REVIEW: “Oz: The Great and Powerful”

Oz poster

Talk about a daunting task. You had to know at the outset that anyone attempting to make a prequel to the “The Wizard of Oz ” had to be prepared to face their share of analysis and scrutiny. The 1939 Victor Fleming film has long been revered as a timeless classic. So many hold dear the story of a homesick Dorothy and her little dog Toto who are whisked away to the magical land of Oz. So my big question going in was if “Oz: The Great and Powerful” could recapture the fantastical look and charm found in the original film? My biggest concern? Was this going to be another monotonous CGI-laden snoozer in the same vein as Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”?

First off I think the approach taken by “Oz: The Great and Powerful” was a smart one. Director Sam Raimi and company didn’t try to reconnect with the beloved classic characters of the first film. Instead they focus on Oscar Diggs and how he went from a ragtag traveling circus magician to being Emerald City’s Wizard of Oz. That idea offered plenty of potential for me and eventually I found myself attracted to this film. But as I sat down in my comfy theater seat, bookended by my two excited young children, I was once again faced with the same creeping concerns. Could Raimi actually pull this off?

OZ3

Most of the reviews I’ve read have been positive but not really enthusiastic. To be honest I’ve struggled gauging my own enthusiasm as well as deciding how many passes to give the film for its shortcomings. But in the end I found myself appreciating a lot more of what the movie accomplishes and the measurement of fun I had outweighed any of the film’s flaws for me. I would never be silly enough to put it on par with the 1939 movie, but I can gladly say there’s more to this film than you may think.

James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a struggling small-time magician for the Baum Brothers traveling circus (a fun tip of the hat to L. Frank Baum, the author of the original “Wizard of Oz” children’s book series). Oscar is a self-centered huckster who’s more focused on fame and his warped view of greatness than what really matters in life. We quickly see that the trail of deception he leaves in his real life mirrors that of his performances on stage. He’s a scoundrel and there’s not much to like about him. Of course considering the type of movie this is, it becomes pretty obvious that his redemption lies ahead. But the real interest is in following him on the journey he must take to get there.

la_ca_0226_oz

After some mischievous trickery during a stop in Kansas, Oscar ticks off the circus’ strongman and has to make a run for it. He hops in a hot air balloon and takes off but as luck would have it he’s sucked right into a tornado which transports him to the wonderful land of Oz. Sound familiar? Once there he finds out that Oz is facing a dark and dangerous threat. Oscar is perceived to be the fulfillment of a prophecy stating that a wizard would come to rid Oz of an evil wicked witch. It’s here that Oscar must choose whether to follow the path of his own self-indulgence or be willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the people. It’s a familiar struggle often seen in movies, but I love the way it works here especially considering this is a family film. It doesn’t bury or sugarcoat his moral dilemmas but it makes him face them in a way that’s satisfying for me as an adult as well as for my two kids.

Of course Oscar meets a variety of characters along the way including a winged monkey named Finley (Zach Braff) who becomes his comedic but tender sidekick and three witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams). His biggest challenge with them is figuring out who he can trust. Perhaps my favorite character he encounters is China Girl (Joey King), a china doll whose legs have been broken. It’s her story that I found to be the most moving of the entire picture. Oscar comes across her in the remains of her porcelain village. Everyone and everything is broken after a vicious attack by the wicked witch and she’s left alone. There’s a wonderful scene where Oscar fixes her legs with what he calls “magic in a bottle” (it’s simply glue). What makes the scene so good is that it mirrors an earlier scene at the circus where a young handicapped girl, a believer in Oscar’s magic, asks him to make her walk. Of course he can’t but this time he gets a chance to. It’s one of the first moments where we see a bit of the good in him.

OZ2

The story progresses and maintains a fairly predictable narrative. But it always provided an interesting turn and never allowed itself to get weighted down. But the story is just one component of the film. Many people were just as anxious to see how the film works visually. There are several techniques used to bring Oz to life. One of the best involves the shift from the black-and-white 4:3 ratio during the early circus scenes to the vibrant widescreen color we see when Oscar arrives in Oz. Both are extremely effective especially the earlier sequence which really captures the time period. But it’s in Oz where the visuals both wow and sputter.

Most of the time Oz looks tremendous with its profound colors and fantasy landscapes. But there were moments where the heavy coats of CGI were just too much. There were also a few CGI animations that were glaringly obvious. And then there’s the makeup. I was really anxious to see the wicked witch especially after being teased by her in the trailers. The first glimpse we get of her is a shadow on the wall. We get the classic hat, the pointy nose and protruding chin – everything I wanted. The problem is the shadow doesn’t match the face we get later on. During the close-ups she looks off. Her round face and silky-smooth green skin resembled something off of “The Mask”. On the other hand some of the effects were stunning. The best example is China Girl. From the way the light bounces off of her to her fluid motions, she’s a sight to behold. And for me that’s the case with most of this movie. It’s looks pretty amazing.

