The Wretched


When a troubled teen comes to call, don’t always answer the door.

(2019) Horror (IFC Midnight)  John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Azie Tesfai, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley, Gabriela Quezada Bloomgarden, Richard Ellis, Blane Cockarell, Judah Abner Paul, Ja’layah Washington, Amy Waller, Ross Kidder, Kasey Bell, Harry Burkey, Trudie Underhiill, Sydne Mikelle, Tug Coker, Madelynn Stunekel.  Directed by Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce

 

In this pandemic, we’ve focused on the most vulnerable members of our society – the elderly. However, we sometimes forget the other vulnerable side of society – the children. The Pierce brothers, who have assembled this slick horror yarn together, certainly haven’t.

In the 1980s, a hapless babysitter stumbles on the mother of her charge chowing down on her own kid. Faster than you ca say Dario Argento she ends up locked in the cellar with a hungry mama. Flash forward to now which is when sullen rebellious teen Ben (Howard) is forced to spend the summer with his Dad working the lakeside marina in Michigan with his Dad (Jones) after an incident left him with a broken arm and an exasperated mom.

The only consolation is the perky Mallory (Curda) who works at the marina with him, so Ben battens down the hatches for a rough summer squall, made even rougher when he gets the depressing news that his dad has a new girlfriend (Tesfai). However, that soon takes a back seat to the family next door, whose tattooed mom Sara (Mahler) has taken to scaring her young son (Cockarell) and butchering a deer she accidentally hits with her car on the way home from a walk in the woods. Unbeknownst to her, there was something hiding in the deer carcass, something that has designs on her but more to the point, to feed on her son.

Nobody believes Ben that there is something very sinister going on so in the finest plucky teen fashion he goes about trying to save the town from itself but it isn’t easy because nobody can remember the family next door having a child. That turns out to be really inconvenient – and puts the crosshairs right on Ben.

It’s no accident that the film’s prelude took place in the 80s, because the movie is rooted in the cinema of that era. There are elements of Steven Spielberg fantasy, with the broken family and the plucky kids; it’s an oeuvre that has become massively popular as of late thanks to the Netflix series Stranger Things but other than the intro, this film is also rooted firmly in modern horror.

To the credit of the Pierce Brothers and their cinematographer Conor Murphy, the movie looks like something that a major studio might have put out. Every technical aspect of the film works to perfection, from the mainly practical effects to the score to the sound to the set design. There are some really nice scares to be had here, although there’s a feeling that the Pierce Brothers realized that their budget was such that they couldn’t afford a really decent build-up so they skipped right to the climactic battle. For that reason, the pacing feels a bit off and the ending disappointing.

Still, this is an engaging and – dare I say it – fun summer-style horror film that makes for essential quarantine viewing, particularly for those who love the influences I mentioned. If anyone who loves the horror genre is looking for the next James Wan, we may have found them for you.

REASONS TO SEE: The horror sequences are well-done.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending feels a bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, sexual situations, child peril and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in Northport, Michigan.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fright Night
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Aquaman

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween


Trick or treat!!

(2018) Family (Columbia) Wendi McLendon-Covey, Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Caleel Harris, Ken Jeong, Jack Black, Chris Parnell, Bryce Cass, Peyton Wich, Shari Headley, Christian Finlayson, Matthew Jose Vasquez, Courtney Cummings, Jessi Goel, Drew Scheid, Taylor Siva, Sydney Bullock, Jason Looney, Kendrick Cross, Deja Dee. Directed by Ari Sandel

 

I always look askance at a young adult author whose book series is described as a “phenomenon.” The only audience more fickle than adults are kids. Phenomenons come and go with the regularity of Trump tweets.

In this sequel set in the universe of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, two young would-be entrepreneurs (and middle school students) Sonny (Taylor) and Sam (Harris) unexpectedly find an unfinished Stine manuscript in a creepy old house and free Slappy, the malevolent ventriloquist dummy (voiced by Mick Wingert) is brought to life. At first, all he wants is a family of his own, which makes Sonny’s big sister Sarah (Iseman) suspicious although their single mom Kathy (McLendon-Covey) is blissfully unaware that the dummy is sentient. When Slappy is ultimately refused, he decides to get himself some revenge – by using his magic to bring to life Stine-influenced Halloween decorations and turn the sleepy upstate New York own into perpetual Halloween.

