Glucose To The Edit: Charlie & the Chocolate Factory

First off, it’s impossible to watch Tim Burton’s new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s sugary fantasy without reference to Mel Stuart’s charming and literate 1971 musical which, by way of relentless repetition in Christmas television scheduling, became a favourite with families and a cult hit. Personally, I might have seen the Gene Wilder version ten times and could sing you a couple of the songs on the soundtrack if you'd like so I found myself consciously fighting the urge to make comparisons between old and new while watching Burton’s explicit alter ego Johnny Depp emerge blinking from the lavish factory to start the ball rolling. This is where he does the somersault, I thought to myself. The other couple of hundred people watching, old and young, probably thought the same thing. Depp, of course, does not tumble because this isn’t a shot for shot remake, it isn’t a remake at all; it’s Dahl’s original book lavishly adapted by Hollywood’s pre-eminent fantasist and given a tepid psychological edge that’s tweaked to deliver a simple modern morality tale. No time for parlour tricks like somersaults when there’s $40m worth of special effects to get through.

Ah well, the tumble is hardly missed. The story, for the most part faithfully adapted by Burton’s regular scenarist John August and familiar to all of us, tells of a poor young lad named Charlie (the cheerful Freddie Highmore) who lives in high Dickensian squalor in a tumbledown cottage down the street from Willie Wonka's enormous chocolate factory. Charlie, his loving mother (Helena Bonham Carter) and good-natured father (Noah Taylor) share the shack with both sets of bed-ridden grandparents, one of which, Grandpa Joe is played by the astonishingly spry Irish actor David Kelly. One day the reclusive Wonka, unseen for years, announces a worldwide contest in which five lucky children will get a peek inside the gates of the fabulous factory, guided personally around by the confectioner himself. Special golden tickets have been hidden in five chocolate bars and delivered around the world. Naturally, Charlie, who has never had a stroke of good fortune in his young life, eats cabbage soup all day and sleeps under a hole in the roof at night, is one of the lucky five. Grandpa Joe is coming too, a return in his case as he once worked for Wonka.

And this is where the fun starts. Unlike the cherubic Charlie, the other four and their parents are monsters: there’s sticky glutton Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), a Germanic eating machine who is constantly stuffing his fat little face, spoiled rich miss Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), who flaps her eyelashes and bears her maw in a bitchy pout until Daddy (James Fox) buys her what she wants, tracksuit-clad and super-competitive Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), a champion gum chewer and kickboxer and spurred on by her robotic mother (Missy Pyle) and finally, junior overachiever Mike Teevee (Jordan Fry), overeducated, over-stimulated and overbearing. The children's individual, and unsettling appearance seems modelled after Loretta Lux's disturbing portraits of glossy children, with their beautifully realised costumes and ultimate body-shapes inspired by the grotesque excesses of cartoons and the bizarre alternate universe of comic-books. Plucking the eventual winner from this ghastly line-up is no great challenge to the audience, which means the delights in the film come from making the tour yourself and seeing what Burton imagines is behind the gates. The wonderfully realised sets include the candy garden with the chocolate waterfall, the ships journey along the chocolate river and, most impressively, a room where one hundred specially trained squirrels (actual squirrels, not animatronics or special effects) sit perched on tiny stools, shelling hazelnuts. The place is run by the tiny workers, the Oompa Loompas, who are all played by the same diminutive actor, Deep Roy, who seem to have spent the time between shifts on the factory floor watching Busby Berkeley musicals from the 1930s.

The nub of the story is that bad, nasty and greedy children are punished for their hideousness with their parents coming to realise how they have enabled their offspring to develop into junior psychopaths. As we know, all during the tour each vile child is eliminated by their overriding personality flaw – greed, selfishness, disobedience or aggression. Each time one of the little bastards gets the chop, the Oompa Loompas serenades them with an admonishing song, taken from Dahl’s original lyrics. During these interludes, which are a bit too methodical and regular for me, Burton let’s fly with his scattershot imagination, replacing the classical and Shakespearean references from Wilder’s film with homages to Hollywood classics like Esther Williams kaleidoscopic swimming pool fantasies and even, bizarrely, the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and the shower scene in Psycho. The simple songs and messages of the original tunes are gone though, replaced with a dizzying pastiche of pop videos, Broadway show tunes, stadium-pleasing rock ballads and, I don’t know, kabuki theatre or the Eskimo Olympics? It’s hard to keep up. Through newly written flashbacks we learn that Willy's new life of day-glo whimsy is a reaction to an emotionally impoverished childhood, complete with toweringly strict father (played by Christopher Lee), a sadistic dentist who hated sweets. But Willy, twenty years on, needs more than a hug from his support group. He needs an heir and a protégée and finds his kindred spirit in Charlie, a cheerful child, optimistic and good hearted who is struggling to overcome a more prosaic poverty himself, the 'I'm hungry' kind.

