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One of the best
The makers of this new version of HOUND seem to have been trying to steer clear of cliche: not once does Holmes (Richard Roxburgh) wear a deerstalker or smoke a pipe. It's an approach that pays big dividends here: freed of some of the traditional trappings, this new version of the enduring classic emerges as fresh and exciting. Roxburgh's Holmes will not be to everyone's taste, but he captures the edgy, egotistical Holmes of the stories, while Ian Hart's Watson is a long way from the idiot friend familiar from so many screen versions. This Watson is clearly an intelligent man used to taking charge of situations, and the movie is the stronger for it, as Watson carries a good deal of the central portion of the film from which Holmes is absent. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, and while purists may howl at some of the omissions (most notably Frankland and Laura Lyons) and additions (most notably the seance scene, imported from the 1939 Rathbone version), this is one of the most thoughtful adaptations of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES ever filmed.
Into the Blue (1997)
Robert Goddard's splendidly crafted novel brought to the small screen. But Goddard must have been heartbroken to see how his work was changed for television production. John Thaw seems to struggle with a role for which he is completely miscast; and with the whole tenor of the plot changed for compression into a two hour format, this must be one of the more disappointing television adaptations of recent times.
Worth a look
Ealing's adaptation of Dickens's NICHOLAS NICKLEBY had the misfortune to come out at the same time as the two splendid David Lean versions of OLIVER TWIST and GREAT EXPECTATIONS; everyone remembers these two film, while NICKLEBY has been largely forgotten. That's a great shame, because in spite of director Cavalcanti's obvious discomfort with the material, this remains a fine version of the novel, with all the great set-pieces (Dotheboys Hall, the Mantalinis, The Crummles theatre troupe) present and accounted for, and even such minor characters as the Kenwigs family getting their share of screen time. Of the performers, Stanley Holloway has a grand old time as Vincent Crummles, with Cedric Hardwicke a splendid Ralph Nickleby and Bernard Miles an equally good Newman Noggs. The inevitable streamlining of the plot towards the end has resulted in a felicitous idea, of which Dickens himself would have been proud: instead of Madeline Bray being married off to old Gride, it's Ralph himself who decides to marry her, which makes sense: if he can't have Kate to act as hostess, he'll have Madeline; and what better way to spite Nicholas than by marrying the woman he loves? The chase scene through the dark house at the end is masterfully done. Well worth a look.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Classic film for children of all ages
I encountered the soundtrack recording before I ever saw the film, and it's a testament to the quality of the Sherman brothers' score that all of the songs have stayed with me for almost thirty years, and I can whistle, hum, or even sing them at the drop of a hat: the wonderfully comic 'P.O.S.H. Posh', the haunting 'Hushabye Mountain', the energetic 'Me Old Bamboo', and of course the infectiously cheery title song. When I caught up with the film it was as good as, if not better than, I'd anticipated, and it remains a favourite to this day. Great songs, wonderful locations, several performers at the top of their game (Dick Van Dyke showing what a great talent he was, Sally Ann Howes as a luminous heroine, the wonderful Lionel Jeffries, Gert Frobe several light years away from Auric Goldfinger, Benny Hill before he got smutty and tiresome, and ballet great Robert Helpmann as the truly chilling Child Catcher). I know many critics dismiss the film as a sub-MARY POPPINS effort, but the score and script are, in my view, every bit as good, and if anything it has fewer dull spots. My four-year-old recently watched POPPINS for the first time, and had a hard time staying interested; today we watched CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, and he was enthralled. He's already humming the title song . . . By the way, Sally Ann Howes may never have had the film career she deserved, but anyone who's interested in seeing her in her younger days should check out two supernatural films made by Ealing Studios during the War: THE HALFWAY HOUSE (1944) and its more famous ghostly counterpart, the classic 1945 film DEAD OF NIGHT. Howes, then only a teenager, has prominent roles in both, and shows off her singing voice in the latter film. She's also the heroine, Kate Nickleby, in Ealing's film version of Dickens's NICHOLAS NICKLEBY (1947).
