Friday, October 28, 2011

The Three Musketeers (2011) - Now That I've Seen It and Given it Some Thought

I had the opportunity to slip away from the usual grind to catch a movie last Friday, so I took in the new version of The Three Musketeers (2011).  I had very much looked forward to seeing this movie for a number of reasons.  First, I was wondering how it would stack up to other movies made based on the source material.  Second, I was hoping that a movie shot in 3D, as opposed to one touched up with post-production 3D effects, would leverage the technology in ways that would acquit it well.  Lastly, with the assembled cast mostly solid actors with action movies (many with swordplay) on their resumes, I expected that the fighting sequences would make up a large part of the film and be done well.  In brief, I was mostly pleased with the results and will go into spoiler-ridden detail below, so if you haven't seen the movie yet and want to avoid spoilers, come read the rest of this blog post later.

As to its relationship to the original text by Alexandre Dumas, the screenplay holds true to many of the original plot points and scene work.  D'Artagnan meets Rochefort early on when he insults D'Artagnan's horse, though the scene plays out somewhat differently.  Once in Paris, D'Artagnan does wind up with three duels scheduled with the titular Musketeers and they do join forces to fight and defeat Cardinal Richelieu's guards (though 40, not just 5), becoming comrades in the process.  D'Artagnan does becoming romantically tied to Constance, though she is not a landlord's daughter in the film but is in the Queen's court, as in the text.  Some of the Queen's jewelry is stolen and planted with Lord Buckingham in the movie to implicate the Queen in an affair with the English nobleman.  In the original text, the affair is true but either way the jewelry needs to be recovered to save the Queen's reputation and prevent England and France from going to war.  In both, this is a plot fostered by Cardinal Richelieu.  Milady DeWinter is much more prominently featured in the film and also more embroiled in all of the events than in the original text, so too is Constance, but one cannot expect a modern movie to relegate female characters to such limited involvement, nor to be no more than plot devices.  To be fair to Dumas, Milady is prominent in his work though in somewhat different ways than in the film.  I like the updates to all three of the female characters, Milady, Constance, and the Queen, on paper, but more on that later.  Some other major differences include neither Buckingham nor Constance being killed, and neither is Milady convicted of murder and beheaded in this movie, though a sequel is obviously in the offing so some of that might be forthcoming.  I was actually surprised by how much of the original source material was used for the movie, given how often it has been adapted for film and television over the years, here and around the world.

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, this move moves along at a very good pace. There is plenty of action, mostly of the swordfighting variety, and some of it is definitely over the top, but that's certainly expected not only in an adventure film of this type but particularly in a modern adaptation of such a work. Audiences of today expect it and the trailers show just what the movie delivers, so I would be surprised if folks could reasonably claim that what they saw in previews was anything less or even different than what was promised.  Anderson is well known for directing the Reident Evil series of movies, with yet another in production, starring his wife Milla Jovovich, who plays Milady in this latest film.  I've seen some chatter around the Net that this casting choice rests on that personal relationship but I felt she did a very good job in this role and honestly would be hardpressed to name many others who could handle both the acting and action needed for this rendition of the character.  I've enjoyed her work in The Fifth Element, The Messenger, and the aforementioned Resident Evil movies, and find her quite attractive, so perhaps I didn't enter this film with many of the prejudices some critics might harbor.  She's fine by me and I saw no downside to the casting choice before or after viewing the movie.

The production values of this movie are top notch.  The costumes, shooting locations, and cinematography for the live-action shots are spectacular and make great use of the 3D technology to enhance the experience.  The palace halls and gardens, as well as the rougher sets used for the streets of Paris, really pop in every aspect.  A few times during the movie I slid the 3D glasses down just to sneak a peek at how extensively it played out, and they definitely made full use of what they had.  Like with Avatar, where I found myself absently batting away a phantom insect in the periphery of my vision, the scenes in The Three Musketeers are 3D right to the edge of the screen, which makes you feel as if it extends beyond and garners a deep level of immersion for the audience.  I also loved the wargame-esque opening and transitional sequences, though I realize that some of the location names on the maps are incorrect.  That didn't bother me since they obviously wanted to lower the bar for audiences who might not have a very deep knowledge of history.  If there is a complaint to be made with the direction in this realm it is in Anderson perhaps not trusting enough the effect the 3D would render.  Anderson sometimes, maybe often depending on how much this bothers a viewer, uses that filming technique where the action speeds up and slows down during combat and other stunts, sometimes referred to as the Matrix effect from the movie where it was most popularized.  I found this mostly unnecessary but only occasionally distracting, not so much that it ruined the experience for me but enough so that I noticed it, at times annoyingly so.

