Oz: The Great and Powerful

It has been over 70 years since the Wizard of Oz graced the silver screen, so obviously Disney decided it was about time to make the prequel to one of the most beloved cinematic works of all time. Of course their decision could only have been easier once they opted for action/horror movie extraordinaire, Sam Raimi, as the director. Have I sold you on the concept of this movie yet? Alright, so maybe it doesn’t sound like a sure home run, but as a whole, the movie doesn’t strikeout either.

Oz-The-Great-and-PowerfulWe are first introduced to Oz (James Franco) as he is readying to perform his sideshow magician act at a traveling circus touring in Kansas (yes, there is no shortage of direct allusions to the original movie). His narcissistic, yet charming personality is immediately put on display for the audience as he all but seduces his naive assistant. After a very rocky performance in which he is booed offstage, the con man Oz is then assaulted by the circus strongman and only narrowly escapes in his very convenient hot air balloon. This is only the beginning of the adventure since his hot air balloon is sucked into a tornado and transported to the wonderful world of Oz. Oz immediately meets a witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) who informs him of a prophecy that a great wizard will save the people from an evil witch and become king of Oz. The reluctant hero only agrees to become that wizard after meeting Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) who reveals the massive amount of wealth that the ruler would inherit. After almost killing Glenda (Michelle Williams) the good witch by mistake, Oz learns that Evanora is the true wicked witch that must be defeated.

Cue the inevitable “ethically questionable protagonist learning that he needs to help the oppressed because he is a better person than any of his actions have so far suggested” scenes. This is paired with the equally predictable comic relief sidekick Finley (Zach Braff) who just also happens to be a flying monkey. I am not sure if I have mentioned that they are indeed in the land of Oz.

Despite the feeling that you are being beat over the head by the constant, overt references to the original movie, the action is fairly enjoyable. The 3-D was  very well done along with the rest of the cinematography.The world that Raimi has created is visually stunning and clever to say the least.  This is one of those movies that probably needs to be viewed in the local cinema to be fully enjoyed. The movie also retains some of the lovable camp of the original while maintaining a fresh and current feel. However, with that lies possibly the biggest flaw of the movie.

At times, the direction felt very conflicted. No doubt with the Disney tag and the PG rating, the movie is made to be a family affair. But much too often the audience is forced to shift from fun, kid-friendly dialogue and music to disturbing visuals and violent confrontations.  It seemed as though Raimi was constantly fighting the urge to turn this into a wannabe Snow White and the Huntsman. Ultimately, the movie will overcome this detail for many people given the nostalgic affection for the land of Oz. Unfortunately, I cannot say that this movie was either great or powerful, probably more like decent and capable. Either way, let’s just hope that Disney leaves that old Casablanca prequel alone for a few more years.

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Star Wars: Why the Next Trilogy Matters

This article is technically the third in our own little Walking Taco trilogy regarding the works of George Lucas. You can read the others to help you get back story, although this one does stand on its own.
Episode 1: Star Wars: Why the Originals Matter
Episode 2: In Defense of George Lucas: Why the New Trilogy Matters
Also, check out Simon’s article – 5 Reasons the Disney Acquisition is Good for Star Wars

If you don’t follow breaking movie news, Oct 30th it was announced that Disney was acquiring Lucasfilm Ltd for a sum a little over $4 billion in cash and stock. This merger of companies brings all of Lucasfilm’s properties and subsidiary companies into the fold of the Disney entertainment juggernaut. Details of the deal are slowly coming to light, and what we know, among other things, is that Disney will acquire Industrial Light and Magic (the premiere visual effects company in the world) and Skywalker Sound (which does the sound recording/editing/mixing on many Hollywood films), both of which will continue to be able to provide services for films outside of the Disney corporation, as well as LucasArts (the video game branch of Lucas’ empire). The deal includes all of the Star Wars properties, as well as the Indiana Jones series (although those distribution rights are currently shared with Paramount, so will require some negotiation). Along with this major announcement, Kathleen Kennedy, the new Co-Chair/President of LucasFilm has announced that Star Wars Episode VII is already in the works, and under the new Disney banner will arrive in theatres in 2015, with Episodes VIII and IX to arrive shortly thereafter, and Star Wars films every 2-3 years after into the foreseeable future.

