Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: 10 Lessons

“We are the music makers. And we are the dreamers of dreams.”
Gene Wilder, as Willy Wonka in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”

The movie title (the book is called “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which the Tim Burton remake returned it to) is a somewhat misleading title, because much of it does not actually take place in the titular chocolate factory. Almost an hour passes (in my recollection) before Charlie and his lucky companions (and by extension the viewer) actually pass through those gilded gates. Rather than immediately place the characters into the magical world, the worldwide Golden Ticket contest is explored in depth. Basically, Wonka announces that he has hidden five Golden Tickets in his candy, and the finders will receive an all-day tour to the factory plus a lifetime supply of chocolate. Global hysteria and chaos follows.

In one scene, a preteen girl is pictured angrily pouting in a director’s chair, while her father pleads on bended knees for her patience, as his nut factory has morphed into a 24-7 chocolate bar unwrapping plant, so that she can “find” a Golden Ticket. So far, it isn’t going so well.

Her response? “Make ’em work nights!”

Of course, when the five kids and their parent of choice do finally get into the factory, that’s when things get really wacky. At first, Willy Wonka appears to be a friendly guy who is very pumped to show off his factory. However, after Augustus Gloop (a young German glutton) falls into the chocolate river and gets sucked up a pipe, the viewer starts to realize that something is off about this Wonka. Seldom does a movie character indulge in such schadenfraude (pleasure at another’s humiliation) as does this man. Soon, it becomes clear that the smart thing to do would be to take your child and find the nearest exit, so he or she wouldn’t wind up deformed and traumatized for life. But no one does.

Anyway, a big thanks to the movie (and to Gene Wilder, who recently passed away) for helping me learn the following:

1. Always read what you sign in full.

Imagine if the parents and/or kids had read the contract Wonka had them sign. (This lesson can also be found in “The Social Network.”)

2. Don’t sample anything without permission, no matter how tempting.

I’d like to think this movie is part of the reason I’ve never shoplifted, even when the little devil on my shoulder whispered that no one was around, and no one could possibly find out.

3. Chewing gum all day long is just gross.

Smile if you want, but to this day, I never chew gum. Also, adults (not kids) who have a permanent wad in their mouth disgust me. Thanks, Roald Dahl.

4. It’s okay not to pay your workers, as long as you give them unlimited chocolate.

Maybe because of my age or ethnic background, it took me years to grasp that Willy Wonka, by importing the merry Oompa Lompas was, when you got down to it, relying on slave labor, which is not exactly a moral thing to do. Even though, he rationalizes it in the movie by explaining that the Oompa Loompas were as miserable as hell in their country of origin, and that they are just overjoyed to be at the factory receiving in lieu of wages, unlimited chocolate, it’s problematic. Even though he employs them because they aren’t going to take his secret recipes to his rivals, it doesn’t appear a fair partnership from an adult viewpoint.

5. Sometimes in life you are being tested without your knowledge.

Oh yes. Moreover, even when you think you’re getting away with something, you may not actually be.

6. When you are elderly, most things in life are not worth getting out of bed for, although a visit to a chocolate factory always is.

Am I the only one who wanted to whack Grandpa Joe on the head with a bedpan because apparently, when your daughter is slaving her fingers to the bone doing laundry to support six people, that’s not a reason to get out of bed? But free chocolate is?

7. Sinister Nazi-vibe guys who try to bribe you may actually turn out to be the good guys.

Yep. Don’t be so fast to judge by appearances, children.

8. The best things in life happen when you aren’t looking for them.

Always a useful lesson to learn.

9. Your parents may be your own worst enemy.

Getting everything you want handed to you is a surefire way to develop zero empathy, which means people other than your parents will find you quite obnoxious. Growing up, I knew a kid exactly like Veruca Salt.  I have no idea how he turned out, but I suspect, if he managed to avoid being dumped down a garbage shoot or blown up into a blueberry, not too well.

10. Reverse psychology is an effective way to take revenge.

Notice how little Wonka, who is supposed to be in charge, bothers to try and stop the brats from self-destructing. It’s not too hard to figure out from the start he doesn’t care if they do so. In fact, you could argue that he wants them to get hurt. And this is the guy passing judgment on the kids’ parents for their childrearing skills.


A Look Back: The Truth

Generally, media reporters in movies are portrayed in either two ways – either plucky, noble defenders of the underdog and crusaders for “The Truth” (today’s movie review) or heartless hounders of the good guys. Well, in “The Truth,” we get both stereotypes, though it’s the media hounding the media. But this is only a tiny part. Most scenes consist of people talking and taking notes, but there are ways to make that absorbing for a couple of hours, which is the truth (sorry) here. In it, Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford play the producer and anchor of CBS’s program “60 Minutes” respectively who, with a team that includes Elisabeth Moss, Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid, break a story about then President George W. Bush’s going AWOL during his military service. But though they initially triumph, it turns out that that’s just the start of their problems.

