Robert Zemeckis is a perfect director to tackle one of Roald Dahl’s books; he’s got an inspired mastery over cutting edge CGI, a talent for dynamic visual storytelling and a genuine sense of the macabre, this willingness to be honest about the darker aspects of real life and include them in a story geared towards children, which is an attribute that he directly shares with Dahl himself. His crack at The Witches is an admirable, mostly successful, visually stunning and opulently stylish bit of devilish fun and although obvious comparison will be made not only to Dahl’s book (which simply cannot be topped) but also to Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant 1990 take on it. Zemeckis definitely takes the more playful route and while still injecting palpable dread and menace into the proceedings, his version isn’t quite the prosthetic soaked nightmare Roeg offered. The setting here is switched up from the UK to Deep South Alabama where a young boy and his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) encounter a coven of nasty real life witches holding a convention at a swanky bayou hotel. Anyone who has read the book knows that these witches are all about murdering children in frighteningly inventive ways and are led by the preening, aristocratic and supremely evil Grand High Witch, here played by Anne Hathaway in a performance that has to be seen to be believed. In the book the character is mean enough, in the 90’s version Anjelica Huston gave her a kind of.. ‘dark empress socialite’ vibe but Hathaway just grabs the script in her jaws like a dog and runs off with it. Sporting snowy blonde hair, a jittery Norwegian accent and mandible modifications that would make the vampires in Blade 2 shudder, she devours scenery, steals every scene and annunciates every syllable with the force of a snake sinking its fangs into someone. She truly makes this character hers, it’s the most impressive work I’ve ever seen from her as an actress and is by and far the best thing about the film. Even Stanley Tucci, who is usually the life of the party in any film, stands back in restraint as the hotel’s fussy manager and gives Anne a wide berth for her typhoon of a performance to unfold. The special effects are wondrous creations and I can’t figure out why anyone would bitch about the CGI on display here (it’s always inevitable I suppose) because it looks and feels incredibly tactile and terrifying. Zemeckis takes liberties with the witch anatomy that Dahl never dreamed of but they are righteous departures in style that make sense and add to the mythology nicely. Chris Rock narrates the film vivaciously as an older version of the young boy, and I never thought I’d say it but he has an uncannily perfect way with Dahl’s passages that had me wishing for a ‘The Witches audiobook as read by Chris Rock.’ My only one complaint is that it feels too slight in the latter half and I would have appreciated more of a runtime, but what they do give us really is a treat. Solid, comprehensive storytelling from Zemeckis, audaciously beautiful costume design, a gem of a score from Alan Silvestri and one unbelievable banshee howl encore performance from Hathaway who is truly having a blast.
Henry Selick’s James & The Giant Peach is one of those films I watched so many times and at such an impressionable age that it’s been sort of seared into my consciousness like an especially vivid dream. It’s also one of the few adaptations of a book by beloved author Roald Dahl that really captures the magic of the source material. I can think of this and maybe one other film version of his stories that have anything close to that demented whimsical aura his writing had, he’s a bit like Dr. Seuss in the sense that what he did was so specific and special that it’s almost futile to even try to faithfully adapt it. The story is unmistakable: young orphan James (Paul Terry) is out in the care of abusive relatives Aunt Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and and Aunt Sponge (Miriam Margoyles), horrible, ugly old cows who mistreat him day and night. One day a mysterious Old Man (Pete Postlethwaite, charismatic and well casted) gives him a little bag of magic radioactive rice kernels, which turn a nearby peach into a gargantuan hideout in which he finds some unlikely friends. Earthworm (David Thewlis), Centipede (a feisty Richard Dreyfus), Spider (Susan Sarandon), Gloworm (Margoyles in a dual role), Grasshopper (Simon Callow) and Ladybug (Jane Leeves) form up the boy’s entomological posse as they roll the giant peach down into the sea and embark on a musically surreal adventure that includes seagulls, undead arctic pirates, a massive storm, musical numbers and one pissed off steam punk mecha-Shark. Selick uses the the same jaw dropping, gorgeous stop motion animation he employed in A Nightmare Before Christmas, and the result is tactile, textured visuals that give all the animated scenes bizarro world realism, I’m not sure if there’s a Blu Ray out there but there really ought to be. This is one visually spectacular piece with a real sense of wonder and playfulness, and although it deviates from the book a fair bit, it still somehow does Dahl proud in terms of style and tone. A treasure .
