#289. Charles Dickens

Much like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens is one of the most adapted authors ever to have lived. While the number of adapted works of Dickens isn’t necessarily large, especially when compared against those of Philip K. Dick, the sheer number of times Dickens’ writing has been adapted is what gives him this distinction. One does have to wonder if the prolific amount of adaptations has to do with the singular fact that Dickens’ name caries a certain amount of gravitas with it. Of course, his writings have withstood the test of time, even if their original context and political satire might be lost on modern audiences. If anything, these adaptations may be the only exposure to Dickens most people will experience. While we’ll feel guilty about having not read The Pickwick Papers, at least we’d know what it was about. This week’s two films highlight some unique adaptations of Charles Dickens’ works.

Oliver!Oliver!
Year: 1968
Rating: G
Length: 153 minutes / 2.55 hours

When it comes to recognition from the Academy Awards, Dickens is definitely in the same class as Shakespeare. Both have had four of their adapted stories turned into films that won nominations for Best Picture. Both have had one of their stories win said Best Picture Oscar. Both aforementioned Best Pictures were also musicals. On Shakespeare’s side, we have Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), Henry V (1944), and Julius Caesar (1953) as nominees and West Side Story (1961) as Best Picture (with Romeo and Juliet being nominated in 1936 and 1968 as well). In terms of Dickens’ achievements, there’s David Copperfield (1935), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), and Great Expectations (1946) as nominees and Oliver! (1968) as Best Picture. The fact that the 1960’s saw two literary musical adaptations win Best Picture merely shows you what kind of decade it really was.

To quote another famous, musical orphan, Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) had a “Hard Knock Life”. Shuffled from an orphanage to the service of an undertaker, the young boy finally escapes and travels to London to start a new life. Because he has no family or connections in London, Oliver is soon taken in by a gang of thieves and pickpockets. While he doesn’t necessarily want to commit these crimes, he still needs to eat. After he’s accused of stealing a wallet from a Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O’Conor), a bookseller comes to Oliver’s rescue with the truth of his innocence. Partly because Oliver reminds him of his niece, Brownlow decides to take Oliver home with him. Despite the luxury Oliver now finds himself in, his past acquaintances kidnap him and attempt to bring him back into a life of crime. The golden heart of a barmaid is the only piece of hope Oliver has of being saved.

The Muppet Christmas CarolThe Muppet Christmas Carol
Year: 1992
Rating: G
Length: 85 minutes / 1.41 hours

Just like we’ve seen a huge amount of Romeo and Juliet retellings, there have been plenty of versions of A Christmas Carol. I would wager that any holiday-themed story will be retold as long as that holiday remains relevant. Heck, even if it’s not relevant, people will continue to “celebrate” by reading or watching these stories. From watching Groundhog Day (1993) on Groundhog Day, to Independence Day (1996) on the Fourth of July, to V for Vendetta (2006) on Guy Fawkes Day, there are plenty of obscure holidays to celebrate with a movie. But Christmas always takes the cake in terms of holiday-themed adaptations. Of these adaptations, none is more recognizable than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Because it is such a timeless story, it has been reproduced in a large number of mediums, including puppetry (as seen in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)).

Narrated by Charles Dickens (Gonzo the Great), The Muppet Christmas Carol follows Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine), a miserly old man who has pushed everyone close to him away. Because the following day is Christmas, Scrooge’s employee, Bob Cratchit (Kermit the Frog), asks for all the bookkeepers to get the holiday off. After begrudgingly agreeing to Cratchit’s terms, Scrooge arrives at his home and spends the night alone only to be awoken by the ghosts of his past: Jacob and Robert Marley (Waldorf and Statler). They warn him that his current path will lead to his demise. To emphasize the point, three more spirits visit him in the night and show him what once was, what could be, and what is to come. Gradually, Scrooge realizes the error of his ways and wakes up the next day full of the Christmas spirit.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Dickens adaptations