It is, needless to say, a very big development in the world of film and Star Wars. Everyone is weighing in on their thoughts as details and questions continue to emerge. I’m still sorting out all of my thoughts, but figured I would gather them in writing.

So, what do I think about all this?

What some people probably imagined the cast of Episode VII would look like under the new Disney banner.

Five years ago I would have been extremely leery of it all. I would have thought “Oh no, Jar Jar has gotten to George. He’s going all super-kiddy and soon Mickey will be appearing in a live-action Star Wars film that will rival the ill-conceived Holiday Special.” But two words put all those fears at ease – The Avengers. If Disney’s purchase of Marvel has shown us one thing, it’s that Disney can handle a well-established source material and allow it to flourish within it’s own individualized existence. We shouldn’t have to worry about them suddenly trying to water down the Star Wars films to appeal to even younger audiences because the Marvel movies are some of the most enjoyable films I’ve experienced as an adult. So in that regard, I welcome the merger. If Lucasfilm can flourish as much as Marvel has under the Disney banner, we should see some amazing things down the line.

Let’s also look at the new creative structure on the upcoming Star Wars films. Lucas has already created a treatment (which is basically a rough outline of the story for those who don’t know film-speak). But Lucas has also entered semi-retirement, meaning he will only be serving as a creative consultant on these films. Kathleen Kennedy, who has worked with both Lucas and Spielberg on many of the amazing films they created over the past 3.5 decades, is executive producing the films, and they’ll be bringing on new writers and someone else to direct. In essence, you have almost the same formula as The Empire Strikes Back, which is arguably the best film in the series. It allows George to offer his input and keep the universe cohesive, but doesn’t require him to write out all the dialogue (which even I’ve acknowledged he’s not always the best at) and gives other people with fresh eyes a chance to make the material more accessible to a mass audience. So, depending on who they can get to direct, and fans are speculating from names like the Wachowskis to Spielberg to Nolan (although odds are it will be someone less-known), it could produce some really intriguing results.

New directors means the potential for some new style elements to the Star Wars universe. Just imagine the possibilities!

Lucas has always known that Star Wars would continue long beyond his time on this earth. It is a legacy. It is a universe that has amassed fans of all ages, from all generations, and continues to grow, even without (or in spite of) additional movies. He couldn’t keep hold of it forever, and as he stated in a video interview you can watch on StarWars.com, he knew that Disney was a safe, stable company to house that property within. It’s a company he’s worked with on various projects in their parks, so he was comfortable with them, and I’m sure after seeing how they handled Marvel, he’s really got some peace of mind that they’ll handle that responsibility well. But more than that, even though George has been hesitant to relinquish control of making Star Wars movies to someone else because, in his words – “they’re my thing”, he acknowledges that in order for the property to stay relevant with future generations, there will need to be more films, and they will need to be done well without him feeling like he has to do it all himself.

However, this decision has bigger ramifications than simply excited fans getting to see more Star Wars movies. It’s bigger than a potential “Star Wars Land” at Disney parks, or the $4 billion George Lucas made, it once again opens the door for some serious advances in film. Many of the advances in all areas of film production – effects, cameras, editing, sound, etc. – all came in tandem with Star Wars movies. Lucasfilm, ILM, and Skywalker Sound have all continued pioneering new technology, but the times they seem to be at their best are when they are pushing the envelope on a new Star Wars film. So with an endless future of the sci-fi series in the works, it would reason for us to believe that we will continue to see bold new advances to film technology.

My daughter playing with her astromech. Who knows, with the future of Star Wars being so bright, maybe she’ll grow up to direct her own Star Wars movie someday. A dad can dream…

But even more than that, this decision will open the door for a new generation of film makers. Keep in mind, Lucas was a member of the group affectionately known as “The Movie Brats”, the first real crop of students formally trained in the art of film making. He and his classmates (Spielberg, Scorcese, Ford Coppola, Cameron, etc.) have literally defined quality cinema of the past few decades. We’re now at a point in the history of film where people who were children when the original, or even the new, trilogy hit theatres are now adults. Some of these people went into a career in film as a result of these movies – inspired to become filmmakers themselves. Who better to take over the helm of Star Wars films than the very people they so passionately inspired? I can’t think of a more fitting circle-of-life-esque tribute to George Lucas’ love of education and fostering creativity.

