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Outdoing David Lynch.
The title of the film engaged me remembering the haunting photographs of Diane Arbus, those pictures of curiously aloof people on the fringes of society. Director Steven Shainberg has cooked up a seriously kooky fictional account of how Arbus became interested in photographing freaks and oddities. The explanation according Shainburg is more bizarre than her photographs. We are lead to believe that Arbus (Nicole Kidman) is strangely attracted to the hairy Wolf Man who moves into an overhead apartment. The creature Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey Jnr) in fact looks remarkably like Lon Chaney Jnr. in his were-wolf makeup. Lionel is actually an ex-circus freak now a wig maker with softly spoken but imperious manner of a Hannibal Lector.
Much to the concern of her fashion photographer husband (Ty Burrell) Arbus becomes more involved with Lionel and his odd friends who could have come from the cast of Tod Browning's "Freaks". From the modest house wife helping her husband pose models to independence as a photographer venturing even into a nudist camp for her art, the transformation according to script writer Erin Cressida Wilson is all due to "Beauty's" association with the "Beast". Things get a whisker out of hand when Nicole cuts a trap door in the ceiling so Lionel can visit more easily to the distress of her long suffering husband.
Nicole wearing her stoic expressions from The Others, looks younger and quite fetching in many scenes even getting naked on occasion. Robert Downey Jr. obscured by fur somehow manages to give his part some credence with just eyes and mouth, and has the pleasure of being shaved by Nicole in a climatic scene. The end of the film manages the only reference to the actual Arbus pictures by panning over the freakish guests in poses resembling some of her most famous photos. While I'm not at all sure this helps the Diane Arbus legacy, this film's dark Gothic images might do homage to the great photographer in a odd way. It's such a weird and curious offering it remains with you long after you leave the cinema.
Oliver Twist (1948)
David Lean's Superb Dickens
Still the most Dickensian of all the Oliver Twist films David Lean's inspired version, never the less is much indebted in its style to the German Expressionist Cinema. It's London is more related to Fritz Lang than Victorian England but the spirit of Dickens is alive and well in the accurately drawn caricatures from the novel. Outstanding performances by Francis J. Sullivan as ridiculous Mr. Bumble, Alec Guiness's chillingly evil Fagin despite a badly judged nose job, and the eye boggling twitching Robert Newton as the ferocious Bill Sykes. Even his dog trembles at his temper, in fact the dog is a major actor in this version.
John Newton Howard is a rather angelic Oliver, with a more refined delivery than one would have expected from a workhouse background. But it all goes decidedly well thanks to Lean's superb direction, stunning images, clever editing and a sterling cast. Viewed today so many years after it was filmed it remains the most vivid and Gothic recreation of the story. Probably Charles Dickens would approve. The heroic length recent version by Roman Polanski is generally faithful to the novel but lacks the pizazz and humour that is in Dicken's writing. David Lean made only two excursions into Dickens (Oliver Twist and Great Expectations) both milestones in cinema. One can but wonder how well he may have brought Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend to the screen.
Bleak House (2005)
Brilliant Dickens Adaption
Bleak House is certainly one of the best adaptions of Dickens brought to the TV screens. It distills the essence of the long novel graphically and with a some brilliant characterizations by the superb cast. There is real feeling here for the period and the book. An truly excellent cast including perhaps surprisingly Gillian Anderson (The X Files) who impresses as the cool Lady Dedlock, Charles Dance as the sinister Tulkinghorn, Denis Lawson as kindly John Jarndyce, Alun Amstrong as Bucket, Nathaniel Parker as Skimpole, Pauline Collins as Miss Flute, Burn Gorman as poor Guppy, and particularly Philip Davis as the dreadful Smallweed, all wonderful Dickensian characters. The sets and locations have the right feel for the story the photography of a high order, with the only quibble being the zip shots into each sequence, a modern stylistic trick that does nothing to enhance the period story. Considering the complexity of the story and its great length the editors have done a great job in never letting the film drag. I rather think that Charles Dickens if he were still around would heartily approve.
Prime Suspect: The Final Act (2006)
In a remarkable performance Helen Mirren plays the alcoholic detective Jane Tennison with depth and understanding rare in television. Mirren once the vivacious girl who was opposite James Mason in Norman Lindsay's "Age of Consent" today is not frightened of getting down and dirty in her roles. She goes full bore warts and all. Supported by a strong cast of British character players we can overlook some minor plot weaknesses when the overall quality of this series is streets ahead of the usual crap cop shows on the box. If only most TV was this good. Not often do we see actors bare their souls like Mirren outside of the cinema screen. Others in the cast worthy of mention are Stephen Tompkinson as Sean Philips, and Gary Lewis as Tony Sturdy.
