“I can only see the world as it should be. And when it is not, the imperfection stands out like the nose in the middle of a face. It makes most of life unbearable. But, it is useful in the detection of crime.”
Kenneth Branagh’s slickly produced take on Agatha Christie’s most famous novel is filled with shots of sweeping grandeur but what lies beneath is disappointingly bland. Branagh invests some time getting beneath Poirot’s magnificent whiskers, exploring the way an obsessive need for perfection informs his skill as a detective. The remainder of the characters are merely sketches, providing the fantastic ensemble cast little to do with just a few scenes apiece. Presumably intended to capitalise on Sherlock Holmes’ return to popularity, the film works best as a character study of Poirot and the moral quandary he must resolve. However, it still relies on its central mystery, a whodunnit that unfolds poorly with excessive exposition and an unsatisfying reveal peppered with flashbacks to provide information not previously communicated.
director: Tim Burton, Mike Johnson
starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Emily Watson
running time: 76 mins
Ever since The Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton aficionados have been waiting for a return to his quirky stop-motion world. That’s not quite what Corpse Bride offers, but it does serve as a reassuring sign, along with the recent Wallace and Grommit release from stop-motion masters Aardman, that the art form still has life (and more than a little death) in it yet.
The film retells a classic Ukrainian folklore tale of a young man named Victor Van Dort [Johnny Depp] whose marriage to Victoria Everglott [Emily Watson] has been engineered by their parents to save the two families. Victor is a well meaning but utterly inept chap who, having discovered Victoria is in fact the girl of his dreams, gets cold feet after embarassing himself at the wedding rehearsal. Running off into the woods, through a “grave misunderstanding”, he accidentally marries the Corpse Bride [Helena Bonham-Carter] instead. Finding himself trapped in the underworld, he must fight his way back to the land of the living to be with his true love.
The voice acting in this film is first class, but what really makes it special is that despite a cast of big-name actors (including a host of Burton regulars), none of them are recognisable. We are not treated to the usual Madagascar-esque mediocrity where actors play themselves as is so common when A-list actors find themselves working in animated features. Rather, one would not even notice Depp’s presence as the lead were his name not thrust upon the screen. This anonymity serves incredibly well in avoiding detracting from the characters and the style.
Visually beautifully macabre, the animation itself is flawless in its fluidity, and seems so smooth that one could often mistake it for a digital creation (indeed it looks far better than most of this year’s lacklustre digital fare). The designs are inimitably Burtonesque with awkwardly skewed architecture, gangly limbs and big expressive eyes. However the characters themselves seem utterly two-dimensional, with the possible exception of the Corpse Bride herself, eerily alluring to the point where we find ourselves hoping Victor will stay with her since she stands out from a slightly bland canvas. This being a kids movie, the question of necrophilia is thankfully left alone, settling for a tender approach to Victor and the Corpse Bride’s tragic situation. Meanwhile the dark humour follows the traditional mix of slapstick for the youngsters and wry satire for the more mature audience members, succeeding admirably on both counts.
Danny Elfman’s decent musical numbers, while much improved upon arriving in the land of the dead (where the visuals are infused with more warmth too), lack the colourful and charismatic composition that made his offerings in Nightmare so memorable. Indeed, this feeling permeates much of the proceedings, as everything which made the last outing so energetic here feels competent but somehow muted. It’s the sort of family film that Disney will be very happy to have produced but will leave Burton fans a little disappointed due to their understandably high expectations and the undeniably good but altogether safe result.
director: Tim Burton
starring: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Deep Roy
running time: 107 mins
Tim Burton is the perfect man to helm a new version of one of Roald Dahl’s best loved novels and while this offbeat film will certainly not stick to people’s expectations, Depp’s remarkably original portrayal of Wonka will startle and captivate in equal measures. The fourth outing for the pair is as delirious an adventure as ever, though it will irritate some as much as amuses others.
Legendary chocolatier Willy Wonka [Johnny Depp] is now a recluse but has announced that he will allow five children the opportunity to tour his gigantic factory. To win they must find one of five golden tickets that have been hidden inside his chocolate bars. Charlie Bucket [Freddie Highmore] is desperate to find a golden ticket and discover the secrets that lie behind the factory gates…
Burton’s restrained opening reel introduces us to the simple Bucket family and the director masterfully elicits audible gasps of disappointment and delight from viewers and Charlie fails to and eventually finds the much sought after final golden ticket. The director’s zany colourful style fills the screen once we enter the factory with all the subtlety of a Las Vegas stageshow. A boat sequence screams of theme park ride tie-in, while we sample Wonka’s nonsensical sugary delights.
