The key to Wonka is magic — movie magic. This new film, which recently played in local theaters, stars boy wonder Timothée Chalamet as young Willy Wonka. It’s the prequel or “origin story” for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a children’s novel by Roald Dahl that has been famously adapted into movie musicals — first, as a 1971 oddity, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder, a mild hit when it was released that gained a devoted cult following over time; and more recently as an even odder 2005 mega-production, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starring Johnny Depp, a huge hit when it was released that seemed to fade quickly from memory.
Dahl wasn’t thrilled with the first Willy Wonka movie — he didn’t like the shift in emphasis from his titular Charlie, the poor little boy who wins a prize to visit Wonka’s chocolate factory, to the mysterious Willy Wonka himself. He tried (but failed) to have his name removed from the screenplay. By the time the Burton film came out, he had died; that one got the imprimatur of his estate.
In the decades since the book first appeared, there has been some controversy (and revisions made) because of the racism of having enslaved African Oompa-Loompas, the body-shaming of Augustus Gloop, and the anti-Semitism of Dahl himself, for which his children have publicly apologized. Both film adaptations have largely eluded those issues, and they do have their charms: the Gene Wilder Wonka for its lovely music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley and its trippy ’70s imagination, and the Tim Burton Charlie for its bewitching embrace of Dahl’s weirdness. Cinematically, however, they’re both a bit clunky.
The new prequel Wonka has been begrudgingly praised by Dahl-lovers and mainstream reviewers, though some highbrow critics have objected to what they claim is its defanged class struggle (Richard Brody in the New Yorker) or sugary “Disney-fication” (Manohla Dargis in the New York Times). Both complaints are glib and ironic because writer-director Paul King’s Wonka, unlike its strictly Dahl-based predecessors, is laser-focused on capitalist injustice (as Willy tries to build his business) and because Disney animated classics (unlike the theme parks) have been serving up a very un-sugary spoonful of adult loss, guilt, and horror to children, from Bambi and Pinocchio to Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.
Given that Wonka is an origin story, it should not be surprising that Chalamet as the striving young Willy is not as hostile or alienated as Wilder or Depp. He’s a self-described magician, and that’s how this innocent triumphs against the powers that be — through sleight of hand and the unity-building suppression of disbelief. Prequel-wise, we already know that his triumph is secured, but that doesn’t change the sense of wonderment or storytelling competence that King brings to his film.
The result is seductive. Chalamet is a charming hero and song-and-dance man — it’s a winning movie-star performance. And the cinematic world he inhabits is a global and historical amalgam, from its steampunk production design, marvelous and understated new tunes, and brilliant supporting cast (including Olivia Colman and Hugh Grant) speaking many varieties of accented English. King (who previously did Paddington and Paddington 2) knows how to fine-tune emotions and how to direct farcical action scenes. Wonka, in short, is a gem.
Another film with an enveloping fantasy landscape and eccentric personal journey is Poor Things, from the deeply perverse Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite). As in The Favourite, Lanthimos posits Emma Stone as an irrepressible naïf of a past era who claws her way to wisdom and power. In Poor Things, she’s a Frankenstein-like creature in turn-of-the-century Europe with shuffled gender dynamics — a pregnant woman who, after taking her own life, has her brain replaced by her unborn baby’s and her life restored.
The Dr. Frankenstein of this story, Godwin Baxter, is played by Willem Dafoe and made up to look like a creature himself. He calls his medical experiment Bella Baxter, and though he intended for her to be his companion, he unleashes her onto the world at large, allowing her to pursue her sexual appetite while discovering her true self — about which she knows nothing. Bella is then taken on a cruise by one Duncan Wedderburn, a sleazeball opportunist deliciously played by Mark Ruffalo, but ends up as a sex worker in a Paris bordello. From there, things circle back to Dr. Baxter on a path that employs storybook imagination of the highest order.
The 1992 novel by Alisdair Gray on which Poor Things is based is far more meta than the movie, which has a straightforward third-person point of view. That’s a relief, because the characters and plotting are strange enough. During Bella’s infancy and childhood (in an adult body), the film is shot in black and white with extreme fish-eye lenses and other digital distortions. As the action moves about Europe and switches to full color, the sets and locations are done in fantastic Gaudí-like art nouveau style. Throughout it all, the story is invested with the scientific idealism of Europe’s intellectual left before World War II.
Amid the many flourishes of Lanthimos’s vision, the central effect of the story comes from Bella herself, and Stone’s carefully modulated performance is awe-inspiring. Poor Things will transport you — literally and figuratively — and is best discovered by multiple viewings. Seek it out.
Though it’s not much of a fantasy journey, Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, now streaming on Netflix, is also a portrait of a wildly energetic main character. For Cooper, that character was a real-life icon, Leonard Bernstein, the charismatic New York Philharmonic conductor and composer of West Side Story, Candide, On the Town, and other works for the stage and screen. Cooper directed the film, co-wrote it with Josh Singer, and stars in it as Bernstein, with a prosthetic nose that distracts far more than it makes Cooper’s visage a likeness of the maestro’s.
The film was made with the cooperation of the Bernstein family. Cooper bases the story almost completely on Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre, a Costa Rica-born actress whom Lenny met in 1946 and married in 1951. With occasional digressions about career struggles and triumphs and Bernstein’s life as an idolized celebrity, the movie sets its sights on their relationship together and the inconvenient fact that Bernstein was gay.
I say gay and not bisexual because Bernstein, though he was pressured to present a heterosexual persona in public, always pursued gay affairs — they were a necessity. Which is not to denigrate his marriage, with all its flaws. Maestro does expose Bernstein’s gay life but relegates it to the sidelines, like a personality tic that keeps popping up yet dare not speak its name. When Felicia (played by Carey Mulligan) feels compromised in their relationship, it’s as much from the demands of his creativity and celebrity as it is from his sexual flings.
Maestro is filmed atmospherically, with rambling scenes that let Cooper and Mulligan act to their hearts’ content. They do a nice job, but to what avail? None of the supporting characters is developed. The story mostly moves chronologically, though it doesn’t have much of a structure, and the climax is an extended scene of Cooper as Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor. That’s the only point at which we gain significant insight into Bernstein as an artist, and there’s not much there that couldn’t be found in archival concert footage.
Watching Maestro, I craved an actual documentary on Bernstein’s life and work. Cooper’s approach is so impressionistic, so personal yet peripheral, you can’t move beyond the surface and go deeper. And that’s a problem when opacity is not the point.