Sunday, July 31, 2005

Movie Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

United States/United Kingdom, 2005
U.S. Release Date: 7/15/05
Running Time: 1:55
Rated: PG
Cast: Freddie Highmore, Johnny Depp, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, Deep Roy, Christopher Lee, Annasophia Robb, Julia Winter, Jordon Fry, Philip Wiegratz

Director: Tim Burton
Producers: Brad Grey, Richard D. Zanuck
Screenplay: John August, based on the book by Roald Dahl
Music: Danny Elfman
Studio: Warner Brothers

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“Weird” – a word that is worn-out in Tim Burton’s retelling of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – is single-handedly the best adjective to use in describing this film. Then again, with Tim Burton in the director’s chair, oddity is expected. With Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Burton conveys his typical dreariness and idiosyncrasies and utilizes his favorite faces in Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. In an attempt to appease Roald Dahl’s literary legacy, Burton has crafted a film that is more faithful to the text, yet more bleak and bitter than the fluffy original.

Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp), the world’s most infamous candy creator, is reopening his doors to give five lucky children a tour of his marvelous, yet mysterious, chocolate factory. Children can only gain entry to the factory by finding one of the five golden tickets wrapped inside Wonka’s many-flavored chocolate bars.

After chocoholic Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), video-game nut Mike Teavee (Jordon Fry), spoiled rotten daughter Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), and gum-chewing champion Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb) all find golden tickets, the final ticket finds its way into the hands of the near-penniless Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore). Upon entering the factory, the five children and their family-member escorts are reminded that only one of the five will win something “beyond their wildest imagination.”

Freddie Highmore, whom Depp recommended to Burton based on his work in Finding Neverland, is the perfect choice to play the title character. His Charlie calls for far more praise than Peter Ostrum’s young Bucket. Highmore brings a sense of innocence and depth to the lead role. However, it is odd that the 1971 musical is named after Willy and the new version is named after Charlie (as the book is) – yet Willy still steals the show.

Playing Willy Wonka, Johnny Depp further shows off his versatility; however, his character does possess the capacity to creep out the faint of heart. While some have compared his Wonka to Wacko Jacko, this connection is moot. Although, pedophilic undertones could be drawn when Wonka explains, “Everything in this room is edible, even me.”

In support, David Kelly displays his best Burgess Meredith impression and dances his way through the film as a spry Grandpa Joe. Also, Christopher Lee holds a commanding – albeit small presence – in the role of Willy’s father. Intimidation for Lee comes easy—considering he last played Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. In addition, the hundred-times-over digital clone of Deep Roy manages the difficult redefinition of an Oompa Loompa.

While Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has its moments of fantasy and visual acuity, Burton is at his best when he sticks to his stop-animation or the reflective likes of Big Fish. On the whole, the factory doesn’t work as well as it should. A cog is missing, and that cog is a justifiable reason for this remake. While fans of the novel will be pleased, the million-dollar question is: How many moviegoers will exit the theatre feeling more morose than mirthful—longing for blue round Oompa Loompas and the same old song and dance from Gene Wilder? (**1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Movie Review: Wedding Crashers

United States, 2005
U.S. Release Date: 7/15/05
Running Time: 1:56
Rated: R (Profanity, sexual situations, nudity, violence)
Cast: Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, Isla Fisher, Christopher Walken, Jane Seymour, Bradley Cooper

Director: David Dobkin
Producers: Peter Abrams, Robert L. Levy, Andrew Panay
Screenplay: Steve Faber & Bob Fisher
Music: Rolfe Kent
Studio: New Line Cinema

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While Wedding Crashers mimics the same sex-crazed shenanigans of American Pie, Animal House, and Old School, some unexpected romance can also be found. In terms of the film’s slightly deterrent romance, you already know the formula: boy becomes smitten with girl, but there’s an obstacle in his way; girl becomes smitten with boy; girl finds out boy lied; boy has to win girl back. However, underneath this standard romantic-comedy recipe, it is the crudeness and hilarity that makes this film worthwhile. Despite its clichés and formula-driven plot, Wedding Crashers is the low-odd favorite for comedy of the summer and quite possibly of the year.

Jeremy Grey (Vince Vaughn) and John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) are divorce lawyers, but ask them what their true profession is and their answer will be wedding crashers. In an opening montage, these two thirty-somethings are shown at a series of different weddings using fake names, charming everyone in sight, and eventually laying a multitude of naked women in their beds. Jeremy and John play a continuous con game of utilizing women’s heightened levels of estrogen during the romantic wedding season to tally another notch on their belt.

