Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Top Ten Films

Everyone has their favorite movies, and I'm no different. The picks below may or may not be classified as the "greatest" films of all time, but they are films I enjoy returning to again and again. I believe that the best movies are the ones we never tire of, but learn from and enjoy over and over.

This list is by no means complete, and I may change it from time to time. It is always a challenge to work within confining parameters, but these confines force creativity and thought. So here they are presented in no particular order:

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
One of several Spielberg masterpieces that could be listed here, Saving Private Ryan is an outstanding technical acheivement, and gut-wrenching visceral experience. The devastation of war has never been more graphic or touching. Tom Hanks leads a team into occupied France to retrieve the last brother of four left alive after D-day. Fine performances match the intensity of the visuals, leading up to a great ending so understated in comparison to all the violence that preceeded it, yet no less powerful.

Memento (2000)
A fascinating excursion into the damaged mind of its protagonist (a guy with no short-term memory searching for his late wife's killer), Memento is best known for its unconventional non-linear structure. One timeline moves forward, then skips back to the scene before it, while the other is a fragmented flashback. It's a credit to writer/director Christopher Nolan that he makes all of this pretty easy to grasp, while intriguing and surprising along the way. Awesome and disturbing.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The best of all the Star Wars films, Empire maintains and deepens the tone set by the original. A fantastic script develops all the relationships (and has a lot of fun with the Han/Leia sexual tension), culminating with one of the most unexpected turns in cinema history. The effects still hold up well, and one of the aliens who was actually a puppet, became one of the most identifiable characters ever on screen. A cliffhanger ending had audiences waiting three years for the next installment.

The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
A strange, understated and vague noir, The Spanish Prisoner is only identifiable as a David Mamet film by his usual quirky, poetic (yet PG rated!) dialogue. Campbell Scott plays the creator of "the process" (which is never revealed) who is duped by a group of con men led by Steve Martin (!). Rebecca Pidgeon plays the femme fatale role (check out the super-subtle seduction scene) in a very unusual, laid back sort of way. Watch this and decide for yourself--is this the real world or a parallel universe?

Run Lola Run/Lola Rennt (1998)
My favorite foreign film, Run Lola Run is a fun, energetic trip into the results of different choices. If you could change a critical decision in your day, how would it affect the outcome? Lola (Franke Potente) gets this chance when her knuckleheaded boyfriend loses a shipment of diamonds and is marked for death. Set to a great techno score, Run Lola Run uses every cinematic gimmick available to create a compelling, dizzying storyline. Make sure you watch it in the original German with subtitles!

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
One of the greatest adventures ever, this movie introduced us to Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones and his swashbuckling exploits. Inspired by 1940's cliffhanging movie serials, Raiders follows archeologist Indy all over the world in search of the Lost Ark of the Covenant. With old flame Karen Allen in tow, he will battle hordes of natives, evil Nazis, an ancient snake pit and a giant rolling boulder. With one great action sequence after another, this could very well be the ultimate popcorn movie.

Aliens (1986)
James Cameron used to specialize in intelligent sci-fi actioners, and this film could be his best. Sigourney Weaver reprises her role as Ripley, who returns to planet LV-426 when earth loses contact with the colonists there. Accompanied by Colonial Marines and state-of-the-art weaponry, all hell breaks loose and Ripley joins the fun. Intense and thrilling with a great supporting cast (who could forget Bill Paxton's manic Hudson?), this movie spawned countless imitations. Let's rock!

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
John Frankenheimer's classic revolves around a Korean war hero returning home to much fanfare. His wicked mother (Angela Lansbury playing the devil incarnate) and her senator husband await to exploit him. Giving anything away would be a crime, but this is a tragic, satiric, mesmerizing tale of brainwashing, assassination and political intrigue that is decades ahead of its time. Watch for the famous scene when Frank Sinatra's nightmares of captivity unravel into a tea party from hell--it's an editing masterwork.

