'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' a Winner

'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' | Luther Vandross | Live 8 | Odds 'n' Ends

'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' a Winner

Believe it or not, Warner Bros. is going to come out of the summer at the top of the box office heap. First it was "Batman Begins." Now it's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

I went to an advance screening of Tim Burton's latest visual sensation last night, and wow! I think "Charlie" is his best film since "Beetlejuice." "Big Fish" and "Edward Scissorhands" fans may disagree, however, and that is their prerogative.

Burton has made a trippy, psychedelic film that adults will embrace even more than kids. Luckily it works on two levels, so children — from 9 and up, no younger — will have fun, too. But this is by far an adult movie, with sophisticated language and scenes. No sex, however. Don't worry.

As in any Burton movie, the sets, costumes and lighting are superb — maybe more so here than ever before. Seeing "Charlie" makes you wonder why Burton didn't get to direct "The Cat in the Hat." Indeed, some of "Charlie" recalls Dr. Seuss even more than it does Roald Dahl with its whimsical art direction.

Johnny Depp, who's a Burton repertory player, portrays chocolate factory owner Willy Wonka like he's Michael Jackson. Sometimes the Jacko factor is a little too obvious, but Depp has more depth than Jackson.

Thirteen-year-old Freddie Highmore, who starred with Depp in "Finding Neverland," is back and has an easy rapport with Depp. You can feel it on screen. As Charlie, the youngest member of an extremely eccentric family, Freddie carries all his scenes even when up against such daunting adult presences as Helena Bonham Carter — Mrs. Burton in real life — and Noah Taylor.

The real star of the movie, besides Burton himself, is a gifted comedic actor named Deep Roy, who is height challenged. You may recognize him from my second favorite Burton movie, "Big Fish."

Not to give anything away, Roy plays a multiplicity of characters including an Oompa Loompa. He also stars in his own mini-rock video, which has to been to be truly appreciated. And wait 'til you see him as a shrink and his own patient. Hilarious!

Irish actor David Kelly, 77, who plays Charlie's grandfather, is also bound to be cited for his lovely performance

"Charlie" cost a lot to make, but it's the first movie of the summer season where you can actually say it's all up on the screen. Alex McDowell's production design will leave you breathless. I think there are seven art directors credited to this film, and you can see why. There's so much to look at, my guess is that a lot of people will be eager to go back for a second look.

There are musical numbers that are so much carved out of the '60s. There are visual puns and even a reference upfront to Depp as Scissorhands. All together, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" may turn out to be the surprise phenom of the summer when it opens next Friday. Bravo!

Luther to Get Four-Star Send-Off

Today at noon, the magnificent Luther Vandross will get a spectacular send-off at Riverside Church. Expect a lot of music, with possible performers like Patti Labelle and Dionne Warwick in attendance.

But as I wrote last week right after Vandross died: Insiders are saying his death was not necessary. My sources insist that Luther's mother and a woman who may have been a niece or cousin — not a sister, as I first reported — were not as vigilant as they could have been about Luther's medical care.

"Every time they took him to the doctor there was a posse," my source said. "Luther was coherent, but he was in no position to fight with these people or referee them."

When Vandross died after he collapsed while being helped through a walk during a rehab session, those who knew the situation were surprised.

"If he had had the kind of people around him like Chris Reeve had, he would have lived longer," my source said.

I'm told that the family chose to use their rehab doctor in New Jersey as their main physician, rather than specialists in New York who could have done more good.

"He had so many different health problems — like the diabetes — that those people weren't capable of dealing with it," my source said.

Speculation from health insiders is that a pulmonary embolism may have caused Vandross' instant death.

As for Luther's mental condition: He knew he had won his Grammy Awards and was often very coherent. But he often spoke "inappropriately," says my source, and could go "in and out."

His walking was possible only with assistance, and his singing was limited to humming and a few lines here and there. Vandross, who suffered from seesawing weight, was in good shape, however, at the time of his death.

Live 8 Lives On

What Bob Geldof did with last week's Live 8 concerts, no matter what criticisms can be drummed up, was raise awareness of a subject most people would rather not think about.

Here in America, African poverty and hunger seem like distant subjects. But in Europe they are back on the front page, and there's a general feeling that good things will come from Geldof's stirring of the international pot.

More to the point: He did it. He pulled it off. And outside of singing "I Don't Like Mondays," Geldof got nothing but headaches on Saturday.

And don't trust reports about Madonna and Mariah bickering backstage. This reporter was actually backstage, and there was no such thing.

The members of Pink Floyd did not avoid each other either. Quite the opposite: They were incredibly chummy. As I told you on Sunday: The band ate dinner together on Friday night at the Ivy in London, and their reunion could stick, it went so well. But I do love "the sources" who weren't at the London show weighing in with a lot of nonsense.

'Me and You'; Harvey's Happy

Wherever you are this weekend, check out Miranda July's "Me and You and Everyone We Know" before it goes into wider distribution. It's the sleeper hit of the summer and you won't be disappointed. What a terrific gem this film is.

Reports yesterday about Harvey Weinstein's absence at the Sun Valley conference were a little off the mark.

Weinstein, I assure you after seeing him last weekend, is enjoying a smidgen of time off before his new film company launches Oct. 1.

Look out: His list of releases, including Gwyneth Paltrow's fine performance in "Proof," is impressive and award-worthy as usual.