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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Rating: 2.0/5 (2 votes cast)

Shutter Island

The Paramount logo comes up.  The score booms and forewarns us of impending doom from the get-go.  The promotional art tells us most of what we need to know: Some one is missing. The additional details include the time period: 1954, and the fact that two U.S. Marshals have been sent to investigate the disappearance.  That missing someone is Rachel Solando, a mental patient of the Aschcliffe Ward on the bedrock-barricaded Shutter Island.

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio reteam for a fourth collaboration–adapting Dennis Lehane’s psychological horror novel “Shutter Island” into a feature-length film.  DiCaprio plays one of the cops: Teddy Daniels, while Mark Ruffalo tags along as his newly-assigned partner, Chuck Aule.  The duo must tread through an increasingly gloomy mystery surrounding Mrs. Solando’s disappearance.  Somehow she managed to escape her room, locked from the outside, get past the nurses and other guards, and work her way over and down the island’s cliff-side, all without wearing any shoes.  While it appears if she had waited 35 years or so, John McClane could’ve given her a few words of wisdom, but no matter, Aule and Daniels have to make sense of this disappearance with limited help from those in charge on the island.  The cops are given restricted access and dead-ends to everything they need in their investigation.  Daniels, our lead character, seems to have his own issues–from his nightmares of WWII Germany, to hallucinations of his murdered wife (Michelle Williams).  It seems Daniels took the case because of Laeddis (Elias Koteas), the man who murdered his wife, who happens to be institutionalized on the island.  Not only that, but Daniels has theories on what actually happens in this facility–secret government experimentation on patients.  The winds and rain increase.  Dreariness consumes the island, and the two investigators find themselves trapped.  Soon enough, Daniels feels he’s becoming a target and is warned by another patient (Jackie Earl Haley) that he’ll never escape the island.

I can toss and turn over what I think about “Shutter Island,” but at the end of the day–Mr. Scorsese and novelist Dennis Lehane succeed–their movie got me thinking, and very much so. That’s a testament to movies these days.  This nose-to-the-grindstone thriller captures sensible and thoughtful horror at its most pronounced.  While the master-filmmaker Scorsese throws in a few cheap-tricks, he does so with such looseness, that it all feels fresh, making richness out of elements that get thrown away in a teen slasher flick.  The movie isn’t exactly short on gore or disturbing visuals, or even heinous figures leaping out of the darkness.  What good ol’ Marty adds to the mix is a tightening claustrophobia, an endless trap of isolation, and cross-trekking mystery.

DiCaprio holds this all together quite well.  He has a multi-layered performance that deserves to be closely examined.  He remains somewhat distant throughout the movie.  Only through small doses of information and nightmarish visions do we slowly learn more of his emotionally-shattered history.  Add in reliable performances from Mark Ruffalo as a potentially untrustworthy partner officer, and two living legends: Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow as menacing doctors overseeing the marshals’ investigation.

Technically, the movie is about perfect…absorbing, atmospheric, shocking, and alluring despite many moments during the film that feel unpolished, overlooked, and even clumsy.  Leave that to Martin Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Shoonmaker to use to their advantage.  “Shutter Island” has been mapped out from beginning to end, with every detail serving a particular intent.  In fact, the film’s only drawback is that many movies have done much the same thing.  If anyone out there like me felt while watching the theatrical trailer for this movie, that something very apparent was being spoiled, don’t worry–you’re not alone.  In some ways, ‘Shutter Island’ follows a path we know all too well, and even then, it still has its surprises.  While not one of the best Scorsese films by any means, Martin and his ever-blossoming Leo create a haunting experience hinging on a ‘twist’ where the intended reveal is up to the viewer.  I look forward to a second viewing of ‘Shutter Island’ that may potentially further my admiration of this unmistakably involving thriller from a man who knows his movies.

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Rating: 4.4/5 (5 votes cast)