#288. Orphans

While orphans are often considered to be some of the most disenfranchised people-groups in the world, there certainly seem to be a large number of them as main characters in a number of films. Granted, this is an artifact of a few different genres, most of which want to give the protagonists enough flexibility to go on adventures without being tied down to a home life. Even the ones who do have guardians either don’t have the best ones (as in the “step-mother” archetype) or experience tragedy again when these guardians are also killed. Despite the number of orphans decreasing in the real-world due to better survival rates for parents, somehow the stories of orphans always seem to find interested audiences. Some may fault the writers of these stories for this common ploy, but if it keeps working over centuries of writing, there must be some merit to it. This week’s two films feature orphans as their main characters.

                Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events
Lemony Snicket's: A Series of Unfortunate EventsYear: 2004
Rating: PG
Length: 108 minutes / 1.8 hours

In part due to the fact that there are less orphans in the world than there used to be, less authors are using them in their stories. That being said, there are still a number of notable literary orphans, the most famous of which is Harry Potter. With the rise of the popularity of superhero movies, we also see that many of their main characters are orphans as well. In fact, some have given Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) the facetious title of “Orphan Fight”. Even Marvel superheroes have this trait as well, including Spider-man and Captain America. This trait isn’t even constrained to American comic books, as the long-running Japanese manga, Naruto, had its eponymous character orphaned during a disaster that hits his home village. While many of these orphans have no siblings, one notable group of orphans is the Baudelaire children of Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004).

After the mysterious death of their wealthy parents, the Baudelaire children find themselves in the care of their unscrupulous uncle, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). When the children narrowly avoid an accident with a train, they are taken to live with their other uncle, Dr. Montgomery Montgomery (Billy Connolly). Through unfortunate circumstances involving his beloved reptiles, Dr. Montgomery is killed and the children are then moved to live with their Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep). Olaf appears again and lets some ravenous leeches kill Josephine. With the children now under his control again, he puts on a play about a wedding with the eldest child, Violet (Emily Browning). Unfortunately, the play is not an act and Olaf now stands to inherit the children’s bequeathed fortune. Fortunately, the two younger Baudelaires save their sister from her marriage while also learning of the source of the fire that killed their parents.

Oliver!Oliver!
Year: 1968
Rating: G
Length: 153 minutes / 2.55 hours

To many it may seem strange that orphans are as musical as they appear in film, but we can certainly blame Disney for this oddity. I know I wouldn’t want to sing in the tragic circumstances of an orphan, but time-and-again we find Disney princesses (as well as other main characters animated by them) cheerily singing despite their lack of parents. This is probably because many of the Disney stories are pulled from old stories, where parents often died from a variety of factors. Even Disney’s most recent success, Frozen (2013), features two women orphaned by a shipwreck that killed their parents. Outside of Disney, there are still examples of musical orphans, including that of Lil’ Orphan Annie, who has had many musical adaptations. But, above all these is the most famous orphan of all: Oliver Twist. The musical adaptation in 1968 won Best Picture, as well as five other Oscars.

Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) has a difficult life as an orphan. After asking for more food at the orphanage, the owners sell him into the service of an undertaker. When he gets in trouble, he’s locked in the basement only to escape and head to London. Once in the big city, he becomes involved with a gang of pickpockets and thieves. Wrongfully accused for a crime, Oliver is almost sent to prison were it not for a bookseller who witnessed the crime and could exonerate the orphan. The victim decided to bring Oliver home in the process. Unfortunately, even though Oliver now lives in a life of relative luxury, his past comes back to haunt him. Some of the thieves find Oliver and force him back into stealing. Meanwhile, his benefactor goes about trying to prove that Oliver is the child of a niece of his. Tragedy ensues as a friendly barmaid tries to help Oliver escape the clutches of the thieves, but justice eventually prevails.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 outstanding orphans

#285. Jennifer Connelly

In the world of child actors, very few last long enough to continue working in the industry. Sure, there are exceptions; actors and actresses who eventually develop their craft into award-winning performances. Most people could count the number of these exceptions on one hand. This begs the question: what helps a child actor eventually arrive at success? It is my opinion that the earlier a child actor can work with an excellent director, the greater their chances are of achieving recognition later in life (should they not be hindered by alcohol or drug addiction before then). One of these anomalies is Jennifer Connelly. Her very first role in film was in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) when she was only 14. She’s only gone up from there. This week’s two films look at Jennifer Connelly’s best roles.

Requiem for a DreamRequiem for a Dream
Year: 2000
Rating: R
Length: 102 minutes / 1.7 hours

While Sergio Leone’s crime drama was her first role, many consider Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) to be her breakout performance. That being said, there was plenty more to be desired for her acting. Fortunately, she has managed to stay out of the limelight partly because of her heavy involvement in independent films. Granted, this is often seen as the reason why she mostly appears in darker and more nudity-filled films (which may also be tied to shedding the “child actor” label), but it’s what eventually landed her in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000). If audiences didn’t consider her a serious actress before this film, they certainly do now. A decade and a half later, she would team up with Aronofsky again for the Biblical epic, Noah (2014), but most claim their previous collaboration as one of their best.

Harry (Jared Leto) spends most of his time shooting heroin with his girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly), and his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). Because it is such an expensive addiction, they decide to turn to drug dealing in order to pay for the habit, as well as to realize their dreams of starting a business, becoming a clothing designer, and moving out of the slums, respectively. At the same time, Harry’s mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), is convinced that she has been chosen to appear on TV and takes drastic measures to lose weight so she can wear a favorite dress again. Through this process, she becomes addicted to amphetamines while her son and his posse find their own unwholesome fates, including hospitalization, incarceration, and prostitution. In a hallucination, Sara imagines that the world is all right for her, her son, and his girlfriend. That dream is far from the truth.

A Beautiful MindA Beautiful Mind
Year: 2001
Rating: PG-13
Length: 135 minutes / 2.25 hours

Another big-name director who cast Connelly in their films was none other than Ron Howard. We all have forgotten about the regrettable The Dilemma (2011), but Jennifer Connelly likely wouldn’t have appeared in that film had she not impressed Howard earlier in her career with her work in Inventing the Abbotts (1997). This inspiration is what led him to cast her, along with Russell Crowe and Ed Harris, in the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind (2001). Not only did this film win Best Picture and Best Director, but it garnered Jennifer Connelly an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She had already worked with Ed Harris on his directorial debut: Pollock (2000), portraying the mistress of Jackson Pollock (who himself was played by Ed Harris), but it took many years before she appeared in another film across from Russell Crowe: the aforementioned Noah.

John Nash (Russell Crowe) is a promising mathematics student at Princeton University in the late 1940’s. Because of the high hopes for his career, he is under large amounts of stress to publish, but he wants to publish something original, not just a derivative work. While at a bar with his mathematics friends, he develops a new idea that leads to his publication of the Nash equilibrium (a modified game theory). Meanwhile, he falls in love with, and eventually marries, Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly). At first, their life together is idyllic, but soon Alicia discovers that John’s roommate in college never existed, and John’s “boss” from the Pentagon also doesn’t exist. Despite John being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and his refusal to take his medication, Alicia stays with him and helps him to an eventual recovery.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 key Jennifer Connelly roles

Bacon #: 2 (A Beautiful Mind / Ed Harris -> Apollo 13 / Kevin Bacon)

Snack Break: Congratulations

What a twist! While I try my best to see all the Best Picture nominees before the ceremony, this year I failed to see the film that (eventually) won Best Picture. I will see it as soon as I can, so I don’t know if I can give an honest review of it yet. Clearly, it had a number of elements that propelled it to win the 89th Acadamy Awards’ highest honor.

