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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Rise of the Planet of the Apes

All too often it seems Hollywood has a penchant for releasing a ‘Huh? They’re really making that??’ movie.  In fact, my response to the news of a prequel to Planet of the Apes was just that.  I didn’t see the need to revisit a franchise that had laid dormant for a decade.  Of all the summer blockbusters released over the last three months, this one interested me the least.  Go figure that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best movies of this summer or any summer.

James Franco plays Will Rodman, a geneticist on the verge of a medical breakthrough.  He has designed a serum that has the potential to cure Alzheimer’s disease.  This venture has impassioned him as he watches his father (John Lithgow) fall victim to the illness.  After testing on apes, the research proves that the cure is functional and ready for human trials.  Unfortunately, a laboratory accident prevents potential investors of the drug from approving it.  Will’s project faces termination, as do the apes.  Unable to kill a newborn chimp, Will takes in little Caesar only to see that the drug has been genetically passed on from the chimp’s mother.  Will documents Caesar’s increased brain activity and motor functions over the course of several years.

Caesar has extraordinary capabilities.  He can write, read, use sign language, reason, and protect.  It doesn’t take long for him to realize that outside of Will’s home, the rest of society sees him as a dangerous pet—unequal to that of a human.  He feels the isolation of being an outcast and is ultimately taken by the state to a facility for apes after a violent accident.  Caesar is abused and mistreated, as are the other apes in confinement.  He sees only one solution to free his companions and stop the maltreatment of his kind.

If you thought Rise would be a noisy spectacle without a brain in its head, let me surprise you—this could be the thinking man’s movie of the season.  Directed by Rupert Wyatt, the film restores this franchise and provides an ample amount of emotion and heart to the blockbuster.  Forget about the humans onscreen—this movie is all about Caesar, an impressive digital creation of motion capture technology played by Andy Serkis of Lord of the Rings fame.  Serkis gives Caesar a real performance, providing the apes a reason to become angry, impassioned, willed, and ultimately the dominant species of the planet.  Wyatt succeeds in combining a rock solid story with heartfelt drama and impressive special effects that will likely contend as the year’s best.

The film also draws up important questions about the limits of science and where we draw the line in the quest to advance medicine.  Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes only flirted with the idea of one species being a slave to another as a matter of moral significance.  Rise dives in head-first and has the audience weigh out the pros and the cons.  Of course the film leads up to a massive ape revolution that has been showcased in the advertisements, but the writers and Wyatt make more out of this golden opportunity than a stage of destruction—they’ve given us a story of an ape fighting for his place in this world.  This left me wondering if there could be a more human film this season than Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

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World War I rocked. It’s not like the population of Europe was actually decimated, or the world thrown into political upheaval that it’s never fully recovered from. Millions of men didn’t really claw through the rest of their lives, battling the scars left by poison gas and shell shock. No, the real story of WWI is one of teenage heartthrobs strutting around in designer-made period costumes, and flying brightly decorated airplanes through dazzling explosions that don’t hurt main characters. Or at least that’s the impression you get from Flyboys.

Actually, if you were to watch films made during WWI, you might think the same thing. WWI fighter pilots were made celebrities and national heroes. In reality, the airplane contributed precious little to the outcome of the war, which was won on the ground. But there’s nothing entertaining about watching a man starve and freeze in a mud-hole until he’s blown to bits by a shell fired by unseen enemies. So let’s crank the propellers and fire up Flyboys!

For all my cynicism, this is a genuinely entertaining movie. The story of Americans who volunteered for the French military, it has every cliché in the book. James Franco stars as Cocky Young Guy who joins up because he thinks it would be fun to fly airplanes. Martin Henderson plays Grizzled Veteran. “Let me guess: you’re here because you thought it’d be fun to fly airplanes.” They have all the standard dialogue.

Veteran: You realize if you die here, your family name dies with you.

Yes, Franco's plane is mostly canvass, and yes, he flew through that blaze, and yes, he's fine.

Young Guy: Psh. I don’t plan on dyin’.

Veteran: None of the guys in the squadron cemetery did either.

