Thursday, June 30, 2011

You Can Even Eat the Dishes

The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

There's a moment in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when the character of Willy Wonka emerges for the first time from his factory to the enthusiastic applause of a crowd gathered to see him. The noise gradually dies down and becomes silent as they realize he is limping along on a cane. Children are unable to hide their disappointment. Grown-ups look confused and concerned. Suddenly, only a few steps from his front gate, Wonka's cane gets stuck in some cobblestones. He freezes, starts to fall forward, does a somersault and victoriously leaps to his feet with a smile. Children's faces light up. The crowd erupts into even more enthusiastic applause. It was all a joke. A delightful bit of showmanship from a master trickster. This introduction, as the story goes, was Gene Wilder's idea. When approached for the role, Wilder stipulated he would only do it if he could make his entrance in just such a manner. When asked why by the director, Wilder replied, "Because from that moment on, whenever I do anything nobody will know whether I'm lying or telling the truth." That kind of profound understanding Wilder brought to the character is just one among many examples of why Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory works just as beautifully now as it did when it premiered 40 years ago today.

The tale of Willy Wonka began as a book entitled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, penned by Roald Dahl and published in 1964. It told the highly fanciful tale of a poor boy taken on a tour through a magical wonderland by an eccentric confectioner. The book was a hit and in 1970 producer Dave Wolper was looking for a movie idea to serve as a promotional tie-in for a new line of candy bars the Quaker Oats Company was hoping to manufacture. Dahl’s fantastical fable of sugary goodness seemed a perfect fit. It was the first of his stories to be adapted for film and Dahl himself was hired to write the screenplay. Massive changes, however, were made to his script by David Seltzer and this caused Dahl to be severely dissatisfied with the final product and consequently disown it (a phenomenon that was to occur time and again with cinematic adaptations of his works). In a delicious bit of irony, however, the candy bar that Quaker Oats produced turned out to be faulty and so had to be withdrawn from shelves.

To helm the project, Mel Stuart (a director known mostly for TV movies and documentaries) was chosen. It seems an odd choice for a theatrical fantasy film for families (particularly given that his visual style is rather bland), but he acquits himself adequately through his numerous astute filmmaking decisions, his first being to make Willy Wonka a musical. The songs written by the award-winning team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley are all (with the exception of the mother's "Cheer Up, Charlie" which was always a fast-forward song for me as a kid) melodic and memorable. Who among us doesn't know "Pure Imagination," the "Oompa-Loompah" song or "The Candy Man" (made immortal by Sammy Davis Jr.) by heart? To this day, I think Grandpa Joe's energetic rendition of "I've Got a Golden Ticket" as he dances around the room in his pajamas has to be one of the purest expressions of sheer joy I've ever seen in cinema. Stuart also decided to shoot the film in Germany to save on costs. Wisely, however, the country is never identified by name in the film and it adds to the fantastic other-worldly quality of the story.

In casting the film, Stuart had to find not just one or two but five young actors to play the lucky children who find the Golden Tickets. All five are quite good but a couple standouts are Peter Ostrum (in his one and only film appearance) who manages to be believably innocent and selfless without coming off as disgustingly saccharine in his performance as Charlie. The other is Julie Dan Cole as Veruca Salt, the brattiest kid of the bunch…and that's saying something. Cole totally commits to the supreme selfishness of her character and even gets her own song to sing ("I want It Now"). She's the kind of devil-spawn that every parent is afraid their own offspring will turn out to be. The inimitable Jack Albertson plays Grandpa Joe, Charlie's surrogate father figure, with equal amounts of love for Charlie and disdain for the injustices of the world. Finally, there's Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. Although Dahl presumably wanted Spike Mulligan or Ron Moody to play the part, Stuart once again demonstrated a keen grasp of the material by approaching Wilder, a brilliant comic actor who thoroughly understood the complexities and ambiguities of the character. His Willy Wonka is unpredictable (as demonstrated by his introduction) but lovable, strange but predominately non-threatening, bizarre but surprisingly witty (quoting such varied writers as Shakespeare, Wilde and Keats). Wilder brings a childlike enthusiasm and exuberance to the role and it is arguably his most iconic performance (and he's certainly given us several to choose from).

