A Wonka Box Set and a NY Times Documentary

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Gene Wilder, star of 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

“Sooner or later,” the Canadian media baron Moses Znaimer said decades ago, “everything is on TV.” Now it’s all on DVD. Or do I mean Blu-ray? And how soon before discs will be as antediluvian as videotape and all media will be on your computer desktop? Wait, that’s happening now. Yet each Tuesday, several hundred DVDs of new, recent, repackaged, classic and defiantly anticlassic movies and TV shows are issued in whatever video stores are called now and on sites like amazon.com. Each week in this space we aim to shine a light on a few big, worthy or just plain weird releases. Think of us as the prescreening committee for your weekend watching.

Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory: 40th Anniversary Blu-ray + DVD Pack—Ultimate Collector’s Edition

The definitive children’s story on the dilemma of taking candy from a stranger, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory spawned two very different films: the grandiose, grotesque Tim Burton version with Johnny Depp in 2005 and, 34 years before, the more modest, semi-realistic Willy Wonka. Why the name change? Because Quaker Oats, which had sponsored some TV work by David L. Wolper, agreed to pay for production of the Charlie film if the title were changed, the better to promote the Wonka Bar the company would produce. Alas for Quaker Oats, the chocolate melted in the wrappers; only Stuart’s chirpy infomercial survived and thrived in kids’ memories. That, presumably, is what justifies this giant box of DVD and Blu-ray editions, a 144-page souvenir book, four scratch-n-sniff pencils, a “Golden Ticket” that will send five pairs of winners to Los Angeles for a tour of the Warner Bros. studio—and the tiniest Wonka Bar.

In the 30-min. making-of extra, director Mel Stuart recalls how he came to make the picture: his young daughter told him to. Gene Wilder describes the terms on which he agreed to take the title role: if he could first limp into view, then somersault and smile for the kids, proving that Willy was not to be entirely trusted. The movie’s kids, deep into middle age (though Bollner, who was chubby Augustus Gloop, looks exactly the same), share their reminiscences about the shooting and the soupy score, which Anthony Newley, who wanted to play Willy, wrote with Leslie Bricusse. When Dahl’s own screenplay needed work, Stuart called on a young doc-film writer, David Seltzer, to provide bridging scenes and the famous dialogue that ends the film. “We really were a bunch of amateurs flying by the seat of our pants,” he says. “And I think the film reflects that. … That’s the flavor of what makes the movie so vital, so vibrant.”

My film-critical opinion? I’ll never tell; I have nieces who have nieces—I also have an editor—with a strong attachment to the film. I will acknowledge that I appreciate Wilder’s easy balancing of Willy the charmer and Willy the potential predator; and I surely prefer his picture to the 2005 version. Apparently that’s the majority opinion. In a 2007 TIME Q&A, Wilder said, “In 2007: I always get comments: ‘Yours is better.’ I know they’re talking about Willy Wonka.”

A mild warning: this three-disc set, which calls itself “Scrumdiddlyumptious” (Ned Flanders must have written the ad copy), mostly duplicates materials in the 2001 DVD edition. The same commentary by the ex-children, the same Pure Imagination, the same four songs with printed lyrics to sing along with—curiously, not including “The Candy Man,” which became a No. 1 hit for Sammy Davis, Jr. (another song-and-dance man who wanted to play Willy). What’s new is a briefer update by Stuart, including chats some of the stars a decade after the first Making-of, as if he were Michael Apted and this a 7 Up series for child actors. Come back in 2021, when the kids are in their 60s and yours are in their teens. We can almost guarantee there’ll be a Golden Anniversary Golden Ticket Edition.

Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory: 40th Anniversary Blu-ray + DVD Pack—Ultimate Collector’s Edition
Director: Mel Stuart; Writer: Roald Dahl, from his book
With Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Julie Dawn Cole, Denise Nickerson
Warner Home Video, $64.98 / $43.99 at Amazon

Page One: Inside the New York Times

I usually read the New York Times online, scanning its website for stories of interest, then typing the headlines into Google, where I can read the reporting and reviews for free. (Another nice thing about the Internet: the myopic can zoom in until agate type is legible.) Yet my wife still subscribes to the paper and sits down with it each morning. Beyond her nostalgic addiction to newsprint, Mary says that thumbing through the Times as the editors have organized it leads her to pieces she might not have read on her own. Besides, we both see subscribing to the paper as our equivalent of a year-round NPR pledge drive. The Times has been a part of our intellectual lives for decades, and we fancy that our support helps keep it alive in a tough time for newspapers (and newsmagazines). The depth and sobriety of its reporting are an antidote to the scavenger websites that filch the paper’s stories, and to the Internet’s ardor for topless starlets and cute puppies.

