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    Master of Miserly Menace

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    This year’s Most Valuable Player for holiday season Bah! Humbuggery is today’s venerable birthday honoree Christopher Plummer, the Academy Award®- and double Emmy®- and Tony®-winning now-88-year-old treasure playing a salty, spectral and proto-Dickensian Ebenezer Scrooge in The Man Who Invented Christmas in movie theaters and emerging again on Christmas Day as the rigid, ransom-resistant tycoon J. Paul Getty in director Ridley Scott’s fact-based kidnapping suspense thriller All the Money in the World, for which the actor – a whirlwind replacement in a role vacated by the controversial Kevin Spacey – nabbed a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe® nomination Monday. Next year marks an astounding 65 years of visibility on television and cinema screens by the peerless Plummer, for whom his current incarnation of Scrooge is not his first encounter with the canon of Charles Dickens dastards. That auspicious occasion goes back 15 Yuletides to the fabulous, all-star Douglas McGrath adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby (2002), whose initial 1838 serialized appearance in print predated that of A Christmas Carol by five years. Unlike the redemptive, feel-good fable aspects of A Christmas Carol, Dickens had something darker and more socially conscious in mind when he conceived the tale of the hard-luck Nickleby clan and the steely, business-obsessed character of Ralph Nickleby, embodied by Plummer with dry-ice malevolence, who under the pretense of helping his distressed sister-in-law (Stella Gonet), niece (Romola Garai) and title-hero nephew (Charlie Hunnam), schemes to exploit their vulnerable naïveté in the ways of the world to his advantage.

    “Ralph Nickleby is a delectable character to sink one's teeth into,” Plummer remarked in the film’s production notes. “He's a complex man, a businessman whose aim in life has been only to protect his interests and those of his select friends. Nicholas and his sister are Ralph's nephew and niece, but he doesn't feel the same as they do about the bonds of family – he never has. At the end of the film, it's that one major flaw for which he pays the ultimate price.” Though Dickens’ generosity of feeling infuses the work through the depiction of an array of charitable do-gooders, love interests and staunch friends personified by Jamie Bell (Smike), Anne Hathaway (Madeline Bray), Tom Courtenay (Newman Noggs), Nathan Lane and Dame Edna Everage (the Crummles), and Timothy Spall and Gerard Horan (the Cheeryble brothers), the calculating Ralph Nickleby’s self-centered outlook casts a profound shadow that has reverberated across 180 years. In assessing Nicholas Nickleby’s “two hours of swift, engaging entertainment,” The New York Times’ A.O. Scott took a moment for deeper reflection, observing: “Far worse, in the novelist's moral scheme, is the cold, controlling, rationalist evil practiced by Ralph Nickleby. Mr. Plummer, with a voice like dry, rattling stones, makes Ralph all the more monstrous by underplaying his malice. The elder Nickleby is a more chilling figure than the inhuman, unseen villains of Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings because his badness is not metaphysical but rather the symbol of a social system that values human beings as things. Dickens was a passionate opponent of the utilitarianism that was the leading public philosophy of his day – Hard Times is his most sustained attack on it – and Nickleby, with his inhuman, self-justifying greed, hardly feels like an obsolete literary type. Mr. McGrath stages his fate in a manner that emphasizes, quite appropriately, the Christian element in Dickens's social radicalism.” Also starring Jim Broadbent (Wackford Squeers), Edward Fox (Sir Mulberry Hawk), Nicholas Rowe (Lord Verisopht), Juliet Stevenson (Mrs. Squeers) and David Bradley (Nigel Bray) as deliciously sinister and self-righteous types in reprobate Ralph’s disreputable orbit, Nicholas Nickleby, which won the 2002 National Board of Review’s Best Acting Ensemble Award for Plummer and his fellow thespians, is Dickens done lovingly and well, beautifully served up on an extras-loaded Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.

    Meet the Parents, 50 Years Apart

    Times change, stories evolve, traditions are shaken and perhaps shattered, relevant commentaries are made on the times we live in. Take the framing device of an independent-minded white girl bringing home her romantic partner, a smart, charismatic African American man of skilled accomplishments and bright outlook, to meet her liberal, loving mother and father at their beautiful, well-appointed home to [...]

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    Intimate Country Origins of a Large 30-Year Screen Career

    This year, Belfast-born stage and screen stalwart Kenneth Branagh, who turned 57 yesterday, proved with deft dispatch he could be valiantly heroic in uniform and slyly flamboyant at sleuthing in the ambitious, large-cast big-screen 70mm surroundings of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and his own reimagining of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Clearly, with large chunks of Shakespeare (including a 70mm Hamlet) [...]

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    Carradine's Two Rail Rides

    David Carradine (1936-2009), who would have turned 81 today, confided in his 1995 autobiography Endless Highway that his casting as union organizer-turned-outlaw Big Bill Shelly in the Roger Corman production of Boxcar Bertha (1972) came about because his then-girlfriend Barbara Hershey, rising in prominence following Last Summer (1969), The Baby Maker (1970) and Dealing (1972), wanted him as a condition of [...]

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    Rebuilding Robert Fuest's Wuthering Heights

    Director/production designer Robert Fuest’s 1970 adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1970) is an anomaly among Fuest’s work in that it isn’t an anomaly. Fuest’s films are marked by their unconventionality, their eccentric humor, and their flamboyant stylishness, particularly his The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) and The Final Programme (1973). Wuthering Heights is, in many ways, off-kilter in his oeuvre [...]

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    December Preorders / Here...Here, Sweet Agnes

    Romantic tales abound to enliven holiday hi-def movie binging this December from the Twilight Time dream factory. Woody Allen delivers madcap Big Apple fun and fantasy. Otto Preminger provides Old World Hollywood glamour and royal intrigue for a notorious lady’s resplendent 70th anniversary in gorgeous 1080p. From the pen of Emily Brontë comes an unfairly neglected version of her [...]

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    Jeff's Journeys

    The invaluable Jeff Bridges, celebrating his 68th birthday today, enjoyed a relatively quiet 2017 on movie screens (unlike his commanding, award-honored lawman performance in last year’s Hell or High Water). Which is to say he nonetheless contributed grace notes of chivalrous irony to The Only Living Boy in New York, grit and gravitas to Only the Brave and [...]

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    Woody Wheel of Wonders

    As the eternally productive Woody Allen turns 82 Friday, his new 1950s-set movie drama Wonder Wheel (2017) opens in theaters to mixed reviews overall and admiring notices for the work of actresses Kate Winslet and Juno Temple. His 2018 project A Rainy Day in New York, reportedly a contemporary examination of inter-generational romance, is now in post-production and promises another stellar cast, [...]

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    American Authors

    Two rascally and eloquently outspoken men of letters born a century apart share today as a birthday, and each has spawned movie and TV adaptations from either the printed page or the stage that share an unsparingly witty, frequently caustic, occasionally celebratory and definitely illuminating point of view as to how scalawags and reprobates go about their version of American [...]

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    Mouse Mountain

    A perfect role fit is often not apparent to the actor involved. Denver-born Don Cheadle, since elevated to fame as the engaging star of the Ocean’s caper trilogy, the Marvel Avengers and Iron Man sagas and such acclaimed films as Boogie Nights, Hotel Rwanda and Flight, and the wicked-smart series House of Lies, initially felt that way about playing the [...]

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