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)
I had to throw a comedy in here, and few movies make me laugh as much as the first Naked Gun. Leslie Neilsen plays the wonderfully named Frank Drebbin, a blundering composite of all TV show cops from the past (co-star George Kennedy solidifies the connection). The Zucker-Abrams-Zucker (Airplane!) team sends up everything from cheesy voiceovers to shootouts to music video montages. Their targets are everybody and everything, and they hit with regularity.

Rear Window (1954)
What can I say, it's Hitchcock! The Master of Suspense creates one of his best--a story about a guy (Jimmy Stewart) confined to a wheelchair while he recovers from a broken leg. There is nothing to do but gawk at his neighbors through his large picture window in the back of his apartment. The luminous Grace Kelly co-stars as Jimmy's girl who has to practically beg him to marry her (yeah right!). A great suspense tale, but an even better comment on relationships, told with all of Hitch's trademarks.

The Da Vinci Code


Broken Early

The 2006 summer movie season is in full swing now, with the hotly anticipated worldwide release of The Da Vinci Code now at our doorstep. Millions of people have read the book, which involves a religious conspiracy theory that disrupts the divinity of Jesus Christ and threatens to change the face of Christianity as we know it. Apparently it’s a pretty gripping book (I haven’t read it, maintaining my literary zero status), but this movie version, which pretends to be a thriller, just isn’t.

Renowned symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is visiting Paris on the lecture circuit. He is summoned by police captain Fache (Jean Reno) to a bizarre murder scene which just occurred in the Louvre. Police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) soon appears, warning Langdon that he is in danger and must flee or end up in jail. After deciphering some of the murder scenes’ clues, both Robert and Sophie are on the run. Aided by Langdon’s friend Leigh (Ian McKellen), they learn what could be the biggest cover up in human history.

Despite the popularity of the subject matter (which I’m sure will translate into mega box office bucks), the story has some inherent flaws that trip it up before anything really gets going. At the very beginning of the film, the murder victim is found stripped naked, posed like Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”, and has a bloody star carved in his chest. The shocker comes when we learn “he did this to himself!” Huh? Most thrillers offer preposterous developments, but it’s quite a stretch to believe a man who is shot in the chest will not only write cryptic messages all over the Louvre, but still have the wherewithal to create the ultimate performance art piece out of himself.

Another problem is that we never believe that Hanks’ Langdon is in any real kind of jeopardy. Supposedly he is implicated by what the dead guy wrote on the floor (and for other reasons we learn later), but it doesn’t wash. As a result, there is no suspense, despite what the language of the visuals keep trying to tell us. This lack of tension causes things to drag, and for a two-and-a-half hour movie, this is not good news.

I have the feeling that with author Dan Brown acting as executive producer, he had way to much say over Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay. Movies adapted from a published work should be their own animal, allowed to stretch and breathe within the medium. The Da Vinci Code feels like a long novel, complete with several epilogues that all should have been cut to tighten up the story.

What works the best, is the fascinating subject matter. The film is a clue fest, constantly weaving history, theory, and art into a support for the story’s interesting conclusions. I’m not saying I believed any of it, but it was compelling nonetheless. I really liked the scene where McKellan’s character dissected Da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper” in Zapruder Film style to prove his point.

The actors are all solid with Tautou (A Very Long Engagement) and McKellen (X-Men: The Last Stand) stealing most of the attention away from star Hanks (The Terminal). The waifish Tautou is always fun to watch, and always amazes how much she can emote from that teeny frame. Her best scene is where she confronts the murderous monk Silas (Paul Bettany), and practically froths at the mouth in restrained rage. McKellen is even better, bringing dignity and intelligence to yet another role. He also gets the best one-liners, and seems to really enjoy delivering them with tongue firmly in cheek.

