Sunday, December 21, 2014

Catching Up: "Jodorowsky's Dune"

 4 / 5 

Jodorowsky's Dune (available on demand) is a terrific documentary for film lovers that saves its best, most impressive observations for the final few minutes -- observations that reveal why it's Chilean filmmaker's Alejandro Jodorowsky's ill-fated adaptation of the Frank Herbert's novel Dune, not Star Wars, that may be the most influential sci-fi movie of the past 40 years.

Like many of those who worked on Jodorowsky's movie, I've never read Dune.  Though I saw David Lynch's maligned 1984 film version, that was no help -- I still know virtually nothing about the novel's plot, though it's impossible not to be aware of the ways in which Dune inspired a generation of readers.

According to Jodorowsky's Dune, the plot wasn't the point anyway.  The vision was the thing, and in that, Dune was a perfect match for the surrealist, anarchic filmmaker.

Beginning with his early films, little seen but widely admired among film cognoscenti, Jodorowsky's rise from obscurity paralleled the global auteur movement.  Well-represented here by numerous clips, his movies were the kind that make mainstream movie buffs itch: heavily symbolic, saturated with colors and clunky visual effects, they eschewed standard narratives and experimented with the nature of cinema in ways that Hollywood never dared.  The IMDB description of his 1970 film El Topo reads: "El Topo (the mole) claims to be God, while dressed as a gunfighter in black, riding a horse through a spiritual, mystical landscape strewn with old Western movie, and ancient Eastern religious symbols."

I'd like to be the kind of person who appreciates those films; maybe you just had to be there.

Yet, those films attracted ardent fans and propelled Jodorowsky to turn his attention to Dune. Flamboyant, truculent, free-thinking and filled with the sort of self-importance that is simultaneously infuriating and wildly endearing, Jodorowsky's Dune largely lets the filmmaker tell his own story, abetted by interviews with other artists he sucked into his orbit.

Chief among these are artist Chris Foss, designer H.R. Giger, late visual effects pioneer and writer Dan O'Bannon, and Jean ("Moebius") Giruad.

For those who grew up watching sci-fi movies in the 1970s, those names are legend, and if it weren't for Jodorowsky, many of them might never have crossed over into the Hollywood mainstream.

The film itself was a bloated, delusional, extraordinary mess -- a movie so simultaneously brilliantly and poorly conceived that it was doomed to failure.  Jodorowsky's vision was impossible to realize on film (among other problems: the movie would have been about 20 hours long), but got so far into development that a massive "look book" containing a galaxy of visual ideas and completed storyboards was widely circulated around Hollywood studios.

Jodorowsky's Dune uses many of these images to pull together a rudimentary sort of test reel of imagery, from the astonishingly complex shot that would have opened Dune to many of its key action sequences.

Whether or not you know Dune as a novel (or as that ill-fated David Lynch film), it's fascinating stuff for film lovers, and these newly constructed snippets of Jodorowsky's never-made film would be enough to recommend the documentary.

But director Frank Pavich goes a notable step further. Who knows exactly who saw those original Dune look books?  Certainly enough people, Pavich argues, that Jodorowsky's Dune became one of the most widely imitated, visually influential films of the 1970s.

From Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 to Prometheus just a couple of years ago, the work that Giger, Foss, Giraud and others did on Dune seeped into the visual vocabulary of film, and in its final few minutes, Jodorowsky's Dune is revelatory in its side-by-side comparisons of the production designs for Dune and many of the films that went on to define science-fiction.

In that regard, Jodorosky's Dune is a can't-miss film for anyone who loves the movies.  It begins as a routine examination of a lesser-known filmmaker, and ends up making the compelling case that he may be the most imitated and most influential director whose movie never saw the light of a projector.

Viewed Dec. 20, 2014 -- On-Demand


 5 / 5 

Wild begins with the sounds of a woman in distress.  Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is somewhere high in the mountains of California on the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from the California-Mexico border to the U.S.-Canada border.  Strayed has decided to walk most of it, and the distress and anguish she feels as the movie opens have as much to do with her physical state as her mental one.

She has decided to walk not to seek enlightenment, but to obtain release.  As the film, by Canadian director Jean-Marc VallĂ©e and British screenwriter Nick Hornby, gets underway, it proceeds along two parallel paths, telling the linear story of what happens to Strayed along the trail while revealing, slowly, what brought her to the point in her life that bodily suffering would be so vastly superior to emotional turmoil.

