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Tangents on a French Theme, Part III: Gamer Culture Does "The Three Musketeers"

The book of the film of the video game, no doubt.
by Alex Paquin

A year ago today, I went to see the latest remake of "The Three Musketeers". There was only one theatre in town still screening it, a rather crummy three-screen discount cinema on the second floor of an empty mall that wouldn't look out of place in a zombie film: the kind of place where films go to die. There was no distraction in the lobby except a coin-operated massage chair, and taped to a wall was a rumpled fake marquee sign reading "HOLLYWOOD", printed on the kind of plastic they use for garbage bags.

The owner -- whom I recognized from news clippings affixed to a makeshift bulletin board -- was crouched over invoices behind the counter. I asked him how he decided what films to screen. "I don't decide. You decide." A few minutes later, he said to an elderly lady who had remarked something about not having liked a film: "It's been nominated for the best picture award". Which award that was, I do not know, but how strange it was to hear him being so insistent that he was offering quality selections -- if you think awards mean anything -- while the music from The Smurfs was wafting from one of the rooms.

The Three Musketeers did not start on time. I don't really expect films to start at their announced time because of all the trailers and advertising offered to you, the captive audience, but I do expect the previous screening to be finished by then. Instead of musketeer stuff, I got the last ten minutes of the undoubtedly nomination-laden Footloose remake. Finally, it began. "Venice, Italy." Great. A MacGuffin traced back to Leonardo da Vinci. Ships underneath huge balloons, and Orlando Bloom under a wig of just about the same size. Oh well, this might not be the canonical Dumas, but the Queen's diamonds also was a MacGuffin, come to think of it, and at least this film won't be about retrieving them to save the honour of Her Maj-- oh wait, it is, and now I'm watching Dartanian trying to foil the plot of Cardinal Richloo.

The film's Milady, Milla Jovovich (who was directed by her husband, Paul W.S. Anderson), claimed at the time of its release that the American distributor "swept" this "great family adventure film under the rug in the US". It opened in fourth place in the United States, and the mythical "Foreign Market" was entirely responsible for its modest success. As for critics, the few who did review it (for, predictably, it was not screened for them) were negative. In all modesty, or jadedness, or just bad taste, The Three Musketeers was better than I thought; having abysmal expectations means that you rarely end up disappointed, and being familiar with the story might make you connect the dots of the most disjointed adaptation without necessarily realizing they would be unintelligible to a filmgoer who has not seen another version or read the book.

Evidently, the filmmakers wanted to create a kiddie flick out of the works of Alexandre Dumas -- they wouldn't be the first, far from it -- but some of their choices are puzzling even with that demographic in mind. In the original story, the musketeers must retrieve in haste the jewellery that Queen Anne gave to her lover, the Duke of Buckingham, as the Cardinal had suggested to the jealous King Louis that his wife should wear the diamonds at a ball. However, in this version, there is no relationship between the Queen and Buckingham, who has been turned into an over-the-top villain; instead, Milady steals the diamonds and plants fake letters from Buckingham in the Queen's desk. Never mind all the clues left behind, including half a dozen dead guards on a roof; nobody would ever think that the jewels had been robbed and that this was a frame-up.

This being said, this Three Musketeers is a strange film, one in which nuance and subtlety are wrinkled out but where historical context is treated as though it were important. For instance, we are told that Louis XIII's father had been assassinated, undoubtedly to explain why the new king would be so young; but why mention the assassination without pointing to its cause, the French Wars of Religion? Instead, we find a film in which every aspect of religion has been removed, hence this incomprehensible scene where the Protestant Buckingham, against all logic, kisses Cardinal Richelieu's ring. Likewise, we get no indication of the geopolitics of the time, including the mistrust between the French throne and Queen Anne's family, the omnipotent Habsburgs. For political reasons, Anne was married to Louis at the age of 11, as part of a double wedding also involving Louis' sister Élisabeth and the Habsburg King of Spain. The true state of affairs with the Habsburgs was revealed when Cardinal Richelieu, less than ten years later, recruited the Protestant Dutch as allies against the Catholic Habsburgs, but this film will not tell you anything about it; it's not even going to tell you where airship builders would find lighter-than-air gases that had yet to be isolated.

