Tuesday 30 August 2016

Out With Old, In With New - The Chocolate Factory

Director Mel Stuart's 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, first published in 1964, has garnered universal acclaim over the past four decades, despite poor box office results and a strong disliking from Dahl himself. The author expressed anger at the film focusing too much on Willy Wonka over protagonist Charlie Bucket, as the title change suggests, as well as numerous other changes from his original source material. In spite of this, it's spirited visual style, memorable songs, and cherished performance from the late Gene Wilder make it a treasured piece of film for many people to this day.

In the early 2000s, further development began of a new adaptation, which Tim Burton later signed on to direct. Acclaimed actor Johnny Depp took the helm as Willy Wonka, in a fresh modern take on the original story that, in spite of some changes of it's own, still fares much closer to the original source material. Depp's Wonka produced polarised results - many disliked his overly eccentric behaviour, whilst many enjoyed his comedic appeal yet subtle genius the character embodies. Either way, when released in 2005, the film earned a solid $475 million globally and, in the eyes of most critics, is a worthy contemporary update of Dahl's classic tale.

Frequently, the films are compared, with the 1971 version usually dubbed the superior adaptation. Gene Wilder himself expressed extreme displeasure towards the 2005 film, calling it "an insult" and slandering Burton's numerous directorial decisions. But is all this bitterness deserved?

The original film maintains a strong appeal for, as previously mentioned, it's charming songs and a great performance from Wilder, but there is still much to love in the 2005 update. Depp's Wonka may be a little too weird at times, but it's an interesting attempt to inject more diversity and quirkiness into the character - and despite his childlike nature, you can see the genius beneath the surface and dedication to what he does. Wilder, good as he was, sometimes lacked the humorous appeal of the character, instead settling for an overly sentimental fatherly figure that ended up pushing Charlie to one side for the main focus, making the young boy's significance dramatically lesser than it was in the original tale

Both films feature some memorable songs, though I lean hugely towards the upbeat, varied musical hits of the 2005 film; Willy Wonka features some poetic songs such as Pure Imagination and The Candy Man, but the repetitious "Oompa Loompa doopidy doo!" songs performed every time a child endures their comedic mishap go from tolerable to beyond irritating. In stark contrast, the Oompa Loompa's in Charlie, played brilliantly by Deep Roy, perform a diverse range of catchy musical numbers with varied lyrics and some fantastic background music by Danny Elfman; catchy is not their only perk, for they also intertwine many comedic lines and some lovely visual gags. Those in Willy Wonka may be likeable for a brief moment, but in the long run, they fail to generate consistent enjoyability. With the Oompa Loompas in mind, it must be said that the aforementioned Deep Roy brings much more wit and finesse to the role than the various actors who portrayed them in Willy Wonka, who donned strange orange makeup and green wigs alongside creepy, eerie voices. I appreciate that this is 1971 and the effects are limited, but regardless, their appearance is just beyond creepy. It's probably just a personal grudge of mine, but I never enjoyed any scenes that they starred in.

Who is the best Wonka? This is the road I hate going down. There is a strong appeal in both Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp's performances, as both are talented actors whose careers clearly demonstrate their ability to play a diverse number of characters. In Willy Wonka, Wilder, again, portrays the character as a fatherly figure, with a somewhat snooty personality, but also one that shows how much respect he demands due to his ingenious ideas. He seems to be wise, knowledgeable, and this is all shown clearly on the surface. However, there is still a comedic, silly personality that occasionally comes forward, albeit in a very calm manner - he spits out a lot of funny lines and expresses his quirky self whilst maintaining composure in most circumstances, even in ones that demand disturbing reactions, which makes his persona all the more amusing.