Frank and Tom are back discussing the late Lewis Gilbert’s YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE which came out in 1967 and at the time was Sean Connery’s last outing as Bond. As we know he came back twice, in one officially sanctioned Bond film and then in an unofficial Bond film, Never Say Never Again. This is the film that unmasks Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the first time with Donald Pleasence playing the seminal villain. Roald Dahl author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wrote the screenplay for Lewis Gilbert who went on to direct The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker and who rose to promise as the director of 1966’s Alfie starring Michael Caine. Mr. Gilbert recently passed and we would like to dedicate this podcast to him.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the greatest musical ever made. Fight me. In all seriousness though it stands as a nostalgic beacon of my childhood in a genre that I just never took to, save for a few others in the same boat (The Sound Of Music is class, but that’s a another story). I grew up with Chitty, watched it from a very young age when I was still impressionable, and since then I’ve probably seen the thing over a hundred times as the years passed, with new eyes each time I revisited it at a later age. It’s a miraculous marvel of visual storytelling, a film that truly employs the sentiment “they don’t make em’ like they used to.” They really don’t though, films with this much hands-on imagination, passion for storytelling and ear for music just aren’t a common thing in our newfound age of computer dominated franchise giants. This is a film that is fuelled by wonder and whimsy, a monumental undertaking when you consider it’s length and scope, a pure oasis of childlike escapism, and a thoroughbred bona fide classic. Based on a short, slight storybook by Ian “James Bond 007” Fleming, this is one of the extremely rare occurrences in which a film adaptation surpasses it’s literary source material in every way. How does it achieve this you ask? Two words: Roald Dahl. Dahl, a beloved novelist himself, concocted a scrumdiddlyumptious screenplay that let what was conserved and clipped in the book run positively wild for the film, not to mention dreamed up some achingly beautiful, endlessly catchy songs that have since become timeless. The titular machine is a souped up jalopy that has a few gizmos under it’s hood including the ability to fly and float on water, lovingly built up by master inventor and father of the year for the next ten centuries, Characticus Potts, played by Dick Van Dyke in the performance I’ll always remember him for. After a sincerely charming opening act set in rural England, it’s off to fairytale land as he, his two darling children Jeremy and Jemima (Heather Ridley and Adrian Hall) and lovely Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes) embark on a dazzling adventure to Germanic country ‘Vulgaria’ to rescue eccentric Grandpa Potts (Lionel Jeffries) and get into all sorts of mischief. Vulgaria is ruled by buffoonish tyrant Baron Bomburst (Gert ‘Goldfinger’ Frobe) and his leggy wife (Anna Quayle), but the real threat is the single scariest villain in cinematic history (don’t even dare argue with me on this one), Robert Helpmann’s Childcatcher, a demonic willy wonka who is pure unbridled nightmare fuel whenever he shows up. The mind boggles at the sheer ambition on display in terms of set pieces here, from the Pott’s gorgeously rickety, unfathomably cozy windmill castle of a home to the Baron’s ornate palace and everything in between, it’s a visual triumph in every way. Better still are the songs, which, excluding one dud from Howes, are all instant classics. Me ol’ bamboo, Toot Sweet, The Roses Of Success, the titular tune that heralds Chitty herself, and particularly a demented little number called Posh sung by Grandpa as his peculiar outhouse of a man-cave dangles on a tow rope below Bomburst’s mini Hindenburg, they’re all fuckin beauties that I’ve been singing along to since I was a wee lad. Added is the giddy presence of people like James Robertson Justice, Desmond ‘Q’ Llewelyn and Benny Hill (as a German, no less) to gild the lining of an already nutty good cast. This film is immortal for me, a jewel in my DVD collection, a nostalgic gift wrapped delicacy to come back to time and time. No matter where I am in my life, the Potts will always be hurtling through the English countryside and soaring over those white cliffs of Dover singing to high heavens about their phantasmagorical machine, and I can sit down and rejoin them any time I like, which I will do over and again as long as time permits.