So once again, I sign off with a note to George Lucas. (Although I’m pretty sure he will never read these posts.) I want to thank you, sir. You have inspired me on many levels. As a lover of film, of storytelling, of imagination, as an educator, as a parent, as a human being – you have added so much to my life through your work, and although I can only imagine how many mixed emotions are involved with such a decision, rest assured that it will continue that impact far into the future. Thank you for all that you have done, and continue to do, and may your “retirement”, whatever that entails, reward you with as much enjoyment as you’ve provided us for all these years, and the peace of knowing that your legacy will make a difference for a long, long time into the future.

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5 Reasons the Disney Acquisition is Good for Star Wars

I remember the moment I got the news with a crystal clarity usually reserved for momentous events like the birth of a child or the arrival of a long-lost loved one.  I remember, like it was yesterday (because it was), when I read the first tweet informing me of the news I never expected: Disney had bought Star Wars.  Disney, the biggest of media companies, was now the owner of one of the most fiercely independent film studios.  Disney, whose decades of cheerful cartoons had brought joy to millions of children and adults around the world, was now custodian of such iconic figures as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Yoda, and Darth Vader.  My initial reaction was shock and disappointment, and I immediate posted the following reaction on Facebook:

Oh no…Episode 7? C’mon George Lucas, just let it rest already.

I read a lot of other opinions and news stories, and watched the video in which Bob Iger and George Lucas talk about the decision.  And now that I’ve had time to digest this news and really give it the consideration it deserves (because, let’s face it, 24 hours is an eternity in internet time), I think this is actually a good thing.  In fact, it might be the best thing that has happened to Star Wars and all of Lucasfilm since Return of the Jedi.  Here are five reasons why:

1. Disney knows how to make good movies.

Disney’s track record is kind of like the stock market in that it goes up and down, often unpredictably.  The studio has put out some stinkers like Mars Needs Moms and Old Dogs, but on the whole Disney can deliver the goods when it needs to.  They’re not afraid to spend big money on good talent, and let’s not forget that this is the studio that somehow they turned a 50-year-old theme park ride into one of the most successful franchises of the past decade. The icing on the cake?  The movies were actually pretty good.  Disney is also not afraid to take chances on giant projects that don’t turn out so well.   John Carter and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time didn’t turn out to be the gravy trains they were made to be, the quality of the movies wasn’t half bad.  The main problem with these big-budget letdowns was partially due to their lack of recognition in the mainstream zeitgeist:  nobody cares about Barsoomians or ancient Persians when heading to the summer megaplex, but it’s a safe bet that ten out of ten filmgoers could pick Yoda out of a lineup with no problems at all. Give Disney some established characters and storylines, and stand back with your blast shield down lest the shockwave knock you over. They will do everything humanly possible to capture lightning in a bottle, which also means they will make certain Michael Bay will never, never be involved.  While the Star Wars prequels and the most recent Indiana Jones movie were commercial blockbusters, they were critical goose eggs.  Put these characters in the hands of the Disney corporation, and it’s a safe bet they will hire screenwriters and directors who can inject a new lifeblood into these franchises who will make sure the movies are golden eggs for the studio while also being quality films.

2. Lucasfilm was Disney already.

A giant company has massive film franchises that are beloved around the world.  It leverages the characters and stories in these franchises to sell merchandise of every conceivable kind, from action figures to lunch boxes to bedsheets to candy to clothing to video games, comic books, and spinoff novels.  This company also keeps milking cash from its franchises directly in the form of spinoffs, sequels, prequels, and 3-D re-releases ad infinitum.  Is this company Disney or is it Lucasfilm?  It’s both.  And anyone who thinks Disney could do any further damage to the beloved Star Wars franchise by whoring it out to product vendors of every conceivable kind has obviously not been paying attention.

