Thursday, July 28, 2005

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, rated a family-friendly PG for bearing no resemblance to the story of Michael Jackson.

I broke the rules this time and actually saw this movie BEFORE I wrote the review. Then again, that wasn't so much a "rule" as it was something I just blurted out during lunch one day and turned into a blog, so it's probably ok.

I admit I had some concerns about this movie. Wasn't it kinda obvious that Johnny Depp's creepy, pasty-faced Wonka was just a stand-in for creepy, pasty-faced Michael Jackson and that the freak asylum of Wonka's factory was just a metaphor for the freak asylum of Neverland? And wasn't it pretty obvious that Fizzy Lifting Drink was just another way of saying Jesus Juice and Veruca Salt was just Priscilla Presley? Anyway, that's what I was worried about, especially the Veruca Salt part.

It turns out my fears were all in vain, because this movie is true to the original story. For those of you who aren't familiar, here's the premise: an adorable and obviously special little boy, Charlie, grows up with a poor but supportive family in a dingy little town called Gary, Indiana. The members of his family struggle to get out of bed, and when they do, it's just to perform as a funky R&B band known as The Chocolate Factory.

Despite their best efforts, The Chocolate Factory just doesn't catch on and as a result are forced to eat cabbage soup every night. Then, there's some contest involving tickets of some kind, but none of them wins. Other better behaved and wealthier kids do. I'm not even sure why this part was in the movie.

Anyway, they soon discover that Charlie, the youngest child of the Five, can really, really sing and he's a natural dancer. In fact, he's so good and crowds love him so much, that they're soon forced to change the name of the band to Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Despite some initial pangs of jealousy by his older, greasier, less talented brothers, pretty soon Charlie has the group at the top of the charts, and the money starts rolling in.

That's when the problems start. Charlie's brothers can't handle success well and start hitting the sweets pretty hard: gobstoppers, blueberry chewing gum, edible flowers, you name it. Soon, people on the street start thinking they're some kind of Al Roker tribute group. Meanwhile, the boys overbearing father pushes them to do more and more gigs, which of course means that Charlie's brothers ride the Brown Horse (you know, chocolate) even harder.

One day, Charlie declares that he can't take it anymore and leaves the band. Without Charlie, The Chocolate Factory fails to produce another hit record but instead hires an oompa-loompa to replace their brother, and although he's pretty good, he just doesn't have Charlie's chops. Their pitiful attempt to tour with the oompa-loompa as a front man ends one night when their new lead singer infuriates the rest of the group with a patronizing song scolding them for all their chocolate eating. He was never seen again, which is fine because no one likes a goody two-shoes.

Despite this setback, Charlie on his own goes on to make "Chiller," the best-selling record in history and becomes a hundred times bigger than The Chocolate Factory ever was. From there, it's all smooth sailing for Charlie, who becomes a productive, contributing member of society (who has a nose), after having his no-account, trifling brothers killed by calling in a favor from NASA's Death Ray division, who owed him a favor for a little help he had given them on solving a particularly tricky engineering problem around the time "Chiller" was released. He eventually becomes Governor of California and solves all the state's problems.

Then some creep gives him a factory and his life gets complicated and heavy. We are left with mixed emotions, but don't want to say anything because we're afraid he'll use that awful Death Ray on us too.

Overall, this movie surprised me for its complete lack of resemblance to the Michael Jackson story and the fact that NASA will just kill guys for you if you're their friend. On a scale of "Man in the Mirror" on the low end to "Billie Jean" on the other, I give this movie a "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough."

Thursday, July 14, 2005

MUST LOVE DOGS, starring Diane Lane and John Cusack, rated PG-13 for some scenes of animated violence.

Diane Lane stars as Sarah Hurlihy, an attractive, single middle-aged woman with a terrible secret: she's an android, whose mission is to take good roles in movies from human actresses. Also, her circuitry is programmed with a prime directive that she can under no circumstances disobey, which obviously provides the title of the film.

So once she's uncovered the awful truth about her life, her recent breakup and career as a preschool teacher become even more depressing. Fortunately, she's got one of those meddling movie sisters who enjoys the feeling of superiority she gets by trying to set Sarah up with guys. The result is a long parade of colorful losers that Sarah has to date: disco guy; obnoxious lawyer guy; too-eager-for-sex guy; probably-gay guy; eskimo-with-a-harpoon guy; bumblebee-costume-guy; former-president-of-the-united-states-who-isn't-carter-bush-or-ford guy. You've seen the scene before.