With his plum velvet jacket and purple surgical gloves, we are shown an eccentric, quirky, and slightly unfriendly Wonka as Depp delves far deeper into the character’s psyche than Gene Wilder’s incarnation. “I don’t care,” Wonka responds flatly as one of the brattish kids attempts to introduce herself. Burton and Depp let us see what makes him tick so we can understand what turns someone into such a reclusive genius, utilising several new additions to the story in the form of flashbacks to his childhood and relationship with his father (apparently a recurring theme with Burton after Big Fish). Depp probably suggested Highmore for Charlie, having worked alongside the talanted young actor in Finding Neverland. His Charlie is simple but pleasant and open; he is the audience’s mesmerised wide eyes inside the factory.
I like Danny Elfman but he does rather run riot over the soundtrack with a series of outlandish Oompa Loompa songs that frankly seem disjointed and out of place. However the brash songs, when choreographed with a brilliantly deadpan Deep Roy playing every one of the little folk, do grow on you.
Watching from the vantage of a hovering glass elevator as the unfortunate children leave the factory after being taught their sticky lessons is a magical moment of Dahl whimsy. Like Dahl, Burton stresses that these are awful kids but blames their parents with a stern warning for his adult audience. And this is the film’s successful dichotomy: the focus on Wonka’s character is an intriguing approach for older viewers while retaining enough of the inimitable Dahl magic to delight the core audience of children.
director: Gore Verbinski starring: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Pryce running time: 143 mins rating: 12
“This is the day you will always remember as the day you almost caught Captain Jack Sparrow!”
Quite frankly I was horrified at the though of Disney cashing in by taking a genre that has already been done to death (worse still, a theme park ride), and just pouring a massive budget into a movie. Well, I’m now quite happy to swallow down every bad word and thought I previously held regarding Pirates as the film that restored my faith in over-the-top blockbusters after a disastrous summer of cinema. While the story itself is all good-natured fun, it is undeniably Depp’s incredible charismatic performance that both steals the show and raises the film to a different level.
Jack Sparrow [Johnny Depp] is a roguish scoundral arrested for his lifelong series of crimes and threatened with execution. But after another band of plundering pirates ransack the town and kidnap the governor’s beautiful daughter Elizabeth [Keira Knightley], Jack finds himself liberated by his former captor, apprentice blacksmith Will Turner [Orlando Bloom] who needs Sparrow’s help to steal a ship and rescue his true love…
Verbinski’s direction always oozes atmosphere, genuinely creepy in parts but deftly lightening the tone with humour that keeps the film suitable for children, although not the very youngest. This atmosphere is hugely assisted by the film’s memorable soundtrack and beautiful cinematography, and of course the occassional snippets from the ride’s anthem, “Yo ho! Yo ho! A pirate’s life for me!”
The acting is all up to par, although some performances are certainly more noteworthy than others. Orlando Bloom’s hero wins over the audience to begin with, but is never terribly charismatic, especially since he is so often placed alongside Depp. Meanwhile Keira Knightly looks suitably stunning, but rather than smouldering in her role, her love for Will Turner is so rigidly and reservedly portrayed that it is never really believable that he would go through such peril for her. That said, her strange scene on the island with Sparrow does change our previous perception as she loosens up. Geoffrey Rush overplays his role as pirate captain with relish and produces and astoundingly intimidating performance.
But of course the star is always Depp’s Jack Sparrow. Whether he’s the swashbuckling action hero or stepping off a sinking ship (one of the finest character entrances I can remember) it is impossible not to love him. He embraces the role so fully that even when just walking he makes the role entirely his own (as my cousin tactfully pointed out, only Depp could walk quite like that without coming off as gay!). If anything he’s almost too good, as even in the opening when we should side with Turner, we never really want Jack to get caught. An impossible-to-dislike anti-hero, it’s Sparrow who always keeps things interesting. “I’ll die for her!” proclaims straight-laced hero Turner; “Oh good!” responds Jack with a wicked grin.
The special effects are of a high quality throughout, especially the very fluidly animated skeletons (will avoid giving too much away here) that appear just as the story seems to become dull. However, they never really feel groundbreaking in the same way as Gollum last year, but then in comparison to this summer’s Hulk, there’s no comparison. They manage to be suitably scary without becoming too comically cartoonish.
Pirates does fail perhaps from being a touch overlong. The pace does begin to drag in the final third, although it has a tidy conclusion. Largely it is the fighting sequences that eventually become a let-down, because although they are adequately choreographed, once it becomes apparent that the pirates will not die, any efforts to battle them seems a rather pointless affair and takes the tension out of these sequences since we know how they must inevitably end. Nonetheless, there are some impressive displays of cinematic swordfighting, especially the duel between Turner and Sparrow early on.
Extravagant and sweeping, Pirates of the Caribbean is an astounding success, and nearly fulfills everything it sets out to do, falling just a little short in its tedious swordfights towards the end, its pace beginning to drag. With good performances, and beautiful cinematography it was set to be a good movie. With Depp’s sparklingly inventive performance it became a great one.