However, once the shameless twosome crash the wedding of one of U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Cleary’s (Christopher Walken) daughters, John falls for another one of his daughters named Claire (Rachel McAdams). The swindling is cut short as John’s love for Claire continues and his desire to philander is subdued. But, with Claire’s boyfriend (Bradley Cooper) down John’s throat and Jeremy itching to leave the party because of the Secretary’s clingy yet kinky other daughter named Gloria (Isla Fisher), things get complicated.

The duo of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson connect with faultless comedic timing and chemistry. While Wilson dishes out droll charisma as Vaughn’s sidekick, Vaughn is at his very best, as the ingenious motor-mouth, since his “Vegas, baby” Swingers show. The two are so believable as the raunchy longtime friends, that when they say, “I love you,” to each other it isn’t weird in any way.

Along the same lines of Alyson Hannigan in American Pie, Isla Fisher covers the half-ditsy half-psychotic role, except Fisher quadruples Hannigan’s sex appeal. As for Rachel McAdams, she is absolutely alluring as Wilson’s love interest. After The Notebook and now Wedding Crashers, McAdams has established herself as a delightful and credible actress who can suck any viewer in with her smile.

Aside from the mass of good-looking women and the romance they serve in the end, Wedding Crashers thrives on the physical comedy of its male leads. Between the triad of Vaughn, Wilson, and Walken, there are enough instances to spread hooting and howling throughout the theatre. Nonetheless, with the addition of Bradley Cooper as Sack Lodge and a hilarious bit part by Will Ferrell, Wedding Crashers becomes the most enjoyable and attendable laugh-out loud endeavor since Meet the Parents.

Combine Vaughn and Wilson with randy college-humor and a splash of romance, and you get a blockbuster for all to enjoy. If you are able to look past both the normalcy of the love story and the fact that ten minutes could have been shaved off of the running-time, you are sure to have a fun time at the movies. Thankfully, the trailer for Wedding Crashers does not put all of its antics on display, and in the same breath, does not do its hilarity justice. Go see this excellent mix of tomfoolery and true love; you won’t be disappointed. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Movie Review: Hide and Seek

United States, 2005
U.S. Release Date: 1/28/05
Running Time: 1:42
Rated: R (Violence)
Cast: Robert De Niro, Dakota Fanning, Famke Janssen, Elisabeth Shue, Amy Irving, Dylan Baker

Director: John Polson
Producer: Barry Josephson
Screenplay: Ari Schlossberg
Music: John Ottman
Studio: 20th Century Fox

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One would think that in order to secure two high-stature stars like Robert Deniro and Dakota Fanning in a psychological-horror film, the script would have to be of the highest caliber. Then again, money can buy big names for films with mediocre screenplays. Even with its two high-profile actors, Hide and Seek is nothing more than a disappointing gimmick that frustrates with its worn-out plot twist.

David Callaway (Robert Deniro) and his wife Alison (Amy Irving) are meandering through a rocky marriage. Nevertheless, they have a daughter, Emily (Dakota Fanning), and that is where their love is concentrated.

One morning, just after 2am, David awakes to find his wife dead in the bathtub of their house; she slit her wrists and committed suicide. After Emily witnesses her mother’s blood-bathed body, David decides to move him and his daughter into a rural New York home to escape their past.

Once inside their new house, Emily informs her father that she has made a new “friend” named Charlie. Despite the psycho-babble – explained by Emily’s psychiatrist Katherine (Famke Janssen) – which describes Emily’s “friend” Charlie as imaginary, David begins to second-guess the diagnosis when weird occurrences start happening around the house. The words “You let her die,” are scrolled on the bathroom walls; dolls are mutilated; and the cat is found drowned in the bathtub. David is determined to get to the bottom of whom or what Charlie is and why he is terrorizing the household.

Hide and Seek contains an inexcusable romance – between David and a younger woman named Elizabeth (Elizabeth Shue) – that doesn’t even bud; it just appears. This romance is ridiculous—only serving one main purpose: to keep the plot rolling. Of course, the actors can’t help it if the script is unsatisfying and the editing is choppy; the filmmakers have brought that upon themselves. The solitary fact that the DVD features four alternate endings is a huge hint that the production team did not have a clue as to how they were going to close this publicity stunt of a motion-picture.

