Patrica Neal, R.I.P.

patricia-neal_CUPatricia Neal, best known to Cinefantastique readers for her role in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) passed away yesterday, August 8th from cancer. She was 84.
  Also appearing in a role similar to her character from DAY in STRANGER FROM VENUS (1954), the award-winning stage actor would go on to win an Oscar for HUD (1963).
Married to fantasy author Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) for many years, Patrica Neal had a series of strokes begining in 1965. She managed to overcome the debilitating attacks that affected her speech and ability to walk. Neal soon returned to acting, and would garner another Academy award nomination and three Emmy nominations.

Patrica Neal & Michael Rennie
Patrica Neal & Michael Rennie

Patrica Neal  also appeared in the macbre thriller THE NIGHT DIGGER (1971) and the film adaption of Peter Straub’s novel, GHOST STORY (1981).
However, her role as the widowed mother Helen Benson in DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is likely to be the most remembered, showing an ordinary woman who possesses intelligence, moral clarity and extraordinary bravery.  She trusts her judgement and the word of an alien to brave the military and face down a terrifyingly powerful robot — and thus forestall the end of the world.

James and the Giant Peach: Blu-ray Review

click to purchase
click to purchase
New Blu-ray release offers improved picture and sound quality but little in the way of additional bonus features.

Riding on the delightfully cobwebbed coat-tails of Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, poor JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH was probably predestined to be a disappointment, for what film could possibly live up to that level of expectation? Even with the NIGHTMARE team of director Henry Selick and producers Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi reassembled, it was unlikely that the mad scientist’s lightening would animate a new creation of equal quality.
Sad to say, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH not only failed to meet unrealistic expectations; it was also an under achiever on its own terms. Although a technical marvel of production design, stop-motion animation, and other special effects techniques, the film is felled by annoying characters, flat songs, and a limp screenplay straining to pad a slim story out to feature length. The bottom line is that it lacked the magic that made THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS a joy to watch again and again.
The reason for this becomes clear during the fist act’s live action sequences. The notion that young James became an orphan when a rhinoceros gobbled up his parents is awkwardly handled by depicting the rampaging rhino as a cloud. After that, the film finds its tone; unfortunately, that tone can best be summed up as “annoying.” The live-action scenes of James being mistreated by his aunts, Spiker and Sponge (Joanna Lumley and Miram Margoylyes), are achingly unfunny despite the obvious attempt to portray the campy pair as vile villains of the black comedy variety.
James and the Giant Peach (1996): James with insect palsWhen James escapes from Spiker and Sponge in the giant peach of the title, the film shifts to stop-motion. The transition is smoothly handled, adding an extra level of fantasy to the material. Unfortunately, James’s new friends, a small group of insects, turn out to be almost as annoying as his aunts, especially the brash-talking centipede voiced by Richard Dreyfuss. James himself is a fairly non-descript character, whom the others praise for his cleverness, even when he is doing only what is obvious. His big scene, confronting the rhinoceros that gobbled his parents, plays like a hollow victory, because we can see that he is merely yelling at a dissipating cloud – not the most courageous act of heroism ever recorded on camera.
As if sensing that the third act needs something more, the script throws in a ridiculous scene in New York, where the peach lands on top of the Empire State Building – only for James to be met by his aunts, who have apparently driven beneath the Atlantic ocean in their beat-up old car! What is clearly meant to be taken as a hysterically surreal moment is too obviously an awkward writer’s device, providing an opportunity for the aunt’s to get their come-uppance at the hands of James’s insect friends. But this is par for the course: the entire script feels like an episodic grab bag, with occasional threats and obstacles showing up randomly just to give the characters something to do.
JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH deserves credit for attempting to translate the wicked, semi-scary tone of Roald Dahl’s children’s book to the screen; unfortunately, the attempt fails, creating an odd mix of the whimsical and the weird that feels less like an audacious conflation of contradictory elements than an awkward jumble, a point too often underlined by Randy Newman’s score, which becomes the audio equivalent of someone repeatedly elbowing you in the ribs to remind you how wonderful and amazing all of this is supposed to be. Perhaps Dahl’s combination of childhood fantasies and fears is difficult to realize on screen, but THE WITCHES (1990), directed by Nicolas Roeg, proved that it can be done without diluting either element.

