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

New Releases for the Week of March 8, 2013


Oz The Great and Powerful

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

(Disney) James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bruce Campbell, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Abigail Spencer. Directed by Sam Raimi

A small-time Kansas stage magician dreams of bigger things, of becoming a great and powerful man. When he is sucked through a cyclone into a magical land, it looks like he’ll get that opportunity but it will be a far more perilous journey than he could possibly have imagined and not knowing who to trust makes it all the more dangerous

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG (for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language)

56 Up

(First Run) Michael Apted, Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield. In 1964 filmmaker Michael Apted interviewed 14 classmates to get an idea of what their lives were like, what their hopes and dreams were and what they wanted to do with their lives. Every seven years since he’s gotten back together with the original 14 to see how they were getting on with their lives. Now that group is 56 years old and well into middle age, with old age in sight on the horizon. This social experiment has become one of the most important and riveting documentary series in the history of film.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR  

Dead Man Down

(FilmDistrict) Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Dominic Cooper, Terrence Howard. When a woman witnesses a killer for hire doing his work, she contracts him to do a job for her – to take out a vicious criminal who’d disfigured her. When it turns out he has good reason for wanting this same criminal out of the picture, it looks like a match made in….well, heaven might not be exactly the right word but you know what I mean. Anyway things don’t go according to plan – they so rarely do – and they find themselves dealing with a dangerous kind of chaos. From the director of the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for violence, language throughout and a scene of sexuality)

Emperor

(Roadside Attractions) Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox, Eriko Hatsune, Kaori Momoi. Following the surrender of Japan at the conclusion of World War II, the American occupying force and General Douglas MacArthur, the de facto ruler of Japan, had a thorny question to work out. What were they to do with Emperor Hirohito, worshipped as a living god by the Japanese people but accused of war crimes. Should he be punished for the crimes perpetrated by the Japanese military, or should he be pardoned? With Japan a potential powder keg, MacArthur assigns an officer who has his own connections to the Land of the Rising Sun to unravel the Emperor’s guilt.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for violent content, brief strong language and smoking) 

Sound City

(Variance) Paul McCartney, Lindsey Buckingham, Barry Manilow, Trent Reznor. One of the most legendary recording facilities in the world is Sound City. Nestled amid unassuming industrial warehouses in the San Fernando Valley, this facility has been where some of the most influential and acclaimed albums in history were recorded. Foo Fighter Dave Grohl turns filmmaker as he chronicles the efforts to record an all-star album here, interviewing many of those who have recorded their most famous albums at Sound City.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

Cars 2


Cars 2

Tow Mater and Lightning McQueen, together again.

(2011) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Jason Isaacs, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Brent Musburger, Joe Mantegna, Thomas Kretschmann, Peter Jacobson, Bonnie Hunt, Darrell Waltrip, Franco Nero, Tony Shalhoub, Jeff Garlin, Bruce Campbell, Sig Hansen, Vanessa Redgrave, John Ratzenberger, Cheech Marin, Paul Dooley. Directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis

Pixar has become a brand name in the same way Lexus and Rolex are. It has become a symbol of prestige, the very best in their industry. Of course, no human institution can operate at peak ability every time out.

Lightning McQueen (Wilson) makes a triumphant return home after winning his fourth Piston Cup, marking him as one of the all-time NASCAR greats. He is happy to hang out with his best friend Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and his girlfriend Sally (Hunt) when he receives word that a former oil billionaire gone alternative fuel-happy, Sir Miles Axelrod (Izzard) is putting together a World Grand Prix, a series of three races around the world (two of them in Europe, one in Asia – none in North America which seemed to be bending a bit backwards not to make this one as overly American as the first Cars) showcasing his new alternative fuel Alinol.

Lightning is a bit reluctant to go but after smug, arrogant Formula 1 racer Francesco Bernoulli (Turturro) – a clever reference to the principle of fluid dynamics which is part of what makes the modern automobile engine work – insults Lightning, its game on.

