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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The Mummy

Several people commented during our Avatar contest that they would like to see us  review The Mummy (1999). I happen to have a unique perspective on this movie, as it has somehow wormed its way into an odd place in my life. I first saw it in college, and while I didn’t hate it, I felt no interest in sitting through it ever again. Steven Sommers’ obsession with mindless spectacle and pointless deaths was enough to ruffle even my then-adolescent feathers.  I put The Mummy from my mind, and didn’t even bother to check out the over-hyped sequel in the summer of 2001.

Seven years later, I got married, and I learned that The Mummy was one of my wife’s all-time favorite movies. Since it had been so long, and out of affection for her, I gladly endured one more screening. The problem is, one was not enough for her. For the last two years of my life, every time there’s laundry to fold or iron, The Mummy goes in the VCR. I usually try to busy myself in some other room, balancing the checkbook or something, whenever she watches The Mummy. Despite this, I can still hear it, and have learned all the screams of the movie by heart.

So, what’s in The Mummy? We start around 1200 B.C. when Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), high priest of Pharaoh Sethi I, and Ank Su Namun, the Paraoh’s concubine (Patricia Velasquez, above) conspire to murder Sethi. They take turns hacking him with swords, causing him to go “Aaaggh!” “Eeee!”  “Aaaaa!” Ank Su Namun then kills herself to avoid punishment for the murder. Imhotep later tries to resurrect her, but Sethi’s guards stop him. He is sentenced to be mummified alive for his crimes. (Just for the record, that’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. In real life, you’d be dead halfway through step one.) Some priests cut off his tongue, resulting in a scream that is really more of gasp. Imhotep is then buried alive, and placed under a curse that says, should he be resurrected, he would return as a pestilence to destroy the earth.

Before Scott Evil can jump up and say “Why don’t you just kill him and be done with it?” we are transported to the 1920s. We meet Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz), a British librarian and Egyptologist, who emits an “Eeeek!” when her brother, Jonathon (John Hannah), makes a mummy pop out of a sarcophagus, startling her. Jonathon has found an artifact that intrigues Evie, and she begins assembling a team to travel deep into Egypt to find the lost city of Hamunaptra. They are joined by Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), an adