Saturday, April 20, 2019

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) (Movie Review)

      It’s the Easter season again, and traditionally around this time of year I review something with a religious backdrop. This year however, I wanted to do something different … but what to discuss? Other general Easter themed movies are hard to come by, and most of them are terrible. Well ... there just happens to be a little movie from 1971 that I find myself re-watching around this time of year … the family musical classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. While the film obviously has no direct tie-in with the holiday, there’s still something magical about it, the look of it, and the feel of it that just fits right along with all the decorations, colors and treats found in the Easter baskets of the season. Initially when I was a kid, I had heard of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, but didn’t have any initial interest in watching it, as a film revolving around a boy visiting a candy factory just sounded boring to me. Much to my good fortune, I saw the movie for the first time during a third-grade class, and I distinctly remember saying to myself when it was done … “that’s a film I’ll be keeping with me for life”. There’s really no point it building up the film any more, as it’s often cited as a motion picture classic. Never the less, I’m in the mood to talk about one of my childhood favorites, and hopefully in the process I'll remind modern viewers why it’s deserving of it’s favored title. Also, in this review, I’ll be comparing some things with the original book written by Roald Dahl, as the popularity of the film dose frequently overshadow an otherwise great children’s book.

      The film is adapted by the children’s book titled “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, which was authored by the aforementioned Roald Dahl. Charlie Bucket is a small boy who comes from a poor family, and despite his living conditions, he tries his best to be optimistic, and loving. Yet deep down, he wants something special to wish for, and dream of. 
One thing that lingers on his mind is the mysterious Wonka chocolate factory, which is in full production, producing sweet’s for kids, but it remains locked, with no-one ever going in or out. What secrets lie within, what delicious treasure could be discovered, and just who’s operating the factory when no-one is ever seen entering the building. One day, it’s announced that five golden tickets have been hidden within select chocolate bars, and the lucky winners get a special tour of the factory, and one child will be given the greatest surprise gift of all. The first half of the movie focuses on the Wonka contest, as we meet our five principle children who find the tickets, four of which are spoiled, self-centered brats. Most importantly we spend time with Charlie in his everyday life as the competition unfolds around him. 

The second half is the tour of the factory, and the point where the movie begins its new life as a journey through a child’s fantasy land. While the place seems like a normal factory on the outside … inside is a world of pure imagination. In essence, it’s less about story, and more about an experience into a fantastical setting. It’s all about watching these everyday people go from one colorful, imaginative location in the factory to another, and no two rooms are the same. Some are very whimsical, some provide a lot of goofy comedy, some are technical marvels, some of it can be a little spooky, and some rooms are just quirky oddities. Funny enough, the film also follows the outline of a “SAW” movie, in which each room tests one of the kids, and each child in turn gets removed from the film do to their failures. Wonka through it all even acts like a puppet master who knows in his mind exactly how everything is going to unfold. The thread that gives the experience substance is Charlie himself, who likewise is put to the test on what the virtues are for being a good kid, and not greedy like the others.

       Despite Wonka’s name is in the title of the movie, and commonly the character taking up the most space on the poster, this film is absolutely Charlies story. While he’s certainly a good kid, he’s not without fault. Sometimes he can be a little selfish, and other times he lets his curiosity get the best of him. Thus, in the end it’s all the more rewarding to see how far he’s matured, and how he proves to be selfless when faced with an opportunity to make money. Peter Ostrum played Charlie Bucket, and it turned out to be both his very first and last acting role. While Peter has expressed nothing but love for his experience on the film, he also never aspired a career in acting, and decided to follow his own dreams. I congratulate him for his choice, but I also want to compliment him for his performance in this role. Child acting is perhaps the most challenging thing to get right in a movie, but Peter Ostrum in my view gave a perfect performance for his age, and made every emotion feel real. Roald Dahl, the author of the original book always viewed Charlie as the principle character, hence why his name was in the title of the book. Needless to say, he wasn’t a fan of how Wonka seemed to steal the spot light in the movie. Truthfully, while Wonka is certainly a scene steal-er, I think he missed how well realized Charlies character was, that he was the one with a character arc, and that he’s absolutely the center piece of the story ... unlike the 2005 remake staring Johnny Depp, in which Wonka was actually the main character with the only story arc.  

