Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Johnny Depp, his face caked in white make-up, eyes hidden behind large, bug-like sunglasses, leading a group of five children and their caretakers through a labyrinth of chocolate horrors, clicking his tongue obscenely as he recounts how he enslaved a village of pygmies to work his factory.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an antidote for all those teenaged girls (and middle-aged soccer moms) who can’t stop dreaming of Depp decked out as a swashbuckler in Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s impossible to love the toothacher that is Depp’s Willy Wonka. Fascinating in the manner of a bug-light, Depp draws us into this nightmare vision of the candy man, evoking not so much the presence of Gene Wilder from the original 1971 Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory – or even Michael Jackson – but rocker Alice Cooper playing a demented child killer. 
It shouldn’t be surprising then that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory feels more like Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare album than the 1971 film: A mixture of dream, fantasy and comic sinister poses dominated by a singularly odd personality.
Willy absolutely overshadows the other characters in the film and the movie becomes a battle of the absurd between Depp and over-the-top director Tim Burton. Can Depp create a character even stranger than the fantastically crooked world Burton places him in? Which is more disturbing, a chorus of pygmies in Devo suits performing synchronized swimming in a river of chocolate or the fragile, emotionally vulnerable mass of neurosis that is Depp’s Willy Wonka?
The film’s plot – which is supposedly nearer in spirit to Roald Dahl’s original children’s book – is crushed between these two forces, which is too bad since its critique of capitalism and the selfishness, competition and gluttony inherent to it is at least as interesting as some weird businessman and his phantasmagoric factory. Depp and Burton mystify us until we’re transfixed by the film’s most superficial, stylistic and shallow moves rather than the larger themes working in the peripherals. 
Led into this trap, the film’s plot thrashes around trying to get the audience interested in Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), a sweet, impoverished kid living with his parents and grandparents in a hovel on the apocalyptic edge of town. Charlie and his family live between the cracks, in a world where money has become a daydream, the future spilling out ahead of him like ever-thinner bowls of cabbage stew. Success means staying alive – staying together – as the forces of capitalism batter the small Bucket family, and if Charlie is largely immune to the seductions around him it’s only because they are totally unattainable.
When Willy holds a lottery to choose five lucky children who will be allowed into his mysterious factory, Charlie and his family are suddenly able to pretend they’re part of the society around them. They believe the arbitrary nature of the lottery system allows Charlie an even chance at finding a golden ticket but the contest is, of course, rigged: The tickets are most likely to be discovered by the rich, spoiled, gluttonous and overly competitive – kids who embody capitalism’s dark side. 
The children are a parade of capitalism’s sins, drawn with such a thick brush that their faults are easily identifiable. Augustus Gloop is gluttonous, Veruca Salt is spoiled, Violet Beauregarde is competitive and Mike Teavee is showy. The golden ticket draws these sins together, provides the missing ingredient, the magical force behind the capitalist ideal: The suggestion that each and every one of us is special, unique and individual, a wonderful little diamond.
It takes only three tries for Charlie to get lucky and find his own golden ticket. (As each of us knows, the best way to get rich is to get lucky since it implies that god himself thinks you’re special.) An altruistic little freak, Charlie initially decides to sell the ticket to help support his deadwood relatives, but luckily comes to his senses and decides instead to tour the magical factory for an eventful afternoon with his grandfather.
Each child’s predominant capitalist weakness rises to the surface inside Willy’s factory, while the candy man himself comes off as nothing so much as a petulant child king. Having fixed the game to guarantee just the right proportion of rotten children – ah the miracle of statistics! – Willy commences to torment and torture the winners of his contest like Jason from Friday the 13th teaching the dangers of STDs to teenaged sexpots.
The director wins out in the real battle between Depp’s glory of the grotesque and Burton’s slightly goofy Goth. While the Oompla-Loompah dance routines feel like someone has been watching too much ‘70s-era Godzilla movies, they are not nearly as frightening as Depp’s weird facial ticks and gargantuan wooden smiles. Some of the landscapes smack of cheap acid flashbacks, complete with silly multi-colored fly agaric mushrooms, but it all seems in good spirit, not like the gruesome body possession that’s Depp’s performance.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory succeeds as a campy retro film for jaded Gen-Xers who were terrified by the original, but only a Wonka-like sadist would bring a kid to this nightmare.