(it was Lucasfilm who allowed this Star Wars Kinect game to happen, not Disney. There is literally no possible way things could get any worse.)

3. Iron Man/The Avengers

This kind of piggybacks on Reason #1, but I think it deserves its own entry.  Let’s rewind things a bit to the 1990’s, when comic book movies were kind of a joke.  While Tim Burton injected a much-needed shot in the arm to this corny celluloid stepchild with his dark and gritty Batman, his counterparts were busy churning out schlock like Tank Girl, Timecop, and The Phantom, not to mention a string of subsequently stupider Batman films culminating in one of the worse offenders in modern cinema: Batman and Robin. It wasn’t until Bryan Singer brought the X-Men to the silver screen, followed soon after by Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) and Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins) that comic book films really launched into the stratosphere.  These were deep, thought-provoking movies with multi-dimensional characters and solid acting–a far cry from the cornball movies of yore like Howard the Duck (a Lucasfilm production, no less).  Comic books, in the hands of talented directors and writers, became a gold mine of characters and storylines that shows no signs of running dry.  Marvel leveraged its own deep roster and financial clout to form its own movie studio, which was bought by Disney in 2009.  Sure enough, fans cried foul, grabbed their pitchforks and torches, and took to the internet in fits of collective rage decrying the inevitable befouling of their beloved franchises at the hands of Mickey Mouse.

So what happened?

Iron Man.  Iron Man 2.  Thor.  Captain America: The First Avenger.  And of course, towering over all modern comic book movies, The Avengers.

Some might dispute the faithfulness of these movies with respect to the source material. Others might quibble about costumes or supporting characters.  But few would argue that these are not quality films.  Disney knows how to turn franchises into commercial and critical hits, and there is no reason to suspect anything else from future Star Wars or Indiana Jones films.  They spent too much money to mess these up, and while audiences might have forgiven the awful dialog and painful characters of the Prequels because they sprouted from the same mind that brought them Star Wars in the first place, this same leniency will not be extended to Disney. Any new films are going to have to work hard to earn their place in the fans’ hearts, and if Disney’s track record since acquiring Marvel is any indication, Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones are in good hands.

4. We might get the original trilogy back.

For fanboys like me who have been crying foul over George Lucas’ treatment of his original trilogy by releasing endless special editions with gratuitous CGI effects might finally get their wish granted.  Disney knows how to get every last dime out of a sense of public nostalgia, but few could argue that they do a great job paying tribute to their original works.  Take Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, for example.  By all accounts this film is hopelessly outdated with what would now be seen as shoddy animation, poor quality sound, and unflattering character stereotypes.  But when Disney released it as the Diamond Edition Blu-Ray, they left the original untouched in all its lo-fi glory. The colors have been restored, not edited, and the release strives to be as close to the original version as possible as opposed to George Lucas’ endless tinkering with the classic trilogy in order to suit his ever-changing “original vision.”  But after years of repeatedly denying fans the opportunity to see the classic Star Wars trilogy without all the CGI muck, Disney might finally leverage its considerable power and financial werewithal to give the original trilogy the Blu Ray release it deserves.

It might be wishful thinking, but it’s the best shot we have had in years.

5. It’s better than the alternatives.

Think what would happen in five years if George Lucas were left in charge of Star Wars.  At best, we would likely get sequels with the same terrible dialog and wooden acting (but gosh darn it if those CGI effects aren’t pretty) as Episodes I-III.  But at worst, they might never happen at all.

George Lucas is in his 70’s, and to be honest the man deserves a break.  Say what you want about the licensing, the prequels, and the endless spinoffs, you gotta respect the man for bringing all this to us in the first place.  And like my buddy Dave pointed out, it was George Lucas who single-handedly changed the face of modern filmmaking while also bringing us Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar, and THX not to mention countless innovations in how films are produced and edited.  The man deserves our respect, our thanks, and more than anything, a break.  I applaud him for letting Kathleen Kennedy take charge of Lucasfilm back in June of this year, and selling the company to Disney is the next logical step.  I honestly don’t believe George’s heart is in it anymore, which is why he wants to get back to basics and work on smaller, more personal projects.  More power to him, and I hope he does well.  If Lucasfilm was left in charge of Star Wars the franchise would likely sink into mediocrity, and while it would still make boatloads of money it would probably not innovate.  The Disney buyout is a breath of fresh air for our beloved galaxy far, far away, and probably the best thing that has happened to it in years.

