“Three” has played a major role in culture, math, science, and industry. The Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost represents just one of the instances where a ‘three’ has factored into a major religion. We live on the third rock from the sun, and there was a show with that name. Three branches of American government. The triple Lindy diving maneuver. Once, Twice, Three Times A Lady. Three…
Cutting the intro short, this week’s cinematic offerings feature ‘3’ thrice- Paranormal Activity 3 and The Three Musketeers in 3D- and this week’s Listicle will look at movies with three, or some variation thereof, in the title. However, the three must not indicate the film’s placement in a series. Three’s Company and not The Godfather, Part III; Three Men and a Baby/Little Lady and not Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult; The Next Three Days and not Halloween 3: Season of the Witch. There’s also Apollo 13, 3 Godfathers, 3 Women, The Three Caballeros, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and The 300 to name a few examples that we will not be covering in depth.
The Three Stooges (dir. numerous, 1925-1970)
I guess they count as film stars, albeit short film stars. Or maybe we can consider them movie stars based on the full length features they did when they were very old and very sad. Though they started in vaudeville, so maybe they shouldn’t even rank here in the first place. Nevertheless, The Three Stooges are icons of comedy who understood the humor of extreme violence.
The Three Stooges (originally consisting of Moe, Larry, and Shemp) started their act on the vaudeville circuit in 1925 as supporting characters to performer Ted Healey. When Healy received a Hollywood deal, he brought the Stooges with him, and they stole the show in their first short Soup to Nuts from 1930. Side fact, Soup to Nuts was written by Rube Goldberg of comically complex machines fame.
Eventually, MGM (and later Columbia) signed the Stooges (now Moe, Larry, and Curly) who quickly became on-screen successes making 15 to 25 movies a year. As studios are apt to do, Columbia kept the massive popularity of the Stooges a secret to the trio so it could keep paying them a relative pittance. The miniscule incoming funds forced them to go on the road constantly. Due to the hectic work schedule and lack of respect, Curly turned to drink. His alcoholism led to a stroke in 1945 that prevented him from making further movies. Shemp rejoined the crew in 1950 and stayed with the gang for nearly 80 additional shorts before dying of a heart attack. The third member would be then be played by Joe Besser and Curly Joe.
The introduction of television became beneficial to the gang, whose shorts aired constantly to a large audience. In the 1960s, the surviving members found themselves subject to a renewed popularity, especially among children. However, a pilot they attempted in 1970 was foiled by Larry’s death and then, finally, Moe’s.
Today, The Three Stooges hold an important place in comedic history. Still recognizable by face(s) and by name(s) after 80 years, their oeuvre airs regularly on television. AMC shows Stooges in the early hours of the morning, and they are the closest thing to an American Movie Classic on the network. Most physical and/or “low brow” comedians acknowledge their debt of gratitude to The Three Stooges.
In more modern news, the Farrelly Brothers have spent at least a decade trying to get their The Three Stooges project off the ground. Supposedly done in the style of the original shorts rather than a depressing biopic full of death and bad business deals, the movie had names such as Paul Giamatti, Jim Carrey, Benicio Del Toro, and Sean Penn attached to it. According to imdb, the There’s Something about Mary creators have finally completed the movie with Chris Diamantopoulos (The Starter Wife), Sean Hayes (Will and Grace), and Will Sasso (Mad TV) as Moe, Larry, and Curly, respectively. That is a bit of casting drop off.
Three Days of the Condor (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1975)
There are spy thrillers and there are spy thrillers. In so many spy thrillers, the focus is on action. The person who uncovers the conspiracy must out think, out run, out shoot, and out explode his opponents. But the ones based more in suspense are much quieter affairs. They allow us to spend time with the hero, understand his paranoia, and begin to wonder whom we could trust. While these might be artistically better, they tend not to find favor with a mass audience. There’s a reason why Rubicon lasted one season while 24 lasted eight. (And I liked 24.)Or why we have Enemy of The State instead of The Conversation. I wonder where Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and Spy will lie.
Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor stars Robert Redford as meek CIA analyst Joseph Turner (codenamed Condor) who studies novels to find subtextual (or textual) clues related to CIA operations or things to which the CIA should be made aware. After making a report discussing one novel, Turner comes to work one morning to find all his colleagues dead and himself immersed in a massive conspiracy complete with assassination attempts on his life. With no one to turn to, Turner tries to convert his book knowledge into the real world skills as he attempts to find the truth. While this might sound like some action-packed The Bourne Identity style movie, it’s not. It’s a subtler film where Turner is no superhero and there are no easy solutions. It is also a fantastic example of gritty film New York City.
¡Three Amigos! (dir. John Landis, 1986)
Of the major 1980s comedy movies, ¡Three Amigos! doesn’t hold the nostalgia value or heavy cult standing of a Caddyshack or Animal House (which I know was released in 1978). Nevertheless, it has an impressive pedigree consisting of director John Landis; writers Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels (the Saturday Night Live guy), and Randy Newman (yes, the songwriter); and stars Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short- only one of whom still holds big screen credentials. Well maybe not after The Big Year.
Martin, Chase, and Short play silent film action heroes Lucky Day, Dusty Bottoms, and Ned Nederlander, respectively. Released from their contract and evicted from their studio homes, the three coddled movie stars follow a fan’s letter and head down to Mexico where they think they can adopt their personas for a paid live show. However, the Mexican village believed that they were the legends they saw on screen, and its citizens want the trio to fight the evil bandito El Guapo, who terrorizes their village. It’s a typical reluctant hero(es) tale, but the main characters wear it well. And, although it might not have the largest number of memorable moments, scenes like “My Little Buttercup” and The Singing Bush work. It functions well enough as a comedy western (though not to the extent of Blazing Saddles) and gives a decent amount of respect to its old timey predecessors.
Three Kings (dir. David O. Russell, 1999)
David O. Russell is a very good director whose best movies are based off his own screenplays. The Fighter was a decent film, but it lacked the punch of his earlier works: Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster (a genuinely funny version of the Fockers. Trilogy made years before DeNiro and Stiller first shared the screen), I Heart Huckabees, and this one, Three Kings.
The 1999 effort stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze (the brilliant director whose film Adaptation featured a fake film written by Donald Kaufman entitled The Three) as soldiers in the closing days of the first Iraq War. After taking prisoners, they find a map to what they believe is Saddam Hussein’s gold. The characters end up in the hands of the enemy, encounter refugees, and become heroes to Iraqi citizens in mortal danger of the encroaching Iraqi army. Probably the best film about the first Gulf War, the cynicism and darkly comic approach of Three Kings came five years too early. Its anti-war stance, M*A*S*H-ian humor, and mild sense of hopelessness play more towards our view of the second Gulf War than the first one.
Recently, The Men Who Stare At Goats (based in the Iraq War/Gulf War II) seemed to be going for a similar vibe to Three Kings, but it couldn’t pull it off even though it also starred George Clooney. Despite its painfully obvious and forced attempts, Goats lacked the insanity, quirkiness, and acceptance of living in a FUBAR situation that Russell naturally brought to war.
The Number 23 (dir. Joel Schumacher, 2007)
Joel Schumacher is a … director. He’s made movies. He even has one out right now called Trespass starring Academy Award-winners Nicole Kidman and Nicholas Cage. It went straight to Video On Demand. It’s easy to mock his work. After all, he practically killed the Batman franchise with Batman & Robin. But he also made D.C. Cab.
Jim Carrey is an actor who generally does well when he gets to stretch his wings. Yes, there was The Majestic, but Eternal Sunshine, The Truman Show, The Cable Guy, and the recent I Love You Phillip Morris prove that there is more to him than Mr. Popper’s Penguins. This isn’t to say that all his attempts at something greater than pratfalls work out, and The Number 23 is a perfect example. In it, Carrey stars as a man obsessed with the number 23 and its various connections to world events. He also has a mysterious past shrouded in mystery, dreams he can’t understand, a wife (Virginia Madsen) who joins him in investigating his magical number-based conspiracy, and a case of Jack Torrance’s Syndrome.