If you read the Times in the online backdoor mode, and don’t pay for it, Page One: Inside The New York Times could be a goad to your conscience. Not an exposé, more a hagiography—and massively entertaining, at least to fellow travelers in imperiled journalism—Andrew Rossi’s doc spends 14 months with the men of the Times Media Desk: editor Bruce Headlam and reporter-writers Tim Arango, Brian Stelter and, the star of the show, David Carr. Amid revenue bleeding (stanched by a loan from Mexican telcom zillionaire Carlos Slim) and layoffs (100 in 2009, another 20 the next year), the Times is the Zsa Zsa Gabor of newspapers: the world keeps anticipating the demise of the ailing old Gray Lady, but she just won’t die. Carr, himself gaunt and flinty, says he can appreciate the Times because he came to it late in life (he looks about 80 but is probably in his 50s). “I have an immigrant’s love of the place,” he testifies, and testily defends the paper at a conference titled “Media Armageddon: What Happens When The New York Times Dies.”

A famously reformed crack addict, as he detailed in his 2008 autobiography The Night of the Gun, Carr aims jokes at the young ex-blogger Stelter—“He’s a robot created in the basement of The New York Times to come and destroy me”—to lend Page One the barbed, bantering tone of ’30s newspaper movies; his screen antecedent would be the crafty managing editor played by Oswald Perkins in the 1931 film of The Front Page. But the journalists here aren’t rapacious picture-snatchers and widow-beraters. They are the underdog saviors of a grand tradition, and Rossi’s doc is their 300. That would make Carr the movie’s Leonidas, with his long investigation of mismanagement and sexual predation at the Tribune Company serving as his own battle of Thermopylae. (Rossi was pretty clearly hoping the story would win Carr a Pulitzer; it didn’t.)

Carr’s tangy personality has celebrity, and maybe Aaron Sorkin sitcom hero, written all over it. Indeed, the film juiced his popularity; he, not Rossi, appeared on The Colbert Report to flack Page One. (Carr also Tweeted money quotes about the film.) Bill Keller, who during the movie’s shooting was The Times’ top editor, was replaced by Jill Abramson, the paper’s first woman boss. Just this week she was on CBS News Sunday Morning, promoting her own autobiography: a love story about a golden retriever called The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout. So, in a mix of media, the paper now has all Internet obsessions covered, except for topless dancing. Mary will keep subscribing, and I reading, to see if the Times drops that last spangle.

Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times (2011)
Director: Andrew Rossi
With David Carr, Bruce Headlam, Tim Arango, Brian Stelter, Bill Keller
Magnolia Home Entertainment, $29.98

The Last Circus

Film festivals like Cannes and Venice can stoke strange passions. Critics fight to get into movies that no one back home would ever pay to see, but which, in the heady atmosphere of a European resort town, cue passionate debate. Such a film was Alex de la Iglesia’s Spanish horror parable. At Venice 2010, it was both denounced [EM] as a lurid panorama of degradation and self-mutilation [EM] and laureled: the Venice Jury, headed by Quentin Tarantino, gave it Best Director and Best Screenplay, and many observers inferred that QT awarded these prizes because he was a friend of the director. Nearly a year later, The Last Circus (known in Spain as Balada triste de trompeta) opened in U.S theaters. In two months, it has earned the grand sum of $37,295. Now it’s on DVD, and home viewers can decide whether to be enthralled or appalled.

Spanning virtually the full history of Franco’s Spain, the movie opens in 1937, when Nationalist officers burst into a circus tent and instantly draft, or dragoon, the circus’s star clown Andres (Enrique Villen) into the Army; desperate but determined to prove his mettle, Andres grabs a machete and hacks his way to Falangist glory. Decades later, Andres’ son Javier (Carolos Areces) has joined another circus, playing the soulful Sad Clown to the star Happy Clown, a sadistic beast named Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), who keeps the gorgeous acrobat Natalie (Carolina Bang) as an erotic toy he’d as soon smash as play with. No question that the movie is a parable, in grotesque whiteface, of the Franco period, which de la Iglesia sees as the domination of the brutal Right over the ineffectual Left. The acrobat might stand in for the Spanish people: she’s sexually abused by Happy Clown, and she has learned to love it.

But that’s not the weird part. The Last Circus is a movie whose grotesque set pieces have the viewer thinking, “It can’t get any more extreme than that,” only to find that the film has no intention of returning to reality; it’s just going to get crazier. Enraged by Sergio’s vicious dominance, Javier beats him to a pulp. The only doctor Sergio can find to stitch his wounds is a veterinarian, leaving him grotesquely disfigured; and Javier one-ups his rival by branding his Sad Clown look onto his face with hot irons. Beginning in carnage and soaring into surrealist tragicomedy atop the huge cross in Franco’s Valley of the Fallen, The Last Circus is a film hellbent on madness and in full control of it. A born clown-artist and a juggler too, de la Iglesia wears a sick smile as he keeps the balls of plot airborne and deviously mixes CGI effects into the manic melodrama [EM] a true Cirque du Freak. If you don’t love the movie, you may love hating it.

The Last Circus (2010)
Writer-director: Alex de la Iglesia
With Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, Carolina Bang
Magnolia Home Entertainment, $26.98

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