As we look forward to Episodes 7-9 (hopefully based on the outstanding Timothy Zahn novels), a possible TV show, and no doubt a tidal wave of products and merchandise along with them, I feel a disturbance in the force I have not felt in a long time: hope.

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Every woman who has ever known me well enough to talk about such things has told me that Disney movies made her wish that she had blond hair, as so many Disney heroines did. I never really understood it at the time, especially since there are non-blond Disney heroines. Not only that, but I’d always thought jet-black hair was far more attractive than blond. The Fates smiled on me, and one day I met the beautiful, black-haired Asian woman who is now my wife. However, she is always talking about wanting to dye her hair other colors, especially (of all things) blond. Yuck. But I digress. More recently, I’ve begun to see why so many women feel the way they do about Disney and hair. Disney’s latest animated fairy tale makes the picture pretty clear, as it comes right out and declares the two points Disney has always been making.

First point: brown-haired girls are useless. Disney has always hinted at this. While the hair colors of their leading ladies are more diverse than some people acknowledge, there has only ever been one brown-haired Disney heroine (unless you count Megara, who is a pretty small part of the Hercules plot, not to mention terribly drawn). However, in Tangled they just come right out and say it. The villainess, Mother Gothel (Donna Murphey), discovers a magic flower that has the power to keep her young forever. Centuries later, the flower is uprooted and made into medicine to save an ailing, pregnant, brown-haired queen. The queen then gives birth to Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), who has long, flowing blond hair, that contains the flower’s power. Gothel kidnaps her and spirits her away to a secluded tower to keep herself young. We later learn that Rapunzel’s hair can never be cut, or it will turn *gasp!* brown and lose its power. Isn’t that a slap to the face of every brunette in the audience.

On the upside, Disney may have found their most likable heroine ever in Rapunzel. The princesses of Disney’s golden age (e.g. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) were justifiably criticized for being overly passive, depending on a man for their happiness, and waiting to be rescued. On the other hand, Disney’s silver age reeks of overcompensation for this. In the early ‘90s Disney subjected us to a whole generation of Kimpossible-esque princesses spouting musical rhetoric about making their own choices and marrying only for love. It wasn’t terrible, but it was an obvious attempt to be politically correct in an age of commercials full of girls playing soccer and shouting about how girls kick butt. Then, as Disney descended back into mediocrity, they had their heroines attempting near-suicidal stunts and fighting more than Lara Croft. Esmerelda slapped and kicked her way through innumerable guards in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It was all pretty forced.

Lara Croft as a Disney Princess

Rapunzel transcends all of this. On the spectrum between pining prince-craver and emasculating bitch she really doesn’t show up anywhere. She’s a pretty simple character; all she wants is to get out of her tower for a day. She’s humble, yet full of life. Adventurous, yet real and relatable. She’s warm, human and caring. Far less sexualized than Esmerelda, Jasmine, or even Ariel, she’s still thoroughly female. She’s spontaneous, pretty and, yes, blond.

Not only that, but Rapunzel actually has a legitimate grievance in her life. Just when I thought I’d go insane if I had to listen to one more spoiled brat sing about her desire for “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” it was easy to sympathize with the plight of a girl who just wanted to see what was outside her bedroom.

Our male lead (Zachary Levi) is a bit more of a stock character; not too different from Aladdin or Phoebes, but he’s still a lot of fun to watch.

This horse is a better fencer than his rider.

