Skip to main content

Ladies and gentlemen, your wizard is here!


Oz The Great and Powerful
(2013)

At what point was Oz was doomed to failure? Was it when Disney gave the green light, with the set aim of cooking up another $1bn+ Alice in Wonderland monster? When Sam Raimi came on-board, putting back in the box all the energy and twisted sense of fun that erupted forth in Drag Me to Hell? Or when James Franco was confirmed as the lead, a media polymath of mediocre abilities and even less charisma?


Franco certainly stands out for bringing nothing to the table aside from that insincere, all-purpose grin of his. He’s horribly miscast, presumably settled on by Raimi as a distant third of fourth choice due to their Spider-man association. Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs is introduced as a philandering, con-man stage magician. He’s an entirely self-serving individual and so needs an actor of some warmth and presence to portray him. How else is the audience to get behind him, no matter what? If Johnny Depp (mooted) might have been an obvious and distracting pick (break out the face paint, Johnny!), Robert Downey Jr. would have been perfect; it’s easy to hear him delivering (generally unmemorable) Franco’s dialogue and injecting his cadence and sparkle into it. Not that Downey Jr. should have wasted his energies on a project so uninspired. One might argue that Franco’s a good fit, a strip of blandness at the movie’s core.


But, when you hear Bruce Campbell giving it his all in his par for the course Raimi cameo, it’s a reminder of the knock-about energy and fun Oz is so lacking in every department. Raimi’s casting is as dull as it gets. Rachel Weisz lacks the necessary gusto and malevolence as Evanora; you barely remember her after the movie is over, except in her failure to carry her voice during speeches. Charlize Theron made a much better evil witch/queen type in last year’s Snow White and the Huntsman. If Weisz is forgettable, Mila Kunis makes an impression for all the wrong reasons. She has the tone and manner of a discontented teenager, and carries this on past her green-skinned transformation. She brings no weight, bearing or vocal control, no (perhaps I should hesitate to say this, as it’s usually used to insult a performance) theatricality.


That leaves Michelle Williams, who is fine as Glinda the Good Witch; she is suitably aglow with beneficence. Oz’s companions, Zach Braff’s cheeky monkey and Joey King’s heartstrings-tugging China Girl are reasonable as comic relief and nurturing Oz’s good side respectively. But they also further emphasise just how derivative this already derivative and uninvolving screenplay is. About the only arresting aspect is purely visual; Robert Stromberg’s production design (he previously contributed to Avatar and Alice in Wonderland). But even this alternates between rainbow-coloured extravagance and green screen flatness (perhaps a consequence of shooting in 3D; Raimi surprisingly resists the urge to indulge in the baser possibilities of the format, excepting a moment when a key character plunges headlong toward the camera).


Mitchel Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire are the credited writers, the latter brought on as development continued. With The Whole Nine Yards and its sequel to his credit, Kapner isn’t perhaps the most illustrious in the field. Lindsay-Abaire worked on Inkheart, Rabbit Hole, and Rise of the Guardians, so probably seemed like a natural fit. But Raimi ends up with little more than a mishmash of the MGM musical The Wizard of Oz and the plot beats of Disney’s recent Alice. With a male protagonist (this was important, apparently). Raimi begins in sepia, 1:66:1 frame, intentionally evoking the first Oz movie incarnation, and immediately administers dual roles to key cast members (Williams is Annie, mother of a child Oz has all-but abandoned, Braff is his devoted but ill-treated assistant Frank and King a girl in a wheelchair requesting that Oz heals her).


This might be regarded as homage but the tepid quality instead merely ensures recognition that there’s no stepping out from under the enormous shadow of Judy Garland et al. So the Wicked Witch of the West is cackling and green rides a broom. And the magician is given travelling companions, but rather lacklustre ones.


Structurally, Oz walks the same path as Alice in Wonderland. Our hero/heroine encounters the villain(ness) early on and later, after he/she meets the good queen/witch, leads an army into battle to expel the darkness veiling the land. There’s no rigour to the plotting; no surprise or twists and turns. It follows an entirely predictable, “this happens and then this happens” path.