Cheryl has found herself so far from any vision she once had of herself that she is lost: Her last name is intentional, self-selected when she divorces from her husband, who has come to her rescue one too many times and cannot live with her anymore.

She wasn't always this way.  Her younger self may have been a little haughty, a tad too judgmental, but only because her mother (Laura Dern) promoted a strong sense of self-confidence.  Her eternally sunny, perpetually chipper mother -- who is well aware of the less-than-ideal state of her life and family -- was the foundation of Cheryl's life; her sudden, grim death at age 45 didn't simply rock Cheryl's world, it destroyed it.

The recitation of the facts leading up to Strayed's 1,000-mile journey may make Wild sound like an earnestly inspirational drama, and while it is undeniably inspiring, that is -- admirably -- not its aim.  Wild goes far deeper into the woods than that.

Deftly balancing gorgeous wilderness photography with satisfying scenes in which Strayed encounters others along her path, Wild is a specific story about a specific kind of grief -- a bone-crushing, soul-piercing grief whose outcome is destructive and tragic.  It descends with a magnificent fury and traps its sufferer.  Wild shows the extraordinary lengths one person goes to to defeat grief's equally extraordinary grip.

Wild is a movie of remarkable clarity, aware of exactly where it wants to head, even in the rare moment it seems unsure of how to get there.  It has a few false steps along the way (particularly its determination to depict some men as leering, sex-addled menaces), but none that distract for more than a moment.  More meaningful and impressive are the moments of sublime fascination, like the wounded fox that may or may not be as real as the fleeting hallucinations of her beloved mother.

While Wild may seem like a one-woman show, in addition to the exquisite, impassioned performance from Witherspoon, it contains some affecting and memorable supporting roles -- not just Dern, an actress whose smiling face always seems to be hiding an unspoken pain, but, in smaller roles, Thomas Sadoski as Strayed's deeply loved ex-husband; and W. Earl Brown as a lonely farmer whose own learnings form the backbone for much of what Strayed discovers herself.

Still, Wild is Witherspoon's movie, and she holds the screen at every turn.  Wild isn't just about her walking on the trail, and the film takes the steel-jawed, ebullient Witherspoon into emotionally stark territory.

Wild gets everything right that last year's All Is Lost got catastrophically wrong.  Strayed's journey is not one of hubris or pride, but of desperate need and intense loneliness.  As she tells another woman she meets along the way, "I feel less lonely out here than I do in the rest of my life."

With a pitch-perfect ending (something more and more movies find harder to pull off lately), Wild is a movie that may be off-putting to some.  It's emotionally brutal -- but also meaningfully specific.  It's Strayed's story, and she's not the easiest of people.  The film steadfastly refuses to make light of her more difficult side, and her behavior toward the end of the film at first surprised me -- and then made me admire her even more.  She may end her walk with more emotional awareness, but she isn't a miraculously changed person.

In that, and in its sometimes wearying physicality and emotional starkness, Wild may not resonate for everybody.  For me, it's the best -- and most affecting -- movie of the year.

Viewed Dec. 21, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Monday, December 8, 2014

"Big Hero 6"

 3.5 / 5 

In ways that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the new Disney animated film Big Hero 6 one bit, I kept thinking back to Scooby-Doo.

Tens of millions of kids who grew up watching Scooby-Doo on Saturday mornings eagerly anticipated the moment when Scooby, Shaggy and the gang would unmask the villain.  They'd have him or her trapped uncomfortably and would remove the mask that had kept the bad guy's identity secret for the previous 20 minutes.  "Farmer Jenkins!" they'd exclaim in surprise, which would leave Farmer Jenkins kicking his feet and muttering with disdain, "You meddling kids!  If it hadn't been for you, my plan would have worked."

There's a moment just like that about halfway through Big Hero 6, when a group of college kids -- led by the young genius Hiro Hamada and his big, cuddly robot, Baymax -- confront the villain who, wouldn't you know it, is wearing a mask.  Finally, they catch him in a corner, rip off the mask and ... oh, you meddling kids!

It's nice to see a Disney movie perhaps unconsciously referencing an animated touchstone that doesn't involve singing princesses or dancing bunny rabbits, though Big Hero 6 goes a few steps further than that and begins doing something unexpected and, for me, a little bit uncomfortable: It reflexively comments on the superhero genre that Marvel Comics, which Disney itself famously purchased in 2009.  This meta-move is both refreshingly engaging and strange -- Big Hero 6 is a genuine hybrid of a movie, a cross between Disney's own animated legacy, its famously saccharine live-action movies from the 1960s, and the pop-culture mega-powerhouse it swallowed up whole.