In this throwaway thriller there are diversions aplenty. Usually in a "who-done-it?," whenever attempts are made to make a character look guilty, that should be proof enough that he or she is innocent. With Hide and Seek, obvious clues and red herrings are thrown at the viewers—making the twist unrewarding. In fact, the twist is so expected that when it occurs, there is not an ounce of revelation or poeticism to be felt. Further, after the twist, the main characters manage to exit their mansion and randomly run into a dark cave. What a poor stab at intensifying the already minimalist frights that preceded.

When children play hide and seek in a single room, there are only so many places to stay out of sight; this quickly makes the experience dull and curbing. Sadly, the same can be said about Hide and Seek. Being solely based on a gimmick, there are only so many ways to wrap up this charade, and once its time is up, the result is corny and undesirable. Hide and Seek is one disappointing game that no one should play. (*1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Friday, July 08, 2005

Movie Review: The Girl Next Door (2004)

United States, 2004
U.S. Release Date: 3/12/04
Running Time: 1:48
Rated: R (Sexual situations, profanity, nudity, brief violence)
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Elisha Cuthbert, Timothy Olyphant, James Remar, Chris Marquette, Paul Dano

Director: Luke Greenfield
Producers: Harry Gittes, Charles Gordon, Marc Sternberg
Screenplay: Stuart Blumberg, David T. Wagner and Brent Goldberg
Music: Paul Haslinger
Studio: 20th Century Fox

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At the sound of it, a film that is both anchored on teenage raunchiness and equipped with a love story between a male high-school student and a pretty porn-star doesn’t exactly spell-out “masterpiece,” but The Girl Next Door defies this logic. Spliced together with the utmost of care, The Girl Next Door combines exceptional directing, editing, and acting, along with an alluring lead couple and a soundtrack that nearly tops all of 2004. The Girl Next Door is surprisingly fresh, magnetic, and beautiful.

Matthew Kidman (Emile Hirsch) is a studious high-school senior who has just earned his acceptance to Georgetown University. But, in order to attend this prestigious college, Matthew must awe the financial aid committee with his speech and win a scholarship to the school. Just after he makes a rough draft on a few index cards, he meets Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert). Danielle makes him strip – after she noticed Matthew sneak at peek at her through her bedroom window – and turns Matthew’s world upside-down. With each passing day, Danielle shows more-and-more spontaneity and Matthew falls harder and harder for her.

Once Matthew observes Danielle in an adult video, their relationship turns to shambles. Danielle, unsure of which way to turn, gets coaxed back into the pornography industry by her brute producer Kelly (Timothy Olyphant). At this point, Matthew must decide what is more important: his own opportunities at college or protecting the woman of his dreams.

Newcomer Emile Hirsch attempts his best Tom Cruise – in Risky Business – impression and surpasses it with style. Meanwhile, Elisha Cuthbert works the part of the spontaneous and sexy Danielle with grace and vitality. Both Emile and Elisha emit a chemistry that excites electrons simply with a bite of a lip here or a soft giggle there. At any given moment, each and every look (subtle or intended) that the pair share, is priceless. Timothy Olyphant also stands out as Danielle’s intimidating porn-producer. In addition, David Daskal from “Average Joe: Hawaii” and comedian Alonzo Boden from “Last Comic Standing” make for a few noticeable cameos.

During the film’s opening montage, that depicts the archetypal antics of high-school and the divisions between jocks and nerds, David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure” plays. This perfectly chosen song is merely foreshadowing to the additional top-quality music to come. At a captivating moment in the plot, Matthew has a choice to either succumb to the fact that he is a nerd and live life by the book, or throw his inhibitions to the wind. This is the precise moment where Matthew launches his movement from zero to hero, and it is accented perfectly by David Gray’s “This Year’s Love.” Also, the uses of The Verve’s “Lucky Man” and The Who’s “Teenage Wasteland” are unforgettable. The Girl Next Door truly possesses a soundtrack that, with each song, liberates the mind and unshackles the heart.

The integration of the Uncle Sam poster, the shift from briefs to boxers, and the continuous homage and established parallels between the lead protagonist and JFK are all tactful tidbits that add to the picture’s splendor. In fact, every individual scene that this movie contains borders on brilliance. I just wish Greenfield would have focused one-minute more at the close on the romance and less time on the progress of the sex-tape.