For the most part, Willy Wonka charmed critics when it was released, but audiences were not quite as won over by it and tended to stay away (the film only grossed $4 million on a $3 million budget). Eventually, however, it developed a cult following on home video and television broadcasts. How well does it hold up today? Well, obviously there are elements which are extremely dated (the psychedelic boat ride down the tunnel is a like a bad 70's acid trip), but like Wizard Of Oz or Mary Poppins, there is an element of imagination at work in the film (something sadly lacking in most contemporary movies) that makes it utterly charming and helps give it a timeless quality. Today it is remembered with much fondness and affection by many families. Personally, I love the film and when I revisit it every couple years I am surprised at how moved I am by it at various points in story. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may not be a great film, but it is the product of an era when wonder and fancy could still be found in big screen movies, when cinematic fairy tales could be told earnestly (without cynicism or self-consciousness) and when things like story, character and genuine emotion were more important than budget or special effects.

A comparison with the more "faithful" 2006 adaptation by Tim Burton demonstrates this very thing. The remake is not without its charms (including some stunning visuals and a charming performance from Freddie Highmore), but it serves as yet another reminder that newer is not necessarily better. Among the many miscalculations was Johnny Depp’s decision to play Wonka as an excessively bizarre weirdo stuck in a state of arrested development. With echoes of pop sensation and eccentric man-child (not to mention accused child molester) Michael Jackson, Depp's Wonka was creepy and off-putting. Wilder's Wonka could indeed be dark, mysterious, enigmatic and even outright scary sometimes, but he was never creepy. His character, like the film he inhabited, ultimately had a warmth and a generosity at heart whereas Depp's Wonka, also much like the film itself, had a coldness at the center, a sense of detachment that makes its hard to be engaged by what we are watching even while we are being amazed by what we are seeing. I suspect that the 1971 version of the story will still retain its appeal long after the motion picture landscape has been become overrun with ugly, calculated and expendable pieces of cinematic junk (a fate of which I'm skeptical Burton's version will share).

In essence, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may not have been revolutionary, but it was definitely non-pollutionary.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Latest SLIFR Movie Quiz

Dennis Cozzalio over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule (or SLIFR for short) has posted his latest in a long line of wonderful movie quizzes. I love these things and haven't had the chance to do one in a long time, so this one was particularly enjoyable. Anyway, here are my answers.

1) Depending on your mood, your favorite or least-loved movie cliché

I was watching a movie on TV the other day where early on a character boarding a plane pulled out a photo of his wife and child and talked about how he couldn't wait to be reuinted with them. I found myself thinking he might as well be wearing a big flashing neon sign that says "I AM GOING TO DIE."

2) Regardless of whether or not you eventually caught up with it, which film classic have you lied about seeing in the past?

I generally try not to lie about films I have or haven't seen, but I seem to have some vague recollection of giving a customer in the video store one night the impression that I had seen George Lucas' American Graffiti when I hadn't... and still haven't.

3) Roland Young or Edward Everett Horton?

The master of the double and triple-take: Horton.

4) Second favorite Frank Tashlin movie

The only two Frank Tashlin films I've seen are the ones he did with Jerry Lewis: Cinderfella and The Disorderly Orderly. Of those two I like Orderly more, so (by default) Cinderfella.

5) Clockwork Orange-- yes or no?

No, in the sense that I have not seen it. Yes, in the sense that I am willing to give it a try.

6) Best/favorite use of gender dysphoria in a horror film

Okay, I seriously had to go look this up. Now that I have... I'm still not sure what it means. Does the androgynous chick playing Satan in The Passion of the Christ count?

7) Melanie Laurent or Blake Lively?

Maybe it's just me but I find so many of the young, beautiful actresses working in Hollywood today virtually interchangeable.

8) Best movie of 2011 (so far…)

Tough call, but of the films I've seen, at this point I'm going to have to go with The Adjustment Bureau.

9) Favorite screen performer with a noticeable facial deformity

Don't know if it counts as a "deformity," but Owen Wilson's nose is so crooked that I remember thinking "That guy will never make it in movies," when I first saw him. Boy, was I wrong.

10) Lars von Trier: shithead or misunderstood comic savant?

I don't know. The only Lars Von trier film I've seen is Europa (or Zentropa as it was called here in the U.S.) and I haven't heard/read enough about him to really make an informed opinion. Sure, I've heard about the stupid stuff he said at Cannes, but I'm not sure I take him and those comments completely seriously. Then again, he could still be a giant douche who was just kidding. So, my final answer is: I really don't know. Jury's still out for me.

