Old School Movie Reviews: The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

I don’t normally do sequels, do I? I mean, I can’t think of any I’ve done so far. Definitely none in the next review after the original. So this is a first.

Released five years after The Three Musketeers, 1998’s The Man in the Iron Mask is more spiritual rather than direct sequel. Different actors, slightly different relationships, some similar treason.

In this case we have Gerard Depardieu as Porthos, John Malkovich as Athos and Jeremy Irons as Aramis pitting themselves against Gabriel Byrne as D’Artagnan in a plot to replace King Louis the IV, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, with his twin brother Philippe (the titular Man in the Iron Mask), also played by Leonardo DiCaprio. We also have Anne Parillaud as the Queen Mother and Judith Godreche as the lovely Christine, who becomes Louis’ mistress after he murders her fiance (Athos’ son Raoul, played briefly by Peter Skarsgard). Great actors at the worst of times, some of them obviously having an absolute ball with the characters (Jeremy Irons and Gerard Depardieu in particular). The best has got to be a young but still talented Leonardo DiCaprio, going from the petulant and arrogant Louis to the gentle, kind and generally overwhelmed Philippe. He plays two genuinely different characters and showed his skill early on. Great actor.

The action is, if I’m to be perfectly honest, a little disappointing. There are fewer fights than you’d expect, and most of them are honestly a little disappointing, except for the final desperate fight against the King’s Musketeers in the bowels of the Bastille. It’s meant to be more of a heist film, more character driven rather than a straight up action film and it more or less works. But you still expect a little more swashbuckling from any movie that involves the famous musketeers (something that even Porthos complains about at one point).

I don’t know. This film is a weird one. It’s not as good as I remember it being but I can’t exactly put my finger on why. Probably lot’s of little things. Like, it’s got a good sense of humour but a few of the jokes fall a little flat. It does a good job of setting up Louis as a monster who believes his crown (ordained by god) makes him immune to consequences both in this world and the next, but a couple of his decisions are just stupid for the plot’s sake. At one point some rotten fruit is thrown as D’Artagnan and he skewers it with his sword. This is used as a moment to remind both the audience and a mob of rioters what a fucking badass D’Artagnan is supposed to be, but the fruit spends so much time flying through the air (while shocked rioters look on and D’Artagnan decides which piece of fruit he’s going to skewer) that it becomes less impressive than it should have been. Little shit like this, it adds up.

But, as good as I remember or not, I still like this film. Helps that I’m a big fan of Jeremy Irons though. I’ll push through some pretty awful fucking movies if it means I get to enjoy a bit of Jeremy Irons, and this is far from awful.

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: Braveheart (1995)

I’m not sure if I like this film or not. I used to. Loved this film actually, but I’m not sure I do anymore.

This was another one of those films that my mates and I would just casually quote in conversation. Seriously, we can have complex discussions on current affairs in Simpsons, Family Guy and movie quotes. One mate could pull off a pretty solid Scottish accent and another rocked an impressive Edwards Longshanks. “You dropped your rock,” was a common response to queries and commentary, as was “Bring me Wallace. Alive, if possible. Dead, just as good.” Amazing how easy it is to fit that into casual conversation.

Rewatching it, Braveheart is still really bloody quotable. Especially Stephen, played wonderfully by David O’Hara with some of the best lines in the film. “The Almighty says don’t change the subject, just answer the fucking question!” I fucking love Stephen, still get’s me laughing.

But the biggest problems I have with this film are also with the script, which was very obviously written by a Yank. Obviously being because Mel Gibson won’t shut up about freedom. It’s all “they cannae take our freedom” this and “lead us to freedom” that. I mean, yeah, I get that most of the Scots we see in this film are supposed to be illiterate and uneducated, but William is supposed to speak four different languages (I assume he speaks some version of Gaelic, even if we never hear him say anything Gaelic), surely he has a wider vocabulary than that? In all honesty though the rhetoric we see in this film takes a heavily American slant, focusing on that single word, painting broad strokes with that single brush.

It’s funny, when you study nationalistic movements even the groups that have “Freedom” in their name don’t just blanket the word around. They talk about independence, self-governance, civil liberties, rule of law, places within the law, ethnic superiority, tribal loyalty and protecting tradition. The slogan of the French Revolution was ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ not ‘Freedom, Freedom and Freedom.’ Basically what I’m trying to say is that I’m old enough to now know how stupid most of the ‘inspiring’ dialogue is, and rewatching the film was, well, disappointing.

