Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Oz: The Great and Powerful

Two questions came to mind as I watched Oz the Great and Powerful (2013): one, do we really need an origin story for the Wizard of Oz? Sure, the Wicked Witch of the West got an origin story in Wicked, which gave us a new perspective on the Land of Oz and its notorious villain, a look at the nature and perception of evil, and some socio-political satire. Going into Oz the Great and Powerful, I doubted whether learning the background of the Wizard would offer the same potential; he's a kindly charlatan who used magic tricks to maintain his power, and there's really not much else we need to know.

The second question I had is why is Sam Raimi directing this? Raimi is undoubtedly one of the most skilled and inventive directors working in Hollywood, but this is a rather pedestrian, CGI-dominated blockbuster that frankly offers him little opportunity to showcase his talent and personality. I used to look forward to a new Sam Raimi picture, but from Spider-Man 3 on, I can only question his choice of projects. This is the guy who gave us the Evil Dead movies, Darkman, and A Simple Plan, and it just feels like, instead of doing something really subversive and interesting, he's playing it safe and commercial, which is how I'd describe Oz the Great and Powerful. There have been so many epic fantasy movies in the last few years - The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, Maleficient - that have been big, action-packed, somewhat modernized and darker takes on older stories, and Oz the Great and Powerful doesn't do much to distinguish itself. Raimi is disappointingly following a trend instead of setting one. The soundtrack is by composer Danny Elfman, and that goes a long way to making this feel like a latter-day Tim Burton picture.

James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a stage magician with a traveling circus in 1905 Kansas. After a show in which he is pelted with food, Oscar, or Oz, is threatened by the circus strong man because of his womanizing and escapes in a hot air balloon that soon gets caught in a twister. The twister transports Oz to the Land of Oz, where the fantastical inhabitants, including a lovely witch, Theodora (Mila Kunis), believe he is the prophesied wizard who will defeat the Wicked Witch who is terrorizing the kingdom, although Theodora's sister, another witch named Evanora (Rachel Weisz) suspects him to be a fraud. Oz goes on the journey to defeat the evil witch, but when he meets Glinda (Michelle Williams), he discovers nothing is what it seems.

Apart from borrowing a number of plot elements from Raimi's own Army of Darkness - a less-than-heroic loser who finds himself transported to a strange fantasy land, a trip to a cemetery half way through that results in an attacking army, witches, a prophecy, a (somewhat) modern man teaching gunpowder and other technology to the people he must lead - Oz the Great and Powerful offers a bland story of a con man who learns to believe in himself and inspire others for real this time. He's really a nice guy if you give him the chance, and I'm so touched I want to barf in my cheerios. Franco is convincing as the shyster, but as the hero, he looks uncomfortable (maybe if he had a chainsaw and boomstick).

In the classic 1939 version of the Wizard of Oz, Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West is the stuff of nightmares; seventy-five years later, she's still terrifying children. Evanora, heartbroken when she thinks Oz has betrayed her, decides to go bad and transforms into black hat-wearing, broomstick-riding, green-skinned wicked witch after being manipulated by her evil sister. I guess the makeup on her is supposed to be scary, but she looks like Jim Carrey's The Mask with a pointed noise, and Kunis's performance is awful and laughable in her attempts to be menacing. Weisz fairs a little better as the cunning, manipulative one, but she never seems to really get into it. Williams as the libeled Glinda is OK but bland. Among the rest of the cast, Zach Braff  demonstrates why I never got into Scrubs with an unfunny performance as Oz's flying monkey companion. 

The Land of Oz presented here is mostly created by computer imagery, and it's neat to look at, almost like Middle Earth meets Candyland, bright, colorful, and filled with weird-looking creatures, plants, and people, but it's not as memorable as the 1939 Oz, although I did like the China Doll village. I never felt swept away to a magical realm. Ironically, the scenes set in the Kansas, filmed in black and white with a reduced aspect ratio until we get to Oz, feel more unique and magical. The period details are stunning, and perhaps Raimi could have found a more interesting story in this world and ended with the balloon ride to Oz. Just a thought.

Oz the Great and Powerful does come life during its explosive climax, however. Oz, working with the oppressed denizens of the land, crafts a sort of steam punk carriage that projects a giant image of his head that he uses to bluff and threaten the witchy sisters, and their attempts to destroy it with spells and other magical blasts harmlessly through the illusion. There's something to be said about a crafty yet ordinary human using his wits and courage to defeat a pair of powerful witches, and Oz the Great and Powerful pulls it off well. It's a preferable ending than a massive clash of armies and swords as we are wont to get in the genre.

