Saturday, July 30, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Tim Burton’s version of Raold Dahl’s famous story was certainly worth the wait. I saw the Gene Wilder version for the first time on video in the early 1980’s, and it impressed me as just being a kids story. Burton goes further and delves into Dahl’s dark chocolate tale of a lonely man’s inner child struggling with unresolved issues.


Willie Wonka (Johnny Depp), the son of a dentist who has no parenting instincts except that his son have perfect teeth, runs a successful world-famous chocolate factory. We discover that Willie and his father never got along. We never see his mother.


Willie hires local people to work for him but when he finds out that someone is selling the secret recipes for his chocolate confections, he fires all the workers and hires a small-sized inhabitant, Oompa Loompa (Deep Roy) of a distant land to run the factory for him. The good thing is, there are endless Oompa Loompas around to do everything, including song and dance routines – and they all look the same.


Willie decides to have a contest. The five children who find the chocolate wrapped in gold get to come and tour the factory and one will win a really big prize.


Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore of Finding Neverland) lives in a crooked little house with his parents and both sets of grandparents in the same town as the chocolate factory. The family is very poor. In fact, Grandpa Joe (David Kelly of Waking Ned Devine) used to work at the factory til he was fired with everyone else. Charlie is one of the five children who get a golden bar of chocolate and Grandpa Joe accompanies him on the apointed day.


You probably already know the story. The other four children and their parent or guardian all have childhood flaws and they make choices that have embarrassing consequences, e.g. Violet turns blue. Like the Super Nanny show that is more about training the parents to be parents than teaching kids, this film shows that the apples (kids) don’t fall far from the tree (parents). The parent or guardian end up in trouble just like their spoiled or selfish kids.


Meanwhile, Willie is on his own journey and Charlie helps him reconcile with his father. Charlie wins the really big prize and refuses it, much to Willie’s astonishment. In the end, Charlie teaches Willie about the value of family over all the chocolate – and power – you could ever want.


The film is funny, insightful, and creative. To me, all Dahl’s stories are dark, as are most traditional fairy tales. They are also full of fantasy and moral lessons. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may seem to be for kids, but I think it really is more for adults. Dahl has no problem telling parents, via stories that seem aimed at kids, that it’s up to them to teach their children to be kind - and not forget how hard and frightening it is to be a child in a grown-ups' world.

March of the Penguins, The (Marche de l'empereur, La)

Luc Jacquet’ amazing and beautiful documentary about a year in the lives of Emperor penguins in Antarctica evokes wonder at the miracle of creation and nature, and left me in a contemplative mood.


Some friends who also saw the film said it spoke to them regarding the way nature teaches us about life, community, fidelity, care for our young, and sacrifice.


The narration, written by Jordan Roberts and read by actor Morgan Freeman, is informative without being academic, and reverent.


As the credits roll we finally get to see some sequences of how the film was shot. Although I was not cold when I went into the theater, the sight of these small animals in -80 f weather, and the filmmakers trying to set their equipment in ice and snow, made me shiver.


Although Mad Hot Ballroom is still my favorite documentary so far, The March of the Penguins is going to be a contender because it is ... art.


Wedding Crashers

Two almost-40 Washington lawyers, friends for years, crash weddings as a hobby in order to score.


Vince Vaughn as Jeremy and Owen Wilson as John are likeable characters but when their need to engage in such immature behavior year after year finally evokes an existential crisis from John, wedding crashing doesn’t look so appealing any more. Jeremy and John meet two sisters and while John falls for Claire (Rachel McAdams), his love is unrequited. John wants to marry Claire but she is engaged to someone else. Claire’s sister, Gloria (Isla Fisher) seduces Jeremy – over and over and over. But Jeremy doesn’t want to settle down, so he and John eventually go their separate ways. Jeremy, however, now takes up funeral crashing with none other than Will Ferrell as a mentor so they can score widows. 


What was already a sorry movie, though it had its funny moments, just got worse. Can’t someone find a decent script for Will Ferrell? Can he act as something besides a buffoon? I repeat: he never should have left politics at SNL. Neither SNL or Ferrell have been the same since.


The film is doing great box office, but it’s one of my worst films of the year so far. I wonder how long an airplane version of this film will be: 15 minutes?

War of the Worlds

There are so many commentaries and reviews of this film already, that I am not sure what I can add. I did read the original H.G. Wells novel (1897) and the Orson Wells radio script (written by Harold Koch) from the 1938 broadcast that scared the dickens out of a listening nation. H.G. Wells story takes place in England and the radio play moves the action to New Jersey. After that, with a few exceptions, the novel and play are pretty different. Where they converge, of course, is how they tapped into national paranoia of alien - the human kind - invasion. Like similar sci-fi alien invasion stories and films today, the alien invasion and how we respond as a nation are really about how we as a nation (or the UK as a nation) confront diversity and the threat to national security. I think Spielberg’s version of the story (a film was released in 1953 as well) also speaks on two levels: the sci-fi and the real.