There’s more to be said about this film, but I don’t want to say it because it’s not going to affect my opinion of the film. The historical inaccuracies (the Scots would have been wearing trousers not kilts, and the Battle of Stirling was actually the Battle of Stirling Bridge) and the tacked on romances (I wonder if they’d still get an Oscar for fridging Wallace’s sort-of wife in this day and age – also, Wallace fucking a French princess) are more than a little jarring, but these things don’t matter nearly as much to me as the fact that the speech in front of the gathered army at Stirling is not nearly as epic as I remember it to be.

But it’s still really, really fucking quotable. Or at least Stephen and Edward Longshanks still are. I don’t know what to tell you mate. I just can’t decide on this one.

Gonna throw it out there as well: this film is pretty homophobic.

Let’s call this one a “make up your own mind” and leave it at that, yeah?

Reviewing the Old School: Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

When I was young, real young, I watched the original Ocean’s 11. The one with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr and a dozen other of the biggest names in film and music at the time. I don’t remember much about the film (I was like fucking eight years old), just that I was a bit of a fan of Sinatra at the time and the guy who put the film on, a former neighbour who was still a close friend of the family, was always more of Dean Martin fan. Or at least he was quicker to sing Dean Martin songs. Love that guy. This anecdote has nothing to do with what I think of the 2001 remake. I just like to mention when I’ve seen the original.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney as the titular Danny Ocean, Brad Pitt as his best friend Rusty Ryan, Andy Garcia as the “smart as he is ruthless” Terry Benedict, Julia Roberts as Danny’s estranged wife Tess, and nine other fantastic actors playing fantastic roles, Ocean’s Eleven is a movie about a bunch of professional crooks robbing three casinos. Impossible, we are told at the beginning of the film. A suicide mission. Can’t be done. Danny and Rusty must be nuts. Must be. And yet they seem so delightfully sane.

I wanna take a moment to praise director Soderberg and, just as importantly, editor Stephen Mirrione. This movie is beautifully directed and, just as importantly, expertly cut. The shots are intimate but inclusive of large parts of the cast (without revealing the plot), fast without ever being confusing, with perfectly timed reactions and dialogue from the characters, and it’s all put together masterfully, never breaking flow even as it cuts back and forth between time and perspectives at the end. It’s a slow burn heist film that never feels slow. And it doesn’t treat you like an idiot. When they reveal how the heist works you feel like you’re being let in on a big secret, previous lines of dialogue and focus shots suddenly make sense, like a magician revealing how they pulled off a particularly entertaining trick.

This is one of those movies that occupies a particularly nostalgic piece of my heart, as do the two sequels. It was one of those films that my best mates and I all watched and watched again, not as quoted as movies like Troy or Gladiator but still formative. On the one hand the characters in this film are the epitome of cool. Even the losers in the group – the Malloy brothers (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan), Livingstone (Eddie Jemison) and Linus (Matt Damon) – have their own sense of style and intelligence that they own. For all their quirks and bad accents (I don’t care Don Cheadle, I love Basher anyway) these people are the best at what they do. Proper villains. And you love them for it. Even Terry Benedict, the antagonist of the piece, is fucking awesome. He’s got this soft monotone, constantly cool and calm even when the shit is hitting the fan and he’s obviously seething with rage. Andy Garcia is a bad-arse. Not necessarily a great antagonist – he doesn’t seem to hinder Danny and Rusty’s plans at all – but a great character.

More importantly is the relationship between the characters. There’s a bond between them all that is just a joy to watch. Squad goals and all that. Y’see Danny and Rusty don’t finish each other’s sentences, they answer them. Knowing someone so well you can talk to someone without needing to talk? That’s a friendship right there. As it is with all the others. The Malloy brothers, constantly irritating each other yet still obviously close remind me of two of my other mates. Livingstone is that guy or gal that everyone else is constantly trying to push out of their comfort zone, watching from a distance, knowing they’ll do it but never being quite sure. Same with Linus, though they’re less sure and are planning on telling him everything he did wrong in as loving a way as is possible after their massive fuck-up. Not sure who the Amazing Yen (Shaobo Qin) is in my circle of friends. Wait, yeah I do. Don’t worry, you don’t know him. Someone who’ll occasionally voice an opinion and only one other person will have any idea what he’s saying. Shit, that might actually be me as well. Then there’s Frank C (Bernie Mac), a good guy who’s able to turn a discussion about moisturiser into a threat with a firm handshake. Quietly confident, but also the guy who knows what everyone else is up to.