Young Guy: Psh.

The two then fly deadly missions together. In between them, Young Guy woos Indigenous Girl (Jennifer Decker) while he should be training. She starts counting the planes every time his squadron flies out and flies back. Eventually, he has to save her from some German foot soldiers. To do this, he steals a plane from the squadron hanger. He is therefore sent up for military discipline, until his French commanding officer (ever notice how there’s never a French guy in a movie that’s not played by Jean Reno?) conveniently looses the paper work and slips him a medal.

Meanwhile, Veteran, an aviation progeny with over 20 kills, is driven to fly extra missions to hunt down the Germans that killed all of his friends. He is haunted by the specter of his last remaining adversary, Smirking Face with no Dialogue (Gunnar Winberg). In their eventual confrontation, the Face kills him, so who goes toe-to-toe with the Face at the climax? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.

The cast of war movie cut-outs is rounded out by Philip Winchester as War Hero’s Son Who Can’t Fill the Shoes (from Lincoln Nebraska, I might add), Abdul Salis as Angry Black Guy, Tyler Labine as Racist Guy, and Michael Jibson as Religious Guy. Together they fly through all the standard scenarios, involving daring dogfights, civilians in need of rescue, and eeeeevil Germans. The fuselage of this movie is riddled with clichés from nose to tail, but it’s one of those movies that show you why the clichés exist – because they work! It’s easy to thrill to the dogfights and lose yourself in this one until you forget your troubles. Yes, you’ll predict everything that happens in the movie, but you’ll still care about the characters (even if you forget their names). I could say that this film is an insult to the millions who suffered and sacrificed during the Great War, but that would be a cliché in itself. Rent it tonight, make some pop corn, and see what you’ve been missing out on.



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Freaks and Geeks

Freaks and GeeksFor all of the movies and TV shows that have tried to capture the high school experience, it’s rare that one truly succeeds.  Most come off as brazenly exaggerated, overly simplistic, or too silly to be taken seriously.  Sure there’s a few gems here and there, but for the most part movies that attempt to encapsulate the high school experience are far from authentic and easily forgettable.  Same goes for high school TV shows: there’s a dizzying array of shows set in the high school years, and only a couple are anything close to relateable.  But like that quiet kid in the back of class, Freaks and Geeks rises above the bottomless chumbucket of modern TV shows with intelligent writing, deep and interesting characters, and plenty of moments that genuinely ring true for anyone who has ever been through those four strange years of pubescent confusion.

The show is more or less about two siblings, Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and her younger brother  Sam, who go to the same high school in suburban Detroit on the cusp of the 1980s.  Lindsay is hyper intelligent but, sick of spending her time with fellow nerd herds like the Mathletes, seeks a new group of friends with whom she can just enjoy herself without judgement.  Her younger brother and his friends are social misfits who know nothing of dating, sports, or even pop culture, but try their hardest to carve out a niche for themselves in the complicated social networks of their school.  A cadre of compelling characters round out the cast: near-dropout Daniel (James Franco) and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Kim (Busy Philips), the pair of slackers Nick (Jason Segel) and Ken (Seth Rogen), would-be comedian Neal (Samm Levine), and hopelessly awkward smartie Bill (Martin Starr).  Throughout the season Lindsay and her friends, the freaks, form relationships, get in trouble, argue, start a band, and try to make it through their junior year of high school.  Similarly, Sam and his friends, all quintessential geeks, experience the ups and downs of their freshman year while bonding over comics, late-night TV shows, and trying to figure out the most complicated aspect of any young man’s life:  girls.

Freaks and Geeks: Bill Haverchuck

Bill Haverchuck, erstwhile geek complete with gigantic specs. Gotta love it.