Unless they are going undercover at their former high school, most movie reporters tend to behave professionally as they accumulate information and work toward their goal of taking down those who behave in a less than honorable fashion. Here, Cate puts together a team to investigate gaps in the President’s military records, and she is as plucky as Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich” ever was, although she dresses much more tastefully. She experiences setbacks – even her father disses her on national television – but she perseveres and makes speeches about how people shouldn’t be bullied. At one point, she persuades a couple to come forward and help, promising that they won’t be harmed. And the couple says no, look what happened to Russell Crowe’s real-life character in “The Insider,” he wound up with bullets in his mailbox, divorced and teaching public school. No seriously, they agree to help Cate and her team. However, criticisms begin on the Web when the initial “60 Minutes” airs, some of which have to do with the document’s font, which appears more like it came from a computer than a manual typewriter. But that is making it sound rather dull, when it is very easy to get caught up in the characters’ quest.

“The Truth,” does, however, have a less than satisfying ending, but since it’s based on a true life story this is only fair.  It has excellent performances by all the leads and secondary characters, and it strikes me as fairly authentic, although there is always a slight suspension of disbelief when you have movie stars playing real people. It also has much insight into the profession portrayed. At one point, Topher asks Robert why he chose his, and he replies “Curiosity.” “Is that all?” Topher asks. “It’s everything,” he replies.

2016 Summer Movie Lessons

May contain spoilers.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

1. If your single glowing album review is from The Onion, it’s probably tongue-in-cheek.

2. If you are surrounded by sycophants, they will agree not to agree with everything you say and be unaware of the irony.

3. If one catchphrase is good, putting as many as you can think of in one song verse is better – just ask Simon Cowell.

4. It’s okay to do an issues song about legalizing gay marriage, as long as you use the word “not” a billion times to indicate that you yourself are not gay. (You might also want to check and see if it is still, indeed, an issue.)

Now You See Me 2

5. When an attractive member of the opposite sex appears in your home and tells you that she admires you, the best response is to guillotine her and then tie up her hands.

6. Never underestimate diminutive Asian women who ignore your greeting when you come into their magic shop, and especially don’t raise your voice and gesture to “help” them understand you. They could actually be a mastermind of a magical crime-fighting organization.

7. Machines that generate a boatload of rain can apparently be concealed and operated so that thousands of people won’t notice them and instead believe you’re actually some kind of god who can control the weather.

8. Macau, China is full of trapdoors, even in back alleys you can’t possibly have been in before, that can be used to dazzle during a magic act or just escape from people who want to kill you.

Me Before You

9. Avoiding taking your motorcycle out in the rain will not necessarily be enough to prevent you from becoming quadriplegic.

10. If you’re a quirky twenty-something whose only “skill” is making a mean cup of tea, you will be considered perfect to take a caregiving job to a cranky but handsome rich British gazillionaire.

11. If your former girlfriend and best friend visit you and act awkward, it might be because they have fallen for each other, not that you are in a wheelchair.

12. Outgrown childhood tights can actually be tracked down and found in an adult size, and it’s a sign that you are destined for the person who gives them to you, not the guy who buys you jewelry.

Free State of Jones

13. Sharp-shooting skills can be taught in less than ten minutes, enough to let previously untrained people participate in a gunfight and take the bad guys’ lives.

14. When attempting to collect someone’s possessions against their will, it’s a good idea to make sure each gun barrel pointing at you has an actual person behind it.

15. If someone whom you’re trying to kill claims to know your grandfather, the best thing to do is to put down your rifle and wrestle him to death.

16. Swampland has acoustics so amazing that your enemies will a) know the moment you attempt to remove a collar from a runaway slave, and b) appear almost instantly with guns drawn.

The Neon Demon

17. If you’re a small-town girl with big dreams and a guy named Chad tells you that you could model, you probably won’t make it professionally. Unless you’re Elle Fanning.

18. If you find a live tiger in your motel room upon returning, it’s probably a good idea to find someplace else to stay. Especially, if creepy, unshaven Keanu Reeves makes you pay for the damage.

19. Sometimes L.A. models mean things literally, like when they’re talking about “eating” people.

20. If a sinister looking guy tells you to get naked during a photo shoot, it’s possible that all he wants to do is smear you with gold body paint.