I love this film.

It’s funny how it’s overtaken the memory of the original, y’know? I mean, this sort of happened at the same time as a couple of other remakes from the sixties like The Italian Job and Get Carter. I actually don’t mind the remakes all that much, genuinely enjoyed The Italian Job, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re remakes. The originals are still the classics in everyone’s minds, while the remakes were just throwaways. That could be because of Michael Caine. It’s probably because of Michael Caine. Doesn’t change the fact that Ocean’s Eleven surpassed Ocean’s 11 in the cultural mindset. I bet there are kids right now who have no idea that there even was a 1960s original. I bet there are grown-arse adults who have no idea. And I don’t mind. ‘Cause I love this film.

Reviewing the Old School: Down Periscope (1996)

There was this period in the eighties and nineties where films about groups of ragtag misfits in the US military are able to achieve seemingly impossible success thanks to the unorthodox efforts of the misfit-in-chief. This era of screwball military comedies probably started with Private Benjamin (1980) and Stripes (1981) but saw a real renaissance through the nineties with Renaissance Man (1994), In the Army Now (1994), Major Payne (1995) and – that great Steve Martin vehicle – Sgt. Bilko (1996) just off the top of my head. Not always great films, but usually enjoyable enough.

Down Periscope – released in 1996, directed by David S. Ward – stars Kelsey Grammer as Tom Dodge, a navy veteran with two decades of experience and a tattoo on his penis. Yep. As you might expect from such a person, he’s known for his lack of discipline and relaxed leadership style. Having been prevented from taking command of his own submarine for years by a vindictive commanding officer, Admiral Graham (played by Bruce Dern), he’s finally given an opportunity by Admiral Winslow (Rip Torn) with an impossible task: sneak a diesel sub (a recommissioned museum piece) into two heavily guarded US Navy bases, launch flares and blow up some dummy warships. He’s given a handpicked crew of the submarine fleet’s losers, washouts, dropouts and special cases and the wargames begin. Hijinks ensue.

I don’t know. It’s sort of like if Tom Clancy wrote comedies. I mean, it probably doesn’t have the same sort of accuracy that Mr Clancy put into every detail of his books, but the jargon, the tension, the obstacles at times remind me of The Hunt for Red October except, y’know, funner. The ruses are clever and not completely unbelievable. You believe that, as outrageous as it seems at the time, Dodge has always got a plan, one that relies on both research (keeping an eye on the schedules for civilian traffic for example), experience (he knows how his fellow commanders think) and instinct (adapting on the fly). Looking at it, Dodge is a remarkably sympathetic character. He’s someone who cares about the wellbeing of his crew, and tries to get the best out of them by listening and encouraging them as individuals with individual strengths and weaknesses. He acts the father figure and it works well. You want him and his misfits to win.

The acting is good. Kelsey Grammer is the standout, but everyone brings a level of enthusiasm to their roles that makes them a delight to cheer for. Or cheer against. It’s not perfect. Far from it. Too many stereotypes and typecasts. Rob Schneider is playing exactly the kind of character you’d expect Rob Schneider to play in this film. He doesn’t do it badly per se, it’s why they kept on giving him these roles. But it breaks the suspension a little bit, if you take my meaning. Same with a few other characters but he’s the obvious example. Nothing movie breaking, but perhaps some a little better casting would have been in order.

And then there’s the ultimate question we have to ask about any comedy: Is it funny? Yeah. Yeah, it’s alright. Nothing gut-busting, I didn’t even really laugh out loud. But most of the jokes land right and I enjoyed it all the way through. A few lines fall flat, but nothing I’d write home about. Plenty of screwball and a bit of dry wit. Good stuff.

So yeah, go watch it. Remind yourself of a time when we made military comedies. We don’t really seem to make them any more, do we? Well, Hollywood doesn’t at least. I mean, it’s pretty understandable. America’s basically been in a state of war for the past fifteen years (and it ain’t ending anytime soon). The number of dead and wounded, veterans languishing in bureaucratic nightmares and unable to make the transition to civilian life has skyrocketed. The films being made, movies and series like Hurt LockerJarhead and Generation Kill kinda reflect that. Maybe that’s not a good thing. Maybe we need to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all sometimes. Maybe we need to have a look at the military films of the nineties. Maybe I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Ah well, have some fun with Down Periscope at least. The Village People sing at the end.

