Nicholas Nickleby (2002)
In the center of all the Dickensian squalor and grotesquerie that can be compressed into two hours stands Nicholas Nickleby (Charlie Hunnam), Dickens' first, and most overtly heroic, protagonist. The picture of chivalry, courage and dedication to duty, outraged at injustice and ready to defend the helpless orphan Smike (Jamie Bell) and the honor of his sister Kate (Romola Garai), Nickleby is the archetypal under-dog hero, “young, poor, brave, unimpeachable and ultimately triumphant,” in the words of G.K. Chesterton.
Writer-director Douglas McGrath, who previously adapted and directed the charming 1996 Emma, does a respectable job of retelling as much of Dickens' tale as possible in the time alloted. The casting is generally very good, with Christopher Plummer as the heartless, well-to-do uncle Ralph Nickleby and Jim Broadbent as the squinting, leering Squeers of horrific Dotheboys Hall. Nathan Lane provides some comic relief as tawdry impresario Mr. Crummles (accompanied, in a strange, jarring bit of incidental casting, by a man in the role of Crummles' unattractive wife). The cheerily cherubic Cheerybles (Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan) complete Dickens' morality-tale portrait of human nature, with Nicholas's heroism, in the words of one character, “the definition of goodness.”
Content advisory: Dickensian distress and grotesquerie including physical and emotional abuse at a horrific boarding school and leering advances upon a young woman; a fleeting childbirth scene.
Fantastic Voyage (1966) Released earlier this year on DVD, Fantastic Voyage comes paired with a second film, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), the modest entertainment value of which is unfortunately subverted by a key depiction of stereotyped religious fanaticism.
A landmark of 1960s sci-fi classic, Fantastic Voyage provides compelling entertainment despite dated special effects, deliberate pacing, and indifferent dialogue and acting, thanks in part to the genuine wonder it brings to its premise, the insertion of a miniaturized submarine and crew into the bloodstream of an injured man.
Some thought and research has clearly gone into the anatomical itinerary of the microbe-sized crew, which includes Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch and Donald Pleasence. The Cold-War premise involves an assassination attempt against a top scientist defecting from the “other side,” leaving him with an inoperable brain injury that only the bionauts can access and treat. There's also the requisite threat of a traitor among the ship's crew.
The science fiction ranges from respectable to ridiculous, but the film's appeal lies in the imaginative visualizations of the insides of the human body and in the awe of the crew members at seeing firsthand such wonders as the oxygenation of blood cells — a sight that leads to a brief exchange about the necessity of an intelligent designer (as in God).
Content advisory: Brief violence and sci-fi suspense and menace; an instance of profanity.
Sullivan's Travels (1941)
The studio suits want a crowd-pleasing comedy, but director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wants his next film to make a serious social statement.
The genius of this classic opening scene is that Sullivan's Travels is both screwball comedy and socially conscious melodrama — as well as a satire of socially conscious melodrama and an apologetic for comedy.
When Sullivan decides to live like a tramp for a while in order to experience poverty firsthand, the moral dangers of this familiar riches-to-rags quest are memorably highlighted by Sullivan's own butler: “If you'll permit me to say so, sir, the subject [of poverty] is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty, and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.” When Sullivan protests that he's “doing it for the poor,” the butler answers: “I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy, I believe quite properly, sir.”
The movie dignifies the poor but doesn't idealize them and ultimately deflates Sullivan's pretensions when things take a serious turn for the worse. And, as Sturges believed in movies leaving “the preaching to the preachers,” he has a preacher do the preaching, in a respectful sequence set in a black Baptist church.
Content advisory: Some slapstick and restrained violence; mild sexual references; a clearly invalid back-story marriage that is later dissolved.