The movie doesn’t compare favorably with the first one; although Black (as author R.L. Stine) is in the film, he doesn’t show up until the very end in what is a glorified cameo, although he does set up a Goosebumps 3 should Columbia elect to make one. A little more Black would have gone a long way, but to be fair he was busy making a competing film and was unable to participate fully in this one.

That leaves us with the kids to carry the film and quite frankly that’s not something they’re capable of quite yet. Their performances are inconsistent and frequently wooden. Still, the movie does okay thanks to some fairly nifty special effects and the character of Slappy who makes a delightful villain for the younger set.

REASONS TO SEE: Slappy makes an outstanding kidflick villain.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too much like the first.
FAMILY VALUES: There are mildly scary sequences, rude humor, some light profanity, and images of monsters and creatures.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jack Black and Madison Iseman were both in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle but unlike here, they didn’t share any screen time together.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere,  Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The House With a Clock In Its Walls
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Afterward

The House With a Clock In Its Walls


Welcome to the dark ages.

(2018) Young Adult Fantasy (UniversalJack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Colleen Camp, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Braxton Bjerken, Vanessa Anne Williams, Ricky Lynn Muse, Charles Green, DJ Watts, Aaron Beelner, Joshua Phillips, Christian Calloway, Caleb Lawrence, Dylan Gage Moore, Eli Roth, Alli Paige Beckham. Directed by Eli Roth

 

I don’t know why Hollywood has such a problem with adapting young adult fantasy franchises from their original book form. Other than the Harry Potter series, every attempt has led to movies that ranged from dreadful to dull and were more often than not, both. This first book in a series from author John Bellairs fares no differently.

Young Lewis (Vaccaro) has been orphaned. It’s 1955, so he has been sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black) in Michigan. Jonathan lives in a mansion that you just know is haunted – all it lacks is hitchhiking ghosts – that is stocked with odd magical creatures, like a chair that is too eager to please and a garden topiary shaped like a griffin that – I kid you not – craps mulch.

Then again, Lewis is a bit of an oddball himself so he fits right in. Along with their prim and proper neighbor Florence (Blanchett) who carries on a platonic friendship with Jonathan, they are investigating the mystery of a ticking clock in the walls of the house that could well signal an apocalyptic cataclysm enacted by the fully evil previous owner (MacLachlan) who is definitely dead but certainly not gone. Jonathan is a warlock and Florence a witch but are they powerful enough to stop the evil machinations of a much more powerful magician?

Eli Roth, who helped popularize torture porn with films like Hostel back in the 90s, might at first seem like an odd choice for this kind of movie until you realize that before he started his run of blood-soaked horror features he was directing animated shorts for children, so he isn’t without understanding of the kid mentality. That’s why it’s sad that the film falls victim to the same trap most of the other failed young adult franchise adaptations fell into – talking down to their audience. Kids are definitely not dumber versions of adults; they’re just less experienced. Sure, you can make ‘em laugh with vomiting jack o’lanterns as Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke (who helmed the superior Supernatural series on the CW) do but that is disrespecting your audience. If you wonder why the Potter series succeeded where so many others failed, look at the way they developed their characters and respected their story as well as their target audience. Studios don’t seem inclined to do that these days, I’m afraid.

Blanchett is a ray of sunshine as Florence and she gets many of the best moments in the film. Black does his best, but he’s a much more effective performer when there’s a bit of an edge to his game. Vaccaro is likely a nice kid, but he’s playing a boy who is supposed to be grieving and the scenes in which he’s called upon to cry for them are just appalling. I don’t blame him; I blame the casting director who put him in a terrible position.

The effects are passable and the movie is loaded – perhaps overloaded – with them. It lacks character development, substituting quirks for characters, and humor that will appeal to parents as well as kids. Toilet humor is the refuge of the faithless, and it is clear that the filmmakers had no faith that their audience could handle humor that’s above the level of a three-year-old.