Ghostbusters (2016)

21. Moving your business to a space over a Chinese restaurant will not make your takeout come any faster and will not give you an adequate amount of wontons.

22. Trying to empathize with a unstable loner bent on unleashing destruction on your city is not going to work if you can’t remember any “good” things about the world.

23. It pays to test your ghost-busting weapons out on a non-moving target in an alley first, as some have quite a kickback which can send you slamming into a wall.

24. New York cabbies remain brusque and unhelpful, even as the city is being overrun by paranormal creatures.

Lights Out

25. Mothers who spend their time talking to their friend who died long ago are considered more fit parents than commitment-phobic eldest sisters by Child Protective Services.

26. If you’re having a hard time making a commitment to your boyfriend, start with baby steps, like letting him keep his clothes in a spare drawer.

27. When you start seeing words scratched everywhere in your home with nails, that’s when you know the resident ghost is getting exceedingly pissed with you.

28. If you’re fighting a light-phobic evil spirit, your cell phone will work as backup, if your candle goes out and your flashlight does, too.

Café Society

29. You should live each day like it’s your last because some day it will actually be.

30. If you blow off your neighbor and insist on playing your radio at the volume you prefer, It’s best to check and see if his wife has Mob connections first.

31. You should probably avoid hiring a prostitute if it happens to be her first day on the job.

32. If your nephew is oddly quiet while you monologue about whether to leave your wife for your mistress, it might be because he also wants to date said mistress.

War Dogs

33. There is no Table of Contents in the Book of Life.

34. Becoming an arms contractor for the US military is like being in Little League – there’s a trophy for everyone, no matter how klutzy.

35. If you hide rolls of cash from your wife, it’s best not to do in a way that winds up causing a leak for which she has to call the plumber.

36. Your business can be audited three times by the IRS, and yet no one will manage to pick up on the fact that you have fabricated almost all of your records.

37. And if your partner is going to keep hard copies of all this data, you’d better not do anything to antagonize him, or he might stab you in the back.

Movie Review: War Dogs

If you’ve seen the trailer for “War Dogs,” (at least the one I’ve seen repeatedly), you may spend the first half of the movie, scratching your head, wondering when a certain scene – which implies to those unfamiliar with the plot, that it is the catalyst that kicks off the real action – is going to occur. This is the scene where the bigwigs in the U.S. Pentagon meet with the two heroes (a word here used loosely), Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, to inform them they’ve landed a $300 million contract by basically being incredibly stupid when it came to submitting their bid to be the go-between procuring military weapons for the (second) Iraq War. Back out in the corridor, Jonah has a meltdown, and then the pair is off to Iraq. Well, the two do go to Iraq on arms deal business, and get up to all kinds of shenanigans, but only after they return, make the major deal which leads them into Albania and more danger. The trailer for “War Dogs,” could also have portrayed the movie as one where the main conflict is between one guy (Miles) and his conscience, but it being released in August probably meant that they went with a more lighthearted buddy comedy feel. It can be watched that way, but I personally found the conscience conflict more interesting than the friction between the two young men, which is pretty nonexistent until the end.

When the movie opens, Miles is working as a massage therapist to rich people in L.A., but considering a career change, especially because his wife (Ana de Armas) is expecting a baby. He next tries to sell fancy bed linen to area nursing homes, but that doesn’t catch on either, so when he bumps into his old junior high friend (Jonah) at a funeral, is impressed when Jonah explains his own profession, (the title) in which he watches “eBay for arms” online and takes contracts which are small potatoes compared to the majority (but still pay well). Soon Jonah recruits Miles as a partner, which leads to them driving a shipment of weapons through the “Triangle of Death,” in Iraq. Heady with success, they start living the big life and even hire staff at their business (though no one knows what the initials are supposed to stand for). But the secrecy his job requires (or so he believes) leads to friction between Miles and Ana, and after a particularly violent run-in with thugs, he starts to question whether or not this job is really for him.

Throughout the movie, various terms are explained as “x – with arms.” “War Dogs,” itself could be pitched as “The Wolf of Wall Street,” (in which Jonah Hill also co-starred) with arms – like that movie, it traces the ascent of two otherwise unremarkable young men from obscurity into the high life, until their sins catch up to them. Like “TWofWS,” their empire winds up toppling due to a very basic mistake. “War Dogs,” is based on a nonfiction book (which I have not read), and so claims to be “based on a true story.” I don’t know how true it is to reality, but much of it is amusing (although not roll on the floor hilarious) and has some pointed things to say about the military, wars and the US government. At one point, Jonah and Miles are unexpectedly rescued by a US military plane, and although he has previously been opposed to the war (at least in principle), Jonah starts yelling, “God bless Dick Cheney!” And he means it.