Director Ron Howard is a good filmmaker. He’s made good films before (Apollo 13 is one of my favorites) , and I have no doubt he will again. Just don’t expect much from The Da Vinci Code. I didn’t, and was still disappointed.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe


A Pitch-Perfect Fantasy Fable

There are some books that are almost required reading as a kid. I don’t know where this magical list comes from or who writes it, but it seems that certain works of fiction permeate our lives at a very young age. Whether our teachers read to us, or we pick it up ourselves (maybe so we can talk to our friends about it), some youth fiction is just a given. Such is the case with C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the most well known of his fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia.

Aptly titled, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is the most recent adaptation of this well-known story. I remember seeing an animated version once (1979) as well as the BBC version (1988), and have positive memories of both. This newest update gives us state-of-the-art special effects (using a reported $180 million budget) and an epic scope never seen before. I had high hopes for this movie, but I was cautious and prepared myself for a letdown. I shouldn’t have.

During the London Blitz of World War II, the four Pevensie children are sent far into the country and out of harm’s way to stay with an eccentric relative. Their new home is a huge house with many rooms and a strict set of rules. During a game of hide and seek, youngest sister Lucy (Georgie Henly) hides in an antique wardrobe and discovers the back of the old closet is actually the front of an impossible world known as Narnia. When she returns (with no loss of time) her siblings discount her experience as the imaginings of a young child. When all the kids are forced to hide in the wardrobe after breaking a window, they all become believers, and discover they are not strangers to this strange place, but pivotal figures.

I have said before that I am not a fan of fantasy films, but this movie is going to make me eat crow. Narnia is simply a wonderful film, a magical tale that is so lavish in story and visuals, and has a heart so big that you’d have to be made of stone not to be affected by it.

Much of the credit goes to the screenplay (by Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), which nicely adapts Lewis’ story, and effectively fleshes out all the main cast (not to mention the minor characters). It’s well paced, exciting, and nothing ever feels padded or unnecessary. I also enjoyed some of the humorous dialogue which I know came from the minds of the writers and not Lewis.

The kids in this movie are absolutely great, and are perfectly cast. They are appropriately British, and are completely convincing (especially the radiant, scene-stealing Henly). They all get three dimensions and really develop as characters. We in the audience have no choice but to invest in their lives and hope they all survive.

The other major players in this story are more black and white, good and evil. They are Aslan, the Lion (voiced by Liam Neeson) and the White Witch (Tilda Swinton). Aslan is a beautifully rendered CGI creation, and he is magnificent. He moves like a real animal, and his mane flows in the wind. His eyes are wonderfully expressive, especially in one shot when Lucy realizes all might not be well in Narnia just yet. No less credit should be given to Neeson, who gives Aslan real depth and emotion.

Swinton (Orlando, The Deep End) makes an excellent villain, and her towering, icy presence is the focus of every scene she inhabits. She also plays the Witch as an almost alluring, motherly figure who doesn’t like to be trifled with. She is tender to the rebellious Edmund (Skandar Keynes) one minute, and coldly executing her enemies the next. There is also a surprising warrior side to her character, as she doesn’t just command her troops in the climactic battle, but is one of them.

This is a fantastic looking movie, with nearly flawless effects work. All the mythical creatures are spectacular (I really liked the gryphons) and the combination of breathtaking cinematography and computer imagery is seamless. The final battle scenes are really impressive, with thousands of imaginary creatures attacking each other en masse.

Narnia marks the live action directorial debut of Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Shrek 2), which may explain why the computer animation works so well. Admittedly, some of the CGI characters looked a bit cartoony, but I didn’t care. Adamson had me under his spell.

Something else that works is the subtext which was inherent in the original story. It’s no secret that Lewis was a devout Christian, and many of his works are rife with religious parallels, this one being no different. I enjoyed seeing this as an adult and being able to spot many of them (some are very obvious) that I was clueless about as a kid. If this bothers you, it shouldn’t, no more than Neo’s messiah-like character in The Matrix would. It’s just one way of effectively telling a meaningful story.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is so good that it raises the bar to what every fantasy film should be--utterly fantastic.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Cars


Pixar Meets Expectations Yet Again

At the end of the animated Pixar logo (you know, the one with the hopping lamp), we are informed that Pixar Animation Studios is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. Has it really been that long? I guess it has, and the studio has built up a fine body of work that has set the standard for computer animated features. Disney has so benefited from their relationship with Pixar, that they bought them when contract negotiations stalled. Smart move.