The movie moves at fairly good pace, the special effects are neat, and there are numerous references to other Oz stories and characters and a few laughs. I wasn't bored watching the movie, but it feels empty, a blatant attempt at crafting a franchise based on a commercial property than on telling an inspired story, and with Sam Raimi at the helm, that makes it disappointing. Even the requisite Bruce Campbell cameo feels lifeless.


Silent movies tend to bore me, and I can't figure out why. I try to watch them to appreciate the history of cinema, but I often find that the music sounds the same, the acting is unintentionally and hilariously overblown to get its points across, and the inter-titles are left on screen way too long. D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), his followup to (or as some call it, his apology for) Birth of a Nation, has many of the same features I find tiring in other silent films, but I was pleasantly surprised that by the end of this nearly three-hour epic, I had really gotten into it.

Intolerance, or its full title Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages, is really four stand-alone tales told in a parallel manner, inter-cut with each other so they all build to their own separate climaxes simultaneously, unlike an anthology that finishes one story before moving on to the next. It's a complex, ambitious structure - recently used by the Wachchowski's in Cloud Atlas - and it's designed to highlight the common theme of the stories. That theme, as if the title wasn't enough of a clue, is intolerance and how love struggles against it.

In the first story (chronologically speaking), religious intolerance in ancient Babylon allows the great city to be conquered by Cyrus the Great of Persia; in the midst of the conflict, a mountain girl, because of the great love she holds for Prince Belshazzar, fights to the bitter end against the invaders. In Biblical Judea under Roman occupation, the Pharisees' intolerance of Jesus Christ, even after his miracles, leads to his crucifixion. More than 1,500 years later, the events leading up to and including of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of the Protestant Huguenots by Catholic Royalty in France are depicted. Finally, in a contemporaneous American story, moral puritans cause a labor strike that ultimately leads to a woman's baby being taken away from her when she's deemed unfit while her husband awaits execution for a crime he didn't commit. In the midst of these stories, the film cuts away frequently to the image of Eternal Motherhood, a woman rocking her baby in the cradle.

As I wrote above, Intolerance contains many silent film traits I struggle with, and because of the nature of the film's structure, it takes a while to figure out who all the characters are and what they're trying to do. Griffith also elects not to give most of his characters names, describing them in the inter-titles as the Mountain Girl, The Dear One, Brown Eyes, etc. In addition, Griffith apparently doesn't think his audience is smart enough to figure out what message he's trying to impart on them, so his inter-titles not only contain exposition of characters and plot but also explanation of what his themes are, even underlining key words just to make sure we get it. And as much criticism that Birth of a Nation rightly gets for its racism (actors in black-face playing crude stereotypes and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan), Intolerance has its share of questionable values, most notably with how it depicts the moralist women of the modern story as a bunch of bored, ugly women who can't get laid or as the film puts it, "When women cease to attract men, they often turn to reform as a second option."

All that being said, by the end of the first act (the film is told in two acts), when Cyrus launches his first assault on Babylon, the movie really picks up steam. That battle, using thousands of extras and life-sized replicas built for the film, is a grand, thrilling on-screen battle and is surprisingly violent (heads are lopped off, limbs get hacked off, blood is spilled). If nothing else, Griffith showcases an incredible sense of scale, and he knows how to use the wide, long shots that highlight the scopes of his sets, and he knows when to cut to a meaningful full close up. The sequence of the Persian army swarming over the steps of Babylon is one of the all-time moments of awe ever put on film.

Griffith also shows mastery of techniques he pioneered in Birth of a Nation that filmmakers today are still using, most notably crosscutting. In the modern story, he cuts back and forth between the efforts of the woman trying to reach the governor to get a pardon for her husband and the preparations the prison officials perform as they prepare for the hanging. It's quite intense and thrilling. We follow the condemned man from his dark and cramped cell, where a priest gives last rites, to his long walk up the gallows, with the camera pulled back far enough to show the entire height of the machine and its imposing power. Meanwhile, his wife and a friendly cop desperately race after a train in car.

There's a lot in Intolerance that is dated, and some of the melodrama is laughable, but even after nearly 100 years, it contains powerful, unforgettable moments and imagery, and the film's influence on so much in that time since then can't be denied/ It's a bit of work to get through, but it's worth it in the end.