BLU-RAY & DVD DETAILS

click to purchase DVD
click to purchase DVD

Disney’s new special edition 2-disc combo pack (Street Date: August 3, 2010) includes JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH on both Blu-ray and DVD. The picture quality on both is quite nice. Of course, the high-def Blu-ray transfer is superior; however, the picture quality of the 1996 film is not up to the standards of more recent films when transferred to the high-def medium. The result looks very good, but it does not pop off the screen in the same way that the Blu-ray discs own menu features do.
Unfortunately, both discs feature what Walt Disney Pictures likes to call “Fast Play,” which is touted as an “easy start up without using a remote control.” What this means is that, instead of going immediately to the main menu, the disc immediately starts playing promos and trailers for other Disney products, through which you must chapter stop to get to the film you actually thought you were purchasing. This is not so much a problem with the DVD, but it is annoying with the Blu-ray, which has a longer loading time – god forbid you should accidentally push the Eject button midway through the movie, and then have to go through the whole loading process again.
Both discs port over bonus features from the 2000 special edition DVD release: a making-of featurette (actually a promotional puff piece); a trailer; a Randy Newman music video; and several extensive photo galleries, divided up into Concept Art, Puppets, Behind the Scenes, and Live Action. In addition, the DVD includes a trailer for THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, which is not available on the Blu-ray.
The only new feature actually on the Blu-ray disc is a videogame that allows you to earn points by manipulating a rhinoceros to head-butt Aunts Spiker and Sponge. It’s amusing for a minute or two; little kids may enjoy it a while longer. The Blu-ray disc is also BD-Live enabled, which allows you to access more material via an Internet connection to your Blu-ray player.

NOTE: According to the 96% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, my view of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH is clearly in the minority. You can get a second opinion on the film, courtesy of Mike Lyons, by clicking here.

[serialposts]

Fantastic Mr. Fox – Blu-ray Review

True to its title, FANTASTIC MR. FOX is an absolute astonishment of a picture, seamlessly merging the literary sensibilities of author Roald Dahl with the droll, urbanite wit of Wes Anderson.  Ironically, it was the participation of Anderson that initially worried us; the director’s recent films have been polarizing, to say the least, and we found his arch, hyper-finicky visual style in THE LIFE AQUATIC (and especially THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS) to be at odds with the development of any real emotion.  Maybe puppets are Anderson’s preferred medium.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney) a reformed-chicken-thief-turned-columnist lives a safe, if boring, life with wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) and awkward son Ash (Jason Schwartzman).  Tiring of living in a hole (figuratively and literally), Fox enlists the aid of attorney Mr. Badger (Bill Murray) to purchase a grand new abode in a tree located perilously close to the industrial farms owned by Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (the latter, Michael Gambon). The proximity poses too great a temptation for Fox, who is soon breaking the promise made to his wife years ago to abandon his produce-stealing ways.  Enlisting the aid of tree superintendent Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) and Fox’s nephew Kristofferson (Wes’ brother Eric Anderson), Fox embarks on an – at first – stunningly successful round of thievery at the farmer’s expense; soon, however, their luck catches up with them at the hands of Bean, and all the animals in the area pay the price for Fox’s recklessness.
Anderson showed amazing promise with his 1998 debut, Rushmore, because at the center of the film was a carefully observed friendship between a pair of seemingly desperate characters.  Unfortunately, Anderson’s two subsequent efforts – The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – seemed to abandon emotional truth in favor of increasingly fussy cinematics, with both characters and situations existing only as representational ciphers.  The Darjeeling Limited was an encouraging departure, but it felt a bit half-baked, almost as if Max Fischer was attempting a Wes Anderson tribute.  Fortunately, there appears to be something about the medium of stop-motion animation that has brought out a tenderness in Anderson’s work that we haven’t seen in a decade.  All the trappings are still there (the elaborate framing and overlaid inter-titles, the all-around drollery of the humor, Owen Wilson), but here they find themselves at the service of a story that didn’t originate with Anderson.
Roald Dahl has one of the most instantly individual voices in the world of children’s literature.  Dahl, who passed away in 1990, understood that the young people need a bit of darkness in their stories and, until now, only Nic Roeg’s film The Witches has been able to tap into that darkness with success.  In Fantastic Mr. Fox, written in 1970, Dahl created a fanciful universe in which the creatures exist in typical ‘animal’ surroundings but with human attributes – but it is also a world of danger, with the possibility of a violent death at the hands of humans lurking just on the other side of the prose.  The ultimate success of the Fox family isn’t total victory, but merely surviving for another day. 
Anderson captures this underlying theme beautifully; the film is photographed in gorgeous amber hues, evoking fall – a season of death – as well as any film we’ve ever seen.  The particular brand of stop-motion puppetry used for is a bit jarring at first – it hasn’t the well-sanded edges of other stop-motion like Coraline or James and the Giant Peach (interestingly, another Dahl adaptation).  The textures of the individual puppets are a bit rougher, but combined with Anderson’s careful compositions and the superb, erudite vocal work of the cast (Clooney especially is outstanding here, effortlessly conveying Fox’s cocky but ultimately flawed character), they become yet another memorable component of one of 2009’s best films.
Fox’s Blu-Ray (20th Century, not Mr.) is the optimal presentation for the film, with the 1080p picture conveying the myriad colors and textures of the world – and here’s where the use of actual sets, costumes and actors (well, puppets, anyway) comes into play, as these things just can’t be replaced by computer animation. 
The disc also wins in not overloading the viewer with the typical EPK ballast that weighs down so many popular films.  There’s a single, long-form documentary Making Mr. Fox Fantastic (presented, as are all extras, in HD) that can be watched in pieces or as a whole. The documentary goes into the laborious stop-motion process in fascinating detail.  Bill Murray acts as a tour guide for a good chunk of the footage, and it’s great to see him so tuned-in by the process.  We also learn about the impression that Dahl’s home made on Anderson and learn the fate of the actual tree that inspired Fox’s swanky home. 
There’s also a brief but humorous breakdown of the rules of wack bat (which isn’t that much more stupefying than cricket) and the original trailer.  Fox has also taken the increasingly popular route of including a separate DVD edition of the film with each Blu-Ray set (at least in the initial pressings) alongside the more common digital copy.
 Highest recommendation.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Retrospective Film & DVD Review

