The story is the same. Poor little orphaned Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) has had a hard life. Either toiling in a horrible workhouse or being beaten at a miserable foster home it's hasn't been easy for the 9-year-old. The boy finally runs away to London where he is immediately spotted by the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) a wily pickpocket. He whisks the sickly Oliver off to meet Fagin (Ben Kingsley) the leader of the pickpocket gang. Under the watchful guidance of Fagin and the other boys Oliver is taught the fine art of lifting. But when he finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time and is falsely accused for a theft Oliver is inadvertently taken under the wing of the kindly Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) a rich man who adopts the boy. Finally some happiness right? Not if you're in a Dickens novel. No sooner is Oliver contentedly ensconced with Brownlow when tragedy strikes again. Fagin's business partner the utterly cruel Bill Sykes (Jamie Forman) kidnaps Oliver and forces him to help them rob Brownlow's house. And when that doesn't go so well Bill then wants to get rid of Oliver. Only with the help of Bill's mistress Nancy (Leanne Rowe) who feels sympathy for Oliver can the boy be reunited with the only person who has ever showed him any kindness.
In a film full of fine performances from relatively unknown British actors Ben Kingsley stands out--and rightly so. Finally Kingsley has been given a part worthy of his talent and the Oscar-winning actor plays one of literature's more memorable characters to the hilt. Part Shakespeare's Falstaff part Lord of the Rings' Gollum Kingsley enjoys playing up Fagin's sprightly nature and physicality. Fagin is a merry prankster even if he's all hunched over and craggy faced with a high squeaky voice and a long moldy beard. But Fagin suffers. He doesn't really want to corrupt young Oliver. He knows the boy is pure of heart but he's too afraid of getting caught--or of evoking Bill's wrath--to let Oliver go. Kingsley subtly shows this internal struggle of good and evil raging within Fagin. As far as the rest of the cast it's interesting to note how all the children are fresh-faced and wide-eyed especially Clark as the oh-so-fragile yet surprising resilient Oliver and Eden as the crafty but goodhearted Dodger. All the adults especially the mean-spirited ones are either very severe and haggard or doughy and sweaty. In fact the film is a great study in faces a testament to Polanski's keen eye for the human condition.
Roman Polanski may have made some bad choices in his personal life but the man sure knows how to make a movie. With Oliver Twist the Oscar-winning director returns to the 19th century England he so vividly painted in his 1979 Tess--except this time around it's a bleak existence in the mud-caked streets of Victorian London being used as a backdrop instead of the lush English countryside. Polanski and his team painstakingly recreate the newly industrialized London from the ground up. It's a bustling teeming frightfully dirty environ filled with pestilence and vermin of all kinds. It must have been such an awful and a brutal time period to have endured and Polanski wants to make sure we understand this so we'll be that more amazed by how this little boy survives in it. There are times you almost wish they would break out into song ("Food! Glorious food!") just to lighten the mood a bit--but of course that's an entirely different Oliver Twist. And therein lies the film's problem: too many Twists. By count there's about 18 other versions either done as feature films or television movies/miniseries--and that's not including the Oscar-winning 1968 musical Oliver!. With all of Polanski's talents he could have picked something that was a little less of a retread.
All of Britain is abuzz as "E-Day" approaches. The day when the pound will be converted into euros and the former will no longer be accepted as a valid form of currency. Enter two brothers: wide-eyed 7-year-old Damian (Alexander Nathan Etel) and his 9-year-old fiscally precocious and shrewd brother Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon) who stumble upon a million pounds and are split on what to do with it in the short time they have. They are in agreement on one thing: They will not tell their father (James Nesbitt) about the money. Anthony just wants to spend it on material things but Damian believes the money has been delivered to them by some sort of divine osmosis a miracle from their recently deceased mother. Through the saints he claims he sees and talks to he thinks it is should be given exclusively to the homeless--or anyone deemed worthy by meeting Damian's rigorous criteria…admitting they are poor. He is later crushed to discover that the money's true origin is a heist gone awry as he crosses paths with the obligatory villain posing as a homeless man and threatening Damian to hand over the money or else pay the consequences.
There's a kind of freedom in releasing an indie film in which the biggest name belongs to the guy behind the camera. Rather than worrying about watching mega movie stars it shifts the audience's attention so they can get involved in a complex storyline. Millions is no exception to this rule. The acting is superb all the way around but undoubtedly the two biggest stars of the film are also its smallest. The interplay between two brothers--played by Etel and McGibbon in their feature film debuts--makes the viewer feel like a fly on the wall in any family's home. For such young kids they display an amazing skill at being able to capture the subtle nuances generally present in sibling relationships. Throw in the dynamic of their father--played well by Nesbitt a veteran of the British-indie circuit--and his new girlfriend (Daisy Donovan) who threatens to disrupt the family harmony and you feel like a genuine intruder on a family in crisis. But Damian's naive musings help keep the story essentially light vibrant and flowing.
Millions marks a complete about-face for director Danny Boyle. With his previous films he followed along a general path of the same moods and tones: his harrowing take on drugs and decadence in England in the groundbreaking Trainspotting; his hostage-falls-for-kidnapper caper A Life Less Ordinary; his disappointing attempt at a mind trip with The Beach; and his zombie take-off 28 Days Later. It's safe to say that a feel-good family film would not seem the logical next step. But Boyle executes Millions brilliantly showing not only his sensitive side but his flair for the whimsical. Parts of the movie even suggest hints of Tim Burton complete with sinister-sounding choral hymns in the background. With Millions Boyle establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with one of the most versatile directors around today.