The Disney parts are borrowed from previous animated movies (an orphaned hero -- here given the quite literal name of Hiro -- and his adorable sidekick), those Kurt Russell movies that took place at Medfield College, and The Love Bug's San Francisco locales, which in Big Hero 6 are reimagined as San Fransokyo, a visually arresting though geographically confusing Pacific Rim megalopolis.  But anyone who grew up watching Herbie cross the Golden Gate Bridge knows what makes San Francisco such a great place for light comedy, and Big Hero 6 knows it, too.  (Hint: It's not the stunning vistas, it's those treacherous hills that lead to white-knuckle car chases.)

The Marvel parts are grafted onto these tropes with surprising ease.  Hiro Hamada, the 14-year-old super-genius, is like Disney's Dexter Riley for the 21st century: Anything he needs to do, he can. Back then, Dexter invented super-invisibility spray; now, Hiro invents a micro-robot so incredibly advanced that within moments of seeing it the founder of a high-tech company offers Hiro "more money than a 14-year-old could imagine." I fully expected Disney to reference its Star Wars acquisition by having Hiro answer, "I don't know, I can imagine quite a bit."

Hiro turns down the offer, and rightly so -- in just a few days, working in his garage, Hiro has created a game-changing technology so advanced it left me wondering why the university he desperately wants to attend wouldn't just have skipped the formalities of classes and given him an honorary doctorate and named a building after him.

Meanwhile Hiro's brother, who soon will face an ending nearly as tragic as Bambi's mom, has invented something of his own, an eight-foot tall Michelin Man-inspired robot named Baymax, whose job is to be a giant, cuddly, fully automated nurse.  Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) is a terrific creation, the personality of Pixar's Wall-E crossed with Eve from the same film.  You see where all this pop-culture self-reflexivity is heading?

While it never once reduces the sheer enjoyment of Big Hero 6, which is an immensely enjoyable and amusing movie, after a while it's hard not to think of the movie as a kind of robot creation itself, with almost every moment or character taken from other movies and animated pop-culture.  It turns in on itself further with an obligatory post-credits scene that exists for no other reason than to give fanboys a guffaw; it's a Disney movie made by, and for, Comic-Con lovers, and there's really nothing wrong with that, except that it leaves Big Hero 6 feeling so much like other things that it never quite feels like itself.  Even Baymax, as wonderfully droll and un-ironically literal as he is (and almost sublime when his batteries wear down), feels somehow familiar.

Big Hero 6 is a triumph of visual design, a skillfully entertaining and brisk joyride that tries to create a new type of animated film for a post-comic-book world but instead feels like the scattered pieces of other movies, comics and TV shows all came scurrying together, much like Hiro's mini-bots, to create something that looks original, even if it really isn't.

Viewed Dec. 8, 2014 -- DWA Theater


Sunday, November 30, 2014


 2.5 / 5 

For a movie about a crime as violent and passionate as murder, Foxcatcher is a strangely detached affair, virtually devoid of emotion but filled with shots of chilly, foggy, icy surroundings.  It's so overloaded with technique that there's no room left for anything else.

At times, director Bennett Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman seem to be aiming for a cynical commentary of the "patriotic" privilege of America's wealthiest citizens.  At others, it's a character study of lonely people isolated by money -- in Foxcatcher, the central characters either have too much of it or not enough.  And in other moments, it's a mildly interesting exploration of the mentally unhinged John Eleuthere du Pont, heir to the chemical company fortune.

In 1996, du Pont shot and killed Olympic wrestling gold medalist Dave Schultz, whose brother Mark had been trained by du Pont at the family's vast Pennsylvania estate.

Though Foxcatcher ultimately leads up to the shocking shooting death, the movie isn't so much about du Pont and Dave Schultz as it is about the obscenely wealthy and emotionally stunted billionaire and his relationship with Mark, a withdrawn, socially awkward man who becomes, for a time, the center of du Pont's world.

Played by Channing Tatum, Mark Schultz is all instinct and brawn.  He's not a man who thinks much about anything, especially his station in life.  When he's supposed to be inspiring elementary school students with the story of how he became a gold medalist, Mark stammers and sputters and manages to spit out a few words about patriotism and American values, but not many.  He probably has never really thought too much about these things before.