Speaking of gas, Roger Ebert, in 1993, began his review of the Disney live-action adaptation of the same name with: "Is there a compelling need for another version of "The Three Musketeers?" The first task of the new version would be to convince us the answer is yes - and this new "Musketeers" never does." Even though he did not review the 2011 film, the question is still valid -- even more valid than in 1993, as the film of that year had completely rewritten the story. Trying to provide an answer makes one realize that the 2011 film never knew what was its prospective audience. There will always be purists who will want to see good old d'Artagnan rush to London once again to retrieve jewellery that the Queen must wear at a ball to save her reputation, but they will recall that there were no airships in the book, and they tend to appreciate good acting that cannot be found here. Besides, they are probably well aware that there are already a few decent versions which remained relatively faithful to Dumas, including the trilogy directed by Richard Lester and the MGM adaptation starring Gene Kelly. As Milla said, though, it's all for kids now.

It is worth mentioning that, contrary to the "wholesome" "family" fare (even when morally questionable) based on his works, Dumas lived long enough to see the Vatican add some of his novels, The Three Musketeers included, to the Index of prohibited books, for such trifles as d'Artagnan's sexual adventures, including with the bigamous Milady and with Constance Bonacieux, his landlord's wife (sometimes changed to daughter in adaptations), and for its sometimes unflattering portrayal of men of the cloth, from simple country priests to Richelieu himself. Yet such lurid goings-on contributed very little to the novel, and if we put aside the question of censorship, some of the inevitable excisions in adaptations could be said to have been an improvement on the original material.

There are too many versions of the story to mention all of them. In its country of origin, for instance, three versions, including a teleplay starring a then-unknown Jean-Paul Belmondo, were produced between 1953 and 1961 (the 1961 film, in two parts, featured my favourite d'Artagnan, played by Gérard Barray), in addition to two adaptations of Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo. Parodies soon followed; the director of the 1953 film, André Hunebelle, would be hired two decades later to direct a famous comedy group of the day, the Charlots, in two spoof versions (in which they played the famous musketeers' valets), the highlight of which was a derrière-kicking rivalry between King Louis and Richelieu.

Not to be outdone, the rest of the world produced adaptations among which could be found a Disney cartoon feature, a Barbie version, a Japanese anime television series in which Aramis is a woman in disguise, a modernized early-thirties John Wayne serial set in the Foreign Legion, and a well-regarded three-part Soviet musical from the seventies -- enough to fill an entire book, with a companion volume for all the adaptations of the "man in the iron mask" theory in Dumas' third musketeer novel, The Vicomte of Bragelonne. This being said, the most recent watchable musketeer film in English is the third Lester film, The Return of the Musketeers, by far the least satisfying of his trilogy (one anachronism was a hot-air balloon), released in 1989. In the years that followed, musketeer adaptations became less about adherence to the spirit or the plot of the source material than to film trends of the times. The 1993 Disney live-action version (which starred a few young actors on their way to greatness, like Kiefer Sutherland, and Charlie Sheen on his way to God knows what) is often referred to as "Young Guns with swords", and 2001's The Musketeer served "Alexandre Dumas' classic" au goût du jour by adopting Hong Kong wire nonsense bathed in oppressively golden cinematography. Meanwhile, women were at last given a proper place in that flourishing era for feminism that was the Ancien Régime. Bertrand Tavernier's Revenge of the Musketeers gave d'Artagnan a daughter as adroit with the rapier as her father; the made-for-television La Femme Musketeer took the idea and ran with it, making her a musketeer (musketress?); and finally the Barbie universe made all the musketeers female. I cannot believe that I am writing this, but this makes the 2011 Three Musketeers the least schlocky adaptation of the Dumas novel since the reunification of Germany.