A Look Back: The Wizard of Oz

Most movie aficionados have a special place in their heart for one or two films that they can see over and over, and never get tired of. Most, too, have managed to reach adulthood having seen a few movies that are supposed to be intended for kids, but were just a traumatic experience, at least in parts. Such was 1985’s “Return to Oz,” which, if shown in tandem with “The Neverending Story,” on a rainy afternoon, is a great way to ensure your children will need therapy later in life. It has about as much in common with “The Wizard of Oz,” as a rainbow in the sky does with a rainbow in a puddle. One is the natural aftermath of a storm; the other is from pollution. But I can’t quite separate it from “Return to Oz,” because I disliked both of them so much, albeit in different ways.

In the Narnia books, one of the many odd things that the four main characters encounter is that the old guy, in whose house they are staying during the Blitz, finds it perfectly plausible that they managed to find a fantasy land by hiding in a wardrobe. If you continue the series, you learn it’s because he, himself, went there as a youngster and was present at its inception. But poor Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) in “Return to Oz,” has no such luck – back from her first visit to Oz, kindly Uncle Henry and Aunt Em decide that she needs a nice course of electroshock therapy at the nearest mental hospital. (What a great message to send to kids! Don’t go around telling anyone about your fantasies unless you want to end up in a straitjacket.) Anyway, she escapes when the power goes out in a storm and manages to get – not to Oz itself, but a land separated from Oz by a deadly desert, though eventually she makes it to the Emerald City. Like Alice in Wonderland, she meets, among many odd characters, a royal with an obsession with chopped off heads, as well as a talking robot and a disembodied animal head come to life. If you read the actual Oz series, you will find what the screenwriters did was put Oz books 2 and 3 in a blender and pressed Puree.  It is nothing like the whimsical “Wizard of Oz,” and should come with a warning label: May Cause Nightmares. But then when I saw the “Wizard of Oz,” I found it rather hokey and saccharine. Which sounds like heresy because I know plenty of people who love the movie.

The first film, the one that started it all, “The Wizard of Oz,” stars Judy Garland, who gets whisked from her drab Kansas farm all the way to Oz via a cyclone. Like “Pleasantville,” the land of her imagination is in color; Technicolor, in fact. Unlike “Pleasantville,” there is no sex, but there is a death because Judy’s first official act upon arriving to Oz is to murder a witch when her house lands in Munchkin County, crushing her. But it’s okay, because the witch is, you know, bad, and before you know it, the “good” witch Glinda (Billie Burke) has roped Judy into going on a quest to kill the other bad witch (Margaret Hamilton). Later we learn that Judy could just have gone home without doing this, and you’d think one murder would be plenty given that it’s involuntary manslaughter, but Billie doesn’t tell her this, probably because she’s a tad sadistic. Billie also doesn’t give her any hints that might prove helpful, such as that witches can be vanquished by dumping a pail of water on them. Apparently, the magic of a “good witch” is kind of limited.

I probably don’t have to recount much else of the plot, but after leaving the Munchkins (charming singing little people), Judy finds a posse of helpers, including the Tin Man (Ray Bulger), the Scarecrow (Jack Haley) and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), and along with her dog Toto, they travel to see the great Wizard (Frank Morgan) who turns out to be less than wizardly, in fact a humbug, but Judy triumphs in the end, and all is well. I think my problem with the movie is that I made the mistake of reading the Oz books first, and so much gets changed, and not necessarily for the better. In the books, Dorothy is just a little girl of around six or seven, who gets a bit older but not too much because she winds up going to live in Oz (with her uncle and aunt) permanently, and no one in Oz ever ages. So I pictured her as drastically different from Judy Garland, who is lovely, but obviously an adolescent, despite the studio’s attempts to conceal this. I also loathed the singing – Oz, in my opinion, was magical enough without it, it was like putting whipped cream on an already frosted cake. Perhaps the “Wizard of Oz,” should come with a label: Best Seen Before Reading Books. Maybe.

A Look Back: Drop Dead Fred

Every so often a movie comes along whose plot makes you seriously wonder what drugs the scriptwriters were on at its conception. Was there no one, you would really like to know, who had the guts to step forward and object? Perhaps it was submitted as a practical joke but for some reason, taken seriously and decided that it would be perfect on the big screen. Such was 1991’s “Drop Dead Fred,” in which the heroine, Phoebe Cates, deals with a problem that many of us can identify with: which is, what if you were desperately trying to win back your spouse, but your imaginary friend from childhood reappeared one day and tried to help. but kept messing things up, albeit in a humorous way?

