by Steve Habrat
Just under seven months ago, Quentin Tarantino proved that there was still some life in the western genre with his bold and brutal Django Unchained, which nabbed two Academy Awards and a nomination for Best Picture. Not only did it leave this viewer hankering for more from Mr. Tarantino, but it also left me hoping that more westerns would gallop into theaters. Now we have director Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, a bloated, erratic, and downright frustrating summer blockbuster from Disney, a studio that should have stayed far away from this title. For many months now, I have felt that most critics and audience members have been eager to approach The Lone Ranger with knives drawn, which I thought was a bit hasty and unfair. I thought the trailers showed potential even if it did seem like Disney was forcing this project to be another Pirates of the Caribbean, which was a huge mistake. The truth is that The Lone Ranger isn’t nearly as awful as some are claiming it is and that there is, in fact, quite a bit of potential here, but there are a myriad of problems with the film that should have been addressed before Disney gave it the okay. The biggest flaw is that Disney just couldn’t settle on a tone for the film. Is it supposed to be a dark and violent ode to Sergio Leone and the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s, or is it supposed to be a winking action movie with heavy doses of slapstick camp? You just can’t have it both ways.
The Lone Ranger picks up in 1869, with mild-mannered law student John Reid (played by Armie Hammer) returning to Colby, Texas, by train to visit his brother and Texas Ranger Dan Reid (played by James Badge Dale). Also aboard the train is the sadistic outlaw Butch Cavendish (played by William Fichtner), who is being transported to Colby to be hung by Dan, and a mysterious Indian named Tonto (played by Johnny Depp), who has been tracking Cavendish. After Cavendish escapes from the train with the help of his loyal gang, Dan makes a vow to railroad tycoon Latham Cole (played by Tom Wilkinson) to track down the outlaw and bring him to justice. Dan recruits John as a Texas Ranger and together, they set out to find Cavendish, but they soon run into a trap set by the Cavendish gang and the Reid brothers are both gunned down. Several days later, Tonto discovers the bodies of the Reid brothers and he begins an elaborate Indian burial ritual. Near the end of the ritual, Tonto is shocked to find a white “spirit horse” standing over John’s grave. As it turns out, John is still alive and Tonto is convinced that he is a “spirit walker” sent to aid him on his quest to track down Cavendish. Tonto explains that John can’t be killed in battle and that he must wear a mask to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. Together, they join forces to capture Cavendish and make him pay for his horrific crimes.
The Lone Ranger opens with a crackling train robbery that really gets the viewer’s adrenaline pumping. It has hints of the humor that was found in Pirates while never skimping on the rollicking action we’ve come to expect from Mr. Verbinski. It seems like everything is balanced but once the sequence ends, the tone splits off into multiple directions, never to come together again. There are scenes that are effective grotesque and sinister, especially a scene in which Cavendish slices out a man’s heart and devours it, only to be followed up by a some cutesy joke from Depp’s peculiar Tonto. This duel continues on for two and a half hours, and it concludes with a finale that is so mad cap, it almost feels like it belongs in another movie. While one could point the finger at Verbinski, it really should be pointed at Disney, who seems like one day they would tell Verbinski to make the film a bit edgier and then get cold feet about the decision the next day. When things do get dark, it feels more like Verbinski’s heart is in it, but when he is forced to pull back, the whole project seems to flat line, which yanks the viewer right out of the moment. It’s just exhausting.
Then we have the storyline, which suffered from multiple rewrites during the rocky production stage. While I’m sure the rewrites contributed to some the awkward shifts in tone, it also feels like the writers are unnecessarily trying to convolute the film with hazy side plots that could have been trimmed out and saved for the director’s cut Blu-ray. There are glaring plot holes (How did Tonto break out of jail and track down the Reid brothers?), obvious plot twists that you can see coming a mile away (There is one character in particular that you know is up to no good), and a slew of characters that, yes, are very colorful but ultimately useless in the grand scheme of things (I’m looking at you, Helena Bonham Carter). It is the same problem that plagued the second and third Pirates movies and you’d think that Disney would have learned their lesson, but I guess not. Mind you, The Lone Ranger never hits the confounding heights of those films, but it seems like the filmmakers are allowing it simply to trick the audience into thinking there is more depth here than there actually is. In a way, you hope that this is Disney’s way of really making the film worth the ten bucks you paid to see it, but I seriously doubt that Disney is being that generous.