In the same vein, it is worth noting that the steampunk and clockwork elements introduced in this updated adaptation are not for everyone.  They didn't bother me any more so than the similar adjustments made to the time-honored Sherlock Holmes texts so enjoyably displayed in Sherlock Holmes (2009).  There is little precedent in either works of fiction to promote such technological breakthroughs as are used in the films but given that the source material for both has been used time and time again, it really doesn't bother me that writers felt such additions might be welcomed by modern audiences.  Personally, I enjoy seeing what they come up with and though much of it is similar to what might have been seen in other films, I find it fun especially when it is handled in the film in the spectacular manner Anderson manages to bring to the creations.

If there is an undeniable downside to this movie it is in some of the performances and casting.  As noted above, I enjoyed Milla's Milady.  So, too, do I enjoy what Ray Stevenson has done with the Porthos written for this script.  He doesn't have a lot to work with, nor should he given it is a large cast and Porthos is often portrayed as tertiary to the other characters.  The Cardinal, as portrayed by Christoph Waltz, is just the right combination of snake and badger.  Mads Mikkelsen as Rochefort is an excellent blend of toady and ambitious underling.  Both Waltz and Mikkelson handle their blades with great zeal and expertise.  I like the king, played with range by Freddie Fox, despite not liking how the character is handled in the script in some sections.  Juno Temple makes ths most of her portrayal of the Queen, as well.  I even enjoyed many of the minor characters including D'Artagnan's parents, Porthos's tailor, and the various guards who are prominently bested.  They perform well without overshadowing the main characters.

Then, we have the others.  The servant of the musketeers, James Corden as Planchet, shows up fairly far along in the film and his humorous bits are so poorly scripted and directed that I am not sure I can blame what seems an otherwise likeable actor and performance.  Each joke is telegraphed, executed, and then ridden into the dirt.  There's probably about fifteen minutes of screen time wasted on Anderson's fumbling attempts to include comedy in this adaptation, which by all rights should have some if it is sticking to the original material.  Oddly, the comedic turns introduced through the awkward relationship between the King and Queen, and between the King and anyone, really, went over well with me.  I suppose I am torn on just what might have gone wrong with that aspect of the movie.  Even the Porthos comedic bits, while predictable, sat well with me.

Sadly, Aramis is cast with Luke Evans, who I like well enough, but bears so close a resemblance to Orlando Bloom that it jarred me out of the film for a minute while I assured myself it wasn't him.  And I knew it wouldn't be going in.  Evans's acting is fine and the character isn't very extensively explored in this version, so maybe they focused mostly on casting for a demographic and sword-handling ability, but they should have seen the problem the first time they had pics of both in costume and makeup.  Orlando Bloom, when we finally get to see what he can do as a villain, does fine though I had hoped for more.  He seems to have been directed to play it a bit over the top and also seems to have pulled back from that direction, a testiment to how seasoned he has become in his fairly short though prominent career.  Having seen him in one episode of Extras with Ricky Gervais, mostly with Ricky's co-star, the comdeically-gifted Ashley Jensen, I know that Bloom is fully capable with humorous material.  Between the Pirates' movies, Kingdom of Heaven, and Troy, no one doubts he can handle a sword.

Athos, played by Matthew Macfadyen, is just too glum and made all the more so because Macfadyen has a naturally occurring dour expression which is present throughout the film.  He's a good actor who I have enjoyed in many other offerings but here the combination of the script and his looks works against finding any variety in what is arguably one of the two main characters.  Speaking of which, while I am glad they cast an appropriately aged D'Artagnan, and one who does very well with the fencing, I just don't think Anderson managed to get the best performance that Logan Lerman was capable of giving.  So, too, with Constance as portrayed by Gabriella Wilde.  They both look the part and have a natural charisma that makes me believe that in the hands of an actor's director, we would have seen a much better film on the dramatic side.  I couldn't help but wondering what the scenes between Lerman and Wilde would have looked like with a few more takes and a bit more directorial guidance.  What Macfayden and Lerman have that Wilde does not, so she will likely come away from reviews far worse off than her counterparts, is the chance to offset their dramatic turns with action sequences.  I'm not willing to write her off just yet.  Some actors who are less experienced and even some with long careers, simply need the right director(s) to get the performances from them.  Other actors like Waltz, not only make the director look good but draw good performances from anyone on screen with them, which might be why Fox's talents shine even more in such scenes and might also be why Milla somes off rather well, too.

Bottomline, I went to this movie to enjoy an action film and got what I expected on that front.  I loved seeing what Anderson could do with the 3D, though I wish he would rely less on the film tricks he uses so much in the Reident Evil films.  I found his handling of the less experienced actors and a somewhat rough script, particularly the comedic portions, clumsy, though I wasn't expecting much on that score anyway.  But all in all, and all for one, I enjoyed this movie though I might not rush out to see the obviously planned sequel.  We'll see.  I'll see the next Sherlock, so why not this followup too?
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