Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Dir: Tim Burton
Release: Wide theatrical release July 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory brings together one of my favorite filmmaking teams (Burton / Elfman / Depp) in away that only the three of them could manage. The film is a totally different adaptation of the Roald Dahl story from the 1971 version. With the only real similarities lying in the spine of the story, and even that deviates somewhat. I read the story again right before seeing this film and aside from the end, some of the back-story, and the end Burton’s vision holds close to the original text.

The Story

Eccentric chocolate maker Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) decides to invite five lucky children to his chocolate factory for a personalized tour and a special prize for one of the five children. Charlie (Freddie Highmore), is one of the lucky children who gets to come to the factory. Charlie is quite poor and shares a small one room home with his parents (Helena Bohnam Carter, Noah Taylor) and his four grandparents who share one bed (David Kelly, Liz Smith, Eileen Essell, David Morris).

Along the tour, the four other children break various rules and are punished in ways that only could happen in Wonka’s strange world. As each child exits the story, the Oompa Loompas (all played by Deep Roy) sing a wonderful song that talks about how horrible each child is and the lesson learned from each of their demises.

At the end, Charlie is the only boy left who gets the extra special prize, the opportunity to run Wonka’s chocolate factory.

The Film

This film is pure Burton through and through. From the very first sequence I was reminded why I fell in love with Burton’s films. His vision of the chocolate factory was as magical as it was frightening something I believe Dahl intended in his original story. Burton is very aware of how to use color, shape and texture and how these elements work together to form a visual rhythm that his fans adore.

Depp’s interpretation of Willy Wonka could not be further from Gene Wilder’s in the 1971 version of the story. Depp plays the character as a truly eccentric Wonka who has lost all touch with the real world and has enveloped himself in the fantasy of his own factory. Depp’s performance is filled with a lot more humor than I remember Wilder’s and though Depp is a little more bitter, he seems softer than Wilder’s Wonka.

Any fan of Burton’s will probably go back to the theatre to see this film more than once (as I plan to do) just to get a chance to spend two more hours in his universe, something we haven’t really been able to do since, Batman (1989).

Oh, anyone up for opening night of Corpse Bride?

Ночной Дозор (2005)

English title: Night Watch
Dir: Timur Bekmambetov
Release: Rumored January 2006 US Release
Language: English and Russian with subtitles.

I was able to catch a way advance screening of this film and I was quite impressed by the use of CGI effects and the overall story. The film is an adaptation of the beloved Russian Sci-fi Fantasy novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, and is one of the first big budget special effects films out of Russia. After much searching Valium, has not been able to find an English translation of the novel, which is a shame because I would really like to read it.

The Story

Thousands of years ago the forces fighting for light and dark agreed to a truce, establishing a balance between the two powers. Now in modern Moscow, there are still soldiers that fight for each side within the terms of the truce with the light patrolling the dark and the dark patrolling the light. In the world created for this story there are those who are in touch with the struggle between light and dark known as the Others. When an Other is created, they must choose if they will fight for light or dark, and thus their allegiance is created.

There is a prophecy that declares there will be an Other born who will choose light or dark and will offset the balance, once again starting the war between the two. This first installment of the trilogy introduces us to this chosen one and ends with his decision.

The Film

I was taken by complete surprise by this film. I had no idea what film I was going to be watching and I must say, I was blown away. I am a big fan of stories that involve mythical and magical creatures and their incorporation into modern society. From the first battle sequence to the last scene, I was mesmerized, almost too much to be able to actually run the film.

Bekmambetov’s use of CGI imagery is totally appropriate. Instead of the story relying specifically on the effects, they add artistic imagery that really helps set the tone of the film. I am also quite pleased to see that the use of big budget Hollywood style effects, did not remove the cold Russian filmmaking sensibility. I am excited to get a chance to see the next two films in the series, hopefully they will all make it to a US release.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Fantastic Four (2005)

Dir: Tim Story
Release: Wide theatrical release July 05.

The latest in a long series of comic books brought to big screen, The Fantastic Four probably won’t disappoint. I am not a comic book person, it seems like I am the only one of the people I know who has never really even read one, but I know a little bit about movies. I see a lot of them, and as a whole, this one was not that bad.

The Story

Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) is the President of a failing company. When his old friend Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) comes to him with an idea of using Doom’s space station as a way to test the affects of a passing solar flare, Doom sees it as a way of boosting his stock value and agrees to allow the experiment. Doom and Richards are joined by Doom’s love interest, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), her brother Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) on the space station.

When the cloud approaches Earth far earlier than expected, they are not able to protect themselves in time and are exposed to the full power of the passing flare and their genetic makeup is completely rearranged. It is not until a few days later when they are recovering that they discover their new powers and thus are reborn as the Fantastic Four. Ultimately they must face off with Von Doom who has become even more evil with his powers.

The Film

This film felt like what it was, the first in a franchise. While there are good action sequences, the main purpose of the film seems to be an introduction to the characters for those of us who have not read the comic books. The last battle of the film functioned as way to get the four to accept who they were and that they could use their powers together for good. It did not give a sense of conclusion, but of a beginning.