      All the remaining kid actors brought their respected roles to life with distinct quirks, but the one other child star who really stands out is Julie Dawn Cole as Veruca Salt, who’s easily the most spoiled and bad-tempered child of them all. This has to be one of my personal favorite child performances, as she is fiercely committed to the part, and is bursting with fiery energy in every scene. While I’ve seen okay bratty kid performances, Veruca is just this insane tornado of relentless built-up emotion. On a side note, as far as child singing is concerned, she’s perfectly passable, and her song “I want it now” makes for a great villain song in its own right. Also, I can’t forget about the late Jack Albertson and his infectiously lovable performance as Charlies Grandpa Joe. While he could have easily been written off as just the wise and friendly grandfather, he’s also a bit stubborn, a pinch reckless, and it gives him more of a realized character to portray. In general, I love seeing old men that still retain the beating heart of a child, and Grandpa Jo is just brimming with a young spirit despite his age. Speaking personally for a second, both of my late grandfathers retained so much of that same childhood spirit in their late ages, and I see so much of them both in Jack Albertson’s performance. 

      At last, lets talk about the main man himself, the late great Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. Strait to the point … this is one of my absolute favorite character performances in all of cinema. Right from the characters introduction scene of him faking a cripple leg in front of a large crowd, only to reveal he’s actually rather spry ... it just hooks you right into his captivating screen presence.

Obviously, his purple suit and funny hat are iconic, but it was Gene Wilder himself in the role who made the character come to life. What makes his performance work is the duality on display, as he captures the relentless warmth of a friendly figure, but also the quirkiness of a mad doctor who may or may not be trustworthy. It’s a very animated performance to say the least, but it’s also restrained in just the right ways, and that’s where Gene shines. He knew exactly how to keep enough personality tucked inside, while also being very looney with the delivery. There’s one too many memorable quirks and funny lines to recap, but a personal favorite of mine is when he drops a pair of shoes in a boiling pot of food and says … “that will give it a little more kick”. I also love this one moment in which he drinks out of a candy tea cup, and after a brief hesitation … he decides to go ahead and eat the cup too. It goes without saying that a whole generation of children were introduced to Gene Wilder through his performance as Willy Wonka, and it’s the character that I associate with him the most. Having said that, I don’t want to undermine that he was unmistakably a comedic titan in the 70’s, namely for his roles in Mel Brooks classics like “The Producers”, “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein”. I should note that Roald Dahl was once again not of fan of Gene Wilder in the role, as he really wanted to see his character played by the great Spike Milligan. While I’m sure he could have done something credible in the role, I just couldn’t picture anyone else but Gene Wilder in the part.

        The factory itself functions as a character, and it’s likewise what helps keep the film so engaging to watch. The first half of the movie actually does a good job holding the viewers interest, but then in the second half we finally enter this amazing, wondrous setting, and the entertainment value is bumped up to eleven. Even though most of the look and aesthetics on display are very 1970’s, there’s still something to admire about all the practical effects, crazy sets, and designs of each room. I especially love that each location in the factory has its own distinct feel and personality. My favorite elements of the factory are actually all the little details spread throughout, like the lick-able wall paper, the coat hangers that actually crab the coats, and the randomly placed sign listing off various creams leading up to ... “Hair Cream”. My favorite scene of all, which wasn’t even in the original book, was the Wonka-mobile … a giant car that can’t drive 12 feet without spitting-up tons of soap on its passengers. I always looked at this as the most “fun” moment of the film, as it doesn’t involve spoiled children in danger, and it establishes a subtle contrast between the passengers. Charlie and his grandpa are loving it and having fun, while the others can’t stand getting soap on them. 

       Now let’s talk about one of the film’s most famous moments … the tunnel scene. This is the textbook definition of a scary scene existing in a family film just for the sake of a random spooky scene, and in my opinion … it’s all the better for it. For me, classic family films are all the more special when there’s that one random scene that sticks with us for being completely out of left field, and out of context with the rest of the movie. During the tour of Wonda’s factory, the guests take a seemingly peaceful ride on a ferry that’s calmly sailing a chocolate river. 