In the meantime, British spy Finn McMissile (Caine) discovers a plot led by the renegade scientist Professor Zundapp (Kretschmann) to ignite the Alinol fuel with a burst of microwaves, leading the public to believe that the fuel is unsafe and forcing them to buy their crude oil – the professor and his group happen to own the world’s largest fuel reserve.

The overall leader of the plot is unknown but an American agent has a photo of him. Finn and his compatriot, inexperienced tech agent Holly Shiftwell (Mortimer) are supposed to pick up the film at the party for the World Grand Prix, but the agent is spotted and in desperation, attaches the film to Mater, who has been embarrassing Lightning with his ignorant antics. Mistaking Mater for the spy, Finn and Holly team up with Mater who must discover who’s behind the plot (which turn out to be a consortium of lemons, cars like Pacers, Yugos and Gremlins, all of which have been written off as bad cars), a mission that becomes more urgent when it is revealed that Lightning is the next target for destruction.

By now, most people are well-aware that this may well be the weakest movie in the Pixar filmography. In terms of storyline, this is certainly true – the plot is quite a bit of fluff, disposable and not particularly original. When compared to such work as Up, Wall-E and Toy Story, it certainly doesn’t hold up well.

However from an entertainment point of view, it isn’t a bad choice for a summer afternoon. The movie has a breakneck pace that keeps it from being boring at any given time. Like all Pixar films, it is a work of outstanding visual achievement – the details of the world are absolutely amazing, and often clever. Keep an eye out for a number of Pixar in-jokes, from director John Lasseter’s name appearing in a clever way on the London speedway track to the name of a movie at the local Radiator Springs drive-in resembling that of a Pixar classic. There are also nice little cultural references, such as Sig Hansen of “Deadliest Catch” fame voicing a Cars-world version of the F.V. Northwestern, the vessel that Sig captains both on the show and in real life.

Whereas the original Cars tried to re-create a 50s Route 66 American Southwest vibe, this is a full-on 1960s British spy caper feel. Everything from the supercool Finn McMissile to the gadgets to the music makes those of us old enough to remember them (or those willing to have checked them out on Netflix or cable TV) the spy movies of Caine, James Bond or James Coburn, among others. There are homages to these films scattered throughout, sometimes subtly and occasionally not so much.

This is a movie which is more about entertaining the audience than it is about blowing them out of their seats. It isn’t a bad thing to be entertained; it’s just that the bar has been set so high by previous Pixar films that it’s almost impossible for any movie to measure up. I suppose it’s not a bad thing for a film company to be victims of their own high standards – and this movie certainly is. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just not a great movie and I guess that’s enough to upset some people in the critical community. I can recommend it without a second thought, just don’t go in expecting too much other than mindless good fun and you’ll enjoy it purely on that level.

REASONS TO GO: Your kids will want to see it. Visually delightful.

REASONS TO STAY: Not on par with Pixar’s other films. Mostly fluffy, could easily have been a direct-to-cable film from a story standpoint.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfect for family viewing, as you’d expect.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Luigi visits Lightning to visit his Uncle Topolino. Topolino is the Italian name of Mickey Mouse.

HOME OR THEATER: This is going to seem sacrilegious, but I think it’s going to look just as great at home as it does in a movie theater.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: La Mission

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs


Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

I wouldn't be so calm with a monkey on my shoulder.

(Columbia) Starring the voices of Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Mr. T, Bruce Campbell, Andy Samberg, Benjamin Bratt, Neil Patrick Harris. Directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord

We all want to leave our mark upon the world, but for a lot of us, that boils down to one thing – impressing our parents. After all, if they can’t see us as successful, nobody else will.

Flint Lockwood (Hader) wants nothing more than to be an inventor. He has some innovative ideas, but quite frankly they don’t turn out quite the way he intended them to. The ratbirds he breeds escape into the wild, flocking around garbage cans and dumps. His remote control television develops a mind of its own and runs away. He creates a device that allows him to communicate with Steve (Harris), his monkey but Steve’s one word responses aren’t exactly what he had in mind and Steve is much more interested in ripping the moustache of his taciturn father (Caan).

His mother believes in him and encourages him, but after she passes away, he is left to be raised by his dad, a sardine fisherman who doesn’t really understand his son. The gulf between them is as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.