At its shell, it is a perverted rated-R movie, with the spirit of a PG-13 romp—on the same page as the American Pies; but at its core, it is a fine coming-of-age romance that radiates a desire to be spontaneous and carefree. No matter what your mood, The Girl Next Door will lift you up and impart the importance of unconditional love.

The Girl Next Door is the ultimate teen movie. It provides numerous incidences of knee-slapping laughter; yet, it encourages being acutely aware of the world’s surroundings and ignoring the temptations of superficiality in order to find love. Ever since I first saw this movie in 2004, I have had a crush on it—a crush that I can’t imagine ever fading. The Girl Next Door is, by all means, highly recommended. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Movie Review: War of the Worlds (2005)

United States, 2005
U.S. Release Date: 6/29/05
Running Time: 1:57
Rated: PG-13 (Violence, frightening images)
Cast: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto

Director: Steven Spielberg
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Colin Wilson
Screenplay: Josh Friedman and David Koepp, based on the novel by H.G. Wells
Music: John Williams
Studio: Paramount Pictures

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In years past, Steven Spielberg has helmed a boatload of gems. Very rarely is an unfavorable film added to his extensive filmography. With War of the Worlds—a remake of H.G. Wells’ sci-fi classic, the special effects, human drama, and brooding intensity compensate for any missteps that the happily-ever-after ending hastily takes. Even though War of the Worlds is neither a gem nor an unfavorable feature, it is still one loud and riveting ride.

One morning, crane operator Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) returns home from a long shift to greet his ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), and pre-teen daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning). It is Ray’s weekend to have the kids. Ray has not had a good standing relationship with his children for quite some time, but that changes once a series of fierce lightning storms result in the surfacing of massive alien tripods. After evading one of the tripods, which have the capacity to dematerialize a human-being, Ray quickly gathers his offspring and makes a mad dash for Boston to meet his ex. Meanwhile, the tripods are roaming the Earth and decimating anything and everything in their paths.

Despite his recent pitfalls with the press, Tom Cruise is back—in a film where one and all can forgive him for constantly professing his love for Miss Katie Holmes, openly spreading the Scientology word, and profusely jumping on Opera’s furniture. Cruise performs on par with his previously shown aptitude as the uninvolved-turned-attached father. Although, it is difficult to pass Cruise – New York Yankees hat, jeans, and all – for a blue-collar worker, considering he has such a metrosexual head on his shoulders. Nonetheless, Cruise still belongs on the pedestal as one of this summer’s biggest action stars.

At Cruise’s side, Justin Chatwin (who Steven Spielberg previously cast in his TV mini-series “Taken”) fairs well as a typical disgruntled teenager. Spielberg’s utilization of Chatwin should serve as a stepping stone for him to move on to bigger and better things. Likewise, Dakota Fanning cries, screams, and hyperventilates quite convincingly. Bar-none, Fanning is one of the finest child actor available; here, her talent is a tad underused.

In addition to the core family of characters, Tim Robbins executes his role as a barn-laden ambulance driver with his expected vim laced with eeriness. Morgan Freeman also assists in the production by providing the opening and closing narration—making War of the Worlds the second theatrical release of 2005 (alongside of March of the Penguins) to feature Freeman’s voice, but no face.

Spielberg’s direction is as flawless as ever. Exactly how he incorporates the ILM technology is mesmerizing. From the initial instances where the “tripods” appear, to the concluding wonderment of the “red wheat,” Spielberg conveys oomph unlike any other—constantly elevating the level of suspense and suffocating the audience from scene to scene. However, with his faithful-to-the-novel ending, where the tension abruptly subsides, he falls into the snake-pit of convention.

War of the Worlds is wrapped up a little too quickly—enough to leave both an exceedingly saccharine and sour taste in the mouths of the moviegoers. Instead of rewriting an ending and taking the road less-traveled, screenwriters David Koepp and Josh Friedman allow their script to plummet into clichés and emit a bulk of artificial emotions. This is heartbreaking, because when War of the Worlds reaches its climax, it is on the verge of being outstanding.

War of the Worlds may be a slight comedown – with its conclusion – for Spielberg, but it is still a blockbuster motion-picture that deserves to be seen. On the whole, War of the Worlds is a big-budget summer hit that will make you both not regret withdrawing a few bucks from your wallet and forget that you are even wearing a watch. (*** our of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005