However, lest we idolize him, Dumas was a schlocky writer, and never earned the same serious recognition as his fellow feuilletonistes Dickens and Balzac. (Victor Hugo, tellingly, tried to distance himself from the roman-feuilleton for the publication of Les Misérables; for his effort, the Japanese adapted his masterpiece into a fighting game featuring a robotic version of Jean Valjean.) Dumas, paid by the line and profligate to the point of insolvency, not surprisingly displayed a proclivity for pages of dialogue, even dialogues within dialogues; this could yet have led to splendid light work, but Dumas wanted more: he wanted to be a historian, to produce didactic fiction that sought as much to educate as to entertain. It worked best for him when he kept history confined to the background, as with The Count of Monte-Cristo; but for The Three Musketeers, he often plucked small irrelevant details from obscure sources -- which he manipulated to serve his narrative -- to give his work a faint degree of verisimilitude, while bending and twisting the historical frame itself. There was a real, historical d'Artagnan (and, indeed, an Athos, a Porthos and an Aramis, about whom only their names are known), but Dumas arbitrarily changed dates in his chronology, bestowed upon him ranks he never held, inserted him in historical events in which he had no involvement, and, in one brief mention in the sequel Twenty Years After, had him taking part in a war that never happened.

In addition, at least part of Dumas' work was written by his collaborator, Auguste Maquet. The less charitable theories attribute entire parts of Dumas' novels -- including the Musketeer trilogy and The Count of Monte-Cristo -- to Maquet, whose involvement became common knowledge when he sued Dumas for arrears. The debate over Maquet has become such an open secret that when the film L'Autre Dumas dealt with the subject, the only controversy that emerged was over the casting of the blond-haired Gérard Depardieu to play Dumas, who was one-quarter black. With its every line break dictated by financial obligations, its contested paternity, its potted history, and its absence of political or social commentary worth taking seriously, how could The Three Musketeers have been highly regarded as literature? Yet, when pared down to essentials, it was quite effective, first on the stage, then on the screen.

The best of the Three Musketeers film adaptations is usually considered to be the Lester trilogy, but I would argue that this is where the first symptoms of the decline that followed appeared. To me, Michael York is miscast as d'Artagnan; Gene Kelly was better, even though he was too old for the part. Even though York gets better in the last film of the trilogy, The Return of the Musketeers, and in the unrelated La Femme Musketeer, there is too much of a certain Englishness in him, and sometimes too much of a rogue hiding behind his good looks; these traits were perfectly exploited, for instance, in The Riddle of the Sands and The Last Remake of Beau Geste, but in The Three Musketeers, York unfortunately overplays d'Artagnan's naïveté and underplays everything else. D'Artagnan, Dumas' version of him anyway, is impetuous, resourceful, proud; in Lester's Three Musketeers, are these qualities exhibited by York's d'Artagnan, or by what the screenplay has him do? He is impetuous because he challenges people to duels; he is resourceful because he retrieves the Queen's diamonds just in time for the ball; he is proud because he maintains a grudge against the Count de Rochefort for having insulted his horse; he is a musketeer because of the uniform he is wearing (at the end of the first film, that is). York might do all these things, and he tries his best to do them with gusto, but he does not inhabit the part; not that it matters much, because the series is primarily slapstick.

Vincent Canby's New York Times review of Lester's Three Musketeers mostly discussed the action scenes, too numerous, too elaborate, too comical ("less swashbuckle than slapstick"), yet added that "nobody plays it for laughs, which is as it should be" -- which is true enough if one is describing the actors. It is another matter for Lester and Fraser; they could have been forgiven their excesses if their aims had been limited to inoffensive jollity or puerile slapstick, but the annoying part is what Canby described as "sometimes more fun than the comic action sequences": "The movie is chock-full of research into the ways in which the upper crust of 17th-century France spent its leisure time (in tennis, gambling, falconry and jousting, among other things). Richelieu's dungeons are filled with prisoners enclosed in what look like decorative metal bird cages. While the King and Queen enjoy a country picnic, the court musicians stand apart from them, almost hidden by the high grass, sawing away at their instruments." This unwittingly encapsulates how the swashbuckler became impossible to take at face value. Dumas' seventeenth-century France, beyond the wars and conspiracies, was a time of splendor; Lester's seventeenth-century France is one, exclusively, of decadence. That is where you start noticing the tone of Richard Lester's musketeer series: it is smug -- intermittently, true, but sometimes unbearably so, even though one can notice at times a paradoxical respect for history that can also be found in screenwriter George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman novels.