The Josh Friedman & David Koepp script of this current rendition of this classic sci-fi story respected elements of H.G. Wells original novel more than the radio script had time to do. The references to 9/11 are noted.


A friend and colleague said that his son had noticed that in War of the Worlds, the alien invasion fails because their immune system is not compatible with that of humans and military action is useless; in a film like Independence Day, humans go for outright extermination of the aliens. (I enjoyed Independence Day thoroughly, however, especially the part when the president, played by Bill Pullman, rips off the St. Crispan Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V. But I do think sci-fi alien films offer thoughtful viewers much to think about regarding the philosophy of "the other" and deserve serious study as a genre.)


This morning on Meet the Press (July 31) Tim Russert interviewed the crew of the space shuttle that just arrived at the space station and asked them if they thought there were other forms of life out there. They all agreed that this is a real possibility.


I recognized Bayonne, NJ (since I lived across Arthur Kill on Staten Island for thirteen years), which is closer to Manhattan than the location of the big hole in the 1938 radio script, which had it closer to Princeton.


It occurred to me that maybe Spielberg made this film as a kind of cinematic hommage to the sci-fi genre, H.G. Wells, and the impact that Orson Well’s radio broadcast, just before the beginning of World War II, made on American entertainment history. Perhaps this is why it was difficult to empathize with the main characters – except for Dakota Fanning who played Rachel, the daughter of Ray, played by Tom Cruise. I was reminded of elements of Spielberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in some of the action and motifs in the film – and hints of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. The image of the “lonely child” marks all of Spielberg’s work as he willingly admits.


War of the Worlds was scary enough but seemed stronger on style than on story.

Batman Begins

I truly enjoyed director Christopher Nolan’s approach to the Batman franchise. The film is intelligent, well-crafted, and surprisingly well-acted.  Why surprisingly? I didn’t expect Christian Bale to do such a credible job as Bruce Wayne but he pulled it off and convinced me that his way to reform Gotham, that of good and not of Henri Ducard, played by Liam Neeson, was the only way.


The philosophical discourse between Bruce, Ducard, Alfred, played by Michael Caine and Jim Gordon, played by  chameleon Gary Oldman, about the nature of good and evil, and hints at the grey areas in between, are worth paying attention to. Students of mythology, linguistics and semiotics will enjoy Bruce Wayne’s purposeful creation of his persona as a myth and what people “do” with myths and mythical figures.


The only thing that I thought a little flawed were the two Katie Holmes endings. Just when we thought Bruce and Rachel, played by Holmes, had said good-bye, there they were again for another good-bye. Also, first Rachel told Bruce he wasn’t the person she wanted him to be, and then when he tried to be, she seemed to not be happy with that either. I thought she did a credible job as the ADA trying to stop the criminal takeover of Gotham through the legal system.


Batman Begins is a dark more mature version of Spider-Man 2 that articulates what it means to have character and be a true hero. Can’t wait for the sequel.


(This commentary is brief because I have a lot of catching up to do!)

Thursday, July 28, 2005

National Film Retreat and more

It has been some time since I posted a review. I have been traveling and last weekend I was at St. Francis Retreat House in Easton, PA (near Allentown and Bethlehem) for the National Film Retreat. Eighteen persons gathered for the retreat and we screened, conversed, reflected on and prayed about six films around the theme of The Seduction of Power in all levels of society and the choices we make.

Romero: an example of a man of God who engages in theological reflection and discernment when confronted with powerful politics confronted by the power of the poor. We watched the first 30 minutes as an introduction

The Firm: Examples of personal and systematic ambition and power

Life is Beautiful: The power of the state vs the power of love

The Contender: How a woman candidate for vice-president confronts the power and the politics of sex

Bruce Almighty: The power of selfishness vis-a-vis the power of God and the gift of free will.

Bagdad Cafe': A clip used during the homily shows what happens when we open our hearts to discover the talents in each of us, and to share them with the community.

Think about joining us next year:

2006 National Film Retreat

Proposed Theme: Who is My Brother?

(Friends and Aliens No Longer)

Center for Spiritual Development

Orange, CA

June 30-July 2, 2006


I will be away until August 16th for the Locarno Film Festival where I will serve on an ecumenical jury, representing SIGNIS ( If I have access to the internet and time I will post some updates about the festival, as well as try to catch up on the six films I saw this month.