REVIEW: “Oz: The Great and Powerful”

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

TOP 5 LEADING ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2012

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We’ve had some amazing supporting performances from some incredibly talented men and women. Now we move into the lead performance categories and let me say there were a lot to choose from. As I mulled over my options for the top lead actress performances, I had forgotten how many strong female lead performances there were in 2012. So many of them stood out and stuck with me. That’s one reason it was so difficult to leave some off this list. But that’s the nature of Top 5 lists, right? Ok, enough babbling. Here are the Top 5 Lead Actress Performances (according to me)…

5 – EMILY BLUNT (“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”)

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I’m on record as being a big, big Emily Blunt fan. Well, this is one example why. Once you get past its goofy title “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” has a lot to offer. One of the highlights is Blunt’s delightful performance. She plays opposite Ewen McGregor and the two have a very different but enjoyable chemistry. Blunt is charming and witty and she brings her signature playfulness to this character that I love. But Blunt does a lot more than just smile and giggle. She has some really heartfelt scenes that I think give the movie its punch. The Golden Globes surprised people by giving her a nomination for her work. For me it was a very pleasant surprise.

#4 – RACHEL WEISZ – (“The Deep Blue Sea”)

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Rachel Weisz has come a long way since I first saw her in “The Mummy”. Since then she has stretched out her talent to reveal some serious acting chops. She showed it again in this year’s underappreciated “The Deep Blue Sea“. In this layered British drama from Terence Davies, she plays a character trapped by her own poor decision. Her desire for passion muddies her vision of true love and Weisz takes us through all the conflicting emotions and subsequent heartbreak that this fragile woman endures. It’s a powerful and complex role that only works because of Weisz’s brilliance.

#3 – NAOMI WATTS – (“The Impossible”)

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Naomi Watts is another one of those actresses that gets a lot of praise but yet I was never fully convinced of her work. That has changed and I now see she is a tremendous actress. You can see that clearly by her strong work in “The Impossible“. This is one of the most believable and captivating performances of 2012. Her ability to convey a mother’s love for her family is amazing but watching her sell both the physical and emotional pain her character is enduring is acting at its finest. Talk about giving everything to a performance! Watts nails it.

#2 – JESSICA CHASTAIN – (“Zero Dark Thirty”)

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2011 was a fantastic year for Jessica Chastain. She was featured in two of my favorite movies of the year, “The Tree of Life” and “Take Shelter”. But 2012 saw her soar even higher with an incredible lead performance in “Zero Dark Thirty“. She plays a tough and determined CIA operative heading the search for Osama bin Laden. Watching Chastain take her character through the highs and lows of the search is a delight. She gives us a character who is hard-nosed and aggressive yet we also see her emotionally laboring under the burden of her mission. Chastain channels all of this brilliantly while establishing herself as a bonafide superstar.

#1 – QUVENZHANE WALLIS – (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”)

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I just smile when I think of Quvenzhane Wallis and her performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild“. This amazing newcomer was only 5 years old when she auditioned for the part and 6 years old during filming. That alone is stunning especially after seeing the beautiful work she did. This is a sweet but heartbreaking role and it’s impossible to not be deeply moved by what you see. Wallis navigates through this weighty material with a grounded authenticity and a skill that makes you think she’s a professional. Hats off to the Academy for giving this young star the recognition she deserves.

So where did I get it right and where was I wrong. Share your thoughts as well as your favorite lead actress performances. Tomorrow I wrap it up with the Top 5 Lead Actor Performances of 2012.

“Dream House” – 2 STARS

Don’t you hate it when you buy a new house only to find out it was the scene of some grisly murders? Such is the case with Jim Sheridan’s schizophrenic psychological thriller “Dream House” – well, kinda. This is a movie featuring loads of talent and at its core a familiar but fairly interesting story. But it’s also a movie plagued with amateurish writing and an off-the-rails ending that undermines everything the movie tries to do.

The film starts with the standard yet pretty interesting haunted house treatment. Will (Daniel Craig) has quit his job as a successful editor to spend more time with his wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and his two daughters in their new suburban home. As always things seem lovely at first. But through several discoveries they find out that five years earlier some horrible murders had taking place in their home. Their weird-acting neighbors and the uncooperative Police Department sends Will on an investigation of his own.