Perhaps the biggest draw to The Lone Ranger is the performances, especially from the eccentric Depp, who also serves as executive producer here. While Depp’s name has been used to draw audiences in, the real star here is newcomer Armie Hammer, who made a name for himself in David Fincher’s The Social Network. While it was risky to cast someone like Hammer for the role, he does a fine job with the material he is given. The problem is, the material makes his character highly unlikable and extremely difficult to root for. His character doesn’t really do much, and he is constantly at odds with killing someone, even though the man he is tracking is a known psychopath with a taste for human flesh. While it is nice to see a character grapple with the decision of taking another human being’s life, I don’t think anyone under the sun was going to blame him for putting a bullet between Cavendish’s eyes, especially when he is threatening an innocent little boy. As far as Depp goes, he fares okay as Tonto, but for all the enthusiasm that he showed for the project, it is tough to really see it in his performance. As far as the supporting players go, Cater has some fun with her pointless role as Red Harrington, a brothel maid who packs heat in her ivory leg. Wilkinson is the usual burly business man as Latham Cole and Fichtner steals nearly every single scene he is in as the bloodthirsty Cavendish, a villain that is way too evil for a film that plays a nice as this does. Ruth Wilson also turns up in a small role as Dan’s widow, Rebecca, who is here to give the film a puny and pathetic love story.
For all of its problems, The Lone Ranger still has some brilliant little nods to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. There are two particular sequences that brought to mind Once Upon a Time in the West and the close up shots of scarred, sweaty, and thickly hairy gunfighters are evocative of Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy. The score from Hans Zimmer is also pretty atmospheric—something that I’m sure would make Ennio Morricone smile. There are also a few funhouse moments, especially a kaleidoscope detour into Hell on Wheels, where fire-and-brimstone preachers shout about the apocalypse and sideshow barkers plead with drunken railroad workers to step right up and marvel at a parade of freaks. I guess it is the little moments that really make the movie. Overall, while the credits of The Lone Ranger say, “directed by Gore Verbinski,” the film feels like the work of several different parties, all of which were on completely different pages. It is too dark to really appeal to children but too goofy to fully appeal to adults. If the Lone Ranger and Tonto do end up returning to a theater near you, let’s hope that they make the wise decision to get serious and remain consistent.
by Steve Habrat
Two years after Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech took the world by storm and made off with the Best Picture Oscar, the British director returns with a film so immense and extravagant, you won’t be able to believe your eyes. Hooper’s Les Misérables is certainly a worthy follow up to The King’s Speech, but in size and scope, Les Misérables blows it right out of the water. As epic as they come, Les Misérables is a big Hollywood blockbuster (and a shameless one at that), one sure to run away with awards like Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Best Production Design at the Academy Awards, but just like its predecessor, the film bowls over the viewer with one gigantic tidal wave of emotion after another. Just when you thought you’ve recovered from one heart wrenching moment, Hooper unleashes another one almost instantly. The film, and the stars who inhabit it, belt their hearts out as tears stream down their muddy faces, singing live over having the lyrics dubbed in post production. Each and every one of them will give you chills, especially Anne Hathaway’s teary-eyed “I Dreamed a Dream.” For as high as this film flies, it could still have stood to have at least forty minutes cut from it, mostly because by the final act, we do begin to feel it’s epic runtime of two hours and forty minutes. It appears that Hooper was wildly faithful to the musical and the novel by Victor Hugo, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Beginning in 1815, prisoner Jean Valjean (Played by Hugh Jackman) is released on parole by chilly prison guard Javert (Played by Russell Crowe) after serving a brutal seventeen-year sentence. Valjean is cast out into the world without any food or a home but is soon taken in by the kindly Bishop of Digne (Played by Colm Wilkinson), who offers him a hot meal and a bed. In the night, Valjean steals some of the Bishop’s silver and then flees, only to be quickly caught by local authorities. The Bishop insists that he gave Valjean the silver as a gift and demands that they let him go free. Moved by the Bishop’s kindness, Valjean breaks his parole and sets out to make a better life for himself. Eight years pass and Valjean, who goes by a new name, is now the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and a factory owner. Employed at his factory is Fantine (Played by Anne Hathaway), who is discovered by her co-workers to be an illegitimate mother sending money to her sick daughter, Cosette (Played by Isabelle Allen), and is fired by the foreman. Desperate, Fantine turns to prostitution to make money but one evening, Javert confronts her after she attacks a belligerent customer. Javert tries to haul her off to jail but Valjean quickly stops him after he recognizes her from the factory. Near death, Fantine begs Valjean to find her daughter and to take care of her. Valjean agrees and sets out to find Cosette, but Javert begins to suspect that Valjean is the prisoner who broke parole eight years earlier and he begins hunting him down.