He's neither unhappy nor content living in a squalid apartment, eating fast-food burgers and making Top Ramen in Tupperware containers.  His brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), meanwhile, is trying to parlay his athletic success into something a little more interesting, and urges Mark to do the same.

One night, Mark's phone rings and a matter-of-fact man on the other end of the line says that John du Pont would like to meet Mark.  The wrestler, who walks with a hulking gait and punches himself as motivation, has no idea why, but he's whisked off in a helicopter to the rolling hills outside Philadelphia, where du Pont (Steve Carell) drones on with a poorly considered speech about American values and ideals.

Du Pont wants the U.S. to win another gold medal, and he thinks Mark deserves to be the best wrestler in the world.  He sets Mark up in "the chalet," a spacious house on the Foxcatcher Farms estate, and pays him $25,000 a year to train there.

Mark and du Pont develop the sort of emotional attachment that happens when two people, otherwise ill-equipped for the world, find each other.  It doesn't take long before du Pont is buying suits for Mark, encouraging him to attend State dinners, and offering him lines of cocaine (this is 1987, after all).

But du Pont has a bigger prize to try to reel in -- Dave, the more emotionally anchored, clearly more intelligent, of the brothers.  Dave has no interest in moving to Foxcatcher, Mark can't seem to persuade him, and the tension ratchets up a little bit in these moments.

It all goes slack again, even after one surprising moment that sets the rest of the story in action, when du Pont lets Mark see the bully he hides within, the spoiled brat who always gets what he wants.  But du Pont is Mark's only ticket to winning in Seoul in 1988, and without any other options, he stays on.

It doesn't go well.  Mark starts cracking up.  du Pont, upon hearing of the death of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave, in about three scenes), loses it, too.  The emotional stakes have changed.

Or, at least they've changed on paper, because nothing much changes at all in Foxcatcher.  The movie's languid, refined camera work floats through scenes and countryside, letting us see the surroundings without ever really letting us in to the motives or thoughts of the character.

By the time (and, as I indicated in the lede, this is not a spoiler -- the movie's about a murder) the gun fires and one character is on the ground bleeding, it's tough to know exactly what the motive might have been, even though we've been watching these characters for more than two hours.  Even on screen, no one seems to know quite what to do, because this critical moment is built on such little emotional evidence.  It just happens.

Foxcatcher left me intrigued to find out more about the real du Pont-Schultz case, to learn more about the drugs and, it seems safe to assume based on what is heavily implied here, the sex.  Something was going on up at Foxcatcher, and I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that they were training for wrestling, but that wasn't all they were doing, not by a longshot.

The actors are stellar across the board -- Ruffalo is more in command of his character than I've seen him in ages; Tatum finally rids himself of the hot-but-dumb stereotypes that have plagued him, and Carell is undeniably mesmerizing in every scene he's in (which is most of them), though anyone truly surprised by him here has clearly failed to take note of his work in films like Hope Springs, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (a remarkably under seen film) or Crazy Stupid Love.

Yes, he's a revelation in Foxcatcher, but no more so than he's been a revaluation to audiences for year who have only seen him as Michael Scott.  The man can act, and he doesn't even need the false teeth and prosthetic nose he wears here.  When it comes to leading actors who can do anything, Carell is clearly the real deal.

Foxcatcher itself, though, is decidedly less so.  It's not a film serious filmgoers should skip, by any means -- it's just the kind of movie that when the lights come up while the credits are playing, your instinct isn't to sit in your seat and honor all the men and women whose passions went into this project.  Mostly you just want to look for a good place to eat.  Foxcatcher doesn't register enough emotional or philosophical weight to make you care about much else other than whether sushi or a burger sounds better.

Viewed 11/29/14 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, November 23, 2014

"The Theory of Everything"

 4 / 5 

On the surface, The Theory of Everything seems safe and pretty, entirely proper in the way of beautiful British bio-pics that combine (could there be any better match?) the early 1960s and Oxford University.  Women wore dresses and gloves, men wore tailored suits and horn-rimmed glasses, and if lushly orchestrated music didn't really accompany them everywhere, it certainly should have.

Into this bucolic setting comes Stephen Hawking, played first with bumblingly intense sincerity and, later, with extraordinary clarity by Eddie Redmayne.  Before people like him were called science nerds, Hawking was the ultimate science nerd.

