Oz the Great and Powerful


James Franco tries to hitch a ride with his China Girl. Ooh baby, just you shut your mouth...

James Franco tries to hitch a ride with his China Girl. Ooh baby, just you shut your mouth…

(2013) Fantasy (Disney) James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Stephen R. Hart Abigail Spencer, Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi, Tim Holmes, Toni Wynne, Rob Crites, William Dick, Gene Jones, Channing Pierce. Directed by Sam Raimi

Belief is a powerful thing. It can change the course of history, make the impossible possible. It can turn fear into strength. It can make leaders of the most unlikely of men.

Oscar – but his friends call him Oz (Franco) – is a somewhat adept carnie magician in sepia-toned Kansas in 1905. He yearns for greatness but is stuck in this Podunk circus that seems destined to kill all his hopes and dreams. His assistant Frank (Braff) is barely competent and the ladies he gets to sample his charms are shall we say less than discreet. The one girl he does want (Williams) has been asked to marry John Gale, a steadfast Kansas farmer. And to make things worse the Circus strongman (Holmes) has discovered that one of Oscar’s conquests is his own wife (Wynne) and so he wants to use Oz’s head as a squeeze box.

Oz gets away in a hot air balloon with only his top hat and satchel as possessions but unfortunately he gets sucked into a tornado and ends up in the brightly colored land of Oz. There he meets Theodora (Kunis), a beautiful young witch who develops quite the crush on Oz. Oz unleashes his usual bag of tricks on her, particular when he discovers the prophecy that someone with the same name as the land would descend from the sky, save the land from a wicked witch and become king of Oz. The two head back to the Emerald City where Oz meets Evanora (Weisz), who is Theodora’s sister and regent of Oz since their father was poisoned.

There is a wicked witch for Oz to kill however and he goes off to do just that with his trusted flying monkey valet Finley (voiced by Braff) at his side. Along the way they run into a porcelain village that has been decimated by the wicked witch’s flying baboons. The only survivor is a little china girl (King) whose legs have been shattered. Oz, with a trusty bottle of glue, puts her right as rain and the grateful girl accompanies the two on their quest.

When they meet Glinda (Williams) again who introduces them to the Quadlings, the Tinkers and the Munchkins, Oz realizes that the task at hand is much more complicated and dangerous than he first thought and that he has little more than pluck on his side. His entire life he has been searching for greatness but now it appears that he must die in order to achieve it.

A lot of people are going to make the mistake of comparing this to The Wizard of Oz, among them professional critics who should know better. If you go into this movie thinking that this is going to be just as magical and just as timeless, you’re going to walk out disappointed. Raimi wisely chooses to pay homage to the classic rather than aping it. Sure there are some similarities – the sepia-toned Kansas, the colorful Oz, the singing and dancing Munchkins, a cowardly lion (blink and you’ll miss him) and an Art Deco Emerald City.

The 1939 version of the film was always a woman’s movie – Dorothy versus the Wicked Witch. The men in the movie were really little more than comic relief and that was okay. In some ways that’s true here as well – while Oz is at the center of the action and is the erstwhile hero, this movie is all about the witches with a little help from a China Girl.

Franco as Oz is kind of an odd choice. Sure, Franco projects that con man cockiness with an aw shucks grin that has just the right touch of nasty to it. He is just smarmy enough to be in character but enough to get on my nerves from time to time. This is supposed to be a prequel to Wizard and for me, I had trouble connecting the dots from Franco’s Oscar to the grouchy old fraud that Frank Morgan played.

The witches are all three excellent actresses at or near the top of their game. Weisz makes a memorable Evanora, one whose depths are darker than you might imagine. A character like this gives Weisz a chance to really cut loose and she does, although never going over-the-top which a lesser actress might just do.

Kunis is turning into a star in her own right. I’m not sure this is the role to advance her career any but at least it doesn’t do her any harm. She has the widest range to cover and she does it pretty well although not notably. She neither distinguishes herself nor disgraces herself other than to remind us how gorgeous her face is in her early scenes with Franco.