Each and every frame of Les Misérables looks like it cost almost $100 million dollars to project onto the screen. The makeup effects are absolutely astounding, especially the aging of Jackman’s Valjean as the story progresses. Every smudge of dirt and speck of filth so perfectly splattered across each actor’s face. Another standout moment is when Valjean trudges through the sewer with rebellious student Marius (Played by Eddie Redmayne) and human waste covers them from head to toe. It is appropriately nasty to the point where you can practically smell the stench. The costumes are all wildly detailed and eye catching, especially a jacket worn by Valjean with a massive collar. Then there are the special effects, especially the overhead shots of small villages and growing cities that are so fussy, they make you want to tear your hair out. Hooper hurls his camera directly at them to focus in on one specific character standing on the edge of a cliff or riding a horse through the streets. Later in the movie, there are one or two scenes that feel more like indoor sets rather than outdoor locations, which sort of take us out of the moment. I couldn’t help but wish that Hooper would have at least attempted to shoot them outside but I can’t imagine that he would have been able to pull off some of the environment detail that he was going for if he chose to shoot outside.
The other big draw to the big screen adaptation of Les Misérables is the live singing done in front of the camera rather than the music studio. While many critics and audience members have complained that it was a failed experiment (I don’t really understand why they think it was a failed experiment), I personally liked it and found that it adds a layer of realism to the bombastic gloss of this expensive epic. It allowed Hooper to apply long takes of his actors doing the thing that pays them millions of dollars— act. Sure there are a few brief cuts here and there, but Hooper lets the camera sit (and sometimes pace) with all the actors. We get up close and personal views of brokenhearted emotion heating up and then boiling over as the viewer hangs on the frame in a state of awe. While some of the voices are certainly not going to nab a record deal (looking at you, Mr. Crowe), you still have to admire their confidence to let their voices soar. The lack of a true professional makes things all the more realistic and down-to-earth. Some musicals (not all) loose me when the actors sing like trained professionals.
While Les Misérables is beautiful to look at, the film wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for the downright incredible performances at the heart. While I’ve never downright hated Jackman as an actor, I could never really see the big deal about him but with Les Misérables, I am a true believer now. This guy is fantastic as Valjean, the tortured ex-prisoner who had his life turned upside down over stealing a mouthful of bread. While it is Jackman’s show, the one who makes off with the movie is Hathaway as Fantine, a woman forced into a life of hell. I promise that you will practically fall out of your seat when she performs “I Dreamed a Dream” as she battles back tears of embarrassment and defeat. It is a rare scene where the audience member actually wants to leap to their feet and break into applause. Crowe is great as the relentless Javert, who is always hot on Valjean’s heels. I can’t say too much for his vocal performance but the fact that he is really trying is good enough for me. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter drop by to add a bit of (grotesque) comedy to the mix as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, a couple of pick pockets who are taking care of darling little Cosette. Amanda Seyfried is a bit stiff as the adult Cosette, as is Redmayne as her suitor Marius. They get a last act love story and while it is effective, neither of them make us root for them like we should. Samantha Barks is also present as the Thénardier’s daughter Éponine, who secretly loves Marius. Barks wins our empathy with a lovely but painful solo performance in the rain.
While Les Misérables won’t win over every single viewer over, if you’re a fan of the book or the musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, you are going to gush over Hooper’s achievement. I’d also say that if you enjoy musicals like I do, you are probably going to be hooked for a good majority of the movie. If you’re a casual moviegoer, be prepared for the longest two hours and forty minutes of your life. I still felt that the film ran a bit too long and some of the musical numbers could have been trimmed for a tighter and more inviting runtime, but there really isn’t one weak number of the bunch. Another minor complaint I had with the film was the fate of one of the characters, which just seemed downright bizarre and random. Overall, Les Misérables is overblown, funny, thrilling, mildly romantic, raw, repulsive, and most importantly, moving. It may have its flaws but is has everything a film fan could want in a movie and it really is a beautiful work of art to lay your eyes on. A phenomenal achievement for the very talented Mr. Hooper and the musical genre.
