Saturday, July 16, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Other than Revenge of the Sith, this has been a pretty lackluster summer movie season. However, things may be turning around. Last week, I saw a sneak preview of The Island, which was surprisingly good. Michael Bay isn't a director I'm usually a fan of, but this is by far his best film, featuring not only great photography and action sequences, but also some really interesting plot stuff, as well as solid acting from Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson. I really respect Bay's visual sense, particularly when shooting Dijmon Honshu's character, I feel like Dijmon must have slipped him some money because he's shot in an unbelievably cool way.

And after seeing that, I knew that over the next two weeks, two of my favorite directors would be bringing out new films. On July 22, Richard Linklater's new Bad News Bears drops and yesterday I saw the new film from Tim Burton, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Now, the one thing these two films have in common is the fact that I really have to question what each of these directors is doing. For two people with such unique artistic voices, it seems like a waste of talent to remake anything, let alone family films from the 70s. But I respect the two of them enough that I'll see anything they put out, and these two films are no exception.

So, after seeing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I'm left with sort of a mixed feeling. I can see why Burton would want to make the film, because it's an incredible visual showcase, but it's also the one film where the criticism frequently leveled against him, that he's merely a visual showman with no storytelling ability, may be true. This is a film that's basically an hour long jaunt through a visual wonderland, bookended by some marginally developed story.

The film is reduced to the level of pure cinema, just music and visual, quite frequently. In a mainstream Hollywood film, this sort of narrative abstraction is quite admirable. Burton succeeds in making a film where the narrative consists solely of a tour of visual spectacle. The whole tour of the factory consists of showing us a room, and then a spectacular act of violence directed towards a child. I love the enjoyment the film lets us take in the suffering of the children. Sure, they're set up as unlikable characters, but you don't frequently see kids eaten by squirrels, without any consequences whatsoever.

The thing I love about the film is the visuals. Burton's two most recent films, Planet of the Apes and Big Fish, did have some interesting visual stuff going on, but they weren't particularly 'Burton.' This film is definitely a return to the visual excess of films like Beetlejuice and Batman Returns, this film is more visually centered than anything else in Burton's career. It reminds me a lot of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, in the way that it's about this wacky guy going through a series of visually spectacular moments.

The environments in the film were incredible looking. I particularly loved the TV room, and those great sunglasses, as well as the cartoon-techno excess of the gum room. Another really cool visual moment was the puppet intro to the factory.

The other person who returned with this film is Danny Elfman. Elfman is one of my favorite film composers, and in Burton's best films, his music is integral to making the film work. His scores for Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns are arguably the two best film scores ever written, fully integrated into the storytelling. The ending sequence of Batman Returns is operatic, relying solely on visuals and music to tell the story. And of course there's his phenomenal work on Nightmare Before Christmas, where he may deserve even more credit than Burton for making it such a great film.

Sadly, Elfman has been, quite frankly, sucking lately. His work on Spider-Man was nonexistent, and Hulk wasn't much better. His score made absolutely no impact on the viewer, and Planet of the Apes and Big Fish weren't much better. When you hire a composer as great as Elfman, his work should be brought front and center, not used as merely background accompaniment.

Luckily, with this film, his music is spotlighted right from the beginning. His opening cue is phenomenal, with great choral bits and the nice integration of some crazy electronic sounds. It's his best work for Burton since Mars Attacks! And once we get into the factory, Elfman really steps into the spotlight, with the crazy songs he writes for the Oompa Loompas. These songs harken back to Elfman's days in the rock band, Oingo Boingo, but move through all sorts of musical styles. My favorite is the folk song style number done when Violet is put down the garbage chute, but all the songs are great. Elfman needs to do another musical, he's a musical genius.

These musical sequences provide Burton with some of the best visual material in the film. He does some cool Busby Berkley allusions, including one really cool shot where the camera is down a chute and people are rotating around above it, creating a reverse Busby. I really liked the use of one actor to portray all the Oompa Loompas, the effects there are seamless, and make everything seem really surreal. These musical sequences were definitely the highlight of the movie.