Much differently, Depp's performance shows Wonka as very childlike and goofy, but you can still see his talent and genius deep down. He lacks any sort of professionalism on the surface, and while this sometimes gets a bit too stupid, he still provides a lot of the films comedic charm. The exploration of a newly crafted backstory, his relationship with his dentist father (Christopher Lee), is a welcome narrative thread, and one that adds a nice touch of heartfelt complexity to what is otherwise a very simple story. I don't find it to be Depp's best performance, but when you compare it to his other roles and see how different he is here, it really exemplifies his remarkable acting talent. The actors of the children hold up well in both editions, though they can be slightly more annoying in Charlie, perhaps just due to their modernized, spoilt attitudes, for a lack of a better term. Protagonist Charlie, on the other hand, is performed equally well in both films by Peter Ostrum (Willy Wonka) and Freddie Highmore (Charlie), respectively.

Both films have a pleasing visual style, with Burton's evidently being a bit more darker and twisted than Willy Wonka, albeit not too much that it becomes overly frightening - much unlike that ungodly random and freaky tunnel sequence from Willy Wonka, which is thankfully adapted into something more visually pleasing and enjoyable in Burton's version. Instead of CGI, this film's chocolate river was crafted with thousands of gallons of an artificial chocolate substance in order to give it a genuinely tasteful appearance, something that Willy Wonka lacked with it's lake of obvious, and rather gross, brown water. These points aside, you can't truly fault the aesthetics in either film, as they both have their own visual palettes that work in their own individual ways.

Charlie is NOT a remake of Willy Wonka - this is something so many people don't grasp even a decade on, and something that is still applied to other adaptations of various stories. Burton and Stuart explored their own vision of what Dahl created, using their own interpretations and directorial traits. Again, Willy Wonka often outshines Charlie in the eyes of many, but for me personally, Charlie offers a much more enjoyable and briskly paced narrative, complimented by some fab music, generally solid performances, and of course a compelling (if sometimes too pale) visual style. Willy Wonka is by no means bad, and of course remains iconic and memorable, but it was never a film I wanted to come back to over and over. However, in hindsight, they both work in their own unique way - simply saying which is better seems too crude. It all comes down to personal preference, and that's why overall reception of many adaptations is an interesting topic.

R.I.P. Gene Wilder

Thanks for reading!

Saturday 20 August 2016

Movie Review - Suicide Squad

In this year's critically mauled Suicide Squad, the eponymous team are gifted the chance of freedom if they can complete a mission to defeat to the sinister spirit Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), whose contempt over humanity has only escalated with its recent downturn. Under the guidance of Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the band of antiheroes are lead on what's ultimately a begrudging quest to save the world for no more than to benefit their own futures, but the journey that follows they soon find could have more of a crucial impact on them than they initially believed.

With an an ensemble like Suicide Squad, much as with Avengers, a crucial thing to focus on is...well, focus itself. You've got so many iconic characters taking the helm in a lineup of starring roles that finding the right way to dedicate time to each one can be tricky; you wanna make it look natural and believable yet ensure everyone gets their fair share of screentime, justifying their existence and a (usually) superb actor's talent. But with this latest DC hit, we can't quite find that balance - for the most part, the plot relies on tired clichés and underwritten villains, who are probably one of the worst traits of the film by far, and an overall inconsistent structure to its narrative results in a number of pointless moments that serve little purpose other than to desperately inject more excitement into what is essentially a boring, scruffily edited antihero flick that reeks of potential.

Jared Leto as the Joker, a major highlight, sure is underused - his role seems to come and go with pretty much no consistency and have no real solid purpose, making almost every scene he appears in entirely pointless; and I'm not trying to be a Ledger-whore and use him to express why everyone else dwindles in comparison, but Leto's interpretation of the role feels like the man having tons of fun with the source material but, unlike Ledger, forgetting about any real potential to craft a character out of it when the novelty wore off. We can blame this same thing on the lacklustre screenwriting, but it has to be said through and through that the Joker really is a bitter disappointment, making it seem as if Leto was bringing the role to life on a school playground and not in a modern day superhero blockbuster; I'm all for a more fun experience and don't expect all to be dark and gritty, but with this, it often sinks into mundane stupidity.