One thing I have really liked about Pixar features (that few others seem to have a handle on) is that they focus first on the most important element of any film: the screenplay. It’s obvious that loving care goes into each of these scripts before they are greenlit and sent to animators. Why doesn’t anyone else get this? With the exceptions of those associated with Nick Park and Tim Burton, every other animated film seems to be rushed into production, hoping that the pretty pictures will compensate for inadequacies on the page. This is the main reason Pixar is king and will be for a long time to come.

Anyway, Cars is about a hot rookie race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) who has just managed a three-way tie for the coveted Piston Cup. A tie breaking race is scheduled a week later, and on the cross country trip, Lightning gets separated from his ride. He ends up in Radiator Springs, a small town in the middle of the desert. Here he is enlisted (against his will) by the gruff Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) to repave the main road before he is allowed to leave. Colorful car-acters fill the town, which Lighting starts to take a liking to. Will the hothead racer become grounded in something other than himself?

As expected, Cars looks breathtaking. Pixar must have the best digital artists in the world working for them, because their talent is all over the screen. The desert vistas look almost photo-realistic, and the cars themselves have unique and special personalities that perfectly mimic the actors voicing them. I was unsure how I’d take to “living” cars with big eyes in the windshield and bumpers for mouths, but my fears were quickly put to rest. Pixar has again created an alternate reality that may be far fetched, but is not beyond belief. And it’s fun, too.

The actors have fun with their roles, with Larry the Cable Guy’s buck-toothed Tow-Mater (he’s a tow truck that just goes by “Mater”) stealing every scene he’s in. The addition of Newman is clever, he being a racing afficianado. Bonnie Hunt is also good as the love interest (I know that sounds weird--fortunately the relationship never gets past first gear), and Wilson is a perfect fit as the cocky Lightning.

The movie is entertaining, and has the expected car references (I liked the “Cozy Cone” hotel with its pervasive pylon motif) you’d expect from Pixar. Again, the characters are so well-drawn that you can’t help but care what happens to them. It’s cute and enjoyable and perfect for kids of all ages.

It has been reported that the story for Cars is basically a remake of Doc Hollywood which starred Michael J. Fox. Since I didn’t like Fox in anything but Back to the Future, I never saw Doc Hollywood. Maybe that helped me like Cars more. It’s charming, sweet, amusing and has a good moral. It’s a kids movie that adults can enjoy. What more do you want from a family film?

P.S. Don’t go running from the theater when the credits roll. Pixar has some very funny material waiting that spoofs some of it’s earlier films, using the Cars universe.

Batman Begins


Return of The Dark Knight

It’s been eight years since we’ve seen the Caped Crusader on the silver screen. After four films, the franchise was all but killed with Joel Shumacher’s cheesefest Batman & Robin back in 1997. Can the series be revived with this “prequel”? Warner Bros. is banking on it with a star known for dark roles, a director known for dark films, and a tone that is (you guessed it) much darker than any of the previous films. The Dark Knight is indeed back, and closer to his comic book roots than ever.

After the murder of his parents by a street thug, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) spirals into despair followed by a life of anger. When denied the revenge he feels is rightly his, he sets out on a personal quest of discovery to purge fear from himself and evil from his corrupt home, Gotham City. Eventually he ends up in an icy fortress where he is trained as an assassin by the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson). It is here he learns all he needs to become Gotham’s avenging angel: The Batman. Will he be able to stop a plot to destroy the city from within, or is it already too late?