OZ4

I also have to mention the performances. I was pretty impressed with most of the work we see. James Franco was an interesting choice as Oscar but I think he does a good job. There were some scenes where he didn’t quite fit but there were others where I couldn’t imagine anyone handling them better. Overall I felt Franco was the glue that held everything together. If his performance fell short, so with that movie. Thankfully that wasn’t the case at all. Williams and Weisz were quite good and there are several fun familiar faces in smaller roles. But I have to admit I struggled with Kunis’ performance. I really felt she was all over the map and this was a role that was too big for her. Not big in terms of weighty, but it’s clearly something outside of her comfort zone and she’s unable to keep a level of consistency.

There are several other things I liked about the film from different nods to the 1939 movie to Sam Raimi’s own unique touches. For example his affection for horror is shown in a couple of scenes plucked straight out of “Evil Dead”. And of course there’s the great cameo by Raimi’s best buddy Bruce Campbell. All of these things help make this an enjoyable picture. It doesn’t completely cover up the movie’s predictability, Kunis’ sketchy performance, or the visual hiccups, but I was thoroughly entertained. Even better, “Oz: The Great and Powerful” is a rare family film that doesn’t strictly cater to one group or another and doesn’t fall into the trappings of so many of these movies. That alone makes it worth my money.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“MY WEEK WITH MARILYN” – 2 STARS

One thing that can be said for “My Week with Marilyn” is that it’s not your run-of-the-mill biopic. The movie is based on Colin Clark’s book about the making of “The Prince and the Showgirl”, a 1957 comedy starring Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. Said to have been a troubled set, “My Week with Marilyn” gives us an interesting glimpse at what it must have been like. But the movie mainly focuses on Colin Clark’s week-long relationship with Marilyn Monroe during the shoot. We spend a lot of time seeing the different sides of Marilyn through Adrian Hodges screenplay and the Oscar nominated performance of Michelle Williams. But while the film and especially Williams has received high praise, I found the movie lacking and in many ways missing the energy you would expect it to have.

The film starts with Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) leaving home in hopes of landing a job in the film industry. He ends up getting on with Laurence Olivier’s (Kenneth Branagh) new movie “The Prince and the Showgirl”. Marilyn Monroe (Williams) will be arriving to work on the picture and Colin’s first job is to find a home for her to stay in while she’s in London. Marilyn and Laurence get off on the wrong foot after she is late to the first script reading. This is a trend that continues throughout the filming of the movie and soon Laurence (who is also directing the picture) reaches his breaking point. Branagh is very good here and it’s quite obvious that he’s having a lot of fun with the role. He’s a likable character but very by-the-books when it’s time to work, something even his lovely but insecure wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormand) points out.

It’s during the stressful filming that we see Marilyn as extremely nervous and lacking any confidence in her acting abilities. In fact, she is almost always seen with her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) who actually serves more as a stabilizing mechanism to keep Marilyn from flying off the rails. Judi Dench plays Sybil Thorndike, a calm and soothing co-star who has sympathy for Marilyn and helps her build her confidence. But Marilyn doesn’t show up to the set one day and Colin is sent to check on her. A few days later Marilyn calls Colin to come over and see her. Colin is warned of Marilyn’s ways but his infatuation with her grows and grows. The relationship between the two is supposed to be unusual but I had a hard time finding any spark between them. Redmayne has the naive puppy dog thing working well but it was almost impossible to buy into their relationship.

I also thought the story, much like Colin and Marilyn’s fling, lacked any energy or vitality. I found my mind wandering during several scenes particularly when Marilyn is mumbling to Colin after taking to many pills. The movie just seems to hit an emotional flatline and I had a hard time staying interested. There were also times when Marilyn comes across as too childlike. I understand that the movie was trying to convey a type of childlike dependency in Marilyn but there were a couple of scenes where the script takes it too far.

But everything in this film comes back to the performance from Michelle Williams. She won a Golden Globe for the role but I have to say that I wasn’t as enamored with her work as most others have been. She certainly gives it everything she’s got and to be fair her biggest problem is that she’s let down by the material. But I never really felt like I was watching Marilyn Monroe. I always felt like I was watching someone play her. Now that may be expecting too much from Williams and it may be unfair. But this film hinges on the audience buying into Williams as Monroe and I only partially could.

When it comes down to it, “My Week with Marilyn” is pretty lightweight. It starts off strong but hits a rut at the midway point and spins its wheels for most of the second half of the film. Williams certainly isn’t bad here but she also isn’t Marilyn Monroe. I can see where if you buy into her performance completely, you’ll probably enjoy this film more than I did. But even with that, I would still have a hard time buying into this week-long lifeless fling. As I said at the beginning, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill biopic. But unfortunately it doesn’t use its uniqueness to create something special.