Williams is often overlooked when discussions about Hollywood’s best actresses ensue but believe me, she is right up there among the very best. She has the least meaty role of the three sisters but  shines nevertheless. In many ways she had the most difficult task but she wound up shining, commendable considering who she was acting with in the movie.

There is a whole lot of eye candy here, most of it of the CGI variety. Most of it is pretty nifty but there are a few scenes in which the CGI green screen effect is a bit clunky, surprisingly so. The surprise is because they got the 3D down so well which is fairly rare. It actually enhances the movie. I know, notify the paramedics because there are gonna be coronaries over it – but facts are facts.

This is no Wizard of Oz, it’s true. This isn’t timeless, there’s no “Over the Rainbow” and the movie doesn’t have that same magic that the 1939 classic had. Nevertheless that doesn’t mean it can’t be solidly entertaining in its own right and in all truthfulness I’m a sucker for Oz and getting a chance to go back there again is an irresistible lure. It brings back the kid in me and at my advanced age that’s a welcome and impressive feat of prestidigitation of its own.

REASONS TO GO: Great performances throughout. Really good chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence.

REASONS TO STAY: Keeps you a little too off-balance in places. Too Hollywood an ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some images of flying baboons and witchery that may be too scary for the tiniest of tots. There is some mild cursing but unlikely that your children haven’t heard it before.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Baum Brothers circus that Oscar performs in, as well as the name of his assistant Frank were both tributes to L. Frank Baum, creator of Oz.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100; critics were all over the board with this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alice in Wonderland

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: 56 Up

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters


This isn't your grandparents' Hansel and Gretel.

This isn’t your grandparents’ Hansel and Gretel.

(2013) Fantasy Action (MGM/Paramount) Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare, Thomas Mann, Pihla Viltala, Derek Mears, Robin Atkin Downes (voice), Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Joanna Kulig, Rainer Bock, Bjorn Sundquist, Zoe Bell, Kathrin Kuhnel. Directed by Tommy Wirkola

Even after I outgrew them, I always loved fairy tales. You know, the sort in which brave heroes outwit fiendish foes, beautiful princesses await rescuing and fantastic creatures exist in a kind of idealized Renaissance Faire-like environment which is free of disease, the commoners were well-treated by their land-owning nobles and nobody starves, living a simple life in which everyone is basically good. You know, Fantasyland.

Certainly it never existed in real life. Still, we all know the story of Hansel and Gretel, a brother and sister who wandered into the woods to find a cottage made of candy – what child wouldn’t investigate that. But then they meet the owner of the cottage – a witch who uses the candy to attract children whom she imprisons, fattens up and then cooks. Sort of like Gordon Ramsay on estrogen. Of course the kids trick the witch and shove her into her own oven. And there the tale ends.

But in a marvelous idea of what-if, a 15-years older and wiser Hansel and Gretel are posited. They have evolved into professional witch hunters, travelling from village to village to rid them of the witch menace while collecting the bounties offered. Hansel (Renner) ate too much candy at the witch’s cottage and now must inject himself periodically or die. Think of it as fairy tale diabetes. Gretel (Arterton) is a kick-ass ninja who while beautiful and desirable doesn’t seem to have any takers. Hansel, on the other hand has attracted the comely Mina (Viltala) whom he rescued from being burned by the overzealous Sheriff (Stormare) who resents the bounty hunters incursion into his territory. It seems that children have been disappearing in great numbers in the village as of late.

Notwithstanding, the Mayor (Bock) insists so the pair go after the kids and find the witch responsible. Which happens to be Muriel (Janssen), who has it in her head to perform a ritual in a few days during the blood moon that will let her create a potion that will permanently make witches immune to fire. Muriel also has a connection to their late mother (Kuhnel) and Gretel herself has in turn a connection to this ritual.