The first thing this movie does right is cast Christian Bale (American Psycho, The Machinist) in the lead role. Bale easily bests all of his predecessors by filling the role with charm, torment, and physical prowess (this guy is ripped!)--completely fleshing out a very complex character. He is totally believable and sympathetic as Bruce, and equally menacing and powerful in the cowl and cape.

Fine character actors surround Bale, and all are excellent. Michael Caine is fitting as butler Alfred, but we also get Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer, and the aforementioned Liam Neeson (who is making quite a career out of playing mentors). A mention should also go to Cillian Murphy who makes Scarecrow a slimy villain you love to hate. Katie Holmes is okay as the love interest, but looks way too young (despite her age) to be a district attorney.

Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) does a good job of creating a dark mood. Gotham City is a black, steamy, wet, noir-ish cesspool, filled with shadows and darkness. I also liked the shots that were obviously inspired by frames right from the comic book. The silhouette of our cloaked hero high on a ledge overlooking the city (among others) is a classic graphic novel image, well recreated here.

I also liked the origin of Batman’s gear. It turns out Wayne Enterprises has an R&D wing that develops super-expensive gadgets that only a millionaire could afford! The Batmobile is also very cool and tank-like, which is what you’d have to have considering what it takes to get in and out of the Batcave!

While this Batman is the darkest interpretation we’ve seen so far, it doesn’t go far enough. This may sound morose, but not enough people die in this movie. When Bruce’s parents are killed, it feels pretty harsh (even though you know it’s coming). That sets the dramatic bar that the movie struggles to re-attain. It’s still dramatic, but you never feel that urgency or power that scene has.

All in all, this is the best Batman movie to date (Tim Burton’s original comes in second, although it’s an “apples and oranges” comparison), but I was hoping for more. Despite this, let’s hope this Batman returns. I’d love to see some of the classic Batman villains and stories through Bale’s cape and Nolan’s unique lens.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Primer


Needs Another Coat of Something

I love micro budget movies. Even when they are failures, you have to admire the gumption of filmmakers who wear every hat in order to get their movie made. Some max out credit cards and dump all of their savings into realizing their vision. My favorite example of this is El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez' $7000 action film that is still his best movie (and he sold his body to science to get his budget!).

Enter Shane Carruth. He has also spent $7000 on his movie, but perhaps should have saved it, or at least fired himself and hired someone else to rework his script. His head is covered with hats in his first movie, Primer (which won the Grand Prize at Sundance), an intriguing yet unfulfilling sci-fi tale that is ultimately crushed under the weight of its own self-importance.

The film opens with four young engineers spending all their spare time in a garage trying to invent something. We're never told what this something is, but do hear a lot of techobabble about how to make it better. Two of the engineers (Carruth and David Sullivan) stumble on something special their machine apparently does. Stop reading now if you don't want the "plot" of Primer to be spoiled for you.

What they have invented (in the ultimate of story contrivances) is a time machine. So, like anyone who would have done the same, they test it out. First to make money. Then to change events relating to a friend who was killed.

This movie has a lot of people talking, not because of the unique story, but because of the confusing narrative. The story is so fragmented, the timeline so disjointed, that any film geek (myself included) will dare themselves to watch it, to see if they can be one of the select few who "get" it. I can see how some will say this movie is brilliant, but just because you don't understand something, doesn't make it great--just, well, hard to understand.

Don't get me wrong, I have no problem will filmmakers who disturb the timeline to get us thinking. Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are two recent examples of non-linear stories that are challenging, inventive, rewarding, and (most importantly) contain empathetic characters. Carruth might want to study these films.

Technically, the movie has some problems. The film is often grainy due to low light, the colors rarely match, and the sound ain't that great. The acting is pretty stiff (which I didn't mind since the characters are hardly developed), and solely exist to be pawns of the story. I suppose these could be called "artistic choices" or "documentary feel", but those seem more like excuses than anything else.

There are some great ideas floating around in this nebulous brine. I liked the idea that if you wanted to travel back six hours, you had to sit in the time machine for six hours. I liked the idea when you knew you were going to travel back, you hid somewhere for the day, so when you came back, you wouldn't run into yourself. Had these ideas been refined in a more coherent story, Carruth might really have something.

