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

Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

I’m just the balloon man.

Copshop (2021) (SPOILERS) A consistent problem with Joe Carnahan’s oeuvre is that, no matter how confidently his movies begin, or how strong his premise, or how adept his direction or compelling the performances he extracts, he ends up blowing it. He blows it with Copshop , a ’70s-inspired variant on Assault on Precinct 13 that is pretty damn good during the first hour, before devolving into his standard mode of sado-nihilistic mayhem.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

When we have been subtle, then can I kill him?

The Avengers 6.16. Legacy of Death There’s scarcely any crediting the Terry Nation of Noon-Doomsday as the same Terry Nation that wrote this, let alone the Terry Nation churning out a no-frills Dalek story a season for the latter stages of the Jon Pertwee era. Of course, Nation had started out as a comedy writer (for Hancock), and it may be that the kick Brian Clemens gave him up the pants in reaction to the quality of Noon-Doomsday loosened a whole load of gags. Admittedly, a lot of them are well worn, but they come so thick and fast in Legacy of Death , accompanied by an assuredly giddy pace from director Don Chaffey (of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts ) and a fine ensemble of supporting players, that it would be churlish to complain.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.