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Wednesday, December 13

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
I'm going to let you all in on a little secret. I was one of the first people in the world to see a work-in-progress screening of Tim Burton's version of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory back in mid-May. Since the music was temporary and many of the special effects weren't completed, I decided it was only fair to go screen it completed to see what the final piece looks like before passing on my final assessment. Having done so, I think most of my comments about the film from when I reviewed it on Ain't It Cool News are still valid for the finished version. With minor adjustments, here is my original review. It's a little longer than usual; be careful.

Try as I may to put the Gene Wilder version of this story—Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—out of my mind, it's impossible. Some sequences in the new version are almost identical to the old. Certainly many of the casting decisions (especially in the case of the children) seemed inspired by the previous version. In recalling the new film, the moments I loved the most were those that strayed from the original film. Wonka's backstory is priceless; the sole sequence showing Wonka's discovery of the Oompa-Loompa tribe is a scream. The way that Veruca Salt is "dealt with" is radically different, and I think much better. And, the ending has been altered to be closer to what I remember of the book. (Although, it's been 100 years since I've read it, so I don't feel safe comparing film to book.)

Let me start from the beginning. Meeting the family of Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, last seen opposite Johnny Depp as Peter in Finding Neverland) is such a treat. They are the poorest of the poor, and the set design for their slanted, crumbling home deserves an art direction award. You don't so much walk through the front door as you walk under and around it. You have to see it to understand. The timeframe of this film is a little in question, and that's okay. The Buckets seem to live in Dickensian times, whereas the rest of the world seems modern. The clearest sign of this is the introduction of golden ticket winner Mike Teavee, who seems to excel at all things with a monitor, including video games. But I liked the wacky sense of time-space displacement.

Charlie's loving parents (Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor) and sweet grandparents (including the unstoppable David Kelly as Grandpa Joe) are all still crammed into one room with a giant bed in the middle. In these early scenes, we learn that, in his younger years, Grandpa Joe once worked with Wonka when his candy offerings were made in a small shop. Joe went on to work for Wonka when he moved his operation to the big factory in the middle of this fictional London, but when industrial spies kept stealing Wonka's secret formulas, Wonka kicked all his employees out and shut down the factory for a time. When it reopened weeks later, people had no idea who was running the complex (but we do).

Most of the film's build-up to the five children arriving at the factory gates with their escorts is what we're used to. Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz) is still a fat German kid constantly stuffing his face with candy. Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry) is still a short-tempered little shit, but here he actually presents himself as Wonka's most formidable foe. He's constantly questioning the science of Wonka's ideas, and I'm pretty sure he's the only one that notices that the Oompa-Loompas' songs seem pre-written, which might indicate premeditation on Wonka's part. Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) is still the boss of the world, especially her father, played by the esteemed James Fox.

The only noticeable difference in the children's personalities is with Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb, the lead in Because of Winn-Dixie), who is portrayed as a purple sweatsuit-wearing girl who must win at everything she does. If you know the story, you know she's dealt with early on. Burton seems to emphasize more in this version the obvious possibility that Wonka has planned the outcome of his grand contest long before it even began, and that makes Depp's performance all the more devious.

So what about Depp as Willy Wonka? Has the guy ever disappointed us when he's gotten the chance to create an original character (or in this case, put his unique spin on an established character)? Of course not. And in this fourth pairing with Burton (the fifth being the upcoming Corpse Bride), I'm not quite sure I can explain his take on Wonka, but here it goes. The jet-black hair, pasty white skin and dandy-boy clothes screamed Michael Jackson to me. I'm talking strictly the look here; don't read anything else into that statement.

In terms of performance, Depp appears to have selected sociopath as his role model. Wonka has become so isolated from the world outside his factory, he's lost his perspective. As we learn from the flashbacks to Wonka's childhood, his father was overbearing dentist Wilbur Wonka (Christopher Lee, who should officially be the fifth head on Mt. Rushmore), who never let Willy eat candy as it might damage his torture-device dental headgear. The young Wonka decided early to live a life defying everything his father taught him, including how to behave around or relate to regular people.