Depp, a brilliant actor and the only viable option for the role today, displays all his usual courage and individuality but it’s not all successful. His blank shining face is hiding something more than a crappy childhood, and far more troubling that his tombstone-like array of teeth is the question mark that hangs over his motivations. The story has always had disturbing undertones, bad things happen to bad children, but Depp cannot muster the same love and affection that Gene Wilder engendered in the other version. A scene like the still-startling ending to the 1971 film, where Wonka switches from a cold, aggressive businessman to benevolent all-giving provider in the briefest moment, and to devastating effect, is missing here. Depp plays Wonka as the puppetmaster: the engineer of fate – a karmic avenger come to teach the wicked a lesson while bringing a just reward to Charlie and his humble family. Depp is suitably attired for such a dark mission, with his Edwardian dress coat, top hat and smear of lipstick he reminded me of the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There is also a visual hint to Edward Scissorhands, who shares his isolation with the billionaire chocolate maker. But in the end Depp’s is an individual performance that won’t work for everyone and Burton has him ask more questions than he answers. For some reason, Wonka has been given an elaborate back story - complete with pubescent traumas and psyche-shattering misunderstandings - that attempts to ask how and why Willy Wonka became the reclusive, damaged man-child he is. Opening these wounds requires extensive surgery later, a time-consuming and distracting resolution of the father-son conflict that haunts all of Burton’s films and doesn’t really fit in here. He should have read his own script: “Candy doesn't have to have a point,” the wise-before-his-years Charlie says to the attention-defecit Mike Teevee, “that's why it's called candy.”

The Pacifier Review: Smell the brimstone.

In The Pacifier, a horrible Kindergarten Cop do-over, the inexplicable Vin Diesel plays Lt. Shane Wolfe, a tough soldier shot during a botched rescue in which a government scientist dies who, on recovery, is horrified to find himself babysitting the dead man’s five children while his widow heads off to find the combination to a top secret briefcase. What follows is a hell so fresh you can still smell the brimstone.

Passing over, for now, the age-inappropriate disregard for gunplay and death without consequence, this children’s film quickly degenerates into the kind of migraine-inducing knockabout farce that has a bad pun for a title and nothing else. Somewhere in the back of your mind you know the throaty growl is all an act and Lt. Wolfe will eventually reveal his true self, a pyjama-clad softie who would rather braid hair than wire dynamite. In ninety minutes he’ll have fixed the dysfunctional family, solved all their photo-story problems (which don’t include mourning their dead father, strangely) and returned to duty with a rainbow-firing rifle of family love added to his bulging arsenal.

If you don’t mind exposing your children to the transparently fetishistic treatments of weaponry and soldiery on display here, perhaps the sequence where Diesel teaches the children deadly ninja moves or kicks in their bedroom door in a demonstration of “shock and awe” will provide a valuable future training aide. Later, Diesel provides a detailed demonstration of government sanctioned torture techniques when he hogties a troop of Girl Scouts that had the temerity to offer him a biscuit. Essential viewing for the twitchy-eyed amongst us set on raising a platoon of junior fascists, but a horrifying prospect for anyone out there reluctant to have their children’s entertainments built around the premise of normalizing war, torture and death.

Director Adam Shankman's by-the-numbers approach leads one to the certain conclusion that Mr. Shankman never learned to add up. His meandering film is an unqualified mess; sloppily filmed, shamefully edited and awash with potty-mouthed dialogue so cloth-eared it is an insult to textiles. The unfunniest joke of all is the benighted presence of former bouncer Diesel, a mortal fool called an actor only because you need a descriptive noun for the person jigging about in front of the camera. He is far from alone in his unrelenting loathsomeness. The supporting cast’s collective performances are so wooden I worried about the risk of fire when the script called for them to brush up against one another. Brad Garrett - one of a raft of minor sitcom actors in the cast – is called upon to do a two-minute rant as a hectoring school principal. All Diesel can do in response is stare blankly at his fellow actor, his face a mask of whatever the opposite of humanity and emotion and ‘being in the moment’ is and quietly leave the room.