So they need to stop this thing from happening but they will have to get past an angry sheriff (whose had his nose broken by the no-nonsense Gretel), a monstrous troll (Mears, voiced by Downes) and a coven of very nasty witches who have a broomstick up their butts about the whole thing.

Wirkola, best known for Dead Snow, the zombie Nazi ski resort horror film of a few years back, has a great concept to work with. Unfortunately, his writers (of which he is one) do nothing creative with it. This is a generic fantasy action film with nothing unusual to recommend it.

Oh, Renner is good. Renner is, in fact great. He has a kind of sardonic grin throughout as if he is saying to the audience “Yeah, I know it’s crap but it’s a paycheck and I’m gonna have a great time making it.” He’s a terrific action hero as he showed last summer with The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy. He’s a star and time will tell how big he’ll be. This movie unfortunately won’t help.

It might help Arterton though. She’s had some pretty good performances in films that ranged from good (Tamara Drewe) to not-so-good (Prince of Persia) and here she continues that streak. She’s due a movie that is worthy of her talents and one in which she’ll get enough fans where she can be a star herself. She’s not quite there yet though.

As you might guess, there are a lot of effects here much of which have to do with witches getting eviscerated by Hansel and Gretel (a sentence which sounds kind of crazy on its own merits). There is the troll who is well realized with some very evocative facial expressions; there are also tons of fire effects some of which looks none too realistic. It’s pretty much hit and miss. The 3D incidentally is pretty miserable; there really isn’t much reason to have made this movie in 3D other than as a cash grab; that they pushed back the movie nearly a full year in order to retro-convert it is even worse.

This is a major disappointment. They had a great idea but could think of nothing good to do with it. There are some humorous bits – drawings of the missing children on the milk bottles for example but not enough of them. The anachronisms – the swearing, the machine guns, the magic bullets – simply don’t work. They remind you that you’re watching a movie instead of being part of a mysterious. The reason that a movie like this works is that you feel a part of the experience. The reason that it doesn’t is that you’re constantly reminded that you aren’t.

REASONS TO GO: Renner and Arterton are pretty damn good. Janssen makes an effective baddie. Edward the Troll is nicely realized.

REASONS TO STAY: A great concept poorly executed. Too many anachronisms.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a good deal of violence albeit mostly of the fairy tale variety although there is a goodly amount of gore i.e. heads exploding, heads being hacked off, heads being stepped on etc. – this isn’t a good movie to be a head. There is also some brief nudity, a bit of sexuality and a lot of bad language – who knew there were so many f bombs in medieval Germany!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was already in pre-production and was to be about the unsuccessful hunt for Osama Bin Laden when the news broke that Bin Laden was dead. Immediately the screenplay was re-written to turn the movie into the story of the successful hunt for Bin Laden.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100; the reviews are miserable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Van Helsing

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Pearl Harbor

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One

Harry and Hermione share a rare tender moment in a dark and dismal place.

(2010) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton, Jason Isaacs, Helena Bonham Carter, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Alan Rickman . Directed by David Yates

As someone who’s been with the Harry Potter series from the beginning, I had always thought it a young adult fantasy series but I was wrong. This has always been a series for adults; we just didn’t know it at the time.

After the events of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Radcliffe), Hermione (Watson) and Ron (Grint) are on the run. No longer is Hogwarts a safe place – in fact, it only puts in a cursory appearance in the movie. Instead, the three are on the run, chased by Deatheaters who are looking for Harry specifically.

Lord Voldemort (Fiennes) and his cohorts, including Lucius Malfoy (Isaacs), his son Draco (Felton) and cousin Bellatrix Lestrange (Carter) have taken over the Ministry of Magic as well as Hogwarts itself and have launched a campaign to stamp out Muggles, using propaganda and fear. The overall impression is of a totalitarian Nazi-like state with Voldemort a Hitler-like figure at the top.