Sadly, while the oompa loompa effects were seamless, the film was too reliant on CG set pieces. The opening sequence was pretty solid CG, but you could still tell it was CG and that took me out of the movie. If you compare that factory press sequence to the one that opens Pee-Wee's Big Adventure or Edward Scissorhands, I think it's obvious that sometimes is better to create a convincing effect than to have the excess visual spectacle of that sequence. I know 'it's all not not real,' so it's pointless to criticize CG, but that sort of obvious CG takes me out of the reality of the film. Similarly, there's some parts during the factory tour that are obvious CG, such as the boat ride bit, and they're much less visually dazzling than the sets.

I guess the problem here is that the CG is being presented purely as visual spectacle, so you're forced to examine the irreality of it, whereas in something like Revenge of the Sith, the CG is used in service of a narrative, so you're consumed in the narrative and accept the CG as a part of the world. I still feel like even in the best CG, there's something a bit artificial about it. A well designed model is better than the best CG, look at the space battle in Return of the Jedi, or all of Blade Runner, a film that looks so real, a reality that, at least today, could not be matched in CG.

But, on the whole, this is still one of the most exciting visual films I've seen in a long time. It always offers you something new and interesting to look at, and the sets are nicely integrated into the film's thematic development, notably with the Buckets' house. One of the coolest visual moments was when Wonka's father moves his house out of a block and into the middle of nowhere. That's one of those classic moments that makes no sense in real world terms, but somehow works.

The actual plot of this film is Burton going back to his classic theme, the outsider struggling to come to terms with society. Wonka lives on his own in a castle atop a town, much like Edward Scissorhands. The narrative structure here is also drawn from Edward Scissorhands, with Wonka flashing back to his experience with his father over the course of the narrative, in the same way that Edward did.

The difference between this film and his best work is that each of those films did something different with the outsider theme. Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns tell almost identical stories, but with totally different tones and generic signifiers. Factory just presents the classic theme, without going any further or developing it in any new way.

I think it's difficult for artists who have pet themes to create new films, because people have certain expectations of what they should be. I criticized Big Fish and Planet of the Apes because they weren't 'Burton' enough, but here I'm saying that Factory is just Burton on autopilot, so it's nearly impossible for him to find the right balance. I think it's same criticism that Lynch got on Mulholland Dr. or Wong Kar-Wai on 2046, they're just going back to the same themes and visual motifs, without developing them further. Is this film just Burton doing Burton, as MD is Lynch doing Lynch?

The problem with Factory is that it just has no substance. The character conflicts are only marginally developed, and the ending seems a bit trite. That's because so much of the film focuses on the purely visual, and those are by far the best moments. So, the question this film raises is, are great visuals and music enough to make a great film? I would argue in this case, it makes a good film, but not a great one.

Most films have the opposite problem, they have a competent story, but nothing interesting visually. Burton has always been criticized for his lack of storytelling ability, and on his other films, I would stronly dispute that claim. Beetlejuice has phenomenal characters and a really interesting story, and Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns are so thematically rich, you could analyze them for years. If Factory didn't exist within Burton's canon, there'd really be nothing to analyze. Storywise, it's only interesting looking at it from the perspective of auteur criticism.

And, this is a film where nearly everyone going to see it already knows what happens, the joy is purely in seeing how things happen, and since there's not much story, the how is all in the visual. The story itself is designed to be a visual showcase, so from the moment he chose this project, Burton was basically destined to make a film that's solely a visual experience.

The question this film leaves is, can a film be successful solely as a visual creation, with minimal narrative or thematic substance? The answer I would give is yes, but without those things a film can never be truly great. A film needs to have both a story, or at least thematic issues or character development, and interesting visuals to be a great film. Burton has made a really fun movie that's visually dazzling, but it's not a great film. Burton's problem right now is that he's done so many variations on the same theme, it's tough to come up with a new approach, yet when he branches out, his films don't feel 'Burton' enough. It's definitely a conundrum. The stop motion film, Corpse Bride, definitely has potential, but Burton's only co-directing. However, he didn't direct The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it's still phenomenal, if Corpse Bride is half as good, it'll be Tim's best film since Ed Wood.