In presenting his rib-tickling scenario Shankman displays all the comic timing of a drunken butcher, giddily slashing his way through reams of the clumsiest exposition and, strangest of all, deciding to let his camera dwell on something (usually Diesel’s raised eyebrow) at the end of every scene - as if waiting for the laughter to die down and the audience to finish rolling in the aisles. He’d still be waiting. When called upon to take over directorial duties on the school’s production of The Sound of Music, there is a long pause as the weight of this new development slowly sinks through Diesel’s gleaming skull. Having twigged the metronomic pattern to events by then, I saw my chance to run and took it.

Hollywood Creative Bankruptcy Watch #1

The powers that be in Sony clearly didn't get where they are today by sitting around watching a load of damn movies. Ask them about the process of keeping a factory churning out product though.

I'll tell ya what works, they'd answer, very loudly. They might rise from behind their vast oaken desks and poke you in the chest with the wet end of their cigar.

Sequels and franchises, buddy! That's what they'd say, jabbing for emphasis.

Ya gotta get a franchise going!

In that spirit, of despair in case you're not following, we greet news that Sony Pictures is planning a whole raft of sequels, including but not limited to Hollow Man 2, I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer and Road House 2.

Let that information sink in there now for a minute and we'll deal with these one at a time.

The original Hollow Man, in case you missed it, was ever-so-naughty Dutchman Paul Verhoeven's noisy and pointless Invisible Man 'homage'. Kevin Bacon was in it, getting his stalk on with some pretty girls and getting all drunk with power but, er, spoiler, he dies in a jet of superhot gas at the end. So I guess it'll be some daytime soap opera chimp's turn to stare at his hands goggle-eyed as they gently fade into blur-outlined transparency with the chai latte sweep of a bearded Californian's mouse. Beautiful.

With the amount of damage I've done to my brain watching swill like I Know What You Did Last Summer over the years, it's a good thing someone will remember. Shame so many beautiful teenagers will have to die in the process, though. It's not like I did anything cool.

The original Road House remains on my list of yet-to-see movies. Seeing as how it stars elbow-faced meat puppet Patrick Swayze, it'll be there for a while yet. He plays Dalton, a kickass bouncer slash dance instructor hired to clean up a scuzzy biker bar slash ballet conservatory somewhere in the desert. A follow up set in Baghdad (not really) is precisely what America needs to keep its spirits up in this time of war. Swayze dancing around a bombed out marketplace like a horny spastic would send the right message to the towelheads. Awwrright! U! S! A! Whoooo!

Here's the thing. All of these movies were released years ago. Roadhouse is from 1989. If the originals were any good, or if the audience was crying out to see more of them, Sony would have made the follow-up before now. Is there really anyone out there looking to see more Swayze, or events inspired by Swayze's antics fifteen years ago? It's like a snake eating its own tail. They may as well just tape the beginning to the end of any given reel of film and show it, endlessly.

The guy in Sony whose job it is to come up with new ideas must have a lot of cigar spit on the front of his shirt.

War of the Worlds Review

This post is the complete review for Spielberg's new one, War of the Worlds, most of which was published in the Independent's Day & Night magazine last weekend. I tend to write more than fits the available space and there just isn't room for all of it. No such trouble here...but it is more or less unedited. I'll probably do this for selected films from now on, but I won't post everything.

War of the Worlds, 12A

H.G. Wells, the father of science-fiction, wrote “The War of the Worlds" in 1898, stirred into genius by reports of an Italian astronomer mistaking Martian rock formations for artificial canals and looking for a metaphor to carry a story intended as a warning about the rise of the Kaiser and Imperial Germany. A young Orson Welles notoriously adapted the story as a breathless caution against the rise of Hitler in 1938. In the 1953 film, it was the Soviet Reds. Now, I suppose, the warning is about 9/11 or the War on Terror, but I haven’t been able to figure that one out quite yet.

See, DreamWorks perfectly legitimate desire to snatch a massive opening weekend from a dismal summer season, coupled with their equally fervent desire to foil the DVD pirates (and stymie the potentially disastrous effects of poor word of mouth) means that instead of the usual leisurely cud-chewing that goes into passing judgement on a movie, there is almost no time to run the ruler over the new Steven Spielberg film. War of The Worlds was shown to the Irish press just two days before the public get to see it and just a couple of hours before this section of the Irish Independent goes to press. It’s a marketing manipulation as cunning as anything the sneaky Martians could have come up with but haste makes waste and make no mistake, War of the Worlds is a waste, being the first half a great film stitched onto the second half of a mediocre one.

