Saturday, October 22, 2011

I prefer the candy bar

Last Friday on my drive home from work, I was listening to a piece by NPR film critic Bob Mondelo that was timed in conjunction with the release of two remakes: Footloose and The Thing. The thrust of his piece, which was quite well researched and entertaining (both typical for Mondelo), was that we shouldn't be so quick to grouse about remakes, since they've been with us throughout the history of cinema.

In the course of his discussion Mondelo looked ahead to this Friday's release of The Three Musketeers, which isn't exactly a remake in the sense those other two films are -- it's more rightly considered as yet another adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' (heh heh, you said "dumbass") famous source material.

How famous, and what do I mean when I say "yet another"?

Mondelo concluded that today's Three Musketeers would be the twenty-ninth -- that's 2-9 -- version of the story to hit the silver screen. I'm not going delve into what methods he used to make that determination, whether the movie had to be the full story in order to qualify, or whether it could just be some of the characters; whether it had to be feature length, or if shorts were counted. (If you want to get some sense of the breadth of this phenomenon, wikipedia has a page devoted to versions of the story on film.) The point is, The Three Musketeers is one of the most popular properties in the history of cinema, if not the most popular. Choosing, according to his math, 1895 as the beginning of cinema history, Mondelo noted that one version of Dumas' story has come out on the average of every four years.

Having not had one in about ten, I suppose we were due for another.

Suffice it to say that this is going to be one of those Friday morning posts where Vance is not giving the movie the benefit of the doubt. I hardly think I should, and if I did so, it would only be out of deference to the candy bar.

That's right, the candy bar. That bland, nougat-based bar that makes up for its blandness by tacking on an extra inch or so of length from standard candy bar size. In fact, so bland is this candy bar that I once posited a theory that it's at the earliest stage of evolution among three similar candy bars that should also be familiar to you. You start with your Three Musketeers, with just nougat and a thin layer of chocolate around it. Then you graduate to Milky Way, which keeps the nougat (I believe) but adds a layer of caramel and gives you a thicker chocolate coating. The most fully evolved candy bar in this species is Snickers, which is chock full of peanuts and caramel and may do away with the nougat altogether. (I'm picturing these candy bars cut into cross sections and I think I've got their ingredients right.)

The thing is, I've decided sometime in the last five to ten years that I actually love the Three Musketeers in all its simplicity. Having thought of it as some rudimentary confection that should have been five to ten cents less than the others, for probably over a decade in my life, I've come around on its pleasures in recent years. In fact, if looking for a treat, I'd probably opt for a Three Musketeers over either of the others. Oddly, Snickers would then come second and Milky Way would come third. (Why the aforementioned evolutionary order gets all jumbled up here, I could not really say without giving it some further thought.)

In fact, I'm almost bummed that this candy bar has to be affiliated with a fictional property that has never done anything for me.

Maybe I just haven't seen the right Three Musketeers movies -- in fact, I'm sure I haven't -- but this swashbuckling quartet has never gotten me very excited. Maybe that's because there's this maddening numerical discrepancy right to start out with. The actual three are Athos, Porthos and Aramis. But then you've got D'Artagnan as a fourth, I guess because he was not originally part of their trio, joining them only near the beginning of Dumas' story. I'm exaggerating if I say that this is why I don't care about The Three Musketeers, but it doesn't help.

It's probably that the two Musketeers movies I have seen were such inferior films. The first was 1998's The Man in the Iron Mask, directed by Randall Wallace -- the film expected to get a boost from the fact that it was Leonardo DiCaprio's first release after Titanic made him a megastar. This story involves the musketeers at a point after the chronology of Dumas' original novel. The second was Peter Hyams' The Musketeer (2001), which stars Justin Chambers. If this is any indication of Chambers' charisma, I refer to him as a "blander Chris O'Donnell."

I don't want to go into detail about the strengths (few) or weaknesses (many) of these movies, but I do want to say that they probably suffered from a bit of musketeer overload. See, it was only 1993 when we'd gotten what is probably the most recent completely straightforward adaptation of Dumas' novel, The Three Musketeers, which starred several members of the cast of Young Guns as well as the actual Chris O'Donnell. Didn't see that one -- even then, I was not interested. I guess the 1993, 1998 and 2001 releases of these three films is about in keeping with Mondelo's estimate of one new Musketeers movie every four years.

Even with a ten-year gap since the last one, the movie releasing today still strikes a person with an overwhelming sense of "Why???" Mondelo noted that the new thing this film offers over its predecessors is that it's in 3D. And that may be the only thing, because the wire-work action stunts you see in the trailer were the actual supposed justification for Hyams' 2001 adaptation of the story -- a muddy, murky affair that I ranked as the worst movie I saw in 2001. Hyams' film wanted to capitalize on such phenomena as The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Who knows, maybe that's still what the version releasing today is trying to do.

I guess one perennial justification for more versions of The Three Musketeers is to put that generation's young people in the lead roles. That's why we were fed the likes of Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland in the 1993 version, and why the female lead in The Musketeer was the consummately modern-day actress Mena Suvari from the American Pie movies. The names in the cast of today's movie are less familiar to me, but maybe that's because I'm no longer a member of the younger generation. I've heard of Logan Lerman, who plays D'Artagnan. Milla Jovovich, Orlando Bloom and Christophe Waltz are also around for good measure, though none of them plays a musketeer. (I'm not really qualified to discuss how the older Musketeers films may have been doing the same thing, whether Douglas Fairbanks, Gene Kelly or Michael York were being marketed to the youth in the same way.)

In general, though, the footage I've seen seems pretty unexciting. The film's fascination with visual techniques that seem a decade old -- like the slow-mo spin of Jovovich's character during a sword fight, and her sliding under a bunch of firing guns -- is inauspicious to say the least. (Director Paul W.S. Anderson worked with Jovovich on the Resident Evil movies, which I suppose is why she gets all the "best" action shots in the trailer. His credentials as a director don't make a person any more hopeful about the prospects for this movie -- however, his Resident Evil experience could work as a metaphor for why his Three Musketeers has the feel of a reanimated corpse.)

Maybe they'll get it right when the next Musketeers movie comes out in 2016. When the number of Musketeers movies hits the big 3-0.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the heck out of that candy bar.

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