Hard Times (1994)
Excellent adaptation of a classic novel
Made for British schools in 1994, this BBC version of HARD TIMES eschews the usual fancy costumes and elaborate sets of most BBC 'classics' and gets down to the story, focussing on the characters and their sometimes tragic lives and decisions. Don't let its origins put you off: this version boasts a cast most big budget films would kill for: Alan Bates, Richard E. Grant, Harriet Walter, Bill Paterson, and the late, great Bob Peck, magnificent as Gradgrind. Anyone tired of the respectful, white-glove treatment classic novels are usually given on TV will find this a refreshing change of pace: angry and passionate and bleak, with flashes of humour and humanity.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is one of those magical movies where all the parts seem to have come together perfectly. It might seem easy on paper - all you have to do is assemble the pieces and the result will be great, right? - but as we all know, what looks good on paper often flops disastrously when it hits a theatre near you. This is a film in which everyone involved seemed to be fully into the spirit of what they were doing: no one strikes a false note (even the American accents on some of the actors can be forgiven, they're so right for their parts), and everything else, from set design to score to the lush colour cinematography, is just right and has stood the test of time. As a representation of what life in medieval England was like, it's nowhere near realistic; but then fairy tales don't have to be. ROBIN HOOD is a perfect example of the Hollywood studio system firing on all cylinders; some day there may be a better version of the legend put on film, but I won't hold my breath.
The best version of a classic novel
As a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast, I'd LOVE a 100% faithful adaptation of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES; but as a realist, I know that the only way that would happen is if a group of actors read the book word for word on radio or audiotape. After all, what works in a book doesn't always work on screen; and Ernest Pascal's adaptation is faithful to the spirit, if not always the letter, of Conan Doyle's novel (just watch the scene in the hut on the moor when Watson meets up with Holmes, who explains what's going on: 'Murder, my dear Watson. Refined, cold-blooded murder.' The scene as written by Conan Doyle is a bit dry; Pascal expands on it in a way that makes the scene work on film, and in doing so shows that he was clearly in tune with the source material. Yes, some key characters were dropped or had their parts reduced; others were built up so there would be a few more suspects. In the end, however, we're left with what is still the best version of HOUND ever committed to celluloid. Basil Rathbone IS Holmes: even if he had never played the character again, he would still be guaranteed a place among the great portrayers of the detective. Nigel Bruce's Watson is brave and loyal, and not the somewhat bumbling sidekick he became in the later films; and there is a real friendship between his Watson and Rathbone's Holmes which is a crucial element of any portrayal of the characters, yet which is so often missing. As is only natural with a film made more than sixty years ago, it does creak a bit in places; but it's still a wonderful way to spend ninety or so minutes.
Ghost Story (1981)
I read Peter Straub's GHOST STORY not long before seeing the film; and while the movie inevitably leaves out much of the book, there's enough there to make a very strong film. I think the movie version has suffered on a couple of counts: first by being compared to the book, and almost always found wanting, and second by being released at a time when 'mad slasher' films with lots of gore were all the rage. As far as the first point is concerned, the only way to convey the full range and content of Straub's book would be to make a multi-part TV miniseries out of it; and as for the second point, I think a lot of people might be disappointed at the film's relatively low gore quotient (a problem for another fine supernatural film, THE CHANGELING, which also favours atmosphere over gore).
I think it's interesting to note that, in the interests of simplifying the plot, the Alma/Eva character is a straightforward ghost in the film, whereas in the book she is clearly a shapeshifter who has lived before the four men meet her, and will continue to live unless something drastic happens to her.
It's great to see a major motion picture which gives older actors meaningful roles beyond the stereotype of 'old codger', and Alice Krige is wonderful as Alma/Eva: she brings a lot of depth to a character who could easily have merely been a one-dimensional revenge figure. A fine, intelligent film for those who like their scary movies to depend more on suggestion than buckets of blood.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
One of best films ever made
Stephen King's original story 'Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption' has long been one of my favourites, and when I heard it was getting the Hollywood treatment I was suspicious (after all, Stephen King's Hollywood track record isn't exactly outstanding). Then I heard Morgan Freeman was involved, and thought, 'Sounds good!' I was living in England when the film was released, so had to wait until several weeks after the U.S. opening before I saw it. I took my husband along with me: he's not a huge King fan, and I think that the prospect of a two-hour-plus prison film based on a Stephen King story wasn't hugely appealing: but we both came out realising we had seen a truly great film. Strangely, British movie critics (on the whole) gave the film a much better reception than did the American ones, and right from the start SHAWSHANK has been more highly thought of there: the British film magazine EMPIRE has recognised its quality from the start, and in its recent tenth anniversary issue picked it as one of the ten best films of the 1990s (with detailed reasons). To me it's one of the ten best films I've ever seen: it's one that repays multiple viewings, and the two central performances are outstanding. I'm now eagerly awaiting the film's DVD release.