One thing that shocked me about Burton's take on Wonka is that my life-long belief that he really didn't like children may have been wrong. According to this film, his aversion is to families (for reasons that are much more clear in the new version). Wonka can't even spit out the word "parents." Of course, Wonka still shows a tremendous amount of glee when a child is in danger. He practically bites his own tongue off trying not to laugh when one of his traps is sprung.

Wonka's giant, white teeth don't exactly improve his image either. In a weird way, if you really consider it, one could make a case that Wonka's candy business was founded for the sole purpose of rotting teeth around the world. I wouldn't have believed Gene Wilder's Wonka capable of such things, but Depp's Wonka? You bet. Wonka frequently drifts off during times of crisis, he laughs when people are in trouble, and he buries his childhood fears and resentment so deep that he seems ready to explode at any moment.

So far everything I've told you is about things I loved in this dazzling movie. I was a bit surprised that the look of the chocolate waterfall and river set was so similar to that of the original film, but there were enough unique touches that I grew not to mind so much. Plus, it's during this sequence that we meet the new and improved Oompa-Loompas, all of which are played by a little person actor named Deep Roy; this guy is my new hero. His expression never changes, although his outfits always do. In some scenes, there are dozens of him dancing in elaborately choreographed numbers.

Unfortunately, my biggest problem with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory corresponds to when Deep Roy is on the screen: the musical numbers. Gone are the tuneful songs sung by Charlie, Grandpa Joe and Wonka, which is fine. I knew Burton wasn't making a musical. What we are left with are the songs of childhood indiscretions sung by the Oompa-Loompas. I was excited to hear that Danny Elfman would have the opportunity to revisit his alt-pop roots, but these songs are terrible, despite the fact that (according to the closing credits) the lyrics are taken from Dahl's book (with Elfman providing the tune). I can't believe this is same guy that gave us the lovely tunes of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Rather than the mantra-like chant of the old Oompa-Loompa songs, each song here is done in a different musical style. Some are funky, some rock out, but across the board, they all suck. And to top it off, the words are incredibly hard to hear. And short of simply ripping the songs out of the film (which doesn't seem likely), there's really no way to fix this problem.

Much like certain story elements, some of the sets seem remarkably similar to the first film, while others differ wildly. Perhaps my favorite sequence involves Veruca's downfall. It's completely different from the original film's treatment and involves a roomful of squirrels. It's great. The trip down the chocolate river is much more like a theme park ride, and I'm not sure if that's any better or worse, but it looks cool. And I liked the decision by Burton and screenwriter John August (Big Fish) to show us the ultimate fates of the four other children.

Am I recommending Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? You bet. There's so much here to love, especially if you have a deep, dark streak running right through the middle of your heart. All of the performances are exactly right, and even Depp's deeply disturbed take on Willy Wonka can't be dismissed because it works so well. Do I have reservations along with my recommendations? Yes again, and they're hard to ignore. Will the bad songs sink the ship? I don't think so, but they may just keep this film from being a new classic. It's the difference between good and great. Who knows, you may think I'm being too hard on Mr. Elfman, but somehow I doubt it. Hey, you remake a classic story like this, you run the risk of this degree of scrutiny. But when the DVD drops on my doorstep, you can expect me to skip over the tunes.


Fantastic Four
When the greatest villain ever created for the Marvel Comics universe—Dr. Doom—is reduced to a prancing ninny for a big-screen adaptation, I don't see why I need to spend more than a few lines talking about the top-to-bottom cinematic miscarriage known as Fantastic Four. Rather than hire compelling actors (as was done for Spider-Man or X-Men), the filmmakers hired lookers. I'll applaud any attempts at getting Jessica Alba down to her underwear, but it doesn't mean I'm not going to slam the shitty movie that surrounds her. Director Tim Story (Barbershop) and the folks at Fox seem to have decided that Marvel's first superstars should have their film be a comedy, and a lame one at that. The film's only saving grace is Michael Chiklis' portrayal as the rock-encrusted Thing. But even he gets shafted when they involve him in a time-wasting romance with a blind woman. It's tough to get behind a film where the heroes and villains are obnoxious or stupid or boring. Fantastic Four is 'D,' all of the above.