It is not surprising that it should have come out in the seventies, the golden age of the spoof; with the likes of Mel Brooks and Monty Python sending up every traditional genre, perhaps it had become impossible to release a serious version of The Three Musketeers, and, to be fair, Lester's film version was not entirely dismissive; only a small part was, but the tumor was already there. To find the cause of the problem of Lester's Three Musketeers, we must go back to Start the Revolution without Me (1969), not a great picture by any means (even with Orson Welles doing the introduction), and not even the first to parody the French Revolution (the British Carry On team had done it a few years before), but the first, as far as I know, to play the inevitability of history as a comic leitmotif in this context. From the narration: "The King's Summer Palace, 1789: King Louis, whose tinkering with time pieces did not tell him that his own time was running out; Queen Marie, who tinkered with everything but time pieces - she didn't care what time it was; but the evil Escargot knew what time it was - his tinkering was well-timed. For the time was... 1789!" A concise and not too simplistic way of putting it is that every film set in the Ancien Régime released thereafter became a case of foreshadowing and counting the years left until the French Revolution. Or you could quote a few lines from Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola's incisive film on the perils of nepotism: "--This is ridiculous. --This, madame, is Versailles." (The Internet Movie Database claims this is from the trailer, but it appears in the film.) And nothing must be allowed that could question the common wisdom that France in 1628 was as frivolous as it would be 160 years later when the populace would at last brandish pitchforks against those pampered aristos.

From there, we get the corollary that because 1789 was inevitable, what happened before it was unimportant, as long as it can demonstrate the inevitability of 1789. I think the best example of this is the 1993 Three Musketeers, in which Tim Curry, playing Richelieu, chews the scenery, and one cannot avoid thinking that it has been his greatest misfortune to not have been making films when villains were still tying heroines to train tracks. Yes, Cardinal Richelieu was the king's nemesis in the book, which itself was an exaggeration of the politics of the time; but what does the 1993 Richelieu do? He hires Milady to conclude an alliance with the Duke of Buckingham (the exact opposite of the book, where she is meant to compromise the duke, before she decides to have him murdered), pays a sniper to kill the young King Louis, then has his henchmen detain the royal couple after a typical megalomaniac speech from the throne. He shoots a musketeer point-blank in front of the king, and tries to escape with his royal captives. In real history, the cardinal died by no means in disgrace and still the first minister of France; in the film's universe, if we ignore the attempted regicide (but why should we?), the copy of the treaty alone, produced by the musketeers, is enough evidence to warrant his execution.

Dumas had often fretted over reconciliation with official history in his works. After the publication of The Vicomte of Bragelonne, the third volume of his Musketeer Trilogy, which had followed the conspiracy theory that the man in the iron mask was Louis XIV's younger brother, the author was asked why he had not let the impostor sit on the throne, as the latter had been portrayed as more even-tempered than the tyrannical and vindictive rightful king. His response was that he was afraid that if he did not rejoin history, he would lead to a major questioning of it and "further diminish the number of our beliefs". Even schlock used to have ethical boundaries, but this is worse than schlock; this is Hollywood.

A version of the screenplay for the 1993 film available online, probably an early draft, does not include some of Richelieu's more lyrical moments. He is still the mastermind behind the treaty and the attempted assassination of the king, but his role remains one of pulling strings in the background, and the screenplay indicates that there is a fair chance he might have remained in His Majesty's good graces after his plans had fallen apart. All the king can say is that he will deliberate over the matter, so he tells Richelieu: "I invite you to await our decision in the comfort of... the Bastille." Rejoining the historical record is still possible, but that is moot, as we all know what happens to the Bastille in 1789.

Or maybe not: the Lester films and the later adaptations are opposites in texture and purpose. The former category was problematic because of how insistent it was in telling us how much it knew and how much better it was than all of this; the latter films don't know and don't care, as long as tickets are sold. What unites the know-it-alls and the know-nothings is their scorn for the source material. The 2011 Three Musketeers is surprising in that it seems to know at least something, but would rather not.