Midsomer Murders (1997)
John Nettles - excels as the gentleman cop.
John Nettles plays the perfect detective as Chief Inspector Barnaby in Midsomer Murders, unlike so many other British Dicks he doesn't have a problem with the bottle, family hassles at home, nor is he unhappily single and suffering manic depression. Not only that his diction is near perfect and he has the stiff upper lip so necessary in rural England when murders are more common than haystacks. Teamed up with a new sidekick DC Ben Jones (Jason Hughes) resembling the much put upon Sgt. Lewis of Inspector Morse fame.
The series also has the advantage of using some of the best character actors available, for example Simon Callow, and reasonably well written plots that hold interest. Although usually a number of people get dispatched before our Barnaby can nab the culprit he gets his man in the end. But that's life in the villages. Better than average production values and consistency of performance by the main cast members keeps this show top of the list. A pleasant change from the plethora of cheesy forensic investigations headed up by gorgeous female doctors brandishing scalpels over deceased body parts.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Meryl Streep is on a Winner.
Meryl Streep must be on a roll at the moment getting better with age, her more mature parts pay off in two excellent recent pictures A Prairie Home Companion, directed by Robert Altman and this light hearted expose of the high fashion industry directed by David Frankel. There is a old connection with Altman in another way too, he also did a marvelous job with high fashion a few years back in Pret-a-Porter (1994)
Streep is the cement that holds the film together in this case. She is just terrific as the ice queen running the prestigious fashion magazine, sails through the part seamlessly as if it was written for her. Briefly the plot concerns young Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) longing to be a journalist but manages to secure almost accidentally the highly sought after position as personal assistant to fashion guru Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) the high powered editor from hell of "Runway" magazine. Miranda is a real cool dragon lady who frightens the pants off people.
Andy seems a total misfit wearing (as someone rudely points out) Opportunity Shop ensembles, has a voice like one of the Chip Monks (if you remember them) with no acquaintance of mid Atlantic diction, and appears oblivious to the prestige of her office. But she's a lovely girl at heart and has a lovely live in boyfriend.
But this is shortly to change under the guidance of supercilious Nigel the camp fashion coordinator, a wonderful portrayal by Stanley Tucci. Andy dons a festoon of fashion labels beyond belief and with some Liza Minnelli eye makeup, before you can say "Donatella Versace" becomes one of the "in" team, looking suitably chic despite being put upon to do an enormous often menial workload. This sets Andy apart from her old crowd and boyfriend, whilst her curious relationship with the dragon lady would appear to have life changing possibilities, in the process Andy tarnishes her integrity and looks like losing her man. It all comes to head when Andy gets invited to accompany the great Miranda to Paris for the major showing. Yet finally everything is suitably resolved in the heart warming conclusion that bears out "all that glitters is not gold".
Based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger who worked for Vogue magazine for twelve months and obviously uses some of her experiences of that year in the book. She says that in fashion nothing is impossible, that doesn't even come into the language. Certainly it's the basic premise in the film too, even getting the goods on Harry Potter is not beyond the pale in this fickle land of fads.
This is an entertaining mix of drama and comedy with much appeal to women in the audience. It captures the glitz and glamour of an industry which continues to fascinate mere mortals who can but only read the glossy magazines.
Jackie Brown (1997)
Jackie Brown is some lady.
Jackie Brown works well thanks to a great cast and Tarantino's mastery of cinema technique. As Jackie Pam Grier almost steals the show but Jackson and DeNiro are strong support. The plot is a complex bit of double crossing, when Jackie finds herself trapped by the police to give up her dangerous associate in order to gain freedom. It flows along punctuated by extreme closeups, long tracking shots (that would do credit to Orson Welles) driven at times by pop music. All of which Tarantino manages very well. In the end the direction takes a lot of credit for the success of this thriller in the wake of Pulp Fiction. The violence is understated by comparison, but all the more shocking because of this. Well done.
The Italian Job (1969)
Fun and Games in Minis
This is perhaps one of the greatest heist films of all time. Certainly one of the funniest. The cast is superb lead by Michael Caine, the inimitable Noel Coward, and including such notable British comics as Bennie Hill, Irene Handl and John Le Mesurier. Caine has never been better, as in the role of the flamboyant cockney Charlie, who leads a clever and daring snatch of 4 million dollars of gold in Turin, despite efforts by the local Mafia and Police to foil the attempt at every turn. Highlight of course is the remarkable chase across a traffic congested Turin by the three Minis, beautifully filmed and edited to precision. The later remake never catches up with the pace and timing the original, and certainly not the wry British sense of humour. The late 60's saw the production of some really brilliant cinema, and this is a notable example.