After a suitably ominous, rumbling introduction, narrated over images of the workaday world going about its business by Morgan Freeman, we are quickly introduced to the blue-collar Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a crane-operator at the NJ docks (very macho) who drives a Dodge Charger (likewise) and lives alone in a messy house under a bridge. Given Spielberg’s obsession with divorce and the dissolution of the nuclear family, Ray must be a weekend dad and a deadbeat one at that. Shortly after his estranged ex-wife (Miranda Otto in another fleeting appearance following In My Father's Den) and her new husband drop his moody teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) off for a rare weekend visit, a strange and powerful electrical storm lights up the sky over his house. The power goes out, the phones don’t work and car engines have been disabled by an electro-magnetic pulse. Lightning strikes the street near Ray's house, and up from the resulting crater rises an towering three-legged alien weapon that proceeds to lay waste to the town. The fleeing people are incinerated by death rays and buildings topple in rubble. So far, so exciting. Ray bundles the family into the only working car around and flees to Boston, where the ex-wife is and where the family can be re-united. The ordinary-joe Ray has to battle marauding aliens, the hapless military and the raging mobs of terrified people to do the right thing for his children.

That’s the journey Spielberg is interested in here, a sentimental and manipulative series of separations and reinforcements that have been sanitised for a summer audience. The shadow of the Kaiser or Kruschev or whoever is ignored in the rush to say I Love You, Daddy. Strangely for a Spielberg film (he usually patches over his gaps and illogicalities with a glossy sheen) it's possible to pin down almost exactly where the story starts to topple over: twenty scant minutes of WOW almost ruins everything else. A massive set-piece battle between a troop of alien tripods and the overwhelmed military introduces a deeply suspicious and badly played separation which puts the mopey kid in limbo and Ray and Rachel in a bombed out cellar with a fellow survivor, played by Tim Robbins. The war raging outside, and everything else grinds to a sudden stop and we’re in this over-designed basement for what feels like a very long time, watching Robbins do his wild-eyed and desperate disintegration thing. Which is all well and good but the clock is ticking and the yarn is losing its pulse. Again and again the admirably tidy aliens arrive to snoop around for stragglers and the plucky trio outwits them. As a sidebar, it offers a few minor thrills amidst some well-staged set-pieces, but the overriding anxiety is gone from the story and the film’s focus has evaporated.

Spielberg again relies on his core filmmaking team of regular collaborators, led by director of photography Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter and a suitably ominous musical score from John Williams. Together they do supply some moments of real magic that only serve to highlight what a disappointment the remainder of the film is. A flaming train flashes through a level-crossing, flames leaping from every window: a beautifully realised image in and of itself and a shocking metaphor for chaos. A scene where Ray and the children are overcome by a mob is terrifying for both its immediate realism and its nod to the relentless psychology of B Movie zombies. What’s really noticeable here, and it’s to the films credit, is what’s missing. No crumbling Statue of Liberty (in fact, beyond some anonymous NJ bridge, no destruction of landmarks at all), no floundering Army generals calling the President on the big red phone. Cruise never faces off against the Leader of the Aliens and there is never a suggestion that he would be particularly heroic if such a face off were to happen. Cruise is a decent hero, but it's almost impossible to see a star of his magnitude play an ordinary man, even if he efficiently struggles to cope as his country collapses around his head.

Dakota Fanning – to many a far more terrifying prospect than regime change at the hands of bloodthirsty alien beings – does surprisingly well for a young actor called upon to show courage while remain vulnerable and innocent. Likewise Justin Chatwin who plays Cruise's grungy teenage son. Initially insufferably disaffected, the sulky youth is inspired to a sort of individual nobility by realising he actually loves his life just at the point where something is threatening to take it away.

So where's the problem? Legendary story, beautiful special effects, decent performances, a contemporary theme? If WOW isn’t really about an alien invasion of Earth, what is it about? Spielberg, whose parents divorced while he was in his teens, is more concerned with the destruction of one family than the obliteration of billions. Focusing on Cruise, as a confused modern father who comes good under pressure, at the expense of the grand theatre of destruction enacted a mile over his head adds an element of oversimplification and manipulation (that word again) that means the impact WOW can carry is fatally limited and nauseatingly self-obsessed. In being called upon continuously to face up to himself, Cruise can never face the evil of the external threat, and so we cannot either. The invading aliens become a narrative device, lying in wait for a million years before attacking for no other reason than we hadn’t invented custody laws, visitations or divorce back when we were throwing sticks at each other. The ending, rushed as so many other elements of this saga are, is a fairly poor excuse for a coda to the occasionally riveting drama that has gone before. But it’s only one underwhelming movie. It’s not the end of the world.