In retrospect, it should be no surprise that Tim Burton was drawn to Roald Dahl’s novel CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. Burton’s films have tended to focus on what we might call “demented artists” — that is, people with enormous creativity whose imaginative flights of fancy make them seem weird, abnormal, and even, on occasion, dangerous.
Pee Wee Herman, in PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, is an oddly immature adult who seems to live in a childlike world of his own creation. The title character in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is cut off, trapped in his abnormal world (not of his own making); even when introduced to human society, his deformity makes him both an artist and a freak, capable of creating imaginative hair designs but not of sustaining a romantic relationship. ED WOOD’s real-life character is a transvestite film director. BIG FISH’s lead character is a teller of tall tales. Jack Skellington is the mastermind behind Halloween Town’s annual holiday presentation. In BATMAN and MARS ATTACKS, the demented artist role is given over to the villains, who go about their work with viciously gleeful imagination.
In CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, Johnny Depp’s version of Willy Wonka combines elements of Pee-Wee Herman and Edward Scissorhands: he is a creative genius living in a colorful world of his own making, but he is also isolated and lonely — a sort of damaged child hiding in an adult’s body — like Edward, the victim of an abruptly terminated father-son relationship, seen in flashbacks (although in this case the father is played by horror star Christopher Lee instead of the late horror star Vincent Price).
Whereas’ Gene Wilder’s Wonka (in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, was a Trickster — an ambiguous character whose bizarre mood swings always seemed carefully orchestrated, indicating a “method to his madness” — Depp’s Wonka really is half nuts, drifting uncontrollably into flashbacks almost like a cliched Vietnam veteran. Although in other aspects, John August’s script is more faithful to the source than the Wilder movie was, this new approach to Wonka moves the film away from Roald Dahl territory, making it even more clearly a Tim Burton film. (Whether or not that’s a good thing, may be a matter of personal taste.)
Unlike director Mel Stuart with WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCLATE FACTORY, Burton has a handle on the material from frame one, instantly pulling you into the fantasy world and making it seem utterly believable within the confines of the story. Unburdened with as many musical numbers (the Oompa-Loompas still sings, and there is a brief ditty when the Golden Ticket winners first enter the chocolate factory), CHARLIE moves along at a faster clip. If the energy flags somewhat in the latter portions, it is only because the bombardment of colors is so consistently eye-catching, that the viewer’s capacity for wonder is eventually worn out.
Danny Elfman’s score is invigorating from the opening frames (a fanciful view of the chocolate-making process, seen behind the opening credits), and his four Oompa Loompa songs (using lyrics taken from Dahl’s novel) are an amusing amalgam of different musical styles. There is no highpoint here that quite matches Veruca Salt’s “I Want It Now” number, but overall Elfman maintains a much higher and more consistent level than Bricusse and Newly did in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.
The script by John August slightly updates the characters. Mike Teevee is no longer pops cap guns while watching Western shows on television; now he is a videogame addict, blasting away with his joystick. And Violet Beauregarde still chomps gum, she is now an over-achieving child with a Stepford-Mom (played with a perfectly glazed expression by Missy Pyle).
Depp is wonderfully dazed and crazed as Wonka, and Freddie Highmore is suitably sincere as Charlie. David Kelly makes a far more authentic and effective Grandpa Joe than Jack Albertson did (for one thing, Kelly is British). Deep Roy is hysterical as the Oompa Loompas, and Lee does his sinister schtick really well (you’d be screwed up too if your father was Saruman/Count Dooku). Julia Winter is a a splendidly spoiled Veruca, but the original’s Julie Dawn Cole retains the crown as the queen of obnoxious brats.
The film does go a bit soft at the end. Like the previous film version, Burton must wrestle with Dahl’s anti-climactic structure, in which Charlie wins the big prize at the end basically by default (his big achievement is that no terrible fate befalls him on the tour). The John August script adds an extended coda, a sort of sappy paen to family values, in which Charlie helps Willy resolve his father-son issues. It’s all very well-intended, but it carries about as much conviction as the “Bluebird of Happiness” ending to BLUE VELVET. Like David Lynch, Tim Burton is simply better at the bizarre. Making conventional relationships seem sincere may be a bit beyond his reach.