The rest of the cast feel mixed, with Joel Kinnaman standing out as one of the best despite his occasional lack of passion - then again, can you blame him? Will Smith brings a lot of humour to Deadshot, and makes him likeable to be fair, but perhaps more could've been done to explore the bond between him and his daughter which, while effective in some ways, is often dismissed almost immediately as it appears each time, never really picking up much steam until the end - and even then it doesn't feel as effective as it could've done. Whilst Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn does give it her all despite occasionally grating on the ears, making for some fairly good results, it's the others in the form of Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) that come and go with little impact, at least for me, mainly due to cardboard cutout personalities and very little exploration of character motivations - and the fact that all Croc does is stand around and grunt.

Suicide Squad is not a good movie; it's poorly written, edited, and directed, giving us a finished product in the form of an inconsistent mess with abrupt tonal shifts and little to no focus on its own narrative concepts and plot threads. The villain in the form of Enchantress lacks true, passionate motivations to be a convincing antagonist in such a high stakes narrative, and its messy pacing and thinly written characters make it an overall dull watch. Visually, it's got all you'd expect from such a big budget superhero blockbuster (even if some of the CGI looks a bit video gamey), but outside of visual finesse, it's hard to really recommend this to anyone, even the biggest of DC fans.

Saturday 13 August 2016

Movie Review - Finding Dory

Finding Nemo is undeniably the Pixar film fans wanted a sequel to the most, and when such a treat was announced three years ago in the form of Finding Dory, focusing on the much loved Regal Tang sidekick, it was always going to be a hit from the get go. Upon release, it's quickly gained momentum across all territories and becoming the highest grossing animated film in the USA (surpassing Shrek 2 after twelve years, though this is without inflation adjustments) and also the highest earning Pixar film in China. Glowing reviews, as expected, have been awarded, and I think we can see from a mile away that this will lap up all the animated film awards at the start of next year. Normally I'd start this review with a cliché "is this all deserved" question, but the answer is likely evident.

Finding Dory focuses on, well, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) and her continuing struggles to cope with her short term memory loss and problems fitting in following her and Marlin's (Albert Brooks) quest to find his missing son Nemo (Hayden Rolence). As the film begins, glimpses of her past begin to flood her mind, revealing memories of her family and where she originally came from. Eager to act on these flashbacks and find out more about her past, she finds her journeying to the seas of California, inadvertently being capture and placed in aquarium amongst an ocean preservation institute. There begins not only Marlin and Nemo's quest to rescue her, but Dory's own exploration of her history, and realisation that being captured by said aquarium may actually be a benefit to her goals after all.

Finding Dory does a nice job of connecting the story of the original with the newly devised backstory for Dory herself, thus combining them in a manner that seems fluent and legit; not like an awkward retcon with a number of contrivances. It's also refreshing that whilst Dory is the central character, Marlin and Nemo aren't awkwardly shoved to one side for the majority of the film and, in spite of some pacing issues, everything is balanced in a way that explores different locations and character plot threads in a well structured fashion. The lineup of new characters includes Kaitlin Olson as near sighted whale shark Destiny, Ty Burrell as beluga whale Bailey, and Ed O'Neill as bitter red octopus Hank, most of whom link to Dory's past in ways that are revealed as the film goes on, forming interesting yet not over the top plot twists. Each character has their own loveable personality and, much as with Marlin and Nemo, they are balanced nicely into the overall plot and so the talent of their passionate voice actors and their vivid personalities aren't wasted one bit.

The animation won't have the same impact as it did with Finding Nemo, but it upholds Pixar's quality standard that we've come to expect, with beautiful rendering and fluidity both above and below the aquatic environments. It never leans too much towards excessive realism, combining i's believable textures with a vibrant artistic style that matches its predecessor, bolstered by the technical improvements that naturally come with the past decade. The voice cast inject plenty of life into each character, particularly DeGeneres as Dory, bringing a more emotional side to her personality that, again, combines well with her development from the original - the lineup of newcomers are also humourous and entertaining in a number of ways. Ignoring some pacing blips, Finding Dory is otherwise perfect, and undeniably close to being my favourite Pixar flick to date.