In spite of its literary origin, the 2011 The Three Musketeers, produced by the company behind Anderson's Resident Evil adaptations, Constantin Film, preferred to draw its inspiration from gamer culture. Except in niche genres or during fits of retro nostalgia, gamer culture is all about graphics; not surprisingly, Anderson is good with special effects. Gamer culture is also about five-minute cutscenes; this is reflected here in the presentation of the protagonists, who are introduced with vignettes -- like video game characters -- and no longer require proper character development. When I first saw these segments online prior to my visit to the cinema, I thought they had to be part of the promotional material, but they are in the film, and that is how we get to know Milady, Athos, Porthos and Aramis, who appear before D'Artagnan. And, for that matter, that is when we stop finding anything new about them as they blend into the background. Yes, the characters are already famous enough that they require practically no introduction; but the way it is handled here is just lazy, and it's all eye candy, as is to be expected in a film whose target demographic seems to be members of the Milla Jovovich Fan Club.

It also elucidated for me Roger Ebert's inexplicable foray into the morass of video games, namely, his infamous contention that video games, based on his double encounter with the medium in the mid-nineties, could never be art. Ebert, though eager to cast himself as the custodian of a dying era, has been indefensible even in that part for half a decade at least; his inflated ratings, his endorsement of certain critics (sometimes just before repudiating them), his undeserved omnipresence all played against him, but the last straw was the video game debate. Some people with credentials in the game industry, like the designer Brian Moriarty, thought Ebert was worth defending, but the more Ebert tried to justify his views (before concluding with an unmitigated "whatever" that was interpreted, by some, as a concession of defeat), the more I sensed that he was feeling threatened by video games, a medium he obviously wanted nothing to do with, because of their impact on film and, by extension, on his expertise. It's much easier, to the time-pressed film critic, to dismiss something out of hand if one does not want to look into the claims being made about it. Or, as Ebert himself put it, "as long as there is a great movie unseen or a great book unread, I will continue to be unable to find the time to play video games", this presumably regardless of the number of films based on video games or adopting their aesthetics that might fill the screen.

This last category is vital. Expectations regarding adaptations of video games have not exactly improved since Bob Hoskins was cast as a certain salt-of-the-earth Italian-American plumber, but that was the old era, before game artists borrowed Hollywood's tritest techniques to create cinematic cutscenes whose style is now being regurgitated into what one still hopes to be able to call traditional filmmaking, to the extent that nobody apparently sees anything inappropriate in having the filmmaker known for the Resident Evil adaptations direct a film based on a classic novel. The result is a film for which average video gamers are more likely to find more references than Ebert ever would have if he had reviewed it (see above: not screened for critics, so it's imperative to ignore it); in the end, should it become widespread, what are forty-odd years of professional filmgoing good for if he can be upstaged by whoever played Assassin's Creed?

Alan Kirby had called the trend in the 2006 Philosophy Now article "The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond"; his name for it was pseudo-modernism, which he has since renamed digimodernism:

"Cinema in the pseudo-modern age looks more and more like a computer game. Its images, which once came from the ‘real’ world – framed, lit, soundtracked and edited together by ingenious directors to guide the viewer’s thoughts or emotions – are now increasingly created through a computer. And they look it. Where once special effects were supposed to make the impossible appear credible, CGI frequently [inadvertently] works to make the possible look artificial, as in much of Lord of the Rings or Gladiator. Battles involving thousands of individuals have really happened; pseudo-modern cinema makes them look as if they have only ever happened in cyberspace. And so cinema has given cultural ground not merely to the computer as a generator of its images, but to the computer game as the model of its relationship with the viewer."

This, however, deserves a caveat. Kirby laments the demise of postmodernism, but if is dead, it died of exhaustion from years of chasing its tail, and became such a meandering road to nowhere and back that it finally achieved the result of putting an end to the building of new roads altogether -- the exact situation Kirby is now decrying. If irony once was a valid currency, postmodernism is the counterfeiter who flooded the market. He claims that the movement was interred in the rubble of September 11, but postmodernism's greatest fault, on the contrary, was probably to not have died on that day, leaving us instead with a grotesquely protracted decline.