Of course, you can’t have a good story without a villainess to antagonize the primal couple. Disney has been through a real dry spell of villainesses in the last couple decades; the last one I can name was Ursula in The Little Mermaid. I am happy to report that sinister femininity is back with a vengeance in Tangled. Which brings up the second point Disney is trying to make: Black-haired women are evil. The queen in Snow White, Malificent in Sleeping Beauty, The Queen of Hearts, Cruella Devil – they all had black hair (or black horns). Even Ursula had black hair once she transformed into a young woman for the last act. It’s also worth noting that, while Disney does have black-haired heroines, none of them are Caucasian, except Snow White.

True to form, our antagonist in Tangled has black hair. Not only that, but director Nathan Greno uses this hair extensively to emphasize her evilness. Time after time it frames her face for a menacing close-up, or flows into a black cloak that she’s wearing. In all fairness, though, Gothel is a pretty three-dimensional character, especially for a villain. It actually took me almost half the movie to be sure that she was the villain, and that’s rare. Early on, she’s mainly a doting, if over-protective, mother for Rapunzel. It just makes it that much more fun to watch her true colors come out later.

All in all, this is a genuinely terrific movie, and you owe it to yourself to check it out. Disney succeeds here where they’ve often failed – in making a movie just as enjoyable for adults as for children – and they did it with almost no violence or sensuality. Tangled deliciously skewers every Disney cliché, from emotive animals to ridiculously spontaneous musical numbers. The story is loaded with hilarity from start to finish, and it’s also a story full of true love, overcoming one’s fears, and often heart-wrenching self-sacrifice. It reminded me of why I once loved Disney. And while I no longer do, and never will again, it was really good to go back for an evening.

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G-ForceIf Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of such bombastic cinema travesties like Bad Boys, Con Air, and Pearl Harbor, were to attach his name to a movie for kids about talking guinea pigs, what would it look like?  Would it still have all the familiar Bruckheimer tropes we know and love?  Would Michael Bay direct it?  These are trying questions for trying times indeed, and strangely, the answer to most of these would be a resounding “Yes.”  It has everything we might expect given the pedigree of the individuals involved:

Car chases…check.

Giant destructive robots…check.

A world in peril…check.

A clock counting down to doomsday…check.

Explosions, explosions, and more explosions…check.

But equally strange is the fact that G-Force somehow works, and works quite well.  The film opens in the middle of a top-secret operation a’la True Lies in which the band of super-rodents, codenamed G-Force, are infiltrating the residence of a technology billionaire Leonard Saber (Bill Nighy) in order to steal top-secret information from his computer.  Information which could determine…bum bum BUM… the fate of the free world.  The little animal wonders, equipped with the latest in miniature spy technology and Happy Meal-Ready names like Blaster (Tracy Jordan), Speckles (Nicolas Cage), and Hurley (Jon Favreau), are actually the product of a government experiment to study and harness the power of human-animal communication.  But when the mission goes awry, the government shuts down the operation and their leader Ben (Zach Galifianakis) is left empty-handed while the fate of the world (something about orbital space junk and the power of magnets…it really doesn’t matter) hangs in the balance.

G-Force Poster

It's clever...because it's a guinea pig. Get it?

Who will get to the bottom of things and stop the destruction of planet earth?  Why, none other than G-Force of course! The talking guinea pigs take it upon themselves to get to the bottom of the conspiracy with plenty of pint-sized gadgets and gizmos from their genius bearded buddy Ben.  Along the way they meet up with a several action-figure-ready talking animals who help them out and teach valuable lessons about teamwork, sacrifice, and the power of friendship.  There’s a car chase and some robot fights thrown in for good measure too, just to keep things interesting.  And for what it is, it works just fine.  I didn’t start watching a movie about talking superhero rodents expecting Citizen Kane or Shawshank Redemption.

Criticizing a movie like G-Force is somewhat moot, since the film is aimed squarely at a target audience who buys Zhu Zhu Pets.  But unlike some of its peers like Shrek, G-Force thankfully never plays to the lowest common denominator of toilet humor and cheap pop culture references.  Like the Disney adventure Bolt from a few years ago, it’s silly enough to be fun, but doesn’t play its audience for fools either.  And unlike other Bruckheimer explode-fests, Michael Bay actually didn’t direct this one.  And that is most certainly a good thing.


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Up (Video Review)


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