isn’t outright evil. I love me some dark comedy. This film isn’t a laugh-out-loud kind of funny, rather it has an undercurrent of almost-surreal cynicism that surrounds Yuri’s life and worldview. His parents pretended to be Jews to escape the Soviets, and his father took to it better than most Rabbis. He hears cash register bells instead of gunshots as a mujahadeen lets rip at an unseen target with one of Yuri’s kalashnikovs. During a cocaine and gunpowder induced wander through the desert he has one of those kalashnikovs pointed at his head and fail to fire, then can’t stop apologising and offering to fix it. Andre Jr asking for “the gun of Rambo” and Yuri simply replying “Part One, Two or Three?” The flippant insanity of Andre Sr, who’ll shoot a man that displeases him on a whim and apologise for the dead man’s lack of discipline. Who jumbles up western words and idioms then smiles and says “Thank you, but I prefer it my way.”

Perhaps I love this film because of its honesty. The film shows the human cost of the arms trade, not just its victims (though  don’t worry, the movie never fails to remind us of the victims) but on the traders themselves. Yuri can’t stop, because he’s good at it and he likes being good at it, but it costs him everything else that he holds dear. His wife and child. His brother. His parents. He hates himself, but he can’t stop. It’s an addiction, cleverly paralleled by his brother Vitaly’s coke habit. And it is never glamorised. Well it is, but the film makes such glamorisation look superficial at best and crass at worst. Even when the film is being dishonest it is less an attempt to trick the audience and more like Yuri trying to trick himself. Excusing himself for sleeping around or trying to convince himself that he was merely a supplier, not responsible for the deaths his weapons reek. But we see this dishonesty, see the sincere lie, just like Yuri does when Vitaly tells him he’s a good brother, right after being provided by that good brother with one last hit before going to rehab. Yuri is an enabler, for his brother and for these warlords. And we all know it.

Maybe I just like the music. From the first song playing as we watch the life of a bullet (from twinkle in a factory’s eye to being fired into some poor kid’s head) to the final soft instrumental piece playing into the end credits every song is perfect and appropriate, affecting the mood of the moment.

Regardless I love this movie. You should really watch it.

Reviewing the old school: The Mummy (1999)

The first of two ‘Reviewing the old school’ posts this week, since I skipped the one before New Year.

One of the first questions that occurred to me when I sat down to write this was “do they make movies like this anymore?” Short answer is “yes” with a “but.” Long answer is the same except with a more drawn out “but.” Like a “but” that takes seven syllables to say.

I watched this movie so many times when I was a kid, alongside its sequel The Mummy Returns (which will eventually get its own review). For good reason. It’s an incredibly fun film and at the time I was too young to be concerned with little things like “cultural appropriation” and “white-washed casts” (now I’m too nostalgic to be overly concerned, if I’m being honest, and this film isn’t even close to the worst example. It is an example though, and that is always worth a mention). The story is largely what you’d expect it to be. High Priest has sex with Pharaoh’s mistress. High Priest murders Pharaoh. High Priest is turned into mummy. Three thousand years later he’s accidently brought back to life by a librarian, her brother and bodyguard/guide. He then proceeds to eat a bunch of cowboys, ’cause a half-dozen or so of the ten plagues of Egypt and kidnap the Librarian to bring back his dead girlfriend (the above mentioned Pharaoh’s mistress). Hijinks ensue.

The CGI and special effects hold up remarkably well considering that the age of the film. Most of the time when we actually see the titular mummy it’s at night, in the dark, hiding the worst of it. The instances where the mummy sucks out the cowboys soul juices occur off screen. We see the shadow against the wall, zoom in on a minions cringing face, hear a scream and the mummy’s roar, then get to see the practical effects results. Even the larger CGI set-pieces use practical effects and good common sense to great effect. A moment at the end has a computer generated sandstorm chasing a real-life biplane. A fight against the also-mummified priests of Imhotep (the mortal name of the immortal mummy) and reawakened warriors involves plenty of computer-animated characters leaping all over the place and crawling across the ceilings, but also some excellent costuming, simple animatronics and stuntwork. The result is a film that never takes you out of the moment, even at its most glaringly fakest.