At a party, he meets a pretty, intellectual artistic type named Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones).  They fall in love.  He proposes not marriage but a sweeping theoretical vision about time and life and understanding, the kind of theory that, underneath its mathematical density, cuts to the heart of what she cares about: It promises to explain everything, including, quite possibly, the presence and purpose of God.

Walking into The Theory of Everything, it's impossible not to know it is about Hawking, which makes it impossible not to know about Hawking's physical ailment, but what is most noteworthy about this frequently polite and lovely film is that it barrels head on into the conundrum faced not by Hakwing's battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, but the effect it has on the woman who has pledged her love for him.

The Theory of Everything is not A Beautiful Mind set in the cosmos -- until the closing credits, its depictions Hawking's theories cinematically are brief and, with one exception, limited to chalkboards.  In this, the film struggles just a bit as it weighs the importance of Hawking's work with its primary concern: the toll Hawking's physical ailment took on those around him.

Audiences going into the Theory of Everything might be surprised at some of the questions it wrestles with: What happens when the sexual component of a marriage deteriorates, when the caretaker for an infirm spouse turns to someone else for companionship?  What is the price to a marriage when both the emotional and physical needs are unequal?

In that regard, The Theory of Everything might seem disappointingly narrow-minded -- it is not a movie about Hawking's theories, his work and his accomplishments; it is in many ways a more traditional marital drama.

But within that more familiar structure, it remains undeniably moving and unusually compelling, thanks in great part to Jones and Redmayne.

As Jane Hawking, Jones has the less flashy part by far; her physical transformation primarily involves the changing fashions and hair styles of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.  (The time shifts are low key, the fashion changes subtle, so the film really does impart a wonderful sense of the movement of time as measured by outward appearance.)  Her emotional shift is slow, but steady.  Jones does a wonderful job at conveying the disappointment and anguish of someone who agreed to remain committed and loyal to her spouse -- but who didn't expect the struggle would be either as long or as exhausting as it turns out to be.

As Redmayne impressively conveys the personality and life behind a man trapped in a virtually unmoving body, Jones anchors the film with emotional honesty.  The Theory of Everything poses challenging, difficult questions -- not just mathematical and theoretical, but emotional and practical.

Stephen Hawking's theories describe the vastness of the universe, but The Theory of Everything presents a stark reminder -- presented in deceptively lovely ways -- that no matter what happens in the rest of the universe, what happens inside our hearts and minds is perhaps even more unpredictable and unknowable.

Viewed Nov. 23, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


"The Babadook"

 4 / 5 

As a horror film, I enjoyed The Babadook more than most fright-fests.  Director Jennifer Kent knows her way around the gloomy foreboding of an empty house filled with shadows.  She captures the dread that comes at night, when hallways and staircases traversed without effort during the day become places that hide unimaginable obstacles once the lights go out.

To that end, The Babadook is genuinely startling and unsettling.  Amelia (Essie Davis) is a woman who might be considered on the verge of a nervous breakdown if it weren't so clear that she is hanging over the edge with fingers exhausted from years of effort.

Seven years earlier, her husband Oskar died while rushing her to the Australian hospital to give birth to Samuel (Noah Wiseman).  Neither mother nor son has fully recovered from the incident.  Samuel has led a short life so fraught with anxiety and fear over the mortality of his mother that he has taken to believing in every possible danger that could befall her -- most especially, imaginary ones.

His behavior has become downright dangerous: He creates elaborate, spring-loaded booby traps and complex weapons designed to stop in its tracks any being he deems harmful to his mother, and delights in showing these off at school.  Neither the school administrators nor his classmates are amused.

Samuel's insistence that something terrible will invade their home and take his mother from him is not played for amusement; this isn't Home Alone Down Under.  The disturbing psychological path her son is walking has left Amelia with sallow skin, sunken eyes, brittle hair and a desperation that seems almost sweet to her co-worker (Daniel Henshall), until he realizes the extent to which both Amelia and Samuel have been damaged.

If it's all manageable, though just barely, the calm curtain that just barely covers their lives is brought down catastrophically when Samuel asks his mother to read him a book that has gone overlooked on his shelf.  It's a strange, scary thing called Mister Babadook, and warns of a shadowy, sharp-toothed stranger with a top hat and a black cloak who will come calling in the middle of the night.

