Is Sam Raimi's "Oz the Great and Powerful" a foolhardy endeavor to cash in on one of the most beloved films of all time or an honorable addition to the folklore of this classic slice of Americana?
Actually, it's a little bit of both and then some as this Disney production contains more than its share of eye-popping, "Oh wow!" moments that prove that the studio has put every bit of the film's $200 million budget up on screen.
While it's undeniably stunning, it's obvious that Raimi and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire have great respect for L. Frank Baum's source material and themes, as they never make light of the characters or environment, striving instead to create a new narrative worthy of his grand tradition. For the most part, they succeed, though it does take them quite a while to realize this goal.
Beginning in Kansas in 1905, we meet Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a con man posing as a magician in a traveling circus. A natural charmer, he's able to convince farm girls they've hit the big time when they agree to assist him and has no problem pulling off feats of sleight of hand by diverting audiences with his dazzling smile and boyish personality. However, deep down, he knows he's not living up to his potential and is meant for great things. Before he knows it, he gets a chance to prove himself when a balloon he has jumped into while fleeing an irate cuckold is whisked away to the magical land of Oz by a tornado.
As with the original film, this journey takes us from a drab black-and-white landscape, shot in the old squarish 1:33 aspect ratio, to a widescreen world that's a bit of a Technicolor nightmare. The transition, though welcome as Raimi has no clue how to shoot in such a confined frame, is so jarring that the colors are an assault on the eyes. However, once the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) takes Diggs to the Emerald City, the visuals become less garish, and the story kicks into high gear. Seems the magician is the answer to a prophecy that states that a great wizard will descend from the sky in order to free the citizens of Oz from the clutches of an evil witch and then be named ruler of the land for his trouble. Though he's quick to point out that he's no wizard, once Theodora's sister and fellow witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz) shows him the riches he'll have at his disposal, he quickly takes to his quest, reasoning, "How hard can it be?"
Turns out, it's plenty hard to kill an evil witch, especially when everything you've been told about her proves to be false. However, Diggs finds allies in Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams), Finley, a loyal flying monkey (voice by Zach Braff) and a delicate china girl (voice by Joey King), all of whom do their best to convince the ersatz wizard that he's just the man to free the citizens of Oz from the clutches of a malevolent evil.
The film provides its origin of the Wicked Witch of the West, and it's pretty thin as stories like this go. What causes all of this to occur is a bit too simplistic, and the performer given the task of filling this role simply doesn't have the presence to pull it off. Equally troubling is the casting of Weisz and Kunis, who would have been better suited had they switched roles. While the former is capable of anything, Theodora's journey is far more interesting, and it would have been interesting to see what the Oscar-winning actress could have done with it.
And while Franco has many detractors, I found him to be a perfect fit for the role. The actor has always had an air of superficiality, which lends itself to Diggs' nature as he's nothing more than a charlatan for much of the film. What with the actor's Cheshire Cat smile and natural charm, he's thoroughly convincing as a man who not only fools others, but more tragically himself. Yet like Warren Beatty before him, there's more to Franco than meets the eye, and he proves equally effective once Diggs becomes the man he was meant to be, realizing that always acting in your own best interest does nothing but ensure a life of loneliness.
To be sure, there will be detractors to the film, as many believe that the 1939 classic is sacrosanct, and any attempt to alter or add to it is an act of heresy. That's too bad, as they will be missing out on a genuinely amusing and clever trip that reiterates the all-important theme of self-reliance that helped make Dorothy's journey so memorable.
In the end, Diggs comes to realize that all along he had the heart, the brains and the courage to become the man he always wanted to be and the wizard the citizens of Oz deserve. Raimi's film renders this message in a powerful and poignant manner as he and all involved have created a new chapter in the "Oz" saga that none of them should be ashamed of.
'Oz the Great and Powerful'
3 1/2 stars out of 4
Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, Bill Cox, Abigail Spencer, Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi.
Directed by Sam Raimi; produced by Joe Roth; screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire.
A Disney release. 130 minutes. Rated PG (action, scary images and brief mild language). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.
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"Royal Affair" a compelling piece of Danish history. (3 1/2 stars)
In Nikolaj Arcel's "A Royal Affair," we're treated to a slice of 18th-century Danish history in which a puppet king, his progressive doctor and an ambitious queen helped reform society by putting into place progressive reforms, the likes of which would carry over into Europe and help spark a cultural revolution. Engaging from the start and fascinating throughout, the film is a compelling piece that rightfully earned a Best Foreign Film nomination, only to have the misfortune of having to compete with Michael Haneke's "Amour."
A royal marriage in Denmark gets off to a very bad start for Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikander) of Britain as she discovers that her soon-to-be husband, King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), is mentally addled, sporting the behavior of a child. Though incompatible, she bears him a son before cutting him off, leaving the monarch with a great deal of time on his hands. He impulsively decides to tour Europe. and the physician Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) is hired to accompany and care for him. The good doctor soon learns how to manipulate his charge, and upon returning from their travels, he soon enters into an affair with the queen that ultimately results in their introducing radical reforms through their figurehead, King Christian.
Instead of being the usual staid march through history, Arcel injects a sense of urgency to the story that propels it from one intriguing event to another. It is to their credit that the romance between Struensee and the queen does not take center stage, giving the film's title a double meaning, and instead the focus is on how such "radical" practices such as freedom of speech and the abolishment of torture, among many others, got a foothold in the country. The film does bog down a bit as it enters its final act and the more melodramatic plot points take centerstage, but be that as it may, "A Royal Affair" proves to be an engrossing historical epic with a theme, concerning governmental stagnation, that in many ways is more timely than ever.
"Exorcism II" the very definition of inertia. (1 star)
Perhaps the biggest sin a horror film can make is boring its audience. This is a misstep that director Ed Gass-Donnelly makes again and again in "The Last Exorcism Part II," a listless sequel to the surprise hit from 2010. The movie's threadbare story is hardly helped by the snail's pace at which it is told. It becomes woefully obvious that the director and fellow screenwriter Damien Chazelle have nothing worthwhile to add to the first film, which was surprisingly effective, primarily because of director Daniel Stamm's decision to use the found footage approach in telling the tale of an exorcism gone wrong.
The subject of that misguided rite was Nell (Ashley Bell), and as this follow-up begins, she's doing her best to recover from her traumatic experience. Having been placed at a halfway house of sorts with other troubled young women, she awkwardly begins to ingratiate herself into society, having been given a menial job at a hotel and even showing interest in a co-worker (Spencer Treat Clark). However, any progress she's making is set back when she begins to see her dead father (Louis Herthum), who delivers a cryptic message that portends a dark future for his daughter.
Though the film runs less than 90 minutes, it seems to last twice as long. Gass-Donnelly includes far too many red herrings, which don't generate suspense but distrust in the viewer.
Equally damning is the pace of the film. The very model of inertia, plot-points are repeated again and again, which prevents the movie from generating any momentum and only underscores the fact that the filmmakers really don't have a story to tell.
However, what is most disheartening is that the conclusion leaves the door open for yet another chapter in the saga of Nell, one that has potential, but only if filmmakers with more imagination than those in charge here are at the reins.
A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, check out his blog and follow him on Twitter. He can also be reached at email@example.com.