What makes this ‘undead-boy meets girl and tries to sacrifice her to ancient gods’ tale so compelling is really the characters. Rachel Weisz is fantastic as Evy, the proud librarian who finds her self-confidence and saves the day at least twice by being the smartest, most educated person in the room. Brendan Fraser plays an excellent world-weary tough-guy in Rick O’Connell, with enough sarcasm to come off as witty but not so much that cynicism becomes his defining trait. John Hannah as Jonathan (Evy’s brother) again plays a well balanced character. As the good guys ongoing comic relief character, he’s a lying, cheating, thieving coward. He’s also loyal, quick-thinking, smart and obviously cares deeply for his sister (needing assurances from O’Connell that they’d rescue a recently captured Evy before escaping from a mob into the sewers). Oded Fehr, despite playing a Berber stereotype, does it with a great deal of gravitas and sincerity (he has a fantastically dramatic voice), but there’s also a moment when he’s strapped to the wing of an airplane grinning like a schoolboy. And you don’t doubt that grin for a moment, you don’t doubt that despite the danger he’s someone doing something incredibly, exhilaratingly novel and enjoying every second of it. On the other side of things Kevin J. O’Connor as the greedy, survive-at-the-expense-of-everyone-around-you Beni is easy enough to dislike, but you still sorta hope he makes it out at the end of the film.

The only character who didn’t work in my opinion was the villain, Imhotep, the titular mummy, played by Arnold Vosloo. I don’t know why. Nothing against Vosloo, he was competent enough, but I just never found him all that intimidating when he was in his human form. Might’ve been because costuming had him running around in just his budgie smugglers and a bathrobe for a lot of it. Hard to take a guy seriously when he looks like he’s just coming back from reading by the hotel pool.

Even the minor characters are great and memorable. The Americans have little to do aside from become fodder for the raging mummy and not a huge amount of screentime, but they’re each distinct and memorable. Erick Avari as Dr. Bey get’s only a few minutes and just a little bit of dialogue, but they’re good minutes and he receives an epic end. Bernard Fox plays an epically named, alcoholic Royal Air Force pilot who goes faces death with a maniacal laugh. Omid Djalili plays one of his more intentionally irritating characters, but doesn’t last long enough in the film to be a mark against it, showing a great deal of restraint by the writers and directors who could very well have decided they needed even more comedy relief. Enough time to be funny, not enough to become baggage.

So yeah, great film. Would recommend you watch.

And on that note, I want to segue back to the question I asked (and answered) at the beginning. Do they still make movies like this anymore? Fun action-adventures driven less by plot than by memorable characters and witty banter. Seems like these films hit their peak at the turn of the century then sorta died out (following a similar trajectory to Jackie Chan’s presence in Western films). But yeah, they do. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is still going strong. Thing is, the last PoC was pretty lousy, the next PoC is probably gonna be worse and of the original trilogy it’s only the first that’s really remembered fondly. Keeping with Johnny Depp vehicles, Alice in Wonderland and The Lone Ranger were both pretty terrible in their own ways. Prince of Persia was an attempt that was, ultimately, not memorable at all. A lot of G-rated stuff, I guess, but even then. Seems like a lot of the films that should be taking a similar tone to The Mummy are instead taking themselves way too seriously. And the ones that aren’t are made by people like Adam Sandler.

I guess you could look at the harder stuff. You could make the argument that Quentin Tarantino’s making some great action-adventures with memorable characters and snappy banter, but there’s a whole lot more violence and swearing. I got no fucking problem with that, but I’m disinclined to let kids I’m with watch Django Unchained ’til they’re old enough to understand what ‘revenge fantasy’ means.