I must be honest to say that I had my hopes set on two films this year: La La Land and Arrival. Both spoke to me in different ways, but they both left an impact with their message. When La La Land was initially named the winner of Best Picture, I was excited. When it was taken away due to the presenter’s mistake, it made me wonder how good Moonlight is to win Best Picture.

I know the Academy is often faulted for giving awards to movies that should have won in years past, so I only hope that Moonlight can stand on its own merits, instead of perhaps being a result of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite fiasco. Still, I have not seen this film yet, but that won’t stop me from buying it and adding it to my (nearly) perfect Best Picture Oscar collection. I only hope I can keep an open mind when I do see it.

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Even with this dramatic turn of events, I was glad to see La La Land end up with plenty of its musical awards and Arrival with the awards it deserved as well. Kind of a mixed bag this year, but the winners certainly earned their respective awards.

#267. American Warriors

Partly due to its relatively recent emergence on the geopolitical stage, the concept of an “American Warrior” is mostly unheard of. The United States developed quickly into the collection of cities, towns, and villages that held the majority of its population, spending very little, if any, time in a tribal condition. Most warriors come from tribal or clan-like origins, so the lack of these societal structures in the United States resulted in a lack of American Warriors. That’s not to say that these American Warriors are not completely nonexistent. Part of the American way is the absorption and acceptance of many different backgrounds. If this ideology is run in reverse, it would stand to reason that some Americans might be accepted into warrior cultures, becoming warriors themselves. This week’s two films examine some American Warriors.

The Last SamuraiThe Last Samurai
Year: 2003
Rating: R
Length: 154 minutes / 2.57 hours

Becoming a warrior in an isolated culture can carry quite a lot of culture shock with it. Granted, it couldn’t be any more than the titular character of John Carter (2012) experienced when he became a warrior of Mars, but there’s still a learning curve when discovering what is appropriate and what is not. Fortunately, with the barriers of the world’s countries becoming more and more open, these culture shocks are becoming less and less. Unfortunately, this is also eliminating the need for clan-like warrior cultures. In terms of Japan, we in the United States can thank Commodore Matthew Perry for opening up its borders to us, which inevitably began the process of westernization in the island nation. Shortly afterward, the samurai warriors of Japan found themselves fighting the changes that forced them into the history books.

In an attempt to flee from the memories of the Indian Wars, Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is given an opportunity to train soldiers in Japan. However, when his inexperienced troops are ambushed by rebel samurai, he finds himself captured and brought back to the samurai camp. The leader of the samurai, Katsumoto Moritsugu (Ken Watanabe), saw something special in the way that Algren fought and now shows him their way of life and explains that they’re fighting to prevent the westernization of Japan. Meanwhile, Algren is shunned by the widow of the samurai he killed, but she starts to warm up to him as he integrates into her society, even going so far as to protect Katsumoto during an assassination attempt. Clad in the armor of the samurai he had slain, Algren joins the fight against the Imperial Army and soon finds himself to be the Last Samurai.

Dances with WolvesDances with Wolves
Year: 1990
Rating: PG-13
Length: 181 minutes / 3.02 hours

Even though early American settlers came from civilizations that no longer had warriors, there were still plenty of warrior cultures native to North America. Partly due to the mutual distrust between the settlers and the natives, there was very little cross-pollination of their soldiers. There still were a few who did manage to integrate themselves into the native cultures, but they are the exception to the rule. A few examples in film include Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo from The Last of the Mohicans (1992), as well as John Dunbar from Dances with Wolves (1990). Of course, the idea of an individual integrating into a native society, a la Dances with Wolves, has been explored in different ways since its release, the most famous being James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), which was often referred to as “Dances with Wolves in space”.