Malkovitch camps it up for Kubrick Fans.
John Malkovitch steps right out of character to sashay round London as a gay sloshed and somewhat sleazy con man Alan Conway impersonating the great film director Stanley Kubrick. Smooth talking Conway certainly manages to take people in and pocket their money. Malkovitch seems to thoroughly enjoy the role, and gets the most out of it. The fact that he doesn't resemble Kubrick in a fit, makes the impersonation even more audacious. The picture will appeal to film buffs, with its in jokes, and many references to Kubrick's films. There are some amusing situations and Conway finally gets something of a comeuppance being unceremoniously chucked off the end of a pier. A good cast of English stock players (including Richard E. Grant heavily wigged up) support Malkovitch, thoroughly camping it up, he is in most scenes and carries the movie on his performance. The music is always appropriate, has references to films like Space Odyssey, Clockwork Orange, etc and helps keep the pace brisk. I suspect the joke runs a little on the long side, but it should make Kubrick fans happy.
Oliver Twist (2005)
An Oliver Dickens would Applaud.
"You're a clever boy, my dear," said the playful old gentleman, patting Oliver on the head approvingly. (Charles Dickens)
Here's an impressive new version of the well worn but worn well classic tale about the orphan boy who "asked for more" in the gruesome Orphanage, later flees to London and meets up with the sinister Fagin who runs a gang of child pickpockets lead by The Artful Dodger. The plot thickens when Oliver is rescued short term by a kindly Mr. Brownlow but is later kidnapped by the evil Bill Sikes, in collaboration with Fagin, and forced to rob his benefactor. The story is widely known. Dickens uses it to exemplify the harsh conditions that children of the poor experienced in the times of Queen Victoria.
The great difficulty in adapting Charles Dickens to the screen is the length of his novels and the complex plots and many characters therein. Also much of the Dickens droll humour which lightens the grim situations is in the written word, often lost in translation to film.
So Roman Polanski, that brilliant if sometimes quirky director, has done a truly remarkable job with his Oliver Twist. Controversial Polanski once the boy wonder of the Polish Film Industry, with the film Knife in the Water, and later Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, up to his recent The Pianist, occasionally takes to the classics. Previously he's done a noteworthy versions of Tess and Macbeth. Again he seems totally at home with Dickens England, with the most Victorian looking London since The Elephant Man. He has succeeded in creating a detailed and dismal environment that seems to ring historically true.
Of course there have been several previous and fine films of this story. The most notable being David Lean's magnificent version in 1948, to which all others are compared. Lean made two excursions into Dickens, Twist and Great Expectations. Both text book examples of gifted film making. His superb B&W photography gave them a truly Dickensian look which Polanski and indeed David Lynch in The Elephant Man appreciate. (Polanski starts this film with an engraving under the opening titles which is in black and white, and the first scene is muted in colour, as are many other sequences in the picture which helps the anachronistic mood.) Strong casting from the pool of top actors of the time, combined with exemplary editing and direction made Lean's production something of a masterpiece.
However Polanski has created a new version that must seriously compare with Lean's landmark film, and the others including Carol Reed's "Oliver" the Musical. He faithfully brings the novel to the screen in this lengthy version, (nearly 30 minutes longer than Lean's) including scenes that were omitted in previous scripts. His Oliver as played by Barney Clarke is less precious than John Howard Davies, and gets down and dirty, while Ben Kingsley heavily made-up is a gentler Fagin than the great Alec Guinness.
If perhaps the malevolent Bill Sikes played by Jamie Foreman doesn't quite live up to the legendary Robert Newton, or the overwhelming Oliver Reed he certainly brings a degree of smoldering brutality to the role. While Harry Eden as Mr. Bumble, revives memories of the Dickensian Francis L. Sullivan, and Leanne Rowe as Nancy stands in acceptably for Kay Walsh. The other stock British character players in the new film all look and perform splendidly to add the "Dickens image" to the story.
It is some 35 years since a feature length Oliver Twist has been filmed. So a whole new generation may be introduced to Dickens through this new picture. When Lean's Great Expectations played at the Regent Cinema in Melbourne back in the late forties, it was huge, people queued in the streets to get tickets. I'm not sure that there is the same interest today in Dickens especially with younger people. Polanski does fine homage to Dickens even if the film lacks some of the humour and Gothic impact of the David Lean picture.