by Steve Habrat
After the debacle that was 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, things could only look up for auteur Tim Burton. My initial reaction was not blame at Burton himself but rather was aimed at Disney, who I was certain was tinkering with Burton’s vision. Now we have a new Burton and Johnny Depp mash-up with a remake of the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows, which is a small step up from Alice in Wonderland but not by much. Dark Shadows is half a good movie and half an even bigger disaster than Alice in Wonderland was. Depp has said in interviews that Dark Shadows is meant to do away with “vampires that look like underwear models”, which is an obvious jab at the perplexingly popular Twilight saga. While Dark Shadows does restore a smidgeon of honor to the vampire genre, Burton shoots his own film in the foot by tacking on an asinine climax that is slathered in CGI nonsense and a droll final showdown that is a stiff as they come. The ending of Dark Shadows left me wondering if Burton is indeed loosing some of his creative juice after all and Disney wasn’t fully to blame for the botched Alice in Wonderland.
Dark Shadows begins in 1782, with Joshua and Naomi Collins leaving Liverpool, England to begin a new life in North America. They bring with them their young son Barnabas, who grows up to be a wealthy playboy and master of Collinwood Manor, the Collins’ gothic seaside dwelling. Barnabas (Played by Johnny Depp) ends up breaking the heart of a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Played by Eva Green), who in turn puts a curse on the Collins to get revenge on Barnabas. After the horrific death of his parents and the love of his life leaping to her death, Barnabas finds himself cursed as a vampire and buried alive in a shallow grave by the fearful citizens of Collinsport, Maine. After being confined for 196 years, a construction crew accidentally frees Barnabas into the alien world of 1972. Confused by the new world around him, Barnabas returns to Collinwood Manor to find the once glorious estate in ruin. Barnabas is quickly introduced to family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Played by Michelle Pfeiffer) and the rest of his dysfunctional descendants. Horrified but the state of the family, Barnabas sets out to restore honor to his family but finds himself pitted once again against the evil Angelique, who is determined to make his undead life even more of a living hell than it already is.
The first half of Dark Shadows is a hilarious fish-out-of-water tale about Barnabas trying so desperately to adjust to life in 1972. He tiptoes about Collinsport with weary caution, baffled by McDonalds, lava lamps, the board game Operation, and television (Trust me, there is tons more that intrigues Barnabas). Elizabeth’s rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Played by Chloe Grace Mortez) is appalled by Barnabas, especially when he mistakes her for a prostitute during the first meeting. Set to classic tunes from the Nixon era, Dark Shadows really finds its funky groove early on even if that groove is made up of dry humor. Things really get moving when Barnabas revives the family business, attempts to connect with his relatives (a conversation about wooing women with Carolyn is the highlight moment), and is tortured by Angelique. Half way through, it seems as if Burton remembered that he is making a film that will be released during the summer movie season. He crams the second half of Dark Shadows with nonsensical explosions, CGI creatures, narrow rescues, and a fiery final confrontation. It’s like Burton began making an entirely different movie altogether.
In addition to the quirky first hour, Depp and his supporting cast manage to keep Dark Shadows afloat even when the project falls apart around them. Speaking in a rich British accent and painted up in pasty white make-up, Depp’s Barnabas is one of the politest bloodsuckers to inhabit the screen. He apologizes when he drains one of his poor victims of blood and stands for a lady when she approaches the dinner table. When the vampire violence is called for, Depp becomes vicious but he remains delicate and sensitive for a good majority of Dark Shadows. Near the end, Burton attempts to sell Barnabas as an action hero, a requirement that Depp seems uncomfortable with and it’s blatantly obvious. In addition to his awkward turn at the end, Burton edges Depp out of the way almost completely to unleash multiple twists and reveals for the rest of the cast members. Yet overall, the entire film and the supporting cast really perk up when Depp enters the screen. His performance is silky smooth and his comedic timing is impeccable.
Burton fills the supporting roles of Dark Shadows with the usual suspects as well as several new faces. Burton’s squeeze Helena Bonham Carter shows up as orange haired Dr. Julia Hoffman, the family psychiatrist who is perpetually recovering from the night before and has an infatuation with staying young. Michelle Pfeiffer, who (funny enough) appears to not age, holds her own as the family matriarch Elizabeth. Pfeiffer has some razor sharp chemistry with Depp and I would have liked to have seen more. Christopher Lee has a brief cameo as a sailor who enjoys sipping beer in the local pub. As far as new faces go, the always-welcome Chloe Grace Mortez as Elizabeth’s daughter does rebellious teen a little too good and snags all the best moments with Depp. Eva Green smolders as the sexy Angelique, who seems on top of the world seducing and tormenting Barnabas. Bella Heathcothe as governess Victoria Winters checks in with a rather quiet and reserved performance. She isn’t given too much to do besides be wooed by Barnabas and interact with a CGI ghost. Jackie Earle Hayle as caretaker Willie Loomis, Jonny Lee Miller as Elizabeth’s irresponsible brother Roger, and Gulliver McGrath as Roger’s ghost-seeing son David all do a fine job but are given very little to do.