This brief description could apply to almost any high school show, but what sets Freaks and Geeks apart is the characters and pitch-perfect writing.  No single individual can be pigeonholed, and every one of the teens in the show has multiple facets that display much more than one-dimensional high school cardboard cutouts.  There’s a scene in 10 Things I Hate About You in which we are introduced to each and every single clique at the school:  the jocks, the cheerleaders, the wannabe rednecks, and so on.  Mean Girls similarly divides the student population of North Shore High School into easily-classifiable bite-sized nuggets of social strata, most notably the antagonists of the film, the Plastics.  Freaks and Geeks is far more subtle, and the creators wisely understand that high school, and life in general, is not so easily classifiable. Even though the title of the show seems to create division and distinction, the lives of these students are as complicated and un-classifiable as can be.  To wit: the “freaks” mostly just want to be normal, have friends, and fit in.  Same with the “geeks.”  They just have their own way of doing it.  Lindsay’s struggles with friendships and her relationship with Nick come across as genuine instead of forced, and Sam’s coming-of-age experiences with his friends, the tortuous 50 minutes of daily gym class, and the perpetual pursuit of the hot girl who is just out of reach are as real as anything anyone could have experienced in high school.

Freaks and Geeks: Nick, Lindsay, Daniel

Nick, Lindsay, and Daniel, navigating social perils and locker problems.

But in Freaks and Geeks, as with real life, there are rarely simple answers or happy endings.  When Sam finally goes out with Cindy, the cute cheerleader he’s been longing for, he finds that there is far more to relationships than just physical appearances–a fact the willfully ignorant Neal refuses to believe. Lindsay also realizes through the course of the show that friendships and relationships are much more difficult to maintain than she thought, and struggles to find a balance between her old nerdy friends and her new near-dropout pals. It’s a social melting pot that keeps the focus on characters front and center, fitting in situational jokes and lighthearted moments where there’s room.  But always the characters get front billing, and though nearly all the actors were long past the age of their Michigan-based counterparts, they pull off the role of high school students more convincingly than almost any other show or movie I have seen.

Along for the ride is an outstanding supporting cast, most notably Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker, who play Lindsay and Sam’s parents.  Their depiction of not-quite-clued-in paternal authority is just slightly caricatured, but it’s all in good fun.  Same goes for school counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave Allen) who, despite being a burnt-out ex-hippie, actually comes through in a pinch and, like most school counselors, really does help the kids out when they need advice or a listening ear. And then there’s the brilliant Tom Wilson who appears in a handful of episodes as the meathead gym teacher Mr. Fredericks who, like most individuals in this show, really does care for the kids and at the end of the day just wants to be a good teacher.  For all the wounds of those high school years laid bare in Freaks and Geeks, there’s an incredibly warm center to it all, an acknowledgement that while this time in a young person’s life might be fraught with melodramatic social turmoil, life will go on, people will change, and every little thing is gonna be alright.

Freaks and Geeks: Sam and Neal

Sam and Neal, pondering the mysteries of the universe and striped shirts.

Freaks and Geeks is an immensely entertaining, thoroughly funny show, but there is nary a one-two punchline to be found.  Humor comes naturally from the characters just being themselves, and the few situations in which setups are required or outlandish situations are established, such as when Neil takes the reins as the school’s mascot during a pep rally, come across as forced and a little too over the top.  Life doesn’t have convenient setups and easy punchlines, and neither does Freaks and Geeks, and the charm of the 1980s is on full display, from horrendous interior decorating choices to cringe-inducing everyday fashion, this was also a simpler time before cell phones and facebook updates added layers of confusion to an already complicated time of any young person’s life.  The only major letdown of the show is that it is over all too quickly, a victim of network cancellation and a public audience weaned on schlock like 90210 or Boy Meets World.  But perhaps that’s a good thing.  Freaks and Geeks was a flash in the pan, but it means we never see these kids grow up. And perhaps it really is better to burn out than fade away.


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Rating: 4.8/5 (6 votes cast)

Date Night

“Date Night” is everything its trailers don’t make it appear to be–a hugely entertaining, rowdy, wacky slapstick film featuring two comic geniuses.  Steve Carell and Tina Fey, two major stars of the two biggest sitcoms on NBC, have an exciting chemistry that carries this goofy, mainstream film to glorious heights.