Dark Water
Having seen the original 2002 Japanese ghost story upon which this film is based, I knew what to expect from the plot of the American version of Dark Water. What was not as easy to anticipate was how solid a film this version turns out to be. Jennifer Connelly once again returns to her crazy-beautiful persona to deliver another emotionally wrenching portrait of a woman who is either being haunted by the spirit of a little girl or simply going insane from all the pressures in her crumbling life. Connelly is good enough to keep us guessing, and director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) thankfully keeps the now standard images of the pale girl with black hair hanging in her face to a minimum.

Connelly plays Dahlia, the mother of Ceci (Ariel Gade), who is forced to move into a low-rent apartment when she and her husband (Dougray Scott) separate. Although Dark Water is a gloomy, atmospheric piece, Salles finds ways to inject some appropriate humor into the mix with some inspired supporting work by John C. Reilly as a shifty real estate broker, Pete Postlethwaite as a crusty old building maintenance man, and an almost unrecognizable Tim Roth as Dahlia's odd-ball divorce lawyer. Throughout the film, I kept waiting for the bottom to drop out and for things to start getting ridiculous, but it never happened. Connelly keeps the film grounded in reality, and while there are some genuinely heart-racing moments, the film doesn't cheapen itself with lame scare tactics. A surprisingly effective work, Dark Water is a psychological thriller, family drama, and ghost story wrapped up in a classy package.


Wedding Crashers
Showing no signs of class (thank goodness) is the decidedly R-rated comedy Wedding Crashers, featuring two of the players from a group of actors who seem to constantly team-up in each other's films. The group includes Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Will Farrell, Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell and the stars of this film, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn.

Shockingly enough, the trailer for this film is misleading. While it is true that Wilson and Vaughn play John and Jeremy, two divorce mediators, who spend their summers crashing weddings to seduce beautiful bridesmaids, that part of the story only takes up about the first 30 minutes of screen time. Their tactics are unscrupulous and hilarious, but we sense a rift in the friendship as Wilson begins to realize that it might be considered pathetic by some for someone his age to live his life this way.

At the wedding of the daughter of U.S. Treasury Secretary William Cleary (a sadly underused Christopher Walken), the boys both fall into the arms of Cleary's other two daughters. Wilson latches onto the clearly interested but already attached Claire (Rachel McAdams), while Vaughn beds younger sister Gloria (Australian newcomer Isla Fisher). The hidden gem in the Cleary family (and the film) is a wonderfully sleazy performance by matriarch Kathleen, played by Jane Seymour.

Make no mistake, Wedding Crashers has no deep meaning or insight, despite its boys-to-men theme. Wilson is falling in love for the first time as an adult, while Vaughn learns that his lifestyle has consequences for himself and others. Shanghai Knights director David Dobkin keeps the off-color jokes flowing, and while there aren't many big, big laughs in Wedding Crashers, it's a non-stop giggle-fest of the highest order thanks to some well-placed tasteless jokes and prat falls. Despite their seemingly different approaches to comedy, Wilson and Vaughn are a great comic duo as Vaughn finds wacky ways to whip Wilson into a frenzy about their schemes just as his interest seems to decline. At a full two hours in length, the film is probably too long considering the lightweight subject matter, but that doesn't make it any less hysterical.


The Beat That My Heart Skipped
Here's something you don't see everyday: a foreign-language film remaking a lesser-known (at least in the mainstream) American classic. From French director Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips) comes his take on James Toback's 1978 underground hit, Fingers, the story of a man who must choose between being a career criminal and a concert pianist.

The fantastic Romain Duris (When the Cat's Away, L'Auberge Espangnole) takes over the role of Thomas, the torn man (originally played by Harvey Keitel) who follows in his aging father's footsteps by carrying out shady real estate deals. His long-dead mother was a successful pianist, and Thomas feels the constant pull of both the criminal and art worlds. One afternoon, Thomas runs into his mother's agent, who encourages him to come and audition for him since he remembers Thomas as being something of a protégé in his younger years. This appointment sets up a series of events that forever alters Thomas's life, as he struggles to give up his hooligan life in favor of a higher purpose.