I wish that screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had developed a better story that would have stretched through all 113 minutes of Dark Shadows. The film’s plot dries up halfway through, pauses for a musical intermission from Alice Cooper, and then continues to sputter by on fumes for the rest of its runtime. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Burton and the rest of his crew realized that they had a bunch of money left over so they decided to dump a bunch of unnecessary CGI into the hollow climax. Had Dark Shadows remained consistent, this could have been a serious return to form for the vampire genre, one that manages to be fun, sexy, thrilling, and, yes, creepy too, but Burton and Warner Brothers just couldn’t resist blowing a few things up to appeal to the summer movie crowd. At least Depp held it together and refused to allow Burton to drive a stake through his dignity.
by Steve Habrat
Much like 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, auteur Tim Burton was placed on this earth to also direct 2007’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which is based on Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Tony Award-winning 1979 musical. Burton’s 2007 version of the film, which naturally stars Johnny Depp in the lead role of a vengeful barber who enjoys slicing the throats of his customers, was not only one of the best films of the year in which it was released but also one of Tim Burton’s greatest films. Yes, I believe that it sits near the top with Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. Part of what makes Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street such a great film is that Burton successfully appeals to the wine-and-cheese crowd as well as snagging the Hot Topic crowd, which has got to be a first in the history of motion pictures. In addition to the usually flawless style, costumes, and set design, Burton hits a home run with Depp, who scales back the odd and makes Sweeney one of his more subtle characters. My suspicion is that the scaled back approach is in response to the singing that is required of Mr. Depp, who took vocal lessons and erupts in a voice that is not perfect but fittingly rough around the edges for such a dark film.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street introduces us to Benjamin Barker (Played by Johnny Depp), a barber who has returned to London after being banished for fifteen years for false charges by the wretched Judge Turpin (Played by Alan Rickman). It turns out that Turpin lusted after Barker’s wife, Lucy (Played by Laura Michelle Kelly), and wanted him out of the way so he could have her to himself. Assuming the alias “Sweeney Todd”, Barker makes his way to Fleet Street where he meets the equally demented Mrs. Lovett (Played by Helena Bonham Carter), who runs Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies. Mrs. Lovett informs him that his wife committed suicide and that his teenage daughter Johanna (Played by Jayne Wisener) is being held against her will by Turpin. Whipping out his prized straight razor collection, Barker reopens his barbershop above Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies and together they begin trying to lure in Turpin and his overweight associate Beadle Bamford (Played by Timothy Spall) to exact their revenge. They also decide that they are going to grind up the bodies of their victims and put them into Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies to cover their tracks.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Burton’s bloodiest film since the Headless Horseman galloped through his interpretation of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow. Sweeney Todd is a nonstop freak show of a film, one that sprays Burton’s favored candle wax-esque blood out onto the audience from the opened necks of Sweeney’s victims. It’s a nasty piece of work and I mean that as a compliment. Given that Sweeney Todd is also a musical, the interest that many may have in the film will pale because most have a difficult time suspending the disbelief to really enjoy it. Burton understands this so rather than easily casting a slew of musicians to belt out Sondheim and Wheeler’s tunes, he turns to a handful of unexpected actors to do the jig. Burton places Depp and Cater right up front, both who lack voices that would make angles weep, belting out with voices that don’t seem too theatrical for this macabre outing. At times, they are a bit shrill but their left of center sound compliments the gloom quite nicely. Burton does even things out in the subplot involving the young sailor Anthony Hope (Played by Jamie Campbell Bower, who does have a musical background) and Barker’s daughter Johanna (portrayed by Irish singer Wisener), both who do have stage quality pipes on them.