The film also shows alongside Pixar's latest short Piper, telling the story of a sandpiper trying to overcome its fear of water. This also ranks as quite possibly my favourite Pixar film in the category shorts, thanks to the stellar animation and adorable narrative.

Saturday 6 August 2016

Cool Comets

Comets, asteroids, and meteoroids - defining the true difference between these three celestial bodies is still puzzling to this day for many. The main traits that separate each object is that asteroids are large enough to be considered minor planets (orbiting the Sun) whilst meteoroids can be as small as one meter in diameter and drift through space in elliptic orbits around the Sun - they are known as meteors or shooting stars when they enter Earth's atmosphere and vaporise, visible as a white streak of light in the night sky; interestingly, meteor is only the term used for the light visible in such an event, not when referring to the rock itself. Comets, on the other hand, are large, icy chunks of rock that have enormous orbits of their own - some can pass through the Solar System every couple of hundred years, some every few thousand, and some speculated to be every several million years or so.

When comets pass by the sun, their icy surface heats up, creating an enormous, dusty outer shield known as a coma - this can expand to millions of miles in diameter, and the Sun's radiation and solar wind then generates a tail of ice and dust that can stretch to similar lengths. The beauty of this has lead to a number of comets being documented over history which have stood out in the night skies - all of which have boasted different sizes, orbital lengths, and brightness intensities. Let's have a look at some in yet another random blog post...

The Great Comet of 1811

Of course only existing in sketches and texts, The Great Comet of 1811 is also without a fancy title - maybe because Honoré Flaugergues, its discoverer, doesn't have the easiest to pronounce of surnames. Whatever. It was discovered of March that year whilst it was drifting around 251 million miles away from the Sun - in the former constellation of Argo Navis, which has now been divided into three separate constellations and whose many stars are no longer visible due to changes in Earth's axis over time.

In the build up to its September 1811 perihelion, the comet's visibility varied due to its altitude and varying evening lighting conditions. But once its perihelion did arrive, it was documented as amazing sight, illuminating the sky for around 260 days; a record held until the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. Brightness aside, one of the most notable traits of the 1811 Comet was its size - the nucleus was 18-24 miles across supposedly, but its coma was thought to have been over 1 million miles across; notably larger than the Sun. Holy gravy.

Its orbital period has been calculated at around 3000 years or so, but an exact return date or even rough estimate in terms of what year isn't truly known due to the little understanding we have of its orbital patterns. Based on this data alone, it of course won't return until the year 4800; none of us alive today will get to see just how amazing it truly was.

Great January Comet of 1910

Quite possibly one of the brightest documented comets in human history, and certainly the brightest of the 20th century, this comet was also dubbed the Daylight Comet for reasons that may seem fairly obvious by now. It was discovered in January 1910 (orly?) by many observers, though various disputes arose as to who truly discovered it first, and no specific person is really credited with such an accolade.

The comet brightened at a sudden rate and entered its full perihelion by January 17 - at nightfall, it outshone Venus which, aside from the full Moon, is otherwise the brightest object in the night sky. It was also easily visible during the day to the unaided eye; something that has seldom been a trait of many of even the brightest of the great comets since. Little was documented regarding its potential size or tail length, and while its orbital period was roughly estimated at around 60,000 years, an estimated return date can never be predicted due to potential shifts in orbital patterns over such a large timeframe. Then again, with an orbital length like that, I suppose nobody really cares about such a thing.