Animation still scratches the itch, I guess. And now that I think about it, the superhero films (the MCU ones, not the DC/Warner Bros ones… yet) probably fit the bill pretty well. But still, it’s different. Y’know what? This requires more thought. I think this needs a post all its own. I’ll get back to you.

In the meantime watch The Mummy. It’s a fun film, good action, great characters. An easy way to kill an hour and half.

Reviewing the old school: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

I’ve struggled a bit writing this. I hadn’t watched this film in a while, and it seemed like a decent choice for an old movie review. It’s bloody fantastic. Problem is, to be honest, just about everyone probably already knows that. It’s Hayao Miyazaki, often cited as the first of Studio Ghibli’s long run of amazing films (even if the company hadn’t technically started yet). Of course it’s good. Of course it’s been praised, dissected, critiqued and analysed by a million others before. What can I possibly add to the discussion? Fucked if I know, but maybe if I ramble on for a bit I’ll think of something.

So, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (or Kaze no Tani no Naushika). The story takes place on a post-apocalyptic world a thousand years after industrial human society had been destroyed in the “Seven Nights of Fire” (this being a Japanese film, titanic organically grown robots with surprisingly uncreative names were involved). Much of the planet has been claimed by the Toxic Jungle, that releases poisonous spores into the air within and around, and is gradually claiming human settlement after human settlement. Nausicaä is a princess of the kingdom known as The Valley of the Wind (hence the title of the film). Far and away one of the hardest bastards in the film (there is one other character who kicks as much arse and he needed to be voiced by Patrick Stewart to do it), she’s also a committed pacifist with a talent for calming, charming and redirecting the deadly insects that protect the Toxic Jungle rather than following the trend in other human kingdoms to kill everything remotely threatening with fire. Aside from a dying a father, everything’s going pretty sweet in the valley until an enormous airship from a neighbouring kingdom, Tolmekia, crashes into the valley and just ruins everyone’s day. Partly because it was carrying spores from the toxic jungle. Partly because it was carrying a foreign hostage who died after the crash. Partly because it was carrying the… embryo… of one of those giant robotic killing machines that I mentioned destroyed the world earlier, that the Tolmekians want back. Anyway, several hopeful anti-war and environmentalist lessons later, everything turns out relatively alright.

It is a beautiful film. The animation is smooth and hold up well for a thirty-one year old film. The art-style makes intimate moments seem grand and grand moments feel intimate, as well as finding the beauty in in what are honestly some fucking horrific-looking beasts. There’s this scene early in the film, when Nausicaä is searching a cave for resources and she discovers the shell of an enormous insect called an ohm. Like, really bloody enormous. It’s presented like a religious experience, a pilgrim entering a cathedral and seeing light fall upon an altar. A lot of blue and white in this moment. A few minutes later the beast that left the shell behind is a nasty, snarling monster chasing after that character voiced by Patrick Stewart (an unforgivable offense in my book, but Nausicaä’s a far better person than I am). Red eyes and a black shell, stark in the desert outside of the cave. Another minute later and the monster has been calmed and is heading home with a surprising grace. Red has been turned back to blue.

Given this focus on colour, the cinematography, the characters and the message that humanity’s best chance of not killing itself is strong anti-war and environmentalist leadership (not to mention the post-apocalyptic setting), I kept comparing Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to, of all things, Mad Max: Fury Road. No, seriously. There’s a tonne of parallels there that I don’t have the time to go through in order to get this up before a self-imposed deadline, but if I ever meet George Miller I’d be inclined to ask how much of an influence Hayao Miyazaki is on him. I might even write a much longer post on the subject sometime in the future. We’ll see. I’m not saying that if you enjoyed Fury Road you’d enjoy Valley of the Wind. Except I actually am. And vice versa.

So, have I added said something interesting in all of this? Maybe. That last bit sounded good, even if it was a bit short. Fuck it, that’s good enough. Point is, if you haven’t seen Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind before, you should definitely watch it. If you have seen it before, well, you should watch it again.

Leave a comment. Thoughts are always appreciated, ideas for future Old School Reviews will be politely considered.