11) Timothy Carey or Henry Silva?

Henry Silva because he was in the underrated Walt Disney/Dick Van Dyke comedy Never a Dull Moment which I used to watch all the time when I was younger.

12) Low-profile writer who deserves more attention from critics and /or audiences

Whenever the subject of best screenwriters working today is discussed, it always bothers me that Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Truman Show) never gets mentioned.

13) Movie most recently viewed theatrically, and on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming

Theatrically: Thor
On DVD: Gulliver's Travels
Streaming: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

14) Favorite film noir villain

Edward G. Robinson's brilliant insurance investigator Keyes in Double Indemnity. Yes, I know he's not really a "villain" but he is the antagonist and one of the things I love about that film is how they simultaneously get you to root for and against his character.

15) Best thing about streaming movies?

I realize it's blasphemy for a former video store manager to say this, but..... not having to leave the comfort of your own home to find a movie.

16) Fay Spain or France Nuyen?

I don't know who these people are.

17) Favorite Kirk Douglas movie that isn’t called Spartacus

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It was my introduction to Kirk Douglas. I saw a lot of that film when I was a kid and even remember watching Romancing the Stone with my family one night and observing that the guy who played Jack looked an awful lot like the guy from 20,000 League Under the Sea.

18) Favorite movie about cars

American Graffiti

19) Audrey Totter or Marie Windsor?

I don't know who these people are either.

20) Existing Stephen King movie adaptation that could use an remake/reboot/overhaul

I always felt like his story "The Trucks" deserved a better cinematic treatment than the one he himself gave it in Maximum Overdrive.

21) Low-profile director who deserves more attention from critics and/or audiences

Same answer as #12, because he also directs.

22) What actor that you previously enjoyed has become distracting or a self-parody?

Sadly, Robert DeNiro.

23) Best place in the world to see a movie

Wherever you happen to be at that moment.

24) Charles McGraw or Sterling Hayden?

Thankfully, I know who these people are. Sterling Hayden all the way, Mandrake!

25) Second favorite Yasujiro Ozu film

I'm sorry to say that I have not seen any of his films yet.

26) Most memorable horror movie father figure

Gregory Peck in The Omen.

27) Name a non-action-oriented movie that would be fun to see in Sensurround

My Dinner With Andre ("You feel like you're sitting right there in the restaurant with them!")

28) Chris Evans or Ryan Reynolds?

I like Ryan Reynolds more than Chris Evans (that dude just got on my nerves in the Fantastic Four movies), but I am actually looking forward to Captain America more than Green Lantern.

29) Favorite relatively unknown supporting player, from either or both the classic and the modern era

Anytime Larry Hankin shows up in something, he always makes me smile.

30) Real-life movie location you most recently visited or saw

A few summers ago I got a chance to visit the Timberline Lodge at Mt. Hood in Oregon... otherwise known as the shooting location for the exteriors shots of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.

31) Second favorite Budd Boetticher movie

I don't know who that is.

32) Mara Corday or Julie Adams?

I don't know who they are either (Man, this is getting embarrassing!)

33) Favorite Universal-International western

"Doesn't the fact that it's universal make it international?"

34) What's the biggest "gimmick" that's drawn you out to see a movie?

The trailer for the Will Smith vehicle Seven Pounds intrigued me because it was one of those exceptionally rare trailers that didn't reveal what the movie was actually about. That got me in the theater.

35) Favorite actress of the silent era

I'm going to be completely unoriginal here and say Lillian Gish. I watched another one of her films not too long ago and that girl just had one of the most beautifully expressive faces I've ever seen. Period.

36) Best Eugene Pallette performance

That's funny because I was JUST watching The Adventures of Robin Hood the other day and remarking how much I loved Pallette's Friar Tuck.

37) Best/worst remake of the 21st century so far?

For the best I'm going to have to go with True Grit. For the worst, and I am saying this only because I was recently reminded of it, probably Around the World in 80 Days.

38) What could multiplex owners do right now to improve the theatrical viewing experience for moviegoers? What could moviegoers do?

Multiplex owners could lower their prices drastically an moviegoers could actually turn off their freakin' cell phones. However, I know neither of these are going to happen, so onward and upward.