I will give Carruth credit, his film is compelling, as it had my friend and I talking in the theater for at least 10 minutes after the credits rolled. Ultimately however, Primer feels like a shell game. No matter how hard you try to follow the pea, your five bucks is still gone, and you have little to show for it.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Open Water


Watered Down

Sharks--we love to be scared of ‘em. Ever since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws set the cinematic bar in 1975, we can’t see a shark without John Williams’ famous theme throbbing in our heads. A classic, that movie will forever be the standard all other shark movies are compared to. So how does Chris Kentis’ micro-budgeted shark tale compare? Well, it can’t, but even without the comparison, Open Water doesn’t quite work, even though I really wanted it to.

The story, based on actual events, is brilliant in its simplicity. Two yuppies on holiday (Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan) go on a group dive, only to be left behind due to a diver miscount (although I kept waiting for someone to say “Where’s the hot blonde?”). When the couple surface, the boat has left, and they are left bobbing in the open sea to fend for themselves. At first they are calm, and then the sharks start poking around…

Shot on digital video, Open Water has gained a lot of hype due to the fact that the actors were in the water with real sharks, attracted by the crew dumping bloody tuna nearby. This makes for some great shots (one shows Ryan floating on her back while a 6-foot shark passes just beneath her), and real suspense. Still, you’ve to wonder, how do you make a movie about two people treading water interesting?

This is where the movie falters. Just when you get involved in the story and the tension really mounts, Kentis throws something in to totally kill it. The first time it’s a completely unbelievable scene of the two trying to blame each other for their situation. It doesn’t fit, the acting is awful, and it only seems to exist as the setup for a punch line (“I wanted to go skiing…”). Another time he cuts back to the mainland to show that the couple has been discovered missing. Kentis seems to lack a basic understanding of suspense: when you’ve got your audience in a vise, you don’t let them relax--you turn the screw.

Since the story is lacking, we are not left with much. Travis and Ryan are okay as actors, but underdeveloped as characters, which doesn’t let us care about them living or dying. The camerawork is of the shaky-cam variety, which may work in small doses, but feels overused here.

It’s too bad the filmmakers couldn’t do more with this premise, because it’s a good one. Ultimately, however, the movie lacks the real bite it had the potential to deliver. The sharks sure are cool though.

Red Eye


Craven Still Has Vision Intact

When the name of director Wes Craven is uttered, two milestones in horror films come to mind: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996). Craven cut his teeth on such creepfests as Last House on the Left (1972), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) to name a few. He knows how to scare audiences with stories that typically center around strong female characters fighting creepy villains. Red Eye, while not a horror film, stays faithful to Craven themes and is easily his best movie in nine years.

Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), a hotel executive who is good under pressure, is traveling home from her grandmother’s funeral. She’s about to embark on the last flight to Miami, when she meets a smooth stranger (Cillian Murphy) who strikes up a conversation with her. As “coincidence” would have it, they end up sitting next to each other on the plane. Lisa soon discovers her newfound friend is no friend at all, as he unfolds a sinister plan in which she is involuntarily involved. Where will she find help at 30,000 feet?

Red Eye is a straight up genre piece, and for it to work you need a great villain and a heroine to root for. In her first starring role, McAdams (Mean Girls, The Notebook) makes Lisa a determined woman that we care about. Her emotional and physical performance is the center of the film and she delivers. Cillian Murphy (who has the most intense blue eyes since Meg Foster) nails the creep vibe, which he has already displayed in this year’s Batman Begins. Rounding out the effective cast is Bryan Cox as McAdams’ father, and Jayma Mays as a ditsy redhead who provides the film’s comic relief.