REASONS TO SEE: Cate Blanchett is absolutely terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Simplistic plot and passable effects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some scary content, fantasy violence, rude humor and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film directed by Roth not to receive an R rating in the U.S.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Fubo, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Showtime, Sling TV,  Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Goosebumps
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Collette

Abnormal Attraction


In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

(2018) Horror Comedy (Random Media) Malcolm McDowell, Leslie Easterbrook, Nathan Reid, Melanie Iglesias, Jason Leavy, Michael Buscemi, Ron Jeremy, Gilbert Gottfried, Tyler Mane, Bruce Davison, Jim Hanks, Carly Brooke, Krista Ayne, Bethany Watson, Courtney Baxter, Rebecca Ruber, Michael Barra, Nicole Balsam, Michelle Taylor, Renae Geerlings, Lesleh Donaldson. Directed by Michael Leavy

 

Prejudice is deeply ingrained into out culture. That which is different than us is generally regarded with deep suspicion, whether a different race, religion or even political affiliation. What about creatures that aren’t even human? What could be more different than that – and how likely would it be, if such existed, that they would be regarded with the most suspicion of all.

In the world of Abnormal Attraction the monsters of myth, legend and literature coexist alongside of humans. Vampires walk the streets at night; werewolves howl at the moon and yeti sell snow cones from ice cream trucks. Nick Lane (Re.id) doesn’t really care about all that; he’s a therapist who deals with interspecies relationships. He’s also engaged to Catherine (Iglesias) although the relationship has hit a bit of a rocky patch. He needs to spend some time with her and he asks his colleague Dr. Stanley Cole (Davison) to take over running an AA meeting for him in order to do that.

But AA doesn’t stand for what you think it stands for – unless you thought it stood for Abnormal Attraction. It’s a 12-step group for humans who are obsessed with other species. Dr. Cole is totally unprepared for the type of stories the participants in the meeting have to tell! In the meantime, Madame Hildie (Easterbrook) and her partner-in-crime the Boogeyman (McDowell) have plans to make the human race go the way of the dinosaur – and monsters will at last rule the earth!

If this sounds like a big budget studio movie with plenty of special effects, well, maybe it should have been. The monster make-up ranges from decent to downright WTF (like the Purple People Eater which looks like a really bad case of the measles) and the Cyclops (Mane) who let’s just say that his curtains don’t match the drapes.

The horror comedy mostly revolves around the scatological and the sexual with the latter dominating. My notes read that this feels like a movie made by 12-year-old boys for 12-year-old boys; Police Academy veteran Easterbrook probably felt right at home. There’s a whole lot of raunchiness and slapstick humor which may or may not appeal to you personally; humor is a highly individual thing and if you like your humor highbrow, this is definitely not the film for you. Truth be told though, I found some of the sequences really funny, like when Frank Stein (Hanks) explains why he doesn’t like to be called Frankenstein. Maybe not comedy gold, but at least comedy bronze.

But the movie’s heart is at least in the right place – there is a message of tolerance and of being non-judgmental that some movies with more intellectual appeal than this failed to get across as well including the most recent Best Picture winner. You could do a lot worse for entertainment value than this as long as you keep your expectations low.

REASONS TO SEE: You can’t fault the filmmakers for lack of ambition, only lack of budget.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor seems aimed at 12-year-old boys.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexual innuendo and sexual slurs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While on the festival circuit the film was nominated for 24 awards, winning nine of them.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cast a Deadly Spell
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Wind

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


Newt Scamander is about to make the 20s roar.

Newt Scamander is about to make the 20s roar.

(2016) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo, Dan Hedaya, Jon Voight, Gemma Chan, Ron Perlman, Zoë Kravitz, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Jenn Murray, Peter Bretmeier, Kevin Guthrie, Ronan Raftery, Josh Cowdery, Ellie Haddington, Johnny Depp, Anne Wittman. Directed by David Yates

 

J.K. Rowling is a household name and for all the right reasons. A single mum living on the dole at one time, she wrote a fabulous book about a boy wizard named Harry Potter that while ostensibly for children was also well-written enough that adults got into it too. Seven books later, she was a billionaire and the wealthiest woman in Britain save for the Queen herself. Admirably, she gave much of her wealth away, returning it to the government whose assistance allowed her to survive while she wrote her books. Their investment in her paid off.

One of the textbooks that Harry Potter studied at Hogwart’s was Newt Scamander’s bestselling textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He even had his own Chocolate Frog wizard card. So how did he get to be so famous?