Then it literally takes a dark turn down a mysterious tunnel, full of neon lights, warped visuals (obvious 70’s anesthetic's), and all kinds of random nightmare imagery that’s terrifying the passengers. We get images of a Snake slithering over someone’s face, tense eyeball closeups, creepy crawly critters, dark suited men, and a chicken getting its head cut off. It’s absolutely bonkers, has nothing to do with the story, makes no sense in the context of the film, and yet, somehow the experience just feels more complete with a randomly placed creepy scene. In general, I love family films that convey a variety of emotions in one package. This movie has its whimsical moments, sad moments, funny moments, exciting moments, and a little bit of fear just completes the package. While this scene definitely took me by surprise as a kid, I really don’t remember it scaring me that much. If anything, I remember I was actually disappointed that there wasn’t more creepy imagery on display then what we got. It should come as no surprise that, while there was a ferry ride in the book, it was heavily altered for the film ... you can probably imagine how author Roald Dahl felt about that.    

      On that note, Roald Dahl has publicly disowned the film, and was furious with the final result. Originally, he wrote the screen play for the movie, but it was heavily altered by screen writer David Seltzer, who’s largely responsible for all the memorable scenes from the film that were absent from the book. Speaking personally, I’m of the opinion that a movie adaption should be faithful to the source material, but it should also create its own unique moments, and tweak the story just enough so that it’s familiar, but with its own unique identity. I already mentioned the added scene with Wonka’s bubbly car, but there’s a lot more that I’d like to compare to the book. The Oompa Loompas in the book resembled normal people, just very small, but I’ve always preferred the movies re-design with the orange faces and green hair, as it just made them stand out as unique creatures. The shady Slugworth character, who was a very minor part in the book was also given a larger role in the movie. This annoyed Roald Dahl to no end as he felt the film was trying to shoe horn in a pointless villain. I find that ironic as Roald Dahl created the Child Catcher for the movie “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, and he was a villain that wasn’t even featured in the original source material. Furthermore, while Slugworth had a traditional shadowy presence, he certainly wasn’t a villain, was even revealed to be working for Wonka the whole time, and ended up playing an important role in Charlies character arc.

      The majority of the consequences of the naughty kids, like the boy stuck in the pip, the girl transforming into a blueberry and the TV obsessed kid shrinking in Wonka’s machine were all carried over faithfully from the book … but Veruca Salt getting dumped down with the garbage was very different. 

In the book, it’s a room full of squirrels making Chocolate Nuts, then when Veruca gets out of hand, and is dropped down the trash shoot, Wonka responds with … “She was a bad nut”. The movie changed this scene to giant geese laying Golden Chocolate Eggs for Easter, and this time when Veruca drops, Wonka responds with ... “She was a bad Egg”. Again, speaking personally, I’ll always prefer the giant geese as they tie-in with my love for watching this movie around Easter time. The scene with the “fizzy lifting drinks” was another completely original sequence for the movie. Aside from being a very fun scene with our two principle characters flying around, I also felt this served as an important part in Charlies arc. This was the incident that showed how Charlie was capable of making mistakes, by letting his curiosity get the better of him, and it made the resolution at the end all the more effective when we see how much he’d learned from then. The scene in Wonka’s office was also created for the movie, and in my opinion, the story was all the stronger for it. This was the emotional highlight, as we saw Charlie pass one final test from Wonka. On a side note, I’ve always loved the design of Wonka’s office, as all his furniture was split in half, and served as a metaphor of the characters split duality. Wonka’s glass elevator was also featured more prominently in the book, but I thought saving it for the climax of the movie worked fine.

      So, is there anything added in the movie that I didn’t care for … um, there certainly is in the first half. Most obviously, I never understood why this movie focused on so many adults that were obsessing over Wonka’s Golden tickets, especially when the tickets were clearly meant for children only. What’s worse, there are some ponderous detours with pointless characters going to absurd lengths to get their hands on these darn things. It gets so stupid that there’s actually a moment when a random woman’s husband gets abducted, and his life will be terminated if she doesn’t surrender her collection of Wonka bars. 

The scene is bad enough, but it’s made even worse when the wife is hesitant to give up her stupid candy bars over her husband’s life. These moronic scenes with the adults should have been completely removed, as they did nothing but pad the movie out. Also, while I’ve always loved the songs for their memorable lyrics, I’m not the biggest fan of the musical numbers as their presented. The staging in kind of generic, the singing doesn’t always sound that great, and some of them like “Cheer Up Charlie” and “The Candy Man” song are just kind of boring to watch. The musical number “I’ve got a Golden Ticket” is a song that I absolutely adore in-of-itself, but as a scene in the film, it’s almost relentlessly corny to watch. The “Oompa Loompa” songs are perfect all around, and a rare case in which the music is actually lifted right from the original book. Wonka’s “Pure Imagination” song is another great one that I love all around, and even though Gene Wilder doesn’t exactly have a great singing voice, there’s still something about the passion and commitment he puts into the song that makes it work. Also, the instrumental score on its own is outstanding, and even earned an Oscar nomination for best original music score. As soon as the movie begins with that memorable opening credit sequence in the chocolate factory, and that music chimes in … I’m instantly in a good mood.    