War of the Worlds

The aliens have invaded our space in Stephen Spielberg's War of the Worlds.
They have infiltrated our bodies, burrowed beneath our city streets, made themselves at home in the rush of lunch-hour crowds. The aliens have assimilated us by allowing us to bury them deep inside our psyche, where fear bears an uncanny resemblance to hope and the face looking back out of the cosmic darkness looks a lot like our own.
If Independence Day made aliens into an interstellar substitute for communist Russia – the bug-critters just another configuration of big, ugly Nikita Khrushchev after all – War of the Worlds resurrects a more primal fear, the superstitious and uncanny confrontation with an intergalactic red scare. The film’s strength comes from its subtle insinuation that humanity threatens itself as much as any boogeyman, and that our common clinging to civilization is tenuous and fragile.
Bodies may be ripped apart, turned to dust, used to water the earth in blood, but we haven’t lost until we give up our humanity. Spielberg’s film is a good, old-fashioned disaster film using aliens as an occasion to test its theory – not merely an escapist science fiction.
Survival propels the film, and the main characters are absorbed into the drive to subside in a world that has cracked open, broken apart and boiled over. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a blue-collar divorcee taking care of his teen-aged son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), and young precocious daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning), for a weekend. A middle-aged adolescent, Ray is a thoughtless dad living like a frat boy on spring break.
Spielberg’s obsession with reconfiguring a nuclear family resurfaces in War of the Worlds as a nagging insistence on the importance of blood relations. Nation crumbles under the alien threat and society bursts at its seams, but Ray and his family miraculously survive – thrive, even – in the chaos. The only thing that saves War of the Worlds from becoming the weird psychoanalytic exercise of Spielberg’s other Oedipal dramas like Artificial Intelligence and E.T. is the raw emotional energy of the cataclysmic terror – the sheer size and scope of the disaster puts the Ferrier family’s little domestic struggle in its proper perspective.
The end of the world is just another lazy Saturday afternoon. Ray wakes up, finds that Robbie has taken his vintage muscle car on a joy ride and Rachel has ordered inedible health food for breakfast, when suddenly a meteor storm lights up the sky. Strange lights pound holes in the ground and it’s all fun and games until giant metallic spiders crawl from the holes and begin vaporizing whatever is in their path.
Ray is no hero, and his fight or flight mechanism is stuck on run. He gathers up his children, intent on delivering them back to their mother, his ex-wife, so that he will be free to run and hide more effectively. With that loose goal in place they flee, propelled by the fearful masses.
A family out of necessity, the Ferriers are little more than strangers, really, but compared to the subhuman crowds they meet at every checkpoint they’re intimately bonded. The mass swells and constricts, surges forward like a ghostly centipede, stomps its feet in fear and dread of the things that follow it.
No longer human, the terror of the masses is every bit as shocking as the aliens. People crush one another, pushing forward to the edge of the Hudson Ferry, jostle over guns that have proven useless against the aliens, but steadfastly deadly against one another, kill over a clammy, dank cellar. Loosed from its primal cocoon, the madness spreads out of real human bodies and into a world tragically wounded by otherworldly invaders: Stupid, mindless, out of control.     
Ray and his family are swallowed up by the chaos; feed it their helpless fear. Running from slaughterhouse to slaughterhouse, they find themselves ultimately in the nexus of the beast: A field of dreams dripping in human gore, an otherworldly factory farm where blood is used as a type of fertilizer.
Digging in beneath this nightmare, Ray and Rachel come face-to-face with the secret beast, an alien bred in a place as dark and fertile as the alien field of dreams. We are aliens in our own skin and the real horror is that the monster can be released at any time. Aliens are just pussycats in comparison.
One of Spielberg’s most disturbing films, War of the Worlds taps into our primal fears and allows the raw nerve to lie exposed, twitching and hideous as a toothache. It’s a journey into a darkness that is both at the edge of space and buried deep in our own psyches, and it’s well worth the trip

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