Monday, August 29, 2005

Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been considered a classic of children's literature since its original publication in 1964, and the big-screen adaptation of that book, 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, remains a favorite with kids of that era, even though fans of the book decried the sappy songs and the changes made to the story; Dahl himself was less than satisfied with the many alterations to his screenplay.

Even so, taking on the task of retelling a story so set in the heads and hearts of so many for so long would daunt just about any director.

Then again, most director aren't Tim Burton.

Having already helmed remakes (Planet of the Apes), homages (Mars Attacks, Sleepy Hollow) and films about outsiders and social misfits (every single movie he's ever made), Burton was the ideal choice to helm a new version of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The story is, by now, familiar: Candy manufacturer Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp, working with Burton for the fourth time), who closed his factory because spies sent by his rivals kept stealing his recipes and yet mysteriously is still able to make chocolate, decides to put five invitations (in the form of golden tickets) to his factory in candy bars for five lucky children to find.

Four of the children are absolutely, irredeemably horrid: Gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz); selfish, demanding Veruca Salt (Julia Winter); pushy gum-chomper Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb); and video game-obsessed Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry). The fifth child, though, is sweet, big-hearted Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), who lives with his mom (Helena Bonham Carter), dad (Noah Taylor) and two sets of grandparents in a small, dilapidated shack.

When Charlie finds the fifth and final golden ticket, he takes along his Grandpa Joe (David Kelly), who, in this version of the story, used to work for Wonka before the factory closed. (That does help explain Grandpa Joe's rather obsessive knowledge of all things Wonka.)

The children are all wonderfully cast as well, especially Highmore (who had previously acted opposite Depp in Finding Neverland) as the sweet, smart Charlie and Robb as the ultra-competitive, ultra-obnoxious Violet. The adults fare well, too, with some fine turns by Missi Pyle and Edward Fox as a couple of the parents of the monsterous children, and David Kelly makes a spry, gentle Grandpa Joe.

And while some might be put off by having one performer--veteran midget actor Deep Roy--play all of the Oompa-Loompas, the tiny workers who are imported by Wonka to churn out the chocolate, the trick works, making them creepier and funnier at the same time. But while their musical numbers use lyrics written by Dahl, it's sometimes difficult to understand what they're saying, perhaps because all of the distorted voices for the Oompa-Loompas are provided by Danny Elfman, who also provides the typically phantasmagoric, bombastic score. (Maybe I've just got a grudge against Elfman because he's married to my longtime imaginary girlfriend, Bridget Fonda.)

The only major casting problem, really, is Willy Wonka himself.

The fault isn't entirely with Depp's performance, though his offbeat cadences and physical twitches didn't remind me so much of Michael Jackson (as a number of critics have said) as of NewsRadio and Kids in the Hall veteran Dave Foley doing an impression of Doctor Evil while dressed in Victorian velvet. He's not mysterious, but merely weird; not intriguing, but offputting.

The real trouble occurs where it usually does: at the screenplay level, where John August transforms Wonka from the aggressively eccentric of Dahl's writings to an aggressively antisocial recluse with a fear of children and substantial daddy issues, which are illustrated via flashbacks. And while this means getting to see screen legend Christopher Lee as Willy's dentist father, it also means materially altering both the character of Willy Wonka and the ending of the story, which must now wrap up the flashback plot threads as well. Dahl didn't see the need for providing Willy Wonka with a backstory. Neither do I.

Remarkably, however, the movie isn't fatally wounded by the bizarre, otherworldly Wonka. There are more than enough visual delights to compensate.

Burton and production designer Alex McDowell do a wonderful job of physically realizing often surreal world of Dahl's novel--from the highly detailed (but never flashy or obvious) design of the house Charlie and his family live in to the interiors of the chocolate factory, some of which look inspired by the works of James Bond production guru Ken Adam, to the individual rooms the children and adults are shown, like the nut-cracking room (a bit restored from Dahl's original story) and the Great Glass Elevator, which moves up, down, sideways, anyways and looks perfectly capable of travelling to the stars (as it does in Dahl's sequel novel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator).

Another aside revived from the novel is the chocolate palace Wonka builds for Prince Pondicherry--a palace which, Wonka warns, will melt on the first hot day. And, of course it does. Now, is this bit important to the story? No. Would it be missed if excised? Not really. But does it give Burton the opportunity to provide another delightful visual moment or two that look like a lush, color-soaked tribute to Fritz Lang's Indian Epic? It sure does.

And that's the point: Burton and his crew instill every little, dark corner of this movie with wonder, awe and, yeah, a hint of danger, making the Chocolate Factory a great place to visit.

Just as long as you don't have to spend too much time with that Wonka fellow. He's kinda creepy.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Eye Contact

I didn't want to go straight home from work. I was restless. Cranky. Didn't want to just go from one compartment of the Habitrail that is my life to another. Wanted to wander. (And this is different from my usual day how?)

Where to go, though--that was the question.

Did I want to stop off for dinner? Not really--eating alone in a restaurant is depressing. What about a refreshing V&T in a quiet, dark bar? Nope--that's even more depressing than eating alone in a restaurant. Maybe some photography? Nah--I didn't have the Canon AE-1 with me, and it was too damn hot to be roaming around the city, trying to snap shots of buildings and graffiti as streams of sweat ran down into my already bleary eyes.

No, whatever I did to kill time before trotting back to La Casa del Terror to feel Ms. Christopher and Olivia would need to be done in the confines of an air-conditioned space.

So, after a few minutes of pure, unadulterated wandering, I wound up at Virgin Megastore.