The duo plays a middle-aged suburban married couple out for a night in New York City.  After attempting to get a table at a fancy seafood restaurant, they are shot down cold, and decide to take the reservation of the seemingly absent Tripplehorns.  Toward the end of their meal, two thugs arrive at their table and escort them out, quickly waving guns in their faces and demanding an important flash drive from them.  Mayhem ensues as these two spend the night dodging crooked cops, mobsters, and bullets in the midst of a go-to mistaken identity plot.

Luckily for Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum II, yikes), this very mainstream script can’t bog down Fey and Carell.  The two make an unstoppable pair when Levy stops the action in favor of their witty banter and improvisation.  Add in some entertaining cameos from James Franco, Mila Kunis and supporting player Mark Wahlberg, and “Date Night” is a very funny, entertaining, action-romance-comedy serving up shameless mainstream hijinks.  With the weight on the shoulders of Carell and Fey, this potential disaster of a movie, turns into the perfect date night movie.  I really enjoyed it a lot more than I anticipated.

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Spiderman 3

Spidy 3 posterSpiderman 3 is everything Spiderman 2 should have been: fast-paced, hard-hitting, and dazzling. While Spiderman 2 was a testament to just how little you can do with plot and philosophy, Spiderman 3 stands as a shining example of just how much can be accomplished with mindless entertainment.

Spiderman 2 tried to cram about 10 years worth of comic book storyline into two hours, and wound up with so many subplots that it couldn’t do any of them well. Case in point: J. Jonah Jamison’s two radical changes of heart about Spiderman, separated by about 10 seconds. Worse yet, it didn’t leave room for any action.


The kickoff to one of six stellar action sequences in Spiderman 3.

In Spiderman 3, there’s no shortage of action. Whether Spidey (Toby Maguier) is diving through cranes, or surfing behind a runaway armored car, the thrills keep coming. The writers did a good job of advancing Peter’s fighting skill from movie to movie. This one marks the first time he’s fired web bolts and used a few other tactics.

In between scampering over rooftops and shaking off impossible blows, the characters find a little time for 90210-ish sexual tension. Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) falls out of love with Peter, then in love with Harry Osbourne (James Franco), then he makes her… oh, who really cares? This is definitely a busy movie, but it never loses sight of the fact that it’s all about the action.

When someone turns evil, they comb their hair forward.

When you turn evil, you change your hair.

There are plenty of villains, too. Harry becomes the new Goblin (the great Willem Dafoe graces the screen once more in a hallucination). Topher Grace comes aboard as the sinister Venom, and Thomas Haden Church gives a grainy performance as the Sandman, one of those comic book characters who should probably never have come to the big screen.

Church’s acting is not exactly stellar, but then, he doesn’t have much of a character to work with. He’s an escaped convict who stumbles into a particle research zone, where he is somehow atomized without being killed. This enables him to turn into sand, and seems to make him invincible, although, he still winces and grimaces an awful lot when he fights Spiderman. The police suspect him of Uncle Ben’s killing, and that moment is revisited several times in the movie. After slugging it out at the final battle, he apologizes to Peter, after which Peter acknowledges having done terrible things himself and forgives him. Sandman then blows away as a cloud of sand, leaving us with no indication that he intends to give up his life of crime, and the question of why the ridiculous villain gets to survive for another movie, while Spiderman’s evil twin dies.

Oh, well. My friends and I talked for hours after this film debuted, and every

Perhaps no villain is more intimidating than the evil in one's self.

Perhaps no villain is more intimidating than the evil in one's self.

change we proposed raised problems of its own. Venom should have had a bigger role, but the film was too full as it was. Sandman could have been left out, but that would have ruined the two-on-two at the end. Sandman could have been pure evil instead of a sympathetic villain, but that takes a crucial moment out of Peter’s journey with the black costume. Heck, it was fine as it was.

A fourth movie is reportedly in the works. There is no mention of the Sandman returning, thank goodness. The two most popular picks seem to be the Lizard and Carnage, although if the filmmakers can get the rights to the Kingpin from Fox, that wouldn’t be a bad move. Note to Marvel Studios: I’m all for more web-slinging action, but for gosh sakes, keep the soap opera stuff out of it.

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Rating: 2.6/5 (7 votes cast)