Sunday, October 02, 2005

September Movie Roundup

Another better-late-than-never roundup; somehow, I feel I write better about film when I’ve had a chance to digest it for a while.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I was a little conflicted about this going in; I’m still a little conflicted now. I’m a big fan of Tim Burton, notwithstanding his frequent mis-steps. But I’m also a big fan of the 1971 Mel Stuart movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, with Gene Wilder as Wonka. While the Tim Burton movie, strictly speaking, is not a remake of that version but a reimagination of the Roald Dahl book, it’s impossible not to compare the two.

The good news: this version is definitely its own movie. It is, unmistakably, a Tim Burton film; it’s shiny and polished and bizarre. The bad news: It’s not quite as satisfying as the earlier version.

Johnny Depp is excellent as Wonka, but with a big caveat: this is not the manic, wild-eyed, but basically benevolent Gene Wilder Wonka. Depp’s Wonka is deeply creepy: pale, vacant, and wholly unable to connect with the people around him. Especially children: making him afraid of, and repulsed by, children was a masterstroke, and is beautifully acted by Depp. His shock and horror at being hugged by Violet Beauregarde, and his dismissive “Oh. I don’t care.” response to her announcement of her name, are a startling first indication of this Wonka’s misanthropy.

Wonka’s visible aversion to children is fascinating because, in a society which often positions parenthood and childrearing as the ultimate personal achievement, it’s so transgressive. We’re supposed to like children, to want children, to feel comfortable around children. Wonka doesn’t—even though he’s set himself up as a granter of childrens’ wishes. And this transgression is rather appealing to those of us who, like me, are childless, who do sometimes feel uncomfortable around children, who do sometimes wonder how to relate to them.

Less effective, though, is the delving into Wonka’s back-story, and his upbringing by a stern—and candy-hating—father. For me, this didn’t really work. Wonka doesn’t need to be explained, and the original book makes no effort to do so. He’s a cipher; a fantastic, almost unworldly figure; trying to ground him in reality only diminishes him. More prosaically, the flashbacks to Wonka’s past repeatedly interrupt the momentum of the film.

And momentum is a problem here. The film suffers from being both an adaptation of a well-loved book and a remake of a well-loved movie; nothing here is much of a surprise. We know how the plot runs; we know the route through the factory; we know how, and in what order, each of the brats will reach their comeuppance. This movie runs on rails. This wouldn’t be a problem if it were paced like a rollercoaster, but it’s not; and it’s usually the Wonka character which kills the pace. The flashbacks are distracting, and Wonka himself, while fascinating, is too downbeat to maintain the momentum. Compare with Gene Wilder’s manic Wonka, who was the engine driving the earlier movie.

The Oompa-Loompas here are, as Dahl originally wrote them, brown-skinned pygmies, not the ambiguous orange-skinned dwarfs portrayed in the earlier movie and in the revision of the book. I suspect this is no casual choice: we are intended to wonder whether the Oompa-Loompas, uprooted wholesale from their native habitat and working in the factory for salaries paid in cocoa beans (one small step away from “working for peanuts”) are willing partners or indentured slaves.

The idea of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a subversive satire on class labour is explored further by Dorothea Salo at Caveat Lector: The Factory, and by Mike at Vitia: Chocolate Proletariat. Good reading, both in the articles and the comments.

The ending, too, is rather more disturbing in this version, with a visual twist reminiscent of Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes remake: the Bucket’s house transplanted wholesale into Wonka’s Chocolate Room. Wonka needs a family and a child’s viewpoint to continue to produce candy; the Buckets fit the bill; so, like the Oompa-Loompas, they’re absorbed into Wonka’s world. Exploitative? We’re left to decide for ourselves.

There’s a lot to like here, and a lot that stays with you afterwards; but as a whole, it’s confused. Part of the problem is that it can’t decide whether it’s aimed at kids or adults. The glossy fun and familiar story appeal to kids; but the darkness and misanthropy suggest otherwise; and so it falls rather uncomfortably inbetween.

3/5: abandon preconceptions and enjoy it for what it is.

The Aristocrats

Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza’s exploration of the filthiest joke in comedy. For me, this fell a little flat. The joke isn’t that funny, nor is it really that filthy. For a lot of the time, the movie comes across as an extended in-joke for cliquish comedians: a lot of backslapping and self-congratulatory laughing at themselves, leaving the audience on the outside slightly bemused.

Where the movie does work is where it attempts to analyse the joke, rather than simply tell it. Like a jazz standard, the joke is very simple: one line of setup, two words of punchline, and a huge gap in the middle which the teller riffs and improvises to fill. Maybe this is why the joke is traditionally one which comedians tell to each other, rather than to audiences: it’s a display of technical skill.

1½/5: a curiosity, but not ultimately very satisfying.

Categories: Movies