I also appreciated the taut, efficient script by Carl Ellsworth. This is an 85 minute movie, which leaves little room to mess around. There is a nice setup with lots of realistic interaction by the leads, and when the plot shifts into gear, things stay believable (rare for this type of film), well paced, and exciting. There were several moments when I was thinking “If I was in this situation, I’d do this right now!”--and it happened on screen! In so many films of this type the characters act stupidly and the villain is omniscient. Not this time. Thank you Carl Ellsworth!

There are a few nitpicks I could throw out there. The fact the lavatory on the plane is freaking enormous, or the chuckle-inducing shot of McAdams’ stunt double that looks nothing like her (watch where she stumbles running through the airport), or the “killer in the house” conclusion that feels recycled. These are small complaints in an otherwise strong effort by all.

Then there’s Craven. With years of directing horror films, he is a natural choice for this Hitchcockian material. His camera is always interesting without being distracting, and he knows how to get good performances out of his actors. This could be the film that breaks him out of the horror genre forever (which he tried once before with Music of the Heart (1999)).

If you can’t tell by now, I really liked Red Eye. It doesn’t break any new ground, but the ground it’s on is solid.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


Sweet, but Burns Off Quickly


Why do filmmakers insist on remaking classics? It seems to be all the rage these days, especially by those who can make any movie they want. I’m not saying they always fail (I did give a good review to War of the Worlds, remember?), but can you really best what is best already? If anything, you just make the original more endearing. Tim Burton has done this before with his remake of Planet of the Apes (which I didn’t like) and he ventures again into familiar territory with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, based on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s story.

Recluse Willie Wonka makes the best candy in the world in his immense fortress-like factory. A contest will allow 5 children to visit his secretive plant if they can find a golden ticket in one of Wonka’s candy bars. Poverty-stricken Charlie Bucket’s one wish is to find a ticket and be able to visit the wonderful candy factory that he loves. He does, but so do four brats determined to win the “special prize” Wonka has promised to one of the children. As they enter the factory with the adult of their choice, what will the mysterious Wonka really be like, and how will the children react to treats beyond anything imaginable?

Of course there are going to be comparison to Mel Stuart’s Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), it’s just unavoidable. Fortunately, the newer version has it’s charms and is worth seeing, especially if you love Burton’s body of work.

Two performances are at the center of this movie, Johnny Depp as Willie Wonka and Freddie Highmore as the loveable Charlie Bucket. Highmore (Finding Neverland) is perfect casting, a cute, sweet, innocent boy who first wants his family to be happy and healthy, and then to see the inside of that wonderful factory. He really hits all of the right notes-we love him and want him to succeed and take his family with him.

Veteran (and Burton regular) Depp is always wonderful to watch, but the way he choses to play Wonka feels a bit off. Granted, Wonka is a bit off, but when Depp greets five small children with pale skin, bobbed hair, high voice and velvet suit, you start to wonder if you’re really watching Michael Jackson and the Neverland Ranch. It’s kinda creepy. He does grow a bit on you, but you don’t want to get into his head like you did with Gene Wilder in the original. You just feel safer keeping him at a distance.

The remaining kids (and their parents) are wonderfully written and acted, but they are mostly stereotypes. The standouts here are Annasophia Robb (Because of Winn-Dixie), who seems to be channeling Dakota Fanning, and Jordan Fry who’s smart, mean, and always put in his place by Wonka (“Mumbler!”).

Unique production design (with a typically gothic bent) has always been artist-turned-filmmaker Burton’s trademark, and the same is true here. Each room in the Chocolate Factory is a work of art in itself, with curvy lines and garish color (except for one room which is cleaner than any clean room). Also pay attention to Charlie’s house, it’s a classic Burton image.

Computer effects are also used well. The factory is practically a cartoon anyway, so CGI use actually benefits the look instead of taking away. I was also impressed by the seamless Oompa-Loompa reproductions, all played by one actor (Deep Roy).

This version of the book will likely please fans of Burton and the original source material (it’s more faithful than the first movie), but it also leaves the mind rather soon after leaving the theater. I liked it, but too much candy makes me sleepy.