If Depp and Carter are unlikely choices in the leads, the background actors are just as wild. Rickman, who also played Snape in the Harry Potter films, is another voice you would never expect to hear. We already knew he could do mean but it is good to see him dive in deeper with the protection of an R-rating. The same could be said about fellow Potter costar Spall, whose nasally voice is just the right amount of ugly to fit his physical appearance. The other surprise comes in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen (yes, THAT Sacha Baron Cohen) as the Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli who hides a dirty little secret. Cohen gets to flex his musical talents, which while not stage worthy, are still fitting for this film. He adds some quirky humor to all the bloodshed but when his turn comes to get evil, Cohen rises to the occasion and leaves us wanting more of his villainous turn. There is also the young Ed Sanders in the role of Toby, the boy assistant to Pirelli who mixes his tender affection for Mrs. Lovett in with a stunning vocal performance.
Sweeney Todd is ultimately Depp’s world and everyone else is just wandering the filthy streets. With his cheerless voice and heavy eyes, Depp is rather detached—a far throws from his energetic turns in films like Ed Wood and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In a way, his blank slate is a welcomed approach because I was quick to assume this would be another one of his freak flag performances. He is electric next to the pasty Carter as Mrs. Lovett, who gets to do energetic wicked. A scene in which Mrs. Lovett shares a fantasy in which she marries Todd is a standout. Depp’s mug drooping into a frown will have you in stitches. When Depp and Carter harmonize, they are a grizzled knock-out, locked in a dance of death where Mrs. Lovett wields a rolling pin and Sweeney clutches a butchers cleaver is marvelous both in its symbolic imagery (it’s a bit obvious but cool) and its choreography. Another sequence of astonishing choreography is when Depp wanders the streets and snarls at his future victims, his voice going from smooth soaring to being spit onto the cheeks of men who don’t acknowledge him.
A Frankenstein’s monster of a film, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a lumbering musical horror film that has held up and still locks me in when I revisit it. Balletic in pacing and with an abundance of gothic style, the film will leave you feeling nice and grimy after you’ve viewed it. It is faintly sexy and gloriously macabre with a gut punch of a tragic ending. In my opinion, Sweeney Todd is one of the more accessible musicals I have ever seen—never erupting into implausible song and dance numbers that are overly cheesy and remove us from the moment. It has buckets of gore for the horror crowd and actually has a number of hair-raising moments that will jolt you. It’s far from sophisticated but by now most should know what to expect by Burton but Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of Burton’s most consistent films. A real grotesque freak fest.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
What a wonderful, wacky, and downright weird world that goth auteur Tim Burton crafts in the marvelous retelling of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which stays furiously faithful to the 1964 children’s book by Roald Dahl. Making a kaleidoscope trip into a world of neon candy and Busby Berkely-esque musical numbers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory features tart laughs and sugary sweet lessons for the kiddies, all while bursting at the smokestack with imagination and (as usual) vision from Uncle Tim. In the wake of Johnny Depp’s breakout role as boozy pirate Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Warner Brothers and Burton allow Depp to go straight bonkers with his portrayal of famed chocolate maker Willy Wonka, a grinning and (of course) misunderstood creep who talks like a valley girl and shudders at the mere sight of a child. Unlike Gene Wilder’s performance as Wonka in the 1971 original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Depp’s version is much more bubbly and, dare I say, memorable than Wilder’s dry and conservative performance, which is a performance I do have quite a bit of respect for. But Depp’s Wonka had me in stitches far more than Wilder’s and I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the emotional wounds that Depp’s Wonka hides from the world behind giant bug-eyed sunglasses.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory introduces us to the poor but sweet Charlie Bucket (Played by Freddie Highmore), who happens to be a fanatic of mysertious candy maker Willy Wonka (Played by Johnny Depp). Charlie gets one chocolate bar a year from his warm mother (Played by Helena Bonham Carter) and father (Played by Noah Taylor), a treat that he heavily looks forward to. He shares the small chocolate bar with his live-in grandparents and while they munch, his Grandpa Joe (Played by David Kelly) shares stories about when he worked in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The cloistered Wonka suddenly makes an announcement to the world, declaring that he will allow five children into his world famous chocolate factory. To gain entry, they need to find a Golden Ticket hidden within the chocolate bars that fly off the shelf at an alarming rate. As the children who found tickets are revealed, they turn out to be spoiled rotten brats and know-it-alls who are far from deserving to have a tour of Wonka’s factory. After multiple attempts, Charlie finally gets his hands on a Golden Ticket and is accompanied to the factory by his Grandpa Joe. After a bizarre introduction to Willy Wonka, the group begins their tour of the astonishing factory, with the promise of a very special prize to one lucky child.