Not least of which is the discovery of the essential goodness of Oz, replete with the expected moments of doubt (has he fled like a coward after all?). What’s the message with Oz anyway? Trickery and deceit are okay if they are put to a worthy end? The thought occurred that this might parallel the justification of the past decade or so of US foreign policy (Raimi tends to the conservative, after all), although that would require a tacit acknowledgement that overtures of allegiances were in due course broken (Theodora) and provoked the situation. Indeed, Oz orchestrates a propaganda war (magic tricks and illusions) in order to strike the hardest blow against his enemy.


I’m sure it’s a broken-backed reading, but it’s a pronouncement against Raimi’s slack grip on the material that my mind wandered there. Only during Oz’s climactic confrontation does the movie click into gear, such that antithetical notion of science outmatching (real) magic is rendered almost believable (it’s one of the many problems of the film that the powers of the witches are so ill-defined).


Sam Raimi hasn’t underwhelmed like this since For Love of the Game, a movie taken on out of the desire to attain some commercial clout. Possibly his thinking here was along similar lines. Drag Me to Hell was a disappointment at the box office, and he had walked away from Spider-man 4. So he made something utterly indistinct authorially. Oz was no flop, but at half a billion worldwide it was far from another Alice. Given the deficiencies of that film did nothing to deter audiences, I’d come back to the casting as Oz’s greatest error. Like it or not, Tim Burton made sure everyone in his movie was memorable; Raimi did precisely the opposite. And unlike Alice (not exactly demanding a follow-up, whereas Oz is designed exactly for continuations), a sequel must look doubtful at the moment unless the costs are kept down (of course, a script is “in development” but one always is). Raimi should just go and make Evil Dead IV.

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

One day you will speak and the jungle will listen.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)
(SPOILERS) The unloved and neglected Jungle Book movie that wasn't Disney’s, Jungle Book: Origins was originally pegged for a 2016 release, before being pushed to last year, then this, and then offloaded by Warner Bros onto Netflix. During which time the title changed to Mowgli: Tales from the Jungle Book, then Mowgli, and finally Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The assumption is usually that the loser out of vying projects – and going from competing with a near $1bn grossing box office titan to effectively straight-to-video is the definition of a loser – is by its nature inferior, but Andy Serkis' movie is a much more interesting, nuanced affair than the Disney flick, which tried to serve too many masters and floundered with a finale that saw Mowgli celebrated for scorching the jungle. And yes, it’s darker too. But not grimdarker.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

A steed is not praised for its might, but for its thoroughbred qualities.

The Avengers Season 3 Ranked - Worst to Best
Season Three is where The Avengers settles into its best-known form – okay, The Grandeur that was Rome aside, there’s nothing really pushing it towards the eccentric heights it would reach in the Rigg era – in no small part due to the permanent partnering of Honor Blackman with Patrick Macnee. It may not be as polished as the subsequent incarnations, but it has the appeal of actively exploring its boundaries, and probably edges out Season Five in the rankings, which rather started to believe its own hype.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

What about the panties?

Sliver (1993)
(SPOILERS) It must have seemed like a no-brainer. Sharon Stone, fresh from flashing her way to one of the biggest hits of 1992, starring in a movie nourished with a screenplay from the writer of one of the biggest hits of 1992. That Sliver is one Stone’s better performing movies says more about how no one took her to their bosom rather than her ability to appeal outside of working with Paul Verhoeven. Attempting to replicate the erotic lure of Basic Instinct, but without the Dutch director’s shameless revelry and unrepentant glee (and divested of Michael Douglas’ sweaters), it flounders, a stupid movie with vague pretensions to depth made even more stupid by reshoots that changed the killer’s identity and exposed the cluelessness of the studio behind it.

Philip Noyce isn’t a stupid filmmaker, of course. He’s a more-than-competent journeyman when it comes to Hollywood blockbuster fare (Clear and Present Danger, Salt) also adept at “smart” smaller pictures (Rabbit Proof Fence

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.