When watching The Number 23 one cannot shake the feeling that all the main figures are on a completely different page. This isn’t a film that shifts tones wildly, but rather Carrey, Madsen, Schumacher, and writer Fernley Phillips maintain a relatively consistent tone, it’s just not the same one as the other three. The film is a convoluted mess, made by people who never thought past the “What if…?” stage of a conspiracy before they decided to make it into a thriller. And, on that note, let’s see what next week’s Anonymous can pull off.
Three… Extremes (dir. Fruit Chan, Park Chan-Wook, & Takashi Miike, 2004)
3… Extremes is one doozy of a horror anthology. A high-profile follow up to the similar film Three, it features Asia’s most renowned and edgy directors doing what they do best. Each short segment in this omnibus brings chills and makes a lasting impression upon the imagination.
The most visually elegant of the three films, “Dumplings” is perhaps the most difficult to watch once you figure out its ghastly secret. A vain and stylish actress approaching middle age is seeking rejuvenation. A friend tips her off about the miraculous diet of dumplings specially prepared by a young local woman.
Our protagonist visits the lady with the dumplings, who is youthful and beautiful herself, and so begins a dumpling regimen to get her youth back. It takes years off her in an amazingly quick time. However, when unpleasant side effects begin to manifest themselves, she becomes curious about the recipe which her secretive benefactor guards so closely. You may have already guessed the revelation. When it comes it’s tough to stomach. Our “heroine” faces a gruesome dilemma, essentially forced to choose between her body and her soul. “Dumplings” was eventually adapted into a feature film, and it is easy to see why. This is an absolutely beautiful short film with a sickening twist – hard to finish, but harder to turn away.
Park Chan-Wook, director of gutsy romantic thrillers like Oldboy and Thirst, takes a stab at absurdist horror. This is the “ordeal” segment to be sure, in which the nominally innocent suffer extreme punishment for carelessly crossing the wrong people. A film director (Lee Byung-Hun) returns home one night to find that a crazed actor has invaded his home and taken his wife hostage. The director must take part in a series of tests in order to save his wife from extensive maiming.
Imagine Funny Games via Saw, only somehow peppered with tension-breaking silliness. The director and the malevolent extra try to outwit and outlast one another until it is difficult to determine who is crazier. Like the dinner scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this is the part of the film you will be glad to have survived with your sanity intact.
Takashi Miike, most infamous of these three as an outright horror director, scales down his normal level of suffering and violence for this surreal piece about jealousy, love, fear and grief. This is the kind of piece you can pick apart, looking for a perfect explanation, and never satisfy yourself. It weaves dreams, imagination, and drama with a thin strand of apparent “reality,” and is more about mood and presentation than a straightforward narrative.
Two sisters (twins) perform as contortionists, competing for the affection of their father. Dreams trouble them. Betrayal and the gruesome death of one of them is suggested by numerous symbols. But what exactly happened? Watch, enjoy the creepy feeling and lovely staging, and work it out for yourself. These three films provide plenty of shocks and an excellent menu of contrasts.
The Third Man (dir. Carol Reed, 1949)
This film noir classic, penned by Graham Greene, is still one of the best suspense thrillers around. With its oddball zither score and powerful performances by Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten (also of Citizen Kane), it weaves a delightful mystery around a study in pure evil. That’s Graham Greene all over.
Author Holly Martins (Cotten) has come to Vienna to work for his old pal, Harry Lime. However, he is instead intercepted by associates of Lime, who tell him that Lime has just been killed in an accident. Martins does not buy the story outright, and suspicious of foul play he sniffs around the city for answers. His biggest lead hinges around the question of whether two men were seen carrying Lime’s body from the scene, or three. The identity of the alleged “third man” is all Martins has to go on.