During the Civil War, First Lieutenant John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is awarded for bravery and given the chance to be assigned to whatever post he wants. His desire to see the western side of the country is granted and soon he finds himself as the lone soldier in charge of Fort Sedgewick. Despite the dangers of residing close to the Sioux, John does not take their intimidation lying down and sets out to talk with them instead of running away. Around the same time, he comes across Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who was taken by the Pawnee as a child. While Dunbar and her develop romantic feelings, he manages to become accepted by the Sioux, who notice his partnership with a wolf and give him the name “Dances With Wolves”. Suddenly, Dunbar finds that Fort Sedgewick has been re-occupied and must decide whether he wants to stay as an American or leave as a Sioux.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Western Warriors

#266. The End of a Dynasty

If reading the comments on any piece of internet content are any indication, most people are concerned about being the “first” to do something. This distinction is usually seen as a great accomplishment, as it signifies the entry into a new era where it is possible to achieve something that has never been achieved before. On the flip side of this coin, the end of something is usually a bittersweet moment filled with memories and regrets. Nothing lasts forever, and most of the time the start is brought in with great fanfare, while the end is a quiet fading into history. Speaking of history, most historians will focus on the individuals who are the first to accomplish something. Rarely are the last individuals to a legacy ever recognized. This week’s two films highlight a few individuals who hold the distinction of being the last of their kind.

The Last EmperorThe Last Emperor
Year: 1987
Rating: R
Length: 163 minutes / 2.71 hours

The world changes over time in many ways; not only geologically, but politically as well. While certain societal constructs have been in place for centuries, all it takes is a simple revolution to change everything. Longstanding dynasties filled with generations of rulers can be swept aside in an instant once the culture is ripe for change. Sometimes this change is needed as the advances in technology and ideology outpace the outdated sentiments of established practices. Sometimes the long line of rulers becomes corrupted and a fresh start is needed. Sometimes a stronger outside force overpowers the incumbent government. Whatever the reason, a ruler of a country can suddenly find themselves at the end of a long line of lineage, marking the end of their dynasty and the start of a new political era.

With no way to know of the turmoil that his country would eventually endure, 2-year-old Puyi (John Lone) finds himself crowned as the Emperor of China. This new position is one he eventually grows into, albeit over a long span of time. In that interim, one of his most trusted friends, Reginal Johnston (Peter O’Toole), teaches him about the world at large. Meanwhile, rumblings of this new culture of communism begin to sweep through China, prompting Puyi into exile in Japan. Once he returns, he is captured as a political prisoner and forced to admit that the communist way of doing things is the right way. Despite a suicide attempt, former Emperor Puyi eventually realizes that he can live a quiet life if he just agrees to the changes that have occurred in his country. While it is difficult to watch some of his friends and advisors punished, he still knows in his heart that he was the Last Emperor of China.

The Last SamuraiThe Last Samurai
Year: 2003
Rating: R
Length: 154 minutes / 2.57 hours

There are many dangerous occupations, but none are nearly as dangerous as being a soldier. When your life is on the line for your job, it can be easy to find yourself as the last of your kind. Even whole nations of warriors, like the Spartans in 300 (2007) or the Mohicans in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), can find themselves the victims of enormous massacres leaving very few, if any, of them remaining. Unfortunately, this is merely one of the realities of war: people will die. However, finding yourself as the last of a nation is a difficult scenario in and of itself. Do you rebuild? Do you surrender and become part of the new order (somewhat akin to the aforementioned The Last Emperor (1987))? As the last of a dynasty, is it your responsibility to then be the first to begin the next chapter of its saga?