Finally, in desperation, meddling sister puts a personal ad in the paper on behalf of her sister that says what a lovely, sensitive person she is and describes the type of non-loser man that she would like to meet and also says she's easy. As a result, another cavalcade of creeps present themselves to Sarah for inspection, but this time, having discovered her android powers, she shapes her index finger into a long, pointy knife like the creepy cop in Terminator 2 and stabs them in the eye one by one after the salad course.

After that, the movie gets a little gratuitous with the violence for my taste. Sarah becomes a killing machine that threatens the whole planet. Eventually, Morgan Freeman (the President, of course) is forced to make a speech on television in which he advises everyone that the United States has chosen to do what it must in order to survive, which means that scientists, artists, politicians, NFL cheerleaders and a handful of other important personages are to be evacuated immediately to a secure bunker in a Bahamas resort.

John Cusack is a single father caught up in this world-ending madness, responsible for protecting his wide-eyed daughter, played by Verne Troyer, from the onslaught. As cities are destroyed one by one, Cusack remains determined to stand with surviving remnant of society not on the beach in the Bahamas and find a way to defeat Sarah before the threat spreads to other countries.

Eventually, his rag-tag band of cohorts discover that Sarah has no resistance to water, which makes her sister realize why Sarah always refused to go shopping for swimsuits with her even though she was always so thin and everyone hated her for it. I'll try not to ruin the ending, but Cusack sets up a Wile E. Coyote-style trap wherein she pulls a rope next to a sign that says: "Pull Rope for Perfect Man." The rope doesn't in fact deliver a perfect man, but instead, pours a cartoony silver bucket of water on her head and she melts like the Wicked Witch of the West.

I'm not the first person to express my displeasure with Hollywood's belief that it can just jam-pack a movie with special effects and then expect us to line up to watch it. Unfortunately, MUST LOVE DOGS is a stereotypical example of just such a movie. On the other hand, it has Diane Lane in most of the scenes.

On a scale of "War of the Worlds" on the radio in 1929 on the good end to "War of the Worlds" as a movie in 2005 on the other, I give MUST LOVE DOGS an "At Least Diane Lane Is In Most Of The Scenes."

Special note: if, like Sarah, you'd like to kill losery suitors that you've had a hard time breaking up with, this movie as a double feature with "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" provides a certain but legal way of getting the job done.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

BEWITCHED, rated PG-13 for man-breasts, as Will Ferrell remains inexplicably proud of his train-wreck of an upper torso and is contractually obligated to remove his shirt at least once per film.

Way to go, Hollywood. Without going anywhere near this movie, I feel safe assuming you’ve taken four or five blockbuster ideas and combined them to create the least watchable retread of the summer.

Great idea number one. If you’re gonna pay tribute to a bygone television series, go with something people actually remember like Bewitched (as opposed to, say, McHale’s Navy or Car 54). Check.

Great idea number two. Cast a pair of big-name stars in the lead roles (as opposed to whoever those two guys are playing Bo and Luke in this summer’s Dukes of Hazzard movie). Check.

Great idea number three. Go the increasingly popular meta route and update (or refuse to update) the beloved series in a clever, quirky way a la The Brady Bunch Movie and/or infuse your remake with self-mocking tongue-in-cheekiness a la Starsky and Hutch. Check. Check.

Great idea number four. Reassure audience members that Shirley Mclaine is, in fact, still alive and has not yet been reincarnated as a Gila Monster or a shrubbery or, heaven forbid, one of their own children. Check.

Stir them all together and I suspect director Nora Ephron still comes closer to Fat Albert than The Untouchables.

From what I understand, this remake’s actually about the remaking of the classic Bewitched television show (though the previews I've seen have wisely steered clear of this potentially confusing meta-twist). And, to make things even wackier, it appears as though Nicole Kidman (recently heralded a comic genius for her hilarious performances in films about drowned poets, Civil War-era heartache and women who fall in love with ten-year-old boys) is pretending to be an actual witch pretending to be an actress pretending to be a witch. And her straight man is none other than Will Ferrell (who apparently portrays an actor in line to replace the guy … guys … who played ad exec Darren Stephens in the original series).

Of course, hilarity ensues. But, unfortunately, so does a whole bunch of benign computer wizardry. Come on! The coolest thing about watching old episodes of Bewitched (and, lest we forget, “I Dream of Jeannie” … which was, I think, the original remake of Bewitched) was/is the painfully lame special effects of the day. Long before CGI allowed Hollywood to hurl Tom Cruise through the Mission: Impossible remake and to reanimate Scooby Doo, creating “special” effects was as simple as yelling “Freeze!,” turning off the camera, planting a birthday cake or a suit of armor or a chimp in the shot and turning the camera back on. Boing!

On a scale from “Dragnet” to “The Fugitive,” I give this movie a “Beverly Hillbillies.”