If I was to advise Tim, I would say his next live action film should be a musical based on an original story he creates, with music by Danny Elfman. The best moments of Charlie are the songs, both musically and visually, so why not go all out, and create something as visually crazy as Nightmare, but in live action, and fully integrating the songs into the plot. Maybe that would be the best way to keep developing his favorite themes, and still create a very new, fresh film.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Zooropa: At the Crossroads of Rock's Future

I listened to U2's Zooropa today, their second best album, behind only their masterpiece Achtung Baby. Zooropa is interesting because despite its brilliance, it's the only U2 album not to yield a hit single. Your average person would recognize stuff off of almost all their other albums, but Zooropa has no songs that make it big in the cultural mainstream, nothing you'd hear on the radio. However, that doesn't mean it's not great, I would argue Zooropa represents a reach into a new world of music, creating a new type of sound, a sound that could have defined the 1990s, but sadly never made the cultural impact it deserved to make.

Throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s and into the 80s, there were constant innovation and evolution in terms of what rock music could do. The 50s started rock and roll, and it matured in the 60s, with the album rock masterpieces of The Beatles. In the 70s, prog and the heavy, blues rock sound of Led Zeppelin represented steps forward in creating a new rock sound. This excess was countered by the minimalism of the punk scene. In the 80s, hair metal and synthesizers, regardless of your opinions on them, created a unique new sound.

However, there's nothing I would consider the 90s sound. You could call a song very 80s or very 70s, but I'd hesitate to call any rock very 90s. There's some bands who you could definitely identify with the early 90s alternative sound, your Pearl Jam or Red Hot Chili Peppers, but I don't think there was anything that was as culturally pervasive as in previous decades.

As the 90s began, U2 released Achtung Baby, an album which, at the time, was praised for its bold leap into a new type of sound. Listening to the album today, the leap doesn't seem that big, Achtung Baby is an album of fairly conventional songs with the well chosen incorporation of some electronic sounds, along with slight dance influence. I think it's one of the best albums ever made, nearly every song is a work of genius, and could have served as a single. Acrobat and Ultraviolet, my two favorite U2 songs, both hail from this album.

However, I don't think Achtung Baby is that radical. The album that followed it, Zooropa, is the massive leap that Achtung Baby was purported to be. If each decade is to be defined by new leaps in music, I would argue that Zooropa should have been that leap for the 90s. It features songs that are liberated from traditional chrous/verse structure, frequently jumping between different sections that could be considered equally chorus worthy. For example, on 'Lemon,' there are three distinct sections of the song, one in which Bono sings "She wore lemon...," another in which he sings "Midnight, it's where the day begins," and then a third part in which some other guy speak-sings "Man paints a picture, a moving picture..." So, all these pieces are combined with a an amazing electronic loop and some cool guitar stuff.

So, this song is in someways a throw back to prog rock, and Pink Floyd's electronic rambling songs. However, it uses much more repitition than the frequently improvisatory Floyd, and I think that's where the dance music influence comes in. What the song does is take a bunch of cool elements and combine them on rotating loops, just like a dance song would. This is evident on 'Numb,' which is a driving vocal loop by The Edge, with the chorus from Bono coming in over the top.

I'd consider this rock music made with dance rules the lost music of the 90s. This was the new sound, the bold step forward that could have been the reinvention of rock for the 90s. U2's Pop was noted for their embrace of dance music, but I would argue that's actually a step back towards more traditional song structures and anthemtic music. While I love the album, it's got a lot more traditional song structures, and even the song called 'Discotheque' isn't that dance driven.

As time has passed, the 90s alternative movement has basically disbanded, and rock has been totally displaced as the dominant form of mainstream music. Your average person hasn't heard a song by Radiohead, despite the massive critical acclaim for their albums. And each new 'it' band, like The Strokes or The White Stripes, have some hit songs, but generally speaking don't make a huge cultural impact. Part of the reason for this is that nearly every band out now is a throwback to something in the past. A huge number of bands out now draw influence from the 70s New York indie scene, generally speaking, bands seem to be reinventing stuff from the past, rather than creating something new. This is one of the primary reasons for the 'death of rock,' hip hop is actually doing new things, while rock is just reliving its history. Now, this isn't every band, but there's definitely more focus on updating the past than creating something completely new.