Much like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is jam packed with room after room of unrestrained imagination that acts as candy for the eyes. In each of these rooms, Wonka’s tiny employees called Oompa-Loompas treat us to tasty musical numbers. These musical numbers, which are taken from Dahl’s book, are brought to the screen by frequent Burton composer Danny Elfman and boy, are they a fiesta for the ear buds. They also turn out to be the one aspect of the film that is majorly flawed. Acting as a far-out ball of electronic, rock, swing, jazz, and literally every other musical genre you can think of and then some, Elfman’s execution of these songs features voice alteration of the Oompa-Loompas, all played by Deep Roy. At times, the lyrics are difficult to understand, the clarity buried under multiple effects and squealing instruments. Two numbers in particular will have you reaching for the remote to switch on subtitles or flipping through your copy of Dahl’s book.
In addition to trippy visuals, Depp’s Wonka is a real sight to behold. Acting as a creepy mix of valley girl and man-child, Depp’s Wonka does make you feel slightly uncomfortable, much like he does the parents of the children who are visiting his factory. He cringes when a child touches him and has no clue how to connect with one of the little sprouts. A sequence in which he discusses cannibalism with them is one of the highlights of the entire film. Depp’s Wonka also conceals a fractured relationship with his father, one that has caused them to sever contact with each other. Through flashbacks that are triggered by comments that the children make throughout their trip through the candy factory, we see how the relationship between the stern dentist Wilbur Wonka (Played by the booming Christopher Lee) and little Willy Wonka went sour. These scenes are effectively emotional, watching Wilbur forbid Willy to enjoy a sugary treat. Depp’s Wonka is a sympathetic misfit, especially when we learn why he has opened his factory doors to these children and that he does have a heart buried beneath all of his bitterness.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would be nothing without its child actors who for the most part do a good job. Highmore is the true star as the kind and generous Charlie Bucket, who always thinks of others before himself. He is really incredible when he plays off of Depp, the two of them sharing interactions that are both funny and touching. Other standouts are Jordan Fry as Mike Teavee, who scowls through the entire tour of the factory and Julia Winter as the wealthy spoiled brat Veruca Salt, who wants everything she lays her peepers on. Philip Wiegratz as Agustus Gloop seems a bit coached by Burton, huffing and puffing through he dialogue but seeming like he is holding back a bit. AnnaSophia Robb as the overachieving smart-aleck Violet Beauregarde is effective in annoying the hell out of you but also seems a bit coached. The rest of the players, who are mostly there as the children’s parents, do a fine job at playing horrified when something happens to their child. The best is Adam Godley as the exasperated Mr. Teavee, who seems more puzzled by his own child rather than the spaced-out Wonka.
Overall, Burton’s film hits a few waves (the vocals in the music are the biggest disappointment and a few of the special effects could have used touching up) but this boat floats along quite smoothly on Wonka’s chocolate river. It’s a joy to watch Depp really allow his freak flag to fly (in many respects, I think he is having more fun as Wonka than he did as Jack Sparrow) and give you the willies. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also works because the terrific Highmore, who is always perfect while he gently guides the film along. The film has multiple nods to pop culture, ranging from The Beatles, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Busby Berkeley, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is no question that Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of the weirder children’s movies you will ever see but it has only the best of intentions. It has a lasting warmth that comforts you like a blanket and has humor that will have you away for days. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may not contain much depth, but it has a soul as sweet as sugar and frankly that is enough for me.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollow Ending: A Reflection of the Biggest and Most Disappointing Film of the Summer (2011)
by Charles Beall
I did not like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
There, I said it. Phew, I needed to get that off my chest! I have seen the movie twice now, because after the first viewing, when everyone started applauding and taking off their 3D glasses to reveal their tear-stained cheeks, I felt something was wrong with me. Listening to the murmurs of praise among departing theatergoers, I found myself disagreeing with them. I was quiet the rest of the night; I went to grab a beer with my friends and they kept asking me what was wrong.
“I didn’t like it,” I confessed, my head hanging in shame. They looked at me like I was a freak, like I had said something along the lines of supporting Michele Bachmann for president. What was wrong with me?!
I went back a second time…again, disappointment. I am a horrible person, I thought to myself.
It seemed as if rain clouds followed me and I had a big scarlet “A” on my chest (for “asshole” for not liking the last-ever Harry Potter movie). But then, I began to think that I wasn’t a horrible person- maybe the final Harry Potter chapter really did suck.