TRIVIA

Before the film’s release, some commentators (including Time magazine) tried to draw comparisons between Willy Wonka and Michael Jackson, suggesting that Johnny Depp’s appearance in the film was inspired by the real-life pop singer. This theory ignored two basic facts: 1) the Wonka character was established long before Jackson took on his bizarre, adult appearance; 2) Depp’s character is clearly another variation on the standard Tim Burton emasculated artist hero, previously seen in everything from PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE to EDWARD SCISSORHANDS.

DVD DETAILS

The double-disc DVD is a decent presentation of the film, but it does leave one wondering why two discs were necessary: the bonus features are nice, but not overwhelming, and there are not that many of them.
There is a nice documentary about the author of the book on which the film is based, titled “The Fantastic Mr. Dahl,” which takes a look at the author’s life and his approach to writing children’s fiction, but does not focus specifically on “Charly and the Chocolate Factory.”
There are a handful of behind-the-scenes, making-of documentaries that are midly interesting and informative. As often happens with DVDs, these “documentaries” are actually little more than promotional films created to sell the movie to audiences, so they tend to be a bit fluffy, offering little in-depth information.
Perhaps the most interesting featue is “Becoming an Oompa-Loompa,” which details how actor Deep Roy played the entire tribe of Oompa-Loompas. Not only did Roy have to learn how to perform all the elaborate action in the film; the sequences also required elaborate and systematic staging so that the computer-generated effects could multiply him into multiple characters in post-production.
Also worth perusing is “Attack of the Squirrles,” which shows how a combination of trained squirrels, animatronic squirrels, and computer-generated squirrels were used to create the sequence wherein spoiled Veruca Salt is determined to be a “bad nut” and tossed down the garbage shoot by the rampaging rodents.
The DVD also features a number of “challenges,” actually simple games for children, such as searching for the Golden Ticket. The deluxe edition of the disc includes a pack of five limited-edition trading cards. Altogether, it is not a bad presentation of the film on DVD, but calling it “deluxe” seems at least a slight exaggeration.