Now, there's definitely a place for giving respect to the past. One of my favorite albums ever, Daft Punk's 'Discovery' is an update of music from the 70s and 80s to fit today's style. It works brilliantly, and I would argue is actually a new sort of music, born out of the ashes of 70s and 80s stuff. This is different from The Strokes who are just doing songs in the style of 70s rock, not updating it in any way to reflect the changes in music since.

Even U2 have retreated from their push to create a new type of music. On 'All that You Can't Leave Behind,' they returned to the anthemic rock they were known for during the 80s, and despite the fact that it's a great album, 'How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb' is not a major step forward either. Now, sometimes making a great song is enough, but when a band makes such bold steps forward as U2 did on Achtung and Zooropa, it seems counteractive to go backwards. It's like Richard Linklater directing Bad News Bears, he might make a good movie, but I'd rather see him do something original than do something that's been done before.

So, this brings up back to Zooropa, which offers us a view of a new type of rock, a vision that was never realized. Just listening to it, you can hear how different is from other U2 records. The songs are all centered around these driving instrumental loops, and it's the change in the loops that signal shifts in the song's mood more than changes in the vocal. The vocals are just one part of the musical mix, rather than being the central focus. This is evident in 'Dirty Day,' which ends with a vocal loop that repeats so much as to become abstract. You don't hear the words so much as the music in the vocal.

It's interesting to hear the way U2 integrates their previous trademarks into the new style. The title track opens with a traditional Edge delay guitar riff, but it's placed into a swirling electronic environment, with vocal samples serving as the driving element in the song until it reaches a Bono vocal.

And while it is very innovative, it still pays tribute back to the past. Much like Led Zeppelin takes blues and reinvents it for the times, 'Stay (Faraway, So Close)' takes a ballad and places it into a really interesting musical environment. This is my favorite song on the album, and one of my favorite ever, so much so that I watched the movie Faraway, So Close just for its association with the song. Anyway, the vocals are fairly standard, but on the chorus, there's a guitar line following "If the night won't give you up," that's amazing. I'd argue that guitar line is so crucial to the chorus, the song is essentially a duet. It makes the song unique. So, the music becomes just as important as the vocal here, the two are interchangable, I can't imagine the song without that guitar part. Another reinvention takes place on the final track, as Johnny Cash sings 'The Wanderer,' a song notable for its driving electronic loop, and the repeating rhythmic vocals from Cash.

Zooropa is an album that's sadly unappreciated. I think it's because most people still see U2 as the band from The Joshua Tree era, 'Where the Streets have No Name,' being their archetypal song. So, U2 fans aren't fans of this incarnation of the band, and the general public wouldn't pick up a U2 album expecting something radical like this. But, if you give the album a chance, you'll find something incredibly rewarding. 'Lemon' is great partially because it's so completely unique, you've never heard a song like this. The song gave us a vision of what rock could be, but it never really came to pass, electronic music was a bust here, and rock slowly moves toward obsolesence, at least in terms of the cultural mainstream. There might be hit songs, but I couldn't see rock ever having the exclusive hold over popular music it held in the 50s-80s.

However, there is some good news. Recently, I've heard a couple of albums that seem to follow up on the electronic, dance inspired rock that this album promised. United State of Electronica are a bit more dance than Zooropa, but they definitely follow the same dance inspired rock formula, as does Bob Mould's new album, Body of Song, which is a bit more rock, but sounds fresh and new. Then, there's N.E.R.D, who are a bit more hip hop, but a lot of their songs follow up on the promise of Zooropa, which is to dancify a rock song and mix in a bunch of electronic stuff. Listen to 'Lapdance' and you can hear how a traditional rock song is made new through the combination of driving instrumental parts and interesting vocal loops.

So, perhaps it just took ten years for the promise of Zooropa to be realized, and in the near future, we will see this new form of music finally enter the mainstream.