Harry is seeking the horcruxes, special items in which Voldemort has placed parts of his soul. Harry has found several of them but there still remain several to go. The stress and weariness are getting to Ron, who notices that Harry and Hermione are getting close. Into this mix comes the Deathly Hallows, but what exactly are they and how are they the key to victory over Voldemort?

This is movie is dark, dark, dark. If Half-Blood Prince was dark, this is pitch-black. This is serial killer-dark. This is your mom is dead-dark. You get the picture. In fact, the mood is so unrelenting in its grimness that you actually feel it weighing on your soul as you exit the theater.

I have tried to avoid reading the books before I see the movies so I can’t really say how closely this follows the book, which the studio has ultimately decided to split into two movies ostensibly at author J.K. Rowling’s request but, I suspect, also as a way of wringing out twice the revenue from the same book which will be the final installment in the series. Along the way it has become the most successful film series of all time on a per-film basis (the Bond series has brought more money in overall but has had 22 films to do it in) and more or less a license for Warner Brothers to print money. It’s not hard to see why they’re disappointed that the cash cow is coming to a close.

Part of my issue with the movie is that there is just so much information being crammed into it, and so many characters – nearly everyone from the first six books who haven’t died either in the series or in real life is here. It’s very difficult to keep everybody straight and by the time the two and a half hour movie comes to a close, you feel a very real sense of overload.

And yet there is much going for the movie. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have become fine actors and have essentially grown up with their roles. Harry is showing the heroism that his character has always threatened to be, while Hermione is not only a charming and beautiful young woman but brilliant and resourceful as well, every bit Harry’s equal. Ron is the most human of the three, filled with doubts and flaws, but yet in his own way more courageous than either of them. The three make a formidable team, three terrific friends who are stronger together than they are separately.

The special effects are jaw-dropping at times, particularly an early broomstick and motorcycle sidecar battle, as well as a wonderful animation that introduces the Deathly Hallows into the film (the animator Ben Hibon has recently been rewarded with a feature film of his own). While a dark and terrifying place, the wizarding world is no less dazzling than it has been all along.

One gets the impression that the second film of the two Deathly Hallows movies will be much better in the sense that the resolution that is approaching like a bullet train is going to be something special. Much of that has to do with Rowling, who may sometimes not get her due simply because the books appeal to children. She is simply put one of the best writers of our age, regardless of genre or audience.

This is still a movie worth seeing – it is in many ways the weakest movie in the series simply because it feels so incomplete and yet it is the equal of all of them, but that is a function of the split. It is a movie of putting aside childish things and stepping into a frightening world. It is a movie of accepting responsibility and standing up for what is good and what is right. It is a movie that while on the surface may seem to be about running away and hiding is in reality about acting in the face of overwhelming odds and terrible penalties. Bad things happen to good people in this series – not everyone comes out of the movie alive and many come out badly injured at least. It is a movie about conquering fear, and what better lesson can we give to young people than that?

REASONS TO GO: Simply put, this is marvelous to look at and all the threads of the first six movies are beginning to draw together into a recognizable tapestry.

REASONS TO STAY: Dark, dark, dark – this is not your older brother’s Harry Potter. There is a good deal of information crammed into this movie which will probably all be necessary for the second but it sure does slow the pacing down quite a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: This is dark, dark, dark – the wee ones are going to be plenty scared by the violence, both on-screen and implied. The evil of Voldemort and his Deatheaters becomes much more realized and I would have a serious talk with any younger kid before seeing it to make sure they understand it’s just a movie. If they are prone to nightmares or particularly sensitive, I’d really think twice about taking my kids to see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After escaping the attack at the wedding, Harry, Hermione and Ron end up in a London diner, where one of the posters on the wall is for the West End production of “Equus” which star Daniel Radcliffe starred in.

HOME OR THEATER: You will see this on the big screen, if you haven’t already.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Last Legion