TOP 5 BEST LEAD ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2011

TOP 5 BEST LEAD ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2011

I hate to repeat myself but this was a good year for women in Hollywood. It was tough narrowing down my favorite lead actress performances to just 5. But after painfully omitting some genuinely great performances, I’ve come up with a list that I think shows the talent and range found from women leads in 2011. Here’s my top 5 lead actress performances of the year:

#5 – Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff)

While the movie’s out-of-the-blue ambiguous ending didn’t work for me, Michelle Williams’ performance certainly did. Williams’ acting range certainly can’t be questioned and she is fantastic in this rugged film about the Oregon Trail. She always stays controlled in a film that counts on deliberateness. While she’s received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe, I was drawn more to this unique and challenging performance.

#4 – Viola Davis (The Help)

The performances in “The Help” more than make up for the occasional stumbling blocks found in the writing and Viola Davis is particularly good. She gives a stirring performance that often times rises above the material and there are several scenes where she takes the movie and carries it. That’s a mark of a great actress and Davis certainly has the chops. She always feels genuine and she’s able to relay the raw emotion that many of her scenes call for. She has certainly earned the Oscar buzz she has received.

#3 – Saoirse Ronan (Hanna)

I really like Saoirse Ronan and her work in “Hanna” is just another reason why. It’s a tricky role in that it requires a child-like charm and an action movie-styled physicality. She keeps a steady balance to her character throughout the picture and had me sold hook, line, and sinker. Ronan shined in “The Lovely Bones” and I loved her in “The Way Back”, but this is her best performance yet and just a taste of what lies ahead for this immensely talented young actress.

#2 – Vera Farmiga (Higher Ground)

Vera Farmiga’s “Higher Ground” is a movie many people may have not seen, but it features one of the best performances of Farmiga’s career. She also directs the film but it’s her lead performance that carries the picture. She treats her material with care and compassion and I never found her anything but compelling. She was completely overlooked by Oscar which comes as no surprise. But there is no way I can’t include her performance as one of 2011’s best.

#1 – Juliette Binoche (Certified Copy)

From the start of “Certified Copy” I found myself absorbed in Juliette Binoche’s Elle. Who is she? I spent most of the movie mesmerized by her conversations and trying to figure out if she was real or simply a copy. I know that sounds vague but once you see the film you’ll know what I mean. Binoche is marvelous and her work stood above the other great female lead performances I saw last year. If you haven’t seen “Certified Copy”, see it. When you do you’ll be treated to a brilliant actress who knows her craft and shows it with her performance.

Agree or disagree? Please share you thoughts. Comment on who your Top 5 were.

“MEEK’S CUTOFF” – 3 1/2 STARS

To call “Meek’s Cutoff” a unique film would be an understatement. It’s a historical western of sorts from director Kelly Reichardt that follows three families and their guide as they travel on the Oregon Trail. Reichardt certainly doesn’t romanticize the American frontier life instead creating one of the most genuine portrayals of the hardships and struggles that faced the settlers in the new territory. But while the movie draws you in with it’s visual beauty, nice performances, and high stakes, it ultimately falls victim to one of the most unsatisfying endings you’ll see.

The film takes place in 1845 as the Tetherow, Gately, and White families follow the lead of Stephen Meek, a shaggy and rugged mountain man hired to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. He claims to know a shortcut but as the trip grows longer and the water starts running out, the families begin to question Meek. After running across an Indian and uncertain of his motives, they capture him much to the dismay of Meek who would rather just kill him. Eventually they are faced with a dilemma. Do they continue to follow Meek who by all indications seems lost or do the follow the Indian who they can’t communicate with but hopes can lead them to some much needed water?

“Meek’s Cutoff” is an incredibly slow developing picture that is sure to turn off some people. It does require a good deal of patience but it wasn’t long until I was thoroughly involved in the story. Reichardt does an incredible job giving the story an authentic look and feel and you really feel as if you are right there with them. The cinematography is wonderful and there some truly beautiful shots in the film. There are also some solid performances particularly from Michelle Williams, Will Patton, and Paul Greenwood who completely loses himself in the Meek character.

“Meek’s Cutoff” flirts with greatness but ends up falling short mainly due to an ending that left me feeling frustrated and shortchanged. Now I have no problem with ambiguity, leaving things open for interpretation, or allowing the audience to come up with their own conclusions. But this ending is terribly abrupt and features nothing that would cause me to come to my own conclusion about anything. To be honest, it felt unfinished and I couldn’t help but feel letdown.

It’s tough to watch a picture that does so many things right but fails to finish. It’s easy to talk about what all Reichardt accomplishes in her film. It’s a brilliant and arresting movie that had me sold right up to the very end. This one glaring black eye took so much away from my experience with the film. I understand this was a creative decision and many people have been satisfied with it. But for me, not only did “Meek’s Cutoff” not offer any real conclusion, but it gave me nothing to build mine upon. It felt a little cheap and lazy and ultimately made a potentially great film just a good film.