When witnesses start dropping dead, Martins realizes he is on a promising but dangerous trail. Despite the discouragement of those around him, he presses on to find out the truth about Harry Lime. The more he discovers, the less he likes. It seems that Lime became a pretty sinister character in their time apart, and that the good guys and bad guys alike may have had good reason for wanting him out of the way.
It is hard to say more about this movie without giving surprises away. If you dig Hitchcock and his masterful tales of intrigue, The Third Man is a thriller he would have made, had Carol Reed not done so. Featuring such famous scenes as a tense confrontation aboard the Vienna ferris wheel, and a marathon climactic chase through the city sewer tunnels, The Third Man is definitely one you should not miss.
Red Riding: 1983 (dir. Anand Tucker, 2009)
1983 is the third and final installment of the Red Riding films adapted from David Peace’s crime novels for the BBC’s Channel 4. Spanning nearly a decade, these films spin a sordid, wrenching tale of murder and corruption in the north of England. A series of gruesome murders has West Yorkshire in the grip of fear. In the first two films (1974 and 1980), various members of the press and police (including Andrew Garfield and Paddy Considine) have strayed too close to the truth, despite being warned by their colleagues to investigate safer mysteries.
Hints of conspiracy between the police and powerful criminal elements abound, and by 1983 the stage is set for some horrifying revelations indeed, and a background character steps to the lead of the finale. Detective Superintendent Jobson (David Morrissey) has been in on the shady dealings from the start, but often in a minor or incidental role. He has done enough to carry a guilty conscience, and has reached his limit for turning a blind eye. Local children continue to be murdered, and Jobson knows the police are prosecuting the wrong suspect.
Red Riding provides us with numerous suspects and red herrings. Whatever the identity of the actual murderer, nobody within a hundred miles has clean hands. Whether complicit in the crimes themselves or obstructing justice for personal reasons, everyone has a dirty secret which forms part of Jobson’s puzzle. Meanwhile, another minor character takes center stage as Jobson realizes he is more than he seems – the local vicar, Reverend Laws (Peter Mullan), is keeping some very dark secrets for the drama’s end. It is rare indeed that Mullan plays an honest character. He is a master of the seemingly friendly character who ends up being the scariest and most sinister of all.
At the beginning of the series, it seems that nothing could be more wrenching and awful than the murders themselves. However, as the trilogy unfolds, a more subtle horror story takes shape. The murders might have been solved and many victims saved, in a short time had the authorities been working in earnest to catch those responsible. However, the pervasive corruption in the West Yorkshire police force effectively impedes any successful investigation. The solution of one small crime would expose dozens of others, and the local society might well collapse like a scandalous house of cards. For this reason, those who know keep silent, and those who seek the truth are silenced by force.
Red Riding is an emotionally exhausting experience, but well worth the agony. It is the most pessimistic and unhappy human drama as you will ever see, but the expert plotting, brooding atmosphere and fantastic performances deserve your attention.
Richard III (dir. Richard Loncraine, 1995)
This memorable and quite unusual nod to Shakespeare was a career-maker for Sir Ian McKellen. Envisioning Richard III in the turbulent 1930s allows the production sharp an original new sense of style. McKellen radiates snakish charm as the twisted and manically ambitious Richard. As he murders his way to the throne, we see a chilling alternate history in which the totalitarian menace rises from within Britain, rather than on the continent.
The stellar supporting cast includes Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Kristin Scott Thomas, and Maggie Smith as the unfortunate human factors in Richard’s way. In other words, this film need not lean excessively on its lavish production design, though it certainly could. These are serious actors, who can deliver the (mostly) original text of the play in their contemporary trappings without it seeming strange in the slightest.
The period atmosphere draws compelling parallels between Elizabethan history and the state of affair between the world wars. In other words, times have always been troubled, and someone is always willing to butcher his way to the top. By witnessing classic Shakespearean murders onstage up close, we get an even greater sense of why Richard III is so enduringly popular a villain.