Have a Very Leo Noel

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MIRAMAX, DREAMWORKS

Tough and tender Leo: 'In Gangs of New York' he is an 1860s gang lord; in 'Catch Me If You Can' he's a 1960s smoothie

(3 of 5)

RUSSIAN ARK
STARRING: Sergei Dontsov, Maksim Sergeyev, Mariya Kuznetsova
DIRECTED BY: Alexander Sokurov

This could have been just the greatest, daftest, most elaborate stunt in movie history — a single, unbroken, 87-min. Steadicam shot that winds and pirouettes as it accompanies an unseen narrator and a 19th century French marquis (Sergei Dontsov) through 33 rooms of the State Hermitage Museum in an attempt both to give us a tour of the St. Petersburg palace's artistic treasures and to encapsulate three centuries of Russian history, of the Czars and commoners who lived, worked, danced, suffered and died in those sumptuous rooms and labyrinthine corridors — but because Alexander Sokurov is as much an artist and storyteller as he is a magician-technician, viewers can forget the absurd degree of difficulty in the logistical challenge of keeping nearly a thousand extras and dozens of crew members out of the way of Tilman Buttner's high-definition digital camera and instead go along for the ride in this regal fun house — madhouse, as Buttner rushes after a Czar's children or pauses to scrutinize a Van Dyck Madonna or performs his own virtuoso minuet when he enters the Nicholas Hall to discover a ballroom full of whirling aristocrats who dance the night away and finally exit down the grand staircase and out of the palace at dawn for a coda that will have the movie's audience gasping in exhilarated exhaustion, whispering astonished gratitude to Sokurov for having created vigorous art out of 21st century video technique and asking themselves, "What's the Russian word for Wow!?"
--RC

NICHOLAS NICKLEBY
STARRING: Charlie Hunnam, Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Christopher Plummer, Edward Fox
DIRECTED BY: Douglas McGrath

Think about it. Have you ever seen a bad movie based on a Dickens novel? Rich in characters, abustle with action, aswarm with heart-stopping coincidences, the great writer's creations constitute the most cinematic body of work in all literature. The only problem they present to the filmmaker is length; the art of their adaptation always lies in paring down.

It is a challenge writer-director Douglas McGrath is very largely up to in Nicholas Nickleby. Now and then his film feels a bit rushed and breathless, but mostly you sink gratefully into its handsomely staged plenitude.

In great measure that's because it is so marvelously acted, starting with Charlie Hunnam as the eponymous hero. Blond but never bland in his stalwart innocence, he is determined to protect his desperately impoverished mother and sister and his crippled, loving friend Smike (Jamie Bell) from the machinations of dastardly Uncle Ralph.

Played with thoughtful control by Christopher Plummer, Ralph is not a man who leaps into malice; he muses his way toward it, as befits a figure whose destructive web spans decades. This great performance is wonderfully supported by a full complement of England's best character men (among them Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay and Edward Fox).

McGrath stays focused on the heart of his story, the conflict between perfect good and perfect evil, making for a beguiling evocation of the quality that keeps Dickens evergreen: the exuberant openness with which he expresses our most basic emotions.
--RS

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