Rowling – who wrote the script as the first of five movies – set this some seventy years before the Potter films and across an ocean. Scamander (Redmayne) arrives at Ellis Island in New York City in 1926 en route to Arizona. Newt is a magizoologist – an expert in magical creatures. He is carrying a ratty old suitcase with him, one with a latch that just won’t stay closed. Inside his TARDIS-like case is a whole ecology where specimens of the various creatures he has collected are residing. Some are being relocated to places where they have a better chance of surviving. None of them are allowed in the United States.

Rather than having a Ministry of Magic, the wizards in the New World are governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America – MACUSA for short. They have recently emerged from a battle with the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Depp) and they are a bit by-the-book these days. When Newt’s case is accidentally switched with the case of Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), an aspiring baker and No-Maj (the American equivalent of a muggle, or person without magical skills), chaos ensues as several creatures escape.

Demoted MACUSA agent Tina Goldstein (Waterston) arrests Newt for being an unregistered wizard but when the case he is carrying is revealed to have baked goods in it, he is released. Tina and Newt end up joining forces to re-capture the beasts with the assistance of Tina’s sister Queenie (Sudol) who has precognitive powers, and Jacob. However, with Chief Auror (magical investigator) Percival Graves (Farrell) hot on their trail, they need to find the creatures quickly.

But that’s not all that’s going on. A malevolent magical force has been wreaking havoc on the city and there is a society of No-Maj activists led by Mary Lou Barebone (Morton) and her abused son Credence (Miller) and daughters Chastity (Murray) and Modesty (Wood-Blagrove) are helping to create an atmosphere in which the magical community is feeling threatened. Keeping the existence of wizards and witches may no longer be possible when Newt’s beasts begin to make their presence felt.

This has been justifiably one of the most hyped movies of the year and certainly one of the most eagerly anticipated. Does it measure up with the Potter franchise? Well, yes and no. From a sheer spectacle standpoint, the beasts themselves are entirely magnificent. Yates has also created a very living and breathing jazz age New York City and in many ways that’s being overlooked by those praising (and a few damning) the film. The environments both magical and real are visually compelling and inviting.

Part of the issue is that while millions are familiar with Hogwart’s and the world of Harry Potter, in essence Rowling is starting from scratch. The Wizarding World is distinct and different from the world being built in the Fantastic Beasts series. Sure, they name-check Albus Dumbledore (and he is due to appear in the second film of the series) and of course Scamander himself is name-checked in the very first Potter film but there is little overlap. Therefore there is a ton of exposition so the movie feels turgid at times.

Fogler as Jacob felt far more sympathetic and heroic to me than Redmayne did. Of course, Scamander is somewhat socially awkward and tends to isolate himself from people and wizards, being more comfortable around animals. Still, Redmayne is rather bland in his portrayal of the wizard and my attention is less on him than on Jacob who has no magical skills but has a ton of heart. His romance with Queenie is sweet and touching and the most emotional moment in the film belongs to Fogler and for my money, that is the moment that will stay with me from this particular movie.

While I’ve been perhaps a little overly critical of the movie, don’t think for a moment that this isn’t sheer entertainment. Yates is a veteran at creating magical spectacles and the movie retains the feel of the later-stage Potter films that Yates directed. Hopefully the succeeding movies won’t need to set up as much backstory and be able to just tell the story at hand.

REASONS TO GO: The fantastic beasts are enchanting as are the special effects. Fogler steals the show. The place and period is nicely captured.
REASONS TO STAY: Redmayne is actually rather vanilla here and doesn’t seem capable of bearing the weight of the franchise on his shoulders as Radcliffe did. There is a ton of exposition here which slows down the pacing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence of a fantasy nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The grey and yellow scarf that Newt wears is a nod to his origins as a member of Hufflepuff house at Hogwart’s.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spiderwick Chronicles
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Loving

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones


Stop! In the name of love...

Stop! In the name of love…

(2013) Supernatural Fantasy (Screen Gems) Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Kevin Zegers, Robert Sheehan, Lena Headey, Kevin Durand, Aidan Turner, Jemima West, Godfrey Gao, CCH Pounder, Jared Harris, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Harry van Gorkum, Stephen R. Hart, Chad Connell, Chris Ratz, Elyas M’Barek, Melantha Blackthorne, Lucy DeLaat. Directed by Harold Zwart

Even William Shakespeare knew enough to write “tis nothing new under the sun” and nearly 500 years later that’s even more true. We’ve seen it all and there is little out there that is going to be completely original. Of late there have been a spate of young adult fantasy books that have gone for film franchise-dom a la Harry Potter and Twilight with varying degrees of failure – most don’t get past the first installment. Is this another would-be phenomenon destined to crash and burn?