Despite the numerous actions that now haunt his thoughts from the Indian Wars, Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) decides to accept an offer from the Japanese government to train soldiers to deal with a samurai rebellion. When he arrives in Japan, Algren finds that the “soldiers” he is to train are anything but. As such, when the samurai attack a railroad, these poorly trained individuals are sent into battle to die, even despite Algren’s opposition to this decision. While in battle, he manages to kill one of the samurai in such a way that causes the leader of the rebels to take him to their village. Once there, he slowly comes to understand and sympathize with the rebels, eventually joining their forces after proving himself worthy. When the samurai attack the well-trained Imperial soldiers, they initially do well, but are slaughtered by modern technology, leaving Algren as the Last Samurai.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 last legacies

#265. Kings and Emperors

There’s just something inherently romantic about a monarchy. Perhaps this is due to the fairy tales we were all told as children filled with Princes and Princesses, Kings and Queens. Perhaps it is the idea that an individual could have absolute power and freedom, thus leading to daydreaming of what we would do if we were in charge. Mentions of Kings and Emperors conjure up eras of historical significance, where warring kingdoms and empires were just beginning to settle into their newfound borders while still trying to expand and conquer. It is probably due to this historical gravitas that Kings and Emperors always seem more impressive than Presidents. After all, someone would much rather hear about the exploits of King Arthur when given the choice between him and President George Washington. This week’s two films highlight the reins of Kings and Emperors.

The King’s SpeechThe King's Speech
Year: 2010
Rating: R
Length: 118 minutes / 1.97 hours

Even though the King of England rules over the British Empire, he isn’t usually referred by the title of “Emperor”. Initially, this monarch was in charge of his vast Kingdom, but as time passed and democracies developed, the King of England was eventually relegated to merely a political figurehead. While much of the British monarch’s authority is now held by the Prime Minister, they still remain for the ceremonies linked to a royal bloodline. In fact, this public persona has managed to spawn plenty of media for tabloid newspapers for many decades, mainly because people are interested in the personal lives of those individuals who will eventually become King. Of course, this means that any scandals in the royal family are brought out into the open for the whole world to observe and judge.

Prince Albert (Colin Firth), is not a great public speaker by any means. In fact, he has a very severe stutter that his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) thinks could be fixed under the right therapy. Enter Lionel Logue (Geoffery Rush), a speech therapist who attempts to help Prince Albert overcome this speech impediment. While the Prince is unconvinced that he’s making progress, Lionel is sure of it. Meanwhile, after the death of King George V, Albert’s brother (Guy Pearce) takes the throne as King Edward VIII. Unfortunately, because of Edward’s relationship with an American divorcee, he has to abdicate the throne to Prince Albert, thus making him King George VI. Now the most challenging aspect of the King’s reign is the very important Christmas address to the people of England. Calling upon Lionel once again, King George VI prepares for this key speech.

The Last EmperorThe Last Emperor
Year: 1987
Rating: R
Length: 163 minutes / 2.71 hours

In terms of the hierarchy of a monarchy, an Emperor is at the highest tier. Kings are in charge of an individual country, but Emperors rule over any number of countries, each with their own King. An Emperor brings to mind the images of conquering rulers of Rome, but many of the Asiatic nations were led by Emperors as well. These dynasties lasted for centuries, starting before the Roman Emperors and persisting long after the Roman Empire fell. As countries have gained their independence, the Emperors of yore are quickly dwindling away. Currently, only Japan has an Emperor, and it’s more of a figurehead position (like that of the Queen of England). Some countries, like China, have completely abolished the role of an Emperor as they transitioned from monarchies to democracies.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Empress Cixi (Lisa Lu) finds herself dying without an heir. As such, she passes on the rule of all of China to a two-year old boy. This boy, now Emperor Puyi (John Lone), has difficulty adapting to his new lifestyle, as it is different from the one he is used to. Despite many servants and amenities available to him, he has very few friendships. Of those friendships, his wet nurse and a Scottish tutor, Reginal Johnston (Peter O’Toole) are some of his closest. After marrying Wanrong (Joan Chen), Puyi finds himself in exile from China and soon discovers that the underlying communist coup will permanently remove him from his position as Emperor. At this point, he merely wants to live a quiet life, but finds himself as a political prisoner, forced to accept the new China that has arrived, rendering him the Last Emperor of China.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 unique monarchs