However, how could I disagree with him when he writes that "non-reproducible and evanescent, pseudo-modernism is thus also amnesiac: these are cultural actions in the present moment with no sense of either past or future"? In the absence of roads, the modern way of travel must then be the parachute, resulting in the disorienting chaos that not only greets the explorer as a first impression, but is also the way in which society now operates. Any visit to, for example, the TV Tropes website is as much a first-class berth on the Zeitgeist Express as an invitation to peruse the mediocrity of the age; if we went by the number of mentions alone, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett would rank as the most significant writers in history, and the contributions of all countries but the Anglosphere and Japan (and not so much, it goes without saying, the Japan of Kurosawa as that of Tezuka) might as well never have existed.

Kirby was not alone in his assessment; even David Denby wrote recently in his article "Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?" in The New Republic:

"The language of big-budget, market-driven movies—the elements of shooting, editing, storytelling, and characterization—began disintegrating as far back as the 1980s, but all of this crystallized for me a decade ago, in the summer of 2001, when the slovenliness of what I was seeing that year, even in the Oscar-winning Gladiator, hit me hard. The action scenes in Gladiator were mostly a blur of whirling movement shot right up close—a limb hacked off and flying, a spurt of blood, a flash of chariot wheels. Who could actually see anything? Yet almost no one seemed to object. The old ideal of action as something staged cleanly and realistically in open space had been destroyed by sheer fakery and digital “magic”—a constant chopping of movement into tiny pieces that are then assembled by computer editing into exploding little packages. What we were seeing in Gladiator and other movies were not just individual artistic failures and crass commercial strategies, but was a new and awful idea of how to put a picture together."

Denby called it "conglomerate aesthetics", but this implies that entities driven by the bottom line are capable of developing an aesthetic sense based on anything except giving the people what they want (or at least what they think the people want) at the cheapest price; what he has described I would rather call the aesthetics of gamer culture, applied both in Hollywood and abroad (Constantin Film, the company behind Anderson's Resident Evil and Three Musketeers, is based in Germany). This culture has made inroads upon the large screen, with substantial evidence to be found at the likes of Cracked ("builds original entertainment experiences that keep its audience engaged and coming back for more") and The Escapist ("the mouthpiece of the gaming generation"), which treat video games and movies (never films) as two elements of a cultural package for a demographic that seemingly never rises above superhero flicks and first-person shooters. This demographic, I will add, takes for granted that video games are just as artistic and as worthy of respect as film; I will just offer as evidence this genuine quotation from an article posted at a gaming site, IGN, in 2009:

"In the same way that Citizen Kane harnessed every technical component in film to express its post-mortem reassembly of an irrepressible and heartbroken man, Metroid Prime uses all of its technology to recreate the experience of a woman abandoned on an alien world inhabited by the ghosts of its prelapsarian inhabitants."

There is no need to really respect or understand Citizen Kane if you reduce it to the level of a metaphor; he might as well have written that it was the Rolls Royce of gaming because it was built around a good engine, but that wasn't enough: Metroid Prime was art. (Also note in passing the usual faith in technology that permeates gamer culture; it reduces Citizen Kane to a series of gimmicks even as it compares the misfortunes of that "unproven genius" Orson Welles to the obstacles faced by the company behind Metroid Prime: "Three of the studio's games were canceled by Nintendo, the company president was bought out, there were a string of firings, and the game-changing decision to move from third-person to first person was made".)

The landscape for film reviewing might be bleak, with Rotten Tomatoes turning every discussion of film into a meaningless mush for immediate consumption by a user base that thinks it's intellectually enlightened to launch a witch-hunt against any party preventing a 100% "fresh" score for the darling of the moment, but Metacritic led to the same result for video games without giving the field enough time to produce even one reliable professional critic -- because not one dares to criticize not only the games but also the underlying gamer culture that sustains them. And now this culture, impervious to criticism from outside and instinctively dismissive of what cannot be ignored (like the name of Roger Ebert), has invaded the screen.

It is difficult to take seriously another announcement of the death of film, the most called-out demise in history, as evidently it still sells books of criticism, including Denby's latest, Do the Movies Have a Future? -- "a rousing and witty call to arms", if one believes the jacket flap. Yet I see nothing worth defending; and if film is not dead, it is at least dead to me.

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originally posted: 12/21/12 15:43:00
last updated: 02/17/13 21:48:44
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