Clary (Collins) is a fairly normal Brooklyn teenager who has just had her 18th birthday (at least I think so – she’s apparently old enough to go to bars and drink) who has had enough of her overprotective mother Jocelyn (Headey). She’s not really seeing anybody, although her bookish buddy Simon (Sheehan) wouldn’t mind changing that which Clary is wholly oblivious to.

However Jocelyn has good reason to want Clary home early – she’s part of a half-human, half-angel group of warriors called the Shadowhunters, who battle demons in the ongoing war of good against evil. When Clary witnesses (apparently) a brutal murder in a nightclub, she’s pretty shaken up but more so when she comes home to find her apartment trashed and her mother missing. Oh, and there’s a demonic dog waiting to play fetch with her intestines.

She’s saved by a Shadowhunter named Jace (Bower), a blonde even prettier than Clary who’s a bit of a badass in his metal band leather pants and bad boy with a heart of gold attitude, certainly enough to have teenage girls hearts melt in ways that Buffy’s Angel and Twilight’s Edward could only dream of. He takes her to the Institute, home base for the few remaining Shadowhunters where they and housebound Hodge (Harris) discuss ancient runes and compare Goth tattoos.

Apparently Clary is being stalked by Valentine (Meyers), a renegade Shadowhunter who only wants to rule the world (doesn’t everybody?) and his thugs as well as vampires (bad) and werewolves (good). They discover that Valentine is after an artifact called the Mortal Cup, one of several powerful artifacts that Hodge is aware of. Clary and her friends will seek the help of a somewhat agoraphobic witch (Pounder) and a mackin’ wizard (Gao) but the only salvation for Clary and her mother will lie inside Clary. But when Clary finds out the truth about who she is, which side will she choose?

The source young adult novel by author Cassandra Clare was over 500 pages in length. There are a couple of ways to go about adapting it – one, cut extraneous plot points out and condense the novel into a 120 page script, or cram as much as you can in there. The filmmakers went the latter route and unfortunately that leads to the serious drawback of an often confusing and conflicting plot. While those who love the series (and there are 22 million copies of the book sold worldwide) will be happy that they didn’t skimp (although the book is far more detailed on the background of the Shadowhunters), those that are less familiar with the books may feel like they’re treading water.

We might be able to tolerate the overabundance of plot if it weren’t so darn familiar. Those who wait for the home video edition of the movie can have themselves a nifty little drinking game if they try to spot all the plot elements borrowed from other movies – I stopped keeping track after I saw things from Twilight, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Priest. Someone can get themselves smashed real good playing that game.

The mostly young cast are exceptionally attractive (even the semi-nerdy Simon is quite the hunk) so that will appeal to the teen audience to whom such aesthetics are important. In terms of their skills as actors, let’s just say they’re an attractive cast and leave it at that. Collins in particular doesn’t seem to have done much more than reprise her work from Mirror, Mirror.

While the movie looks good and the CGI isn’t bad, the movie’s final confrontation suffers from an excess of histrionics. I do think they were going for an epic scale on this one but really fell short of the mark. I also think that they are really trying to play to the Twilight crowd with a plucky heroine with hidden powers who has two gorgeous guys vying to be her protector and both deeply in love with her yet she merely bestows semi-chaste kisses on one and not even that on the other. Screen Gems confidently green-lit the sequel even before City of Bones opened but the anemic box office and terrible critical reception may cause them to reconsider. Unfortunately, this is just another in a long line of young adult fantasy adaptations that fails to make it as a cinematic franchise which begs the question – maybe if they tried doing some adult fantasy series (i.e. The Wheel of Time, The Codex Alera or Shannara) maybe they might attract a broader audience – but maybe people who read a lot of books don’t have time to go to the movies as much.

REASONS TO GO: Attractive cast. Decent effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Meandering plot. Overwrought climax. Borrows from other sources a bit too freely.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s violence of a fantasy nature, some fairly disturbing-looking demons and some sexually suggestive content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Collins, who was an ardent fan of the book series, active campaigned for the role of Clary when she discovered that there was to be a film made of it.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: American Reunion

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

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