That is not to say that Hallows: Part 2 is a poorly made film; quite the contrary, which is why I was so disappointed in it. First off, the craftsmanship on this film is amazing. Not only is the cinematography gorgeous (Oscar-worthy, in my opinion), the eerie set pieces, costumes, visual effects, and even the performances are pitch-perfect. Which leaves two key ingredients that are lacking that could’ve made this the best Potter film: the screenplay and direction.
Now I have had a love/hate relationship with David Yates as the director of the last four Potter films. I wasn’t crazy about The Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince (they were good, not great) but I was floored with Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (which I consider the best-and my most favorite-film in the series). I loved the pacing of it and, by the end of that film, I conceded that it was a good idea to split the final book into two movies. As the release date of Part 2 approached, I was eager to see it.
The gorgeous, foreboding pacing of Part 1 was replaced by a frantic, amateurish, and uneven film in Part 2. I know this was an “action movie,” but the filmmakers (or Warner Bros. corporate heads?) abandoned what worked so well in Part 1 and just shat out the final chapter so it could get converted to 3D in time for its release date (my theory- not a fact). Call me a pessimist, but there were dollar signs hanging over Hogwarts, not dementors; it felt that there wasn’t a screenplay, but rather a checklist of the last half of the book that Yates was going by.
The whole world has seen this film by now, so I will not go into an all-out review of it. In the case of this article, I will touch upon some key scenes that I believe were butchered for this movie.
The first is the Battle of Hogwarts, which in the book was both heart-felt and action packed, but in the film was just action-packed. Yes, all of Harry’s friends show up to help save the day, but that is it. Indeed, it was like the film was a supplement to the book- you needed to have read it to know who people were and what their relationships to Harry were. That emotional connection that was so well-written by Rowling and decently portrayed in previous films was thrown out for the last film. I know their allegiance to Harry…I read about it. I want to see it.
Another complaint of mine (in regards to the Battle of Hogwarts) is the death scenes of certain characters. I will not name names in case the reader is one of the 19 people who haven’t seen the movie, but in the book, their deaths were dramatic and heroic. They died for Harry, for the greater good. In the movie, their deaths just served as a transition to the next scene, losing all of the emotional weight that it carried in the books. Another death scene (SPOILER) is that of Bellatrix. Now, that was my favorite part in the last book, mainly because I couldn’t wait to see Julie Walters deliver “the line” in the movie. I knew going in that “the line” would be in there, and I barely missed it. Again, it seemed that “the line” was just on the checklist that Yates had as his screenplay. There was no emotion, no drama, no suspense to the delivery of “the line.” It just happened…and it sucked.
Finally, the epilogue to the film, while nearly verbatim from the book, was just…what were we talking about? To be fair, I felt the epilogue to the book, while bittersweet, was a bit too uneventful. Yes we know everyone is okay and happily ever after, but this was a real chance for Yates to do something epic. Do a montage of Ron proposing to Hermione, Harry proposing to Ginny, Hogwarts rebuilding itself, Ron and Hermione getting married, Harry and Ginny getting married, Neville and Luna hooking up, Draco becoming head of the Republican Party, the lives of Ron and Hermione and Harry and Ginny with their children, Hagrid marrying that giant chick from The Goblet of Fire, Harry killing Jacob and Edward from Twilight, etc. How come after eight films of “tweaking” things from the books, the filmmakers actually take the weakest part of them and adapt it verbatim?! You can end with the train station; just show what happened in those 19 years. I wonder if Yates was working under the assumption that we had read the book and were waiting for, indeed expecting and demanding, the epilogue. My hypothesis was validated with the hisses of “yes!” that escaped in the packed theater when the “19 years later” title card came up.
Now there are parts I enjoyed. The fight between Harry and Voldemort is pretty badass; I even liked the lack of a film score in some scenes, just the cracking of spells from wands. The best part of the film was Snape’s memories, which were really the only emotional part in the film. This was a rare case where Rowling’s words were beautifully transformed to images on the screen. I just wish the rest of the film was like that.
In conclusion, I didn’t hate Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2– I was just disappointed in it. There was so much building up to this final chapter that I just felt underwhelmed, unmoved, and let down. Maybe my expectations were too high? I will have to see it again, but at $13 a pop to see it, those pesky dollar signs play too much a roll. Maybe when it is out on Blu-ray, I’ll revisit it.
Grade: C+ (but I really do love Harry Potter…don’t hate me!)