     In general, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is right on par with the likes of “The Wizard of Oz” as one of the great family movie classics. Despite being an obvious product of the 70’s, it’s still remained timeless, and I’d hate for any childhood to be without it. It’s a film that conveys thoughtful messages to kids, but also gives them a great variety of fun and wonderment. I think most people who have grown-up with a passion for films might just have had been inspired by “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, and maybe without realizing it.

Without a doubt, it’s one of those special movies that broadens the imagination in young viewers, and possibly even older viewers. For me, I’ve always looked back on this film as an example of what movies should do best, which is transport the audience from the familiar, have them enter a world of creativity, experience a variety of emotional highlights along the way, return back to the real world feeling refreshed, and possibly even learned something meaningful along the way. If you’d prefer an adaption that’s closer to Roald Dahl’s original book, you can watch Tim Burton’s 2004 remake “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” starring Johnny Depp. That version was almost a perfect recreation of the book with minimal alterations, but personally, I never felt that it captured the same warmth or charming appeal of the original film. That’s not to say it was a terrible remake, just … not bar of chocolate. It goes without saying that I still love the movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, just as much as I did as a kid, and with modern day entertainment getting less enchanting, and more commercial, it’s something that I’ve pushed for younger viewers to discover or in the cases of some parents … re-discover. If you’re someone who regrettably missed this film at any point in your life, do yourself a favor this Easter and treat both yourself and possibly the whole family to one of the most delicious films ever made.

 I give “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” a strong 4 ½ stars out of 5.     

Vertigo (1958) (Movie Review)

     Alfred Hitchcock was a filmmaker who needs no introduction, as he was one of the first to achieve wide spread acclaim, and attention. I’ve reviewed many of his movies on my site before, and in general, I’ve always been a fan ever sense I first took a film class back in high-school. While many of his movies have been widely regarded as motion picture classics, there’s one that’s achieved its own level of greatness, and according to some sites, it’s actually a contender with “Citizen Kane” as one of the greatest movies ever made. I’m naturally building up to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1958 drama “Vertigo”. This is a movie I’ve wanted to review for years as it contains several things I love and want to praise, but I also have some unpopular opinions of the film that I likewise wanted to share. However, I’ve also been avoiding this film as it’s a difficult one to discuss without spoiling key details. Part of the majesty of watching an Alfred Hitchcock classic is being surprised at every turn. Thus, I’ll do my best to keep the spoilers vague, while I share my personal feelings of “Vertigo” ... one of cinemas most acclaimed achievements.  

         Scotty Ferguson is a detective on the police force, but he’s unfortunately also suffering from an uncontrollable fear of heights. One day while on duty, his acrophobia culminates in the death of a fellow officer, and thus Scotty quits the force. With little direction left in his life, Scotty takes on a favor for a friend … to watch over his friends emotionally unstable wife, who might just be suicidal. Gradually, Scotty becomes infatuated with her, and once the two meet through an incident, she in turn reveals that the feelings are mutual. Naturally a romance develops, but before to long, Scotty faces his fears once again, and can’t stop her from climbing a tall church tower. After a fatal accident, Scotty slips into depression, and his obsession with his lost love causes his mind to snap. Time passes, and eventually a new girl comes into his life, but rather then build a new relationship, Scotty aims to us this new woman as a vessel to recreate his lost love. In essence, it’s Hitchcock conveying a notion of one man’s obsession with obtaining perfection, as Scotty is trying to moiled this lookalike into an exact replica of the love he lost prematurely. It’s all about what’s going on in Scotty’s mind, has he truly lost his sanity, or is he on the verge of exposing an even bigger deception laid before him?