Reviewing the Old School: Collateral (2004)

We all knew that Tom Cruise was crazy back in 2004, yeah? Well y’know, celebrity crazy. Which is still pretty crazy, but it’s entertaining and eccentric instead of the heartbreaking sight of some poor bastard with no family and no real idea when or where they are asking for spare change from the edge of a needle-strewn alleyway… But yeah, we’d started making jokes about Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch and arguing about his Thetan levels all the way back in 2004, right?

Why am I bringing this up? Mostly because I remember that being the reason I didn’t watch Collateral straight away. I mean aside from me being a broke-arse teenage high school student (as opposed to all those high school students in their late twenties – hey look at film and television, it’s a serious problem). Tom Cruise had made a bunch of bad films, he’d broken up with Nicole and married whats-her-face (sorry, just googled that and he married whats-her-face in 2006), and he’d gone crazy. That matters to a kid who reckons they’re a film snob while secretly thinking that Shrek was the greatest masterpiece in cinematic history. I blame my dad. I’ve got less of a problem with that now, and apparently Tom Cruise is just super-lovely. One of the nicest guys in Hollywood. Top bloke. But separating Tom from the characters he was playing, it weren’t easy at the time. It wasn’t until this film came highly recommended by a mate that I sat down and watched it.

And it’s good. Really good. The tale of a relationship that develops between an LA cabbie and his charge as they drive from stop to stop. It just so happens that the customer is a contract killer working for a drug cartel, murdering witnesses before a major indictment. Jamie Foxx plays Max, the cabbie in question, the terrified ordinary citizen who desperately wants to get through the night alive but at the same time is smart enough to know how unlikely that is, and does a great job of it. He’s a character that has to constantly push through shock, panic and sheer terror while having a man who’s probably going to murder him also try and befriend him. Tom Cruise plays Vincent, the private sector murderer without a conscience. His hair is greyed to make him look older but it’s bloody Tom Cruise, you can put him in a clown suit made of daffodils and he’ll still bring a powerful presence to the screen when required.

The other actors all do a fantastic job as well. Jada Pinkett Smith plays Annie, a lawyer for the prosecution, appears briefly at the beginning but leaves such a great impression and has such good chemistry with Jamie Foxx that you aren’t at all surprised (and can’t possibly be displeased) when she appears at the end. Mark Ruffalo looks surprisingly different with facial hair as Detective Fanning. Barry Shabaka Henley talks jazz as Daniel with Vincent and Javier Bardem talks about Black Pedro as Felix with Max. Director Michael Mann knows how to get the best out of his cast, and it is a stella cast (Tom Cruise included). The music, the angles, the closeups which reveal intimacy and the wide shots that show isolation.

But this is a film all about conversation, and writer Stuart Beattie writes some really excellent stuff. It’s not the fast-paced banter you’d expect in a Tarantino or Ritchie film, rather it’s a slow boil deconstruction of a decent man’s soul as that man is on the verge of panic while another man puts a gun to his head and tells him to calm down.

The movie is all about the relationship between Vincent and Max, and it’s funny how well Foxx and Cruise pull it off. There’s not much chemistry between them, and that seems largely intentional. There’s always a distance, at first caused by their relationship as client and cabbie and then by Vincent’s pistol. The weird part is how likeable Vincent is. He actually seems like a pretty good guy aside from being very willing to shoot anybody and everybody he runs into. He helps Max deal with an overbearing boss, buys his mother flowers and encourages him to “call the girl.” It’s weird how he tries (tries so hard) to be a good friend. And that’s the thing. It’s the reason why he doesn’t just shoot Max as soon as the luckless cabbie finds out about Vincent’s career goals. Because he’s so starved for human contact that he’ll spend hours trying to connect with a bloke he’s probably gonna top at dawn.

Good stuff. Great film.

Anyway, point is that you shouldn’t always judge a film by the actor playing in it. Now Tom’s come back and he’s done some great stuff in the past couple of years, so I’m not too worried about people prejudging his stuff. Some real shit as well (Oblivion), but a lot of absolutely fantastic (Live Die Repeat) and fun (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, his cameo in Tropic Thunder) roles in the main. He’s a good actor and a good guy.

But, y’know, don’t judge whatever new Nicolas Cage film comes out before you see it? I guess? No, no. You can prejudge Nicolas Cage all you want.

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.