For those of you who have never seen a Virgin Megastore, let me assure you that it lives up to the "Megastore" part of its name. It's huge. Three levels: the basement, with electronica and vinyl; the main floor, with pop/rock CDs and new releases; and the second floor, with everything else (DVDs, books, toys, video games, etc.). Not the kind of place anyone short of cash should walk into, much less spend any amount of time in, especially since the overwhelming majority of the merchandise is at full retail value, instead of having ten percent knocked off the top like at Best Buy or Circuit City.

So why, then, am I there? Because even if I don't buy a single thing, it's fun to look. But you just know I'll find something to buy, don't you?

I snake through the pop/rock aisles, looking for nothing in particular. I mean, I have more than enough CDs, right? Except...I don't have any Jimi Hendrix on CD, and they have a greatest hits collection on sale. It doesn't have "Are You Experienced?" on it, so it's not truly comprehensive. But it does have "The Star-Spangled Banner," which is good for finding any loose bits of plaster in my aperment ceiling, so...mine.

Then I find Cathy Dennis's Move to This for cheap. (Shut's a good dance album. And it's not like I've ever been attracted to green-eyed redheads, yes?) And I haven't even made it to the DVD section upstairs yet.

The DVD section at Virgin Megastore occupies the center of the second floor and stretches for what seems like miles before me. Every genre has its own wing: Drama, comedy, action/adventure, musical, western, cult, sci-fi/horror. (Which one do you think I spend the most time in?) Just choosing which section to browse is more work than I want to do. So, instead, I studied the racks at the ends of each row of shelves and ran across something I wanted: Island in the Sky, starring John Wayne and directed by William Wellman.

Wellman is one of my all-time favorite directors, versatile enough to do gritty, realistic dramas (Beggars of life, The Public Enemy), screwball comedies(Nothing Sacred), sexy murder mysteries (Lady of Burlesque), westerns (The Ox-Bow Incident) and disaster movies (The High and the Mighty, also recently released onto DVD and into my collection, which could fairly be called the template for '70s disaster flicks like Airport and The Towering Inferno and the chief inspiration for Airplane!. But how many people know Wellman's name now? Not that many, sad to say; more people are familiar with the films of Ed Wood than those of William Wellman.

Having successfully engaged in this minor yest satisfying bit of retail therapy, I headed off quickly but cautiously toward the Red Line subway stop at Grand Avenue.

I say "cautiously" because this particular route would take me past the AMA Building--and, possibly, past memories I'd surgically remove from my brain if such were physically possible.

I don't have a problem with the AMA Building itself. I may not be a big fan of modern architecture, true, but the AMA has its own personality, own sense of style. I can look at a picture of it and know what it is and where it is. It didn't come out of a cookie cutter. It came out of someone's brain. It was designed with passion, not as an enormous cash register, and it shows.

I know a few people who work in the AMA Building--some friends, some former co-workers. One is a woman I once foolishly fell head over heels for, even though I didn't know her very well, wasn't her type and was, in her eyes, "a really nice guy"--words you want to hear from a woman you want to get together with.

I haven't seen her very many times since we stopped working together several years ago--an occasional sighting, a fleeting glimpse, a silhouette bouncing into the distance and that's about all. And that was good. I'd long since gotten over her, though not the embarrassment of having fallen for her at all. And that embarrassment may never go away, like a tattoo obtained on a particularly drunken spree--it may fade over time, perhaps to the point where no one else can make out what it is or was, but you'll know. You'll always know. And you'll wince.

A few weeks ago, I was crossing the plaza when I happened to look up at the exact moment she did while crossing the lobby. For the briefest of brief moments, we made eye contact. But I didn't wave or smile or acknowledge the moment in any way. I just turned back to where I was going and never looked back. It's not that I bear her any grudge. It's not her fault that I developed feelings for her that she, even on her worst day, could never have developed for me. She was exactly my flavor--smart, funny, physically my type. I just wasn't hers. That's how it works sometimes. That's how it always works for me.

On this day, though, she was nowhere in sight. Not that I was looking that hard. I have damn good peripheral vision, despite my nearsightedness, and no bogies were coming at me. So I was safe.

Except...not quite. Not completely.

As I approached the subway entrance from the east, I spotted a woman leaning against the adjacent stone support post. She looked familiar. Like someone I'd worked with some time ago. And when she looked up and contact was made, there was recognition in her eyes. She knew me, too.

She looked like she was waiting for somebody. And I didn't do a thing to disturb her vigil. I looked away, broke the contact, just kept going.

Again, it wasn't that I bore a grudge. Quite the opposite. She and I had gotten along famously at our old job. She even fixed me up with a friend of hers on a blind date. We went to Cafe Selmarie. It went okay--but just "okay." No chemisty. No sparks. And she reported back to our mutual friend that I spent most of our time together "yammering" about movies. Not exactly the kind of report you want to hear. (At least she didn't say I was "a really nice guy.")

So why didn't I stop and say "hi"? Or at least wave and acknowledge the eye contact? I'm not sure.

Maybe it was because the last time I had run into her--about a year earlier on a street adjacent to my workplace--I got the impression, whether reasonable and true or not, that she really didn't want to talk to me, that she's rather not have run into me. Don't ask me why I got that impression. Maybe it was the tone of voice. Maybe the way she looked at me. Maybe when she told me that a former co-worker of ours for whom I'd foolishly fallen head over heels (sense a pattern there, dear reader?) had gotten married recently, I betrayed some sadness or longing or, most likely, some self-disgust. I don't know.

Or maybe I just had no reason to revisit my past--or, more specifically, that moment in time when I made a fool of myself yet again and would do so a couple more times in the intervening years, as if that experience and all the ones before it hadn't taught me a thing--in that fleeting moment of eye contact. I was content to keep moving. To just let it go.

So I didn't wave or smile or even break stride. I continued on down the stairs and into the warm, claustrophobic confines of the subway station and let my past stay right where it belonged--behind me.