In fact, that’s essentially where they live, on an island well off the coast of America in the Atlantic. Swallow Falls is a company town and that company cans sardines. When the sardine market tanks, the town is left with a closed cannery, Baby Brent (Samberg) – the company mascot now grown to oversized adulthood and tons of unsold sardines which becomes the main food source for the islanders. Needless to say, they soon tire of sardines. Flint figures that he can change his status as town laughingstock by creating a device that will change water into food and sets out to build it in his backyard treehouse lab tower.

The town’s ambitious but corpulent mayor (Campbell) determines to reverse the town’s fortunes by creating Sardine Land, a destination theme park. However, Flint’s test of his rocket-powered food conversion device destroys the theme park, much to the disgust of Earl (Mr. T), the town’s lone police officer, but more importantly to the disappointment of his father. The device disappears into the stratosphere, leaving Flint once again to be the object of scorn.

Flint finds a kindred spirit in Sam Sparks (Faris), a wannabe weathercaster who thus far has been unable to rise above her intern status. Her first real assignment – covering the opening of Sardine Land – has turned into a debacle. The two are commiserating on the pier when a strange looking cloud approaches and starts to rain….cheeseburgers.

Yes, his device actually works and it creates a sensation. Thanks to Sam’s broadcast of the story, Swallow Falls becomes the center of the world’s attention. Flint goes from goat to hero in a single storm. He is able to program the menu from his lab and soon the requests come pouring in; jellybeans and ice cream for the kids, pizza and steak for the adults. Open-roofed restaurants become all the rage. The mayor happily gorges on the food that rains from the sky; there is such a surplus that a dam has to be built to hold the leftovers.

However, it turns out that there is a glitch in the software and the more that the device is asked to create, the more unstable it becomes. The food begins to get bigger and bigger until meatballs the size of Volkswagens begins to crash down from the clouds. Thanks to the incompetent mayor, the interface in Flint’s lab is destroyed. If the device isn’t shut down soon, the town will be wiped out and it is up to Flint to do it.

This is based on a children’s book popular 20 years ago, albeit very loosely. The original’s narrative was very barebones and the ink drawings not really in line with today’s animation style. The directors, who have a background in television with credits like “How I Met Your Mother” and “Clone High USA” on their resume, have crafted a movie that has received nothing but critical plaudits.

I have to admit I’m not as on board with the movie as other critics and even Da Queen are. I can admire the script which is cleverly written, full of the pop culture references that seem to be de rigueur for modern animated features, albeit in a much more subtle manner than most of them. There is a willful zaniness that owes a good deal to the Cartoon Network as much as anything else.

And maybe I’m a bit of a curmudgeon in that regard. I’m not a big fan of the Cartoon Network; I find most of the animation to be shoddy, the humor dumb and a little bit condescending to its audience. With few exceptions, most modern animated programs directed at kids seem to talk down to them.

That said, the casting is inspired. What could be more hip than having Bruce Campbell in your voice cast, and Mr. T as the acrobatic Earl is simply perfect. Everyone else does a solid job for the most part.

There are some good laughs and I suspect that most of you will probably like this a lot more than I did. I just couldn’t connect with it the way I have with things like Up, Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E and How to Train Your Dragon. That’s not a problem with the film; it’s a problem with me although I feel obliged to mention it, I can still recommend the movie to most audiences. I’m just not rating it higher because it’s the movie’s job to make that connection and it didn’t, and if it didn’t with me I’m sure that I’m not alone in that regard.

WHY RENT THIS: A well-written, clever script utilizes the pop culture references more subtly than, say, the Shrek series.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Simplistic animation not up to the sophistication of Pixar’s best work.

FAMILY VALUES: No worries – this is suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Earl has the exact opposite hairstyle than his voice actor Mr. T – instead of a T-shaped Mohawk he has a T-shaped bald spot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A music video by Miranda Cosgrove (with accompanying making-of featurettes) and a food fight game are built into the Special Edition DVD; the Blu-Ray also gives you an option to launch food at the screen while the movie is playing.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Kinky Boots