The more you deny his reality, the pop-up book claims, the more he's going to drive you insane.

The graphic black-and-white design of Mister Babadook utterly terrifies Samuel, who is immediately convinced that the Babadook is real.  Though Amelia tries to calm the boy's shattered nerves, it's not too long before the shadows at night seem to be darker and the harmless noises that fill the house seem to take on the sound the book promises the creature will make: "Ba-BA-ba Dook-DOOK-DOOK."

The Babadook never doubts that the terror is real, and though the movie would have perhaps benefitted from a little more clarity around the creature itself -- which is effectively presented on the page as a cross between Murnau's Nosferatu and John Barrymore's fiendish Mr. Hyde -- as well as its nature and internal logic, the film excels at its not-so-hidden subtext.

"It is the aloneness within us made manifest," author Andrew Solomon wrote about the horrors of depression in his book The Noonday Demon, and those who have suffered from depression or its almost identical twin grief know too well the way depression is often described: as a terrifying monster of shadows, one that creeps up on you and is impossible to escape.

The Babadook brings a hideous and frightening form to the gloom, dread and terror of mental illness. The more Amelia insists The Babadook is imaginary, the more real it becomes -- and as it fulfills its promise to drive her completely mad, Samuel cowers in fear.  The Babadook is, in many ways, a smaller-scale and even more effective version of The Shining.

The Babadook will satisfy all but the most impatient or gore-loving horror fans, but more importantly will be alarmingly fulfilling and impressively layered for those looking for an unexpectedly satisfying exploration of the terrors and fears of ordinary life.

Viewed Nov. 22, 2014 -- VOD

Monday, November 17, 2014

Favorite Films: "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"

Oh, they try. Do they try.

These movies made by jaded, embittered, downright hostile adults to appeal to innocent, still-developing, infinitely impressionable children try to create a sense of values that can help shape a future society, and maybe entertain the tykes a little in the process.

So, we get movies about kids killing kids for sport; we get movies about children who learn early in life that they have a secret power that will grant them instant success and turn them into legends; we get movies about kids who drive sports cars really fast so they can drive sports cars even faster; we get movies about boys and girls who put on musicals in high schools and teen vampires who fly in forests.  In almost all of them, the children are thrust into the roles of the adults, and the adults become the villains, if they're even around at all.

Now, there was a time not too long ago when we knew that kids were decidedly different than adults. It seems old-fashioned (not to mention curmudgeonly) to recall that children were meant to be seen and not heard.  They were trained to obey their elders, or, as Sondheim pointed out, at least to listen.  Children were taught that no one in life is entitled to anything, and that those who failed at the basics of understanding common manners and decency were going to meet a terrible end.

Just what that terrible end was, who knew?  But there was no plainer, more stark reality: Bad kids get what they deserve.  Before the days when a parent worried a spanking might throw him into jail or an angry letter written to a school principal might destroy the reputation of the child she was trying to save, long before 24-hour parents and helicopter parenting ... kids were kids.

Some kids were bullies and brats.  Some kits were whiners and complainers.  Some kids were fat.  Some kids were skinny.  Some were rich, some were poor, some had lovely manners, most had none.

If you wanted to see what the child would become, you looked at the parent. This was not just conventional wisdom in those long-ago years, it simply was the case.  Before flowers and hippies and mushrooms and folk music told us otherwise, the message was simple: The only way you could change, to escape from the crushing sameness of the culturally mediocre (which, the counter-culture said, was everywhere) was to take a risk and do something different.

It didn't mean you had to break the rules.  It didn't mean you had to engage in crime.  It means you had to do something more daring, more revolutionary, more inconceivable than anyone else: You had to appear be normal.  You had to be honest.  You had to be brave.  You had to be emotionally true.

In other words, Charlie Bucket won.  The lifetime supply of chocolate?  Yes, but that was only the beginning.

Willy Wonka was hardly normal, let's recall.  But ... under the made-up words, the frippery and frappery, the vermicious knids and Great Glass Wonkavators -- little surprises around every corner, but nothing dangerous! -- was the most unexpected magic:  Sanity.

Yes, Willy Wonka, delirious, mysterious, possibly dangerous Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) is not only the most sane person living among the Oompa Loompas -- once the greedy, thieving, spying, self-absorbed kids enter his factory, Mr. Willy Wonka searches for small moments of sanity wherever he can find them, sitting under a candy mushroom, wistfully singing of his desire for nothing less than "Pure Imagination," taking a moment to sip some tea before crunching the glass in his teeth. (It is candy, after all, nothing insane about that.)