Love means never having to say you're sorry; it's a many splendored thing; it's all you need. But in tennis love means zero; it means you lose. Or does it? For Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) a British pro tennis player seeded near the bottom of the world tennis ranks love actually inspires him. After scoring a wild card to play in the prestigious Wimbledon tournament he meets and falls for the rising and highly competitive American tennis star Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst) fueling a winning streak he hasn't had since he began his career. For Lizzie however the love thing doesn't necessarily work out as well. Her feelings for Peter become a distraction throwing her off her game. Hmmm. Can these two crazy kids keep it together long enough so Peter can fulfill his lifelong dream of winning the men's singles title even if it means his muse might have to sacrifice her first Wimbledon title?
Kirsten Dunst may be what draws you in but Paul Bettany is the reason you don't walk out. The British actor who made an impression with American audiences playing the oh-so-witty Chaucer in A Knight's Tale and then wowed them in Oscar winners such as A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander doesn't disappoint in his first lead role. Bettany's Peter embodies all that charm we've come to love and expect in our British actors--although thankfully not as floppy as Hugh Grant--he stumbles about and apologizes profusely. It's so cute. And he makes a pretty darn believable tennis player to boot (one would hope so after the intense training session the actors apparently had to go through to prepare for the movie). Unfortunately Dunst does not fare as well. Her Lizzie is appealing and she adequately handles the tennis stuff--but she ultimately fails to connect with her male lead making their relationship seem forced. Their beginning sparks are fun but when there's suppose to be a real flame igniting between them you're left scratching your head wondering just when where and why they fell in love so hard so fast. Yep that's a big red flag.
I've said sports movies usually work (see the Mr. 3000 review). To clarify: That is team sports. Sport movies where the action revolves around a single competitor are harder to pull off. It's just not as exciting watching an underdog struggle with himself in order to win. Luckily director Richard Loncraine (HBO's My House in Umbria) seems to know this fact. Even though Peter takes Centre Court (that's the British way of spelling it) Loncraine tries to at least create a more complete picture giving us a glimpse into the world of tennis as well as delving into the traditions of Wimbledon and how the Brits feel about the prestigious tournament where British champions are few and far between. Loncraine also utilizes real-life tennis pros such as John McEnroe and Chris Evert who appear as announcers to liven up the proceedings. Even the action on the court with close-up shots of the ball whizzing over the net gets the blood pumping a little--wish there was a lot more of that. But then of course one could just turn on the TV and watch the real Wimbledon instead watching a silly run-of-the-mill romantic comedy set there.
In the late 19th century Dr. Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) a misunderstood monster hunter is summoned to Transylvania to ferret out Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and kill him once and for all. When Van Helsing gets to the small village where the vampire was last spotted he discovers he also must contend with Dracula's three seriously twisted vampire brides Dracula's angry henchman/werewolf--and a lovely gypsy princess named Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) who is hell-bent on eradicating Dracula and his bloodsucking kind for slaughtering her entire family. Oh and let's not forget Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley) who holds the key to Dracula's evil master plan--something about releasing his minions of unborn bat-like children from their goo-filled cocoons so they can wreck havoc on the world. Yuck. Sounds like our resident monster stomper and his sword-swinging gal pal have their work cut out for them. If Van Helsing does manage to kill all his monster foes does that mean he's out of a job?
Jackman has the whole antihero thing down pat. He adequately embodies the younger more virile Van Helsing dishing out as much pain and torture as he can on the undead--but the Aussie actor isn't given nearly as much meat to chew on as he did say delving into the complicated Wolverine in X-Men. Instead the monster hunter is relegated to carrying big weapons wearing a big hat and muttering something about having bad dreams to a past he can't remember. Same goes for Beckinsale. The British actress was oh-so-cool on the other side of the fence playing the chic vampire Selene in Underworld cutting her way through a myriad of werewolves. As Van Helsing's heavily accented female counterpart Anna however she just runs around with her sword blurting out such pathetic dialogue such as "Dracula took everything away from me and now I'm alone in the world" while Roxburgh's Dracula--who can't hold a candle to other far more charismatic Draculas before him--wails about being so very alone as his luscious brides hang upside down in front of him. Give me a break. At least Australian actor David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings) provides much-needed comic relief as Van Helsing's sidekick Carl a Catholic friar who doesn't much like playing hero.
With the requisite dark mood and tone action sequences and snazzy CGI-creations including the winged vampire brides and formidable werewolves you can see exactly where writer/director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) spent Van Helsing's nearly $150 million budget. But even all the bells and whistles can't tie together the film's vacuous nonsensical mumbo jumbo as Sommers attempts to bring classic movie monsters together in the same movie. Maybe in a tongue-in-cheek Abbott and Costello movie it could work but as a serious action-packed thriller clearly Dracula Frankenstein and the Wolf Man do not need to meet. On top of that Sommers steals from other movies as well such as recent films Underworld (the whole vampire vs. werewolf conflict) and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (Van Helsing defeats a rather familiar-looking Mr. Hyde at one point). Whatever originality there is in the film leaves you either scratching your head--Dracula has kids?--or rolling your eyes--Anna needs to kill Dracula so her nine-generations of family can reunite in Heaven? Please.