It’s here that the movie offers a big twist, and then another twist, and then another twist. Now I’ve always appreciated when a movie tries to shake things up. But here it’s done in a hamfisted and clunky way. The first big reveal does offer promise although it doesn’t necessarily take things in a better direction. From there the story launches into several different directions mimicking everything from “Shutter Island” to “The Shining”. This wouldn’t be a problem except everything feels fractured and manufactured and the constant shifts in tone are jarring. It just keeps throwing things at you right up to its ludicrous and off-the-wall ending. I mean the finale is so poorly conceived, so under developed, and utterly preposterous.

A lot of what does work can be contributed to the committed performances from Craig and Weisz. While the material is all over the place the two do inject some energy and spark into the script and I enjoyed them on screen. On the flip side, the usually good Naomi Watts seems bored playing a neighbor who knows more than she’s letting on. And then you have an equally flat performance from Marton Csokas as her jerk ex-husband. He ends up having a fairly important role in the movie but he’s without a doubt the worst written character in the entire film.

“Dream House” is ambitious and it starts on a pretty good note. But all of its ambition ends up being its undoing. Yet while critics have universally panned it, there are certainly worse thrillers out there. In fact, “Dream House” is a very watchable movie and it’s easy to digest. But it’s also an easy movie to forget and unfortunately it’s plagued with too many faults to forgive. And the biggest bummer is that all of this great talent simply goes to waste.

“THE DEEP BLUE SEA” – 3.5 STARS

“The Deep Blue Sea” is a British drama written and directed by Terence Davies and based on a play of the same name by Terence Rattigan. It’s an interesting character-driven story about a struggling woman who’s wedged between a passionless marriage and a passion-fueled romance. It’s not a bold or extravagant picture but it’s a very good one mainly due to two incredible performances by its leads.

The story takes place sometimes “around 1950”. The movie opens with Hester (Rachel Weisz), a troubled and depressed woman, attempting to take her own life. From there the story unfolds through a series of flashbacks sprinkled throughout the film that tell the story of her lifeless marriage to a devoted but passionless Court Judge (Simon Russell Beale) and her eventual fling with Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a pilot and war hero. In the flashbacks, Hester is a quiet and reserved woman who has a genuine affection for her husband. But there is an emotional disconnect between the two which is most evident during a visit with his domineering mother. In a different flashback we see her meeting and eventually falling for the charismatic Freddie. In an almost puppy-love way, she falls for him. She’s struck by his vivacity and the way he lives for the moment. His energy is so vastly different from her husband’s which eventually leads her to make a costly decision.

I like how the film doesn’t portray infidelity in a light-hearted way. Hester’s choice is costly and most certainly has consequences. I don’t want to give away too much but there are clearly ramifications to her actions both physically and emotionally. Rachel Weisz is very good as Hester and she handles the character extremely well. When asked what drew her to the role, Weisz spoke of her attraction to playing a character who had fallen so hopelessly in love and completely humiliated herself in the process. I found Hester to be a frail and sometimes childlike character whose poor choices are rooted more in new emotions and new passions than a true understanding of love.

Tom Hiddleston is fantastic as Freddie. I’ve become a huge Hiddleston fan as he seems to have a natural ability when it comes to acting. Whether he’s portraying a classic literary figure or a comic book supervillain, Hiddleston commands the screen and never seems to struggle with the material he’s given. Here he sells us completely on Freddie’s free-spirited energy. But we also see a part of the character that causes us to question not only him but his relationship with Hester. It’s a vigorous performance that shows us a someone who is both romantic and troubling.

“The Deep Blue Sea” moves and feels like a play. The performances drive the movie and the two leads could easily be up for Oscar consideration. The sets also capture a compressed but precise 1950’s vibe that is perfectly fitting for a story so ill-advised and taboo. I do think the movie would have better served by a smarter and more fluid use of the flashbacks. There were a few instances where I thought the jumps did more to hinder the storytelling than help it. I also struggled a bit with Beale’s character. While Beale’s performance is fantastic, I never could wrap my mind around his character. He was sympathetic but yet seemed inconsistent. These gripes don’t kill the movie by any means, but they do hold it back just a tad. Regardless, “The Deep Blue Sea” is still a very good movie and certainly worth checking out.