The pros and cons of having imaginary friends, especially ones that resurface in adulthood, is not exactly well-trodden movie ground, although the quest of young, attractive women in love who are convinced that Mr. Wrong is their one and only certainly is. Another familiar theme in “Drop Dead Fred,” is the struggle to break free from one’s domineering mother (here played by Marsha Mason) and society’s expectations, which is the central journey Phoebe’s character, who has transitioned from a spunky little girl into an easily dominated woman, must take. This is where the imaginary friend (Rik Mayall) comes in. In “Heavenly Creatures,” Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey play passionately-attached schoolgirls whose immersion in a shared fantasy world eventually prompts them to commit murder. “Drop Dead Fred,” is nowhere near that dark, as Rik’s antics are more on the level of a bratty but irrepressible little boy. As a child, Phoebe eagerly followed his lead, but eventually, she decided it would be a good idea to, well, grow up. Or her mother did. In most cases, this would be seen as an uneventful and normal transition, but the truth is that Phoebe is still only a grownup on the outside. She still needs to develop all those intangible inner things like independence, good judgment, etc.

When the movie opens, Phoebe loses her job and financial security in a series of humorous only-in-the-movies mishaps and is forced to move back in with her mother (though she still holds out hope that she and her husband will reunite). The husband is a cad (and a cheater), but of course, it will take Phoebe almost the entire movie to realize this. In her childhood bedroom, she discovers a jack-in-the-box that somehow magically releases Rik, who agrees to help her. After a series of misadventures, however, Phoebe sees the light and realizes that perhaps true love (in the form of an old friend) has been under her nose all along. And there is a happy ending for Rik, too. But to this day, I still wonder what exactly was going through the head of whoever greenlighted this project.

Birds, Butterflies and Wallpaper: Movie Symbolism

So you want to put some symbolism into your movie? The good news is, it’s easy. You can be as obvious or as obtuse as you like when scattering symbols throughout your film. Here are just a few to get you started.

Animals, Domestic: This includes house pets, as well as horses, though horses are versatile and can also fit in the “wild” category. Nothing brain-straining here: dogs often represent loyalty; cats, quite the opposite.

Animals, Wild: Includes horses and other four-footed ones like deer and coyote. Symbolizes freedom the protagonist longs for, or perhaps the protagonist’s unfettered spirit.

Birds: If a character cares for a wild bird, it usually means the same as a wild animal. Though birds more directly symbolize ambition.

Butterflies: If you are a movie character, and a butterfly (or a flock of them) appears, you aren’t going to make it to the credits. Ditto if you’re near a flower slowly losing its petals. (Examples: “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Patch Adams.”)

Cars: Mobility, freedom, recklessness, adventure.

Darkness: Obscurity, secrecy, evil, death.

Deserted places: Clarity, spirituality, promise of adventure to come.

Domestic chores: Connectivity, caring, friendship. Especially if performed to a montage.

Escalators: Progress, ambition, smooth path to one’s goals.

Ethnic groups: Even with political correctness, this occurs. Example: Native Americans are used to symbolize spirituality, especially when juxtapositioned next to a Caucasian movie star.

Feathers (see Birds)

Fire: Destruction, danger, vitality.

Flowers: Birth, death, marriage, divorce, lust, sex, forgiveness.

Highways: The paths taken (and not taken) in our lives.

Houses: Community, unity, shelter from the storm.

Islands: Isolation, new beginnings.

Prisons: Metaphorical blindness or immobility of some kind by the protagonist.

Skyline: Endless promise; or signifies bad weather/fortune ahead.

Sports: Metaphor for how the protagonist is living his/her life.

Swimming Pools: Meanings can vary. Characters who wind up at the bottom of a pool, even alive, may symbolize inertia, or metaphorical drowning in the rest of the their life.

Trains: See Cars. Often appear at the very beginning of movies with lots of smoke billowing out. Easy way to cue the viewer that they are going on an adventure.

Trash: If shot blowing in the wind, represents hidden beauty and grace in what others find unattractive.

Trees: Birth, youth, aging, death.

Wallpaper: Symbolizes the state of the protagonist’s mind. Also shows that the protagonist will heal, if he/she is willing to peel away layers of the psyche. May also symbolize mental illness, an unraveling of the protagonist’s stability.

Weather: Good weather and bad weather also help the viewer cue in to what kind of events are going to unfold. Typically, bad stuff happens when it’s pouring or snowing out, unless the director is being ironic. Most movies set in suburbia open with a nice sunny day, usually at a time of year when all the leaves are green, the birds are chirping, etc.

Wilderness: See Deserted places and Islands.