He surveys the madness about him, retains his composure, and then -- because they insist (and they do insist) -- leads these children whose parents have taught them only to be selfish, spoiled, gluttonous little brats deeper and deeper into the factory to see where all of his dreams become realities and some of his realities become dreams.

The adults claim not to understand what Willy Wonka says: They have lost houses, children, jobs, ambition, so they can't understand the promise of fantasy.  And their children, raised to become as self-absorbed as they are, have no comprehension of the short homilies sung by the Oompa Loompas, imploring them to read more, to stop chewing gum, to quit staring at the TV and talking back to their parents.  None of the children can yet understand what they mean, none of the parents can remember.

So Mr. Wonka doesn't try.  He gives up on them, literally lets them go -- except for one.

Deeper, deeper into the factory until innocent, tow-headed Charlie (Peter Ostrum) and Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) are the only ones left.  Even they, it turns out, are not completely innocent; who is?  But is there a crime in curiosity, in exploration of the fantastic?  For a moment, it seems even this most good-natured of transgression will be punished.

Their departure scene is one of the very best, most tense and borderline heartbreaking, in cinematic history as Willy Wonka appears, for the briefest moment, to be a monster.

With a complete lack of tolerance and tact, he screams at them that they have lost the contest that is at the center of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: "You stole fizzy-lifting drink," he bellows. "You touched the ceilings, which must be washed and sterilized. ... So you get nothing! Good day, sir."

Then, the worst moment -- he turns his back on them:

"I said 'Good Day, Sir!' Willy Wonka ignores them.

But Charlie doesn't fall for it.  He returns the one item of trust that proves the pureness of his heart: Charlie gives back the coveted Everlasting Gobstopper.  Then, into this children's film, comes a line from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, not a story known by many eight-year-olds, though the sentiment knows no age: "So shines a good deed in a weary world."

Charlie has won.  Everything.  More than everything.  The chocolate, yes, but that's just the beginning.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has the happiest of endings because it is not achieved by fulfilling a goal, by vanquishing a foe, by doing the impossible: It comes about because Charlie has done the right thing, and for that, he gets it all.

In that moment -- though there were many that came before to indicate what kind of movie this -- Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory moves from the category of supremely entertaining into genuinely great.

It's a vindication for everyone who has played by the rules, even when the rules got murky.  It is validation for everyone who made the right move in the end -- no matter how wrong the moves up to that point may have been. You can watch it when you're 5 and be happy for the other little boy; you can watch it when you're 65 and feel your heart lift because doing the right thing wins the day.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory isn't a movie for kids who need to learn lessons.  It's a movie for filmgoers of any age who need to be reminded that honesty, integrity and an innocent belief in the simplicity between what is right and what is wrong remain relevant, no matter how old our weary world becomes.

Earlier in the film, Charlie has visited his mother to explain why he won't win the prize. "Charlie," she sighs, "There are a hundred billion people in this world and only five of them will find Golden Tickets ... and after this contest is over, you'll be no different from the billions of others who didn't find one."

Charlie, distraught, near to tears, responds, "But I am different.  I want it more than any of them."

We're all different.  We want our Golden Tickets.  And even if we are one of those fictional five, what happens next?  The Golden Ticket may come our way, it may not.  "One day / sweet as a song / Charlie's lucky day / will come along ... 'Til that day / You've gotta keep on strong, Charlie / Up on top is right where you belong."

Can we be Charlie?  Can we rip so many chocolate bars and never find the gold?  And if we did, might we find it's all just a sham anyway?

Yes, Willy Wonka and the Charlie Factory is more than 40 years old, but it takes on greater resonance at a time of instant gratification, of kids who aren't given the chance to just be kids -- who don't automatically get to learn the hard lessons of disappointment and a job well done.

Most people never get into the Chocolate Factory, and of the few who do, many wish they had never stepped inside.

Ah, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory -- we've never had another film quite like it, and I imagine (incorrectly, I hope and pray) that in this time of franchise-management, tentpole films, focus-group and market testing, and marketing research, I imagine we never may.

I've been watching films for more than 43 years.  If I can find just one that comes close to the perfection (even in its occasional messiness) of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I will be a happy man.  I might, like Charlie, live happily ever after.