      Anyone who decides the view this movie has to be prepared for a slow burning first half. There are lengthy scenes without any dialogue, and it almost seems a little repetitive after a while. Some may see this as boring, while others could view it as the movie working it’s magic, and slowly hypnotizing you into it’s entrancing spell. While I can’t say with a straight face that I was riveted by the first half, I still couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, as both the musical score by Bernard Herrmann, and the overall film-making techniques on display had me hooked. Eventually we get to a point where I just felt submersed in the experience, and I wanted to see certain things unfold around me. Truthfully, while I wouldn’t call “Vertigo” Hitchcock’s absolute best movie (even though I know most would), I do think it’s his best achievement as visual work of art. The film-making on display is nothing short of inspiring, and he incorporates various technical components in certain shots to put the audience squarely in the characters shoes. There are countless individual shots that have always resonated in the back of my mind, including this one built-up shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, which might just be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen it captured on film. This movie also contains one of the most artistic 360 shots I’ve ever seen. Now the 360 shot is a common cliché in which the camera orbits around a person, or several people, and in the case of this film, it’s two people in a loving embrace. However, there’s so much more added to this shot rather than just the camera orbiting around two people kissing.  

     My favorite individual scene of the whole movie is a dream sequence, in which we visually see Scotty’s mental state of mind breaking down. 

For his time, Alfred Hitchcock was a visionary mastermind like no other, and who better to artistically show the mental deterioration of someone’s obsessed mind. In this scene Scotty is slipping in and out of his own consciousness, resulting in this trippy dream sequence with flashy effects, stylish direction, impressive animation, and a hypnotic feel that literally puts you into a trans while watching. James Stewart naturally is our star, and he delivers a solid performance in the role of Scotty. What’s more, I love watching characters go through a personal transition, as the Scotty we first met in the opening is someone completely different from who we see at the end. Kim Novak also brings a duel performance to the role of Scotty’s love interest, and it’s likewise fascinating to see the peaks and vales she goes through. On a quick side note, the 2002 family movie "Stuart Little 2" was one of my childhood favorites, and it contains a scene in which both Stuart and a possible love interest are watching the memorable beach scene from Vertigo”, but I initially had no idea what the clip was from. When I finally saw "Vertigo" years later for the first time, the scene just exploded in my head ... like holly cow, that was the movie Stuart and his friend were watching the whole time. Suddenly I'm inspired to create a fan-fiction, and I'll title it ... "Jimmy Stewart Little". Okay, lets get back on track ...    

        Unfortunately, once we get the third act of the movie, my problems start rising to the surface. Early at the start of act three, a character reveals all the movies secrets through voice over, and that for me was a huge mistake. 

I think the film would have been far more effective if we were just as much in the dark as Scotty up until the end, and even then I think the film could have left certain things up to interpretation as opposed to delivering the strait up facts. Still, I suppose for the sake of emotional context, some things just had to be addressed. We then come to the finale, which takes place on the steps of the same church tower from before. Just a quick clip note, but it’s impossible for me to watch this ending without thinking of the climax to Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman”, which also takes place in a similar location. I’m not sure if Burton took inspiration from “Vertigo”, but the pacing, lighting and visual aesthetics on display are eerily similar. Now without spoiling anything, I was not a fan of how the movie ends, as it just felt very abrupt after so much build up, and it just leaves the experience feeling hollow. Usually Hitchcock always delivers a payoff that I’m on board with, but this one just left me feeling empty and frustrated. Of course, I should mention that there’s a final image involving a nun’s sudden arrival miring a death like figure, which I think would have been more effective if the nun wasn’t talking the second she arrived on site. Like, imagine how much more terrifying that would have been if she was approaching in complete silence?

       In short, “Vertigo” is a unique and unpredictable experience, but for me, it’s not one that demands repeat viewings … unlike some of Hitchcock’s other films that I continue to enjoy repeatedly. I suppose this film falls into the same camp for me as “Citizen Kane”, where it’s unmistakably a great movie, but not one that I have any real love or feelings for. I’ll say this, between the two, I’d much rather watch “Vertigo”. I’m also kind of shocked that such an acclaimed film only won two Oscars, for best sound and best art direction. Seriously, it didn’t even get a nomination for best picture … isn’t that crazy. Still, to this day my personal favorite Hitchcock movie, which for me has only gotten better with repeat viewings is “North by Northwest”. Never the less, even though I’m not the biggest fan, one can’t undermine “Vertigo” for all it achieved, and for still inspiring young filmmakers all these years later. Maybe I won’t give it a perfect five-star rating, but it’ll certainly give a positive one, and if you haven’t yet seen the movie, do yourself a favor and check it out.

I give “Vertigo” 3 ½ stars out of 5.