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)
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Black Swan

When I first heard about Darren Aronofsky’s new film, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Some sites were billing it as a Science Fiction film, which it really isn’t. I mean, if I were to say there’s a new Science Fiction film starring Natalie Portman where she plays a ballerina, you start thinking “Oh no, it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey all over again!” (Which was essentially a ballet in space.) In all actuality, Black Swan is a thriller, just so you are prepared.

To sum up the story, Natalie Portman plays a studying ballet dancer, Nina, who embodies the devoted artist – constantly in pursuit of perfection. The ballet company she performs with is slated to mount the classic show Swan Lake. It has always been her dream to play the Swan Queen, a role which requires the dancer to embody both the innocent, pure white swan and the evil, seductive black swan. Nina is a natural for the part of the white swan, but her innocence and drive for perfection undermine her ability to portray its free-spirited and manipulative alter ego.

"My dressing room on 'That 70s Show' was SO much bigger than this."

In attempting to tap into her darker side, with some “guidance” by the director, Nina becomes drawn to Lily, a new dancer in the company played by Mila Kunis. Lily represents everything Nina is not – she is imperfect, impulsive, and without inhibitions. Their interaction is the catalyst which starts Nina on a path of self discovery and evolution.

This film is difficult to review in the spirit of preserving its intentional uncertainty. The use of sound, camera shots and plot loops was very disorienting but lent to the storyline, leaving the audience just as confused by what was happening to Nina as she was herself. It isn’t really until the end of the movie that you have a fairly clear idea of what exactly was going on.

The story heavily mirrors (pun intended?) the story of Swan Lake as a metaphor for Nina’s life and transformation as a dancer. This imagery is practically beaten over the audience’s head with the use of color coordinated costuming, loads of reflective surfaces, mirrored action between characters, and Nina literally seeing other people turn into evil doppelgangers of herself.

This pretty much mirrors the look my friend Steve had on his face throughout the whole 2nd half of the movie.

Black Swan is most definitely rated R for disturbing imagery, language, and sexual content. This is a film that will be harder for less-mature audiences to handle, as they will easily be lost in giggling and grossing out over the previously mentioned content. (As was the high school-aged group in the theatre we were in.)

Thankfully, this content is not needlessly gratuitous. I must admit, I had my reservations when some of the loudest buzz over this movie centered around a love scene between Portman and Kunis, but it’s adequately woven into the overall plot flow, and still uses clever photography to avoid any full-on nudity. The disturbing imagery is a little more jarring, so be aware, there will be some moments you cringe, but they effectively lend themselves to the storytelling.

It's certainly easier on the eyes than that Keifer Sutherland movie.

I have to say, the film is artistically well done. I’m very interested to find out what technique(s) they used to create the independent mirror-image effects, as there are some fairly intricate moments where the camera would literally have to be looking at itself in the mirror, but it’s never seen. The storyline is solid, and the discomfort caused throughout the film is intentional and adds to the overall dark ambiance.

I’d recommend this to the over-17 film loving crowd, although I think you’d be fine to wait for it on DVD. The theatrical presentation doesn’t really add to the spectacle. Overall, it’s a solid film, with some excellent performances, specifically Portman’s, and a well-put-together cinematic vision on the part of the director. This will definitely be one to watch for in the upcoming awards season.

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Rating: 5.0/5 (1 vote cast)
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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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Rating: 4.5/5 (4 votes cast)
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The Book of Eli

Denzel Washington strays from his recent Tony Scott thrillers (Deja Vu, Pelham 123) to participate in an odd post-apocalyptic tale (yes, another one of those).  While I think much of the audience interested in this film already knows what Denzel’s “Eli” character is protecting as he wanders through what’s left of Earth’s wasteland following a nuclear fallout, I will refrain from revealing the big mystery.

With “The Road,” “Terminator Salvation,” “2012,” “I am Legend” and even “Wall-E,” audiences have seen the end of the world quite a bit lately.  “The Book of Eli” fits right in.  While this film deserves to be stronger than it is, the Hughes Bros. (absent for a decade) deliver a gutsy, expensive mainstream movie.  The set design is amazing–you can definitely tell lots of studio money went into this one.  The action sequences are sharp, bloody, and stinging.  Some of the flick feels a little generic, but I expected as much.  While it won’t be the post-apocalyptic film to remember, it is a challenging and consistently entertaining film with the likes of Denzel Washington (in a refreshing out-there movie for him, even if he often settles back into “Man in Fire” mode) and Gary Oldman (back to his smarmy evil best).  The action delivers, and while the message of it is certainly obtuse, “The Book of Eli” is a daring offering considering its subject matter.

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