I liked the playful way that the characters began to explore their powers and their limitations. Plus, even though love interest plot lines usually make me sick, I wasn’t bothered by it here. The film was entertaining and I felt good leaving the theatre. Though why they kept insisting on dressing Johnny Storm, I will never understand. He was just fine when he wasn’t wearing many clothes, they could have kept that up. Which actually brings up an interesting point, it is not often in today’s films we see a topless hairy younger man and it was appreciated.

See this film on the big screen with good sound, it deserves it.

War of The Worlds (2005)

Dir: Steven Spielberg
Release: Wide release.

H.G. Wells’ story is once again brought to life on the big screen in a bigger, louder, and longer version than the 1953 version.

The Story

An alien race has been watching the progression of man kind on Earth from our very beginning. They have finally decided that we must be exterminated as a race and activate long buried ships located all over the planet in strange lightening storms. Once the machines are brought to life, they blow everything up killing everyone before they use them for fertilizer to grow strange vegetation. We follow Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his two children Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin) as they try to make it to Boston where the children’s mother is.

The Film

This film almost seems as though they convened a focus group that tried to find the elements that a summer blockbuster hit would have to have, and then tried to incorporate them back into the story. There is everything from family tension, explosions, aliens, space ships, bad weather, chase scenes, slight social commentary and even a sinking boat. Though I have to say that I think Spielberg’s inclusion of the sinking boat was really a fuck you to James Cameron and his way of saying, “see… I can sink a boat too.”

I also feel that Tom Cruise is far too famous of an actor to play a simple dockworker from Jersey and I really found his presence in the film to be quite distracting. As far as acting goes, Fanning seriously blew Cruise out of the water, thus proving that Spielberg still possesses what is possibly his greatest talent, directing children.

I really appreciate the time that Spielberg took to let us spend some good time with each of the characters; I only wish that there could have been a little more variety to the scenes. It felt as though every time they were in some sort of situation they had to get out of, it was the same. Also, because he took his time for most of the film, the ending was a bit rushed. It was almost as if he realized that the film was already nearing two hours and that he had to just end it.

However, all that being said, I actually did enjoy it. I think that it is a great summer film that while not substantial, provides an entertaining way to sit in air conditioning for a couple of hours.

Baby Face (1933)

Dir: Alfred E. Green
Release: Limited release at the SFC July 16th (4:00 and 7:00) and 17th (2:00).

As the showcase film in the Starz Film Center’s Summer of Preservation series, Baby Face is a great American film from the “pre-code” era of filmmaking. In 1930 the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) agreed on a production code that all films would have to adhere to. The code is known as the Hays Production code and it addressed how sex, violence, culture and purity should be portrayed in film. The introduction of sound meant that filmmakers could potentially create even more provocative or suggestive films and the MPAA wanted to censor what directors could and could not do.

The code was not really enforced until 1934 when the United States Government noted that the MPAA was not able to reign in out of control filmmakers and threatened to do it for them. It was then they decided that the MPAA began to strictly enforce the code. However, some films were allowed to get away with quite a bit in the four years that the code was only loosely enforced. Films such as: I’m A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), Scarface: The Shame of A Nation (1932), and Baby Face (1933). These films were released with only a few changes that were required by the censor board, but may not have been released at all after 1934.

The code was strictly enforced from 1934 to the 1950’s when directors began to challenge it. Then in the 1960’s directors and studios began to fully challenge the idea of the production code (Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho) and by 1967 the code was abandoned and replaced with the modern MPAA Ratings Scale. The story of the Hays Production Code is full of examples of American culture and attempts at censorship.

Unfortunately, there are a significant number of films from this era that have been forever lost. It is quite an opportunity to be able to see a fully restored print of any film from the pre-code era, much less one that has been restored to its original version, without any changes required by the MPAA. Such is the case with Baby Face. When the Library of Congress restored this film, they found original sequences that were cut from the film and never before seen theatrically. Those scenes were restored and included in this print of the film.

The Story

The story of Baby Face is simple. Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) plays a down and out woman who upon the advice of the only man in the world she trusts, Alphonse Ethier (Adolf Cragg), moves to NYC to utilize her best asset to move ahead in the world, her body. She gets a job working for a bank and begins to sleep her way, quite literally, to the top of the bank. Ultimately, she must decide what she loves more, a man or her possessions.

The Film

The film overall while good, is not the best film I have seen from the pre-code era. The film is wonderfully shot, and well acted, it just falls a little short. It is however, wonderfully enjoyable and I must say I fell in love with Lily Powers. Anyone who is interested in the history of film, or who just likes to see a good film should not miss Baby Face this weekend at the Starz Film Center.

Also, the film curator for the Library of Congress and SFC Director of Education Howie Movshovitz will be present at the July 16th 7:00 PM screening for a Q&A session. I highly recommend coming to that screening early so you can get a chance to learn about film preservation from perhaps the Nation's most important preservationist.

Read the text of the Hays Code Here