Interestingly, 1910 was also the year Halley's Comet made its return (as predicted), having previously flown through the Solar System in 1835. As a result, the Daylight Comet was often mistaken for Halley at first glance, and came as shock to many people due to its incredible brightness and dramatic tail curvature in February, following its perihelion. However, Halley eventually made its return in April, by which time the Daylight Comet had faded from view and was long gone. As previously said, while it isn't one of the most documented ones of all time, it holds the record for being one of the brightest ever studied; one has to admire the beauty that can be generated in the skies by what is essentially an icy chunk of rock floating through space.

Comet Hale-Bopp

Named after its discoverers Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp, Comet Hale-Bopp is quite possibly the most renowned comet in recent history, and undeniably the most widely observed. It was discovered in 1995 at a distance of some 670 million miles (7.2 AU) from the Sun; Hale and Bopp had spent much of their time searching for comets with little success, but shortly after forwarding their discovery to Central Burea of Astronomical Telegrams, it was confirmed that their findings were that of a new comet.

The nucleus itself is between 25-50 miles in diameter and, much as with the 1811 Comet, Hale-Bopp also had an enormous coma: believed to be around 3.5 million miles in diameter, with a sodium tail that stretched for just over 30 million miles. Such a size and eventual brightness as it heated up on approach made it visible to the naked eye by May 1996, and its full perihelion began on April 1, 1997 - its magnificent presence in the night sky lasted for a for a record 18 months, easily surpassing the 260 day record previously held by the 1811 Comet. Even the most heavily light polluted skies could not obstruct it from general viewing; every single star except Sirius was dimmer, and it could be seen long before the sky even got pitch black.

Hale-Bopp was no longer visible to the naked from December 1997 onward - its orbital period is calculated at around 2500 years, and so it is predicted to return around the year 4300 or so. A shame for the those who missed it, including myself (I was 2 years old, so I don't remember even if my parents did show me), but it lives on as an amazing part of history.

Halley's Comet

Perhaps one of, if not the most well known comet of all time, Halley's Comet, unlike our previous examples, is a short period comet - appearing every 70-75 years instead of every god knows how many thousand. It is also rather small compared to our previous case studies, with its nucleus reaching around 5-10 miles in diameter and the coma around 60,000 miles in diameter. As for its tail, well, that leans much more toward the impressive side - potentially stretching for over 60 million miles, an iconic trait that boils down to solar wind interacting with the ionized particles within the comet's coma. Whatever that means.

Due to its high frequency of visits to the Solar System compared to most comets, Halley has been observed by astronomers for thousands of years, with confirmed documented sightings dating back to the 2nd century. It appeared in England during 1066 and is famously recorded on the Bayeux Tapestry, considered an omen that had an influence on the well known Battle of Hastings. With each return, Halley continued to amaze all those who witnessed it, and many historic images have been preserved over the past hundreds of years as it returned to our Solar System every seven decades. The comet received its name in 1705 after Edmond Halley, who finally calculated its periodicity and orbital patterns - a significant discovery for future research.

Nucleus of Halley, taken by the Giotto probe in 1986.
However, it wasn't until its 1910 approach that the first photographs of the comet could finally be taken - giving us a better look at its presence against the night sky, even if the technology to take such images was still limited at the time. This was the also one of the closest approaches Halley had ever made, being just 13 million miles or so from Earth, and thus was an incredible sight that required no visual aid to behold. In stark contrast, its 1986 appearance was considered one of the worst, due to increased light pollution and the fact that the comet and Earth were on opposite sides of the Sun when it entered the Solar System - its closest approach was 39 million miles away, making it extremely difficult to see in urban locations without the aid of binoculars or telescopes. However, due to the evolution of space travel, the first closeup photos of its nucleus were captured by the Giotto probe - allowing us to gain a stronger understanding of the compounds within it and its overall measurements. With all this in mind, 1986, while a poor year for general viewing, is certainly one of the best for scientific achievements.

Halley will return to us in summer 2061, and is expected to be on the same side of the Sun as Earth this time, creating better viewing conditions. I'll be 66 years old, so assuming nothing goes horribly wrong between now and then, I'll be able to see it - uber hyped without a doubt.

Thanks for reading!