He hires a pretty Chinese piano tutor named Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham), who barely speaks French or English. She is just one of the many women in Thomas's life, including his father's much younger girlfriend, the moll of a Russian mobster, and the wife of his cheating business partner and friend. His seduction of these women is sometimes ruthless and often done without thought for the consequences. But it's clear that the immigrant piano instructor is closest to his heart; thus he doesn't seduce her.

Duris gives a tour-de-force performance as a man literally being torn apart by his talents and abilities. Thomas is an intelligent man who does some very dumb things. I had a difficult time taking my eyes off his hands because they were both his weapons of choice when doing his work as an enforcer and his instruments as a piano player. Any time he punched somebody, I winced not for the poor sap getting hit, but for Thomas's hands. And as death-defying as some of the situations are that Thomas gets involved in, it's his audition for the agent that had me on the edge of my seat.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped is one of the most volatile character studies I've seen in a while, one where even the secondary characters are richly drawn and perfectly realized by the actors. Almost as a bonus, we get a fascinating plot that finds our antihero attempting to wrap up the loose ends in his two lives with unexpected, explosive and sometimes unfortunate outcomes. Perhaps the most shocking sequence in the film is a savory two-years-later epilogue that reveals things about the characters that took me by surprise. The gritty crime drama is not dead; it rests in the heart of a gifted musician. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.


Happy Endings
At least for the time being, I'm a big fan of films featuring large ensemble casts who play characters whose lives intersect in interesting ways. Recent examples of this approach are Robert Altman's Short Cuts and P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, but lately it seems like a more common storytelling device in films such as Crash, Heights (a film I didn't review, but I definitely recommend) and now Happy Endings, from writer-director Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex, Bounce).

Perhaps more comedic than any of the other ensemble pieces of late, Happy Endings weaves a group of mostly unlikable characters played by a group of terrific actors, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lisa Kudrow, Jesse Bradford, Laura Dern, Steve Coogan, Bobby Cannavale, Tom Arnold and Jason Ritter. Unlike Crash, the trials and tribulations these characters face aren't remotely sociologically important, but they're no less interesting. I had a particular fondness for the storyline involving Gyllenhaal's character, a tactless blackmailer, who sleeps with the in-the-closet Ritter, then seduces his rich father (Arnold), threatening to reveal the son's gay tendencies if he tells dad about her gold-digging tendencies. The real surprise in this story is Arnold's sweet, open-book performance. The guy practically invites women to use him, but you still feel sympathy for his character, one of the only kind people in the movie.

The thread that is supposed to pack the biggest punch is the one that centers on Lisa Kudrow, who, as a teen, gave her child up for adoption, never telling even the baby's father (her stepbrother) that she couldn't go through with a planned abortion. As an adult, the character has become bitter, suspicious and dull, and she attempts to spice up her life role-playing with her massage therapist boyfriend (Cannavale). When a young filmmaker (Bradford) offers her a chance to meet her long-lost son, her life is thrown into a tailspin, and she struggles to gain control. Frankly, this part of the plot wasn't doing it for me. Rather than watching a potentially intriguing relationship grow between Kudrow and Bradford, the film makes these characters act like fools, resulting in the least interesting payoffs.

Roos has never made it a priority to give us characters we're going to identify with or even enjoy watching, but they're never boring. He also uses on-screen text throughout the film to tell us more about each character. To make certain we don't think that Bradford may actually be Kudrow's son, the text tells us he's not, adding "in case that's what you were thinking." It's a funny device, but I have a feeling some will find it annoying and frustrating. As with Roos' other films, the focus is on just how messed up families can be. No punches are pulled, and there are (by design) moments of great discomfort on the part of the characters and the audience. But most of the storylines have endings I enjoyed or at least respected, and for that, Happy Endings is worth seeing.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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