“THE BOURNE LEGACY” – 3.5 STARS

I was late catching up with the “Bourne” series which is highly unusual since they are the type of movie I gravitate towards. I’ve now seen the first three films starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, one of several physically and mentally enhanced government black ops projects. Damon steps aside but the series continues with “The Bourne Legacy”. Jeremy Renner is the new leading man playing a new leading character but writer and director Tony Gilroy maintains an import sense of connection and familiarity with the previous films. Gilroy wrote the first three movies and goes to great lengths to make this feel like a Bourne film while also possibly launching the series into a new direction. While Gilroy does occasionally struggle matching up with earlier films, the movie definitely has its moments that nicely falls in line with the series.

While Jason Bourne isn’t in the movie his presence is clearly felt. Gilroy (and his brother Dan who also helped with the screenplay) connect the actions of “The Bourne Ultimatum” to this story. As Jason Bourne continues to threaten the government’s black ops programs, Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is called in to clean the mess up. His solution – to wipe out all of the human projects and those connected to them. One of those projects turned target is Aaron Cross (Renner), an Operation Outcome agent who is considered a step up from those involved in the now exposed Treadstone. But when the attempt on his life fails, Cross is sent scrambling for answers. He’s also ran out of a special medication that keeps him both mentally and physically balanced. Cross tracks down Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor connected to Operation Outcome who he hopes can get him get the pills he needs. But she soon finds that her connection to the project has made her one of Byer’s targets and Cross is her only chance at survival.

For many, the big question revolves around Renner. Does his Aaron Cross match what Damon was able to bring to his Jason Bourne character? Well, yes and no. Renner is most certainly Damon’s equal when it comes to acting. Renner is completely convincing and he’s got the physical abilities to sell each and every action sequence. Cross is different from Bourne in that there is no amnesia.  He knows he’s part of a government project although the amount of knowledge he has is limited. While this isn’t necessarily a flaw with the character, it did take away one of the most intriguing elements of Bourne’s story. But a slightly bigger problem with the character isn’t as much about Renner as it is the writing and direction. Cross is a solid protagonist but I couldn’t help feeling that he lacked the intensity of Jason Bourne. There are a couple of scenes where he “loses it” for a lack of a better phrase, but overall he seldom comes across as intense or as threatening as Bourne.

Nonetheless, Renner’s performance is very good and he’s also surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Weisz is always great and she’s no different here. Her character is the most sympathetic in the film and I loved how Weisz portrays her through the numerous emotionally charged situations she has to deal with. Norton is also good as the evil government clean-up guy. He easily sells the amoral “just doing my job” persona and we genuinely dislike this guy from the moment he first enters the picture. I also really liked Oscar Isaac as a fellow Outcome operative who Cross encounters early in the film. Bourne fans will also enjoy the small but interesting returns of David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Scott Glenn. Each have cool little tie-in scenes that answer questions left over from the last film.

“The Bourne Legacy” doesn’t hurry out of the gate. Gilroy takes his time laying out the story and defining his characters. There were a couple of times when I did feel things were moving a little too slow, but overall it works well  and the movie’s third act is pretty action packed. Speaking of the action, it captures some of the same qualities of the past Bourne flicks – hard-hitting hand-to-hand fight scenes and of course a vehicle chase scene. I mean you can’t have a Bourne movie without a vehicle chase and this film gives us a great one. Renner thrills as he runs, jumps, punches, and kicks. Unfortunately his fight scenes are almost rendered incoherent due to moments of inconsistent editing. There were a couple of fight scenes where I literally had no idea what was going on other than punching.

I can see where some would consider “The Bourne Legacy” a cash grab. But even with its few flaws it’s still a fun movie that fits right in with the Bourne series. It stumbles in a few areas and I wouldn’t consider it the best of the series. But Gilroy knows the material well and he knows how to bring new characters into this universe. Renner gives a strong performance and Weisz is wonderful to watch. It also features a chase sequence at the end that is nothing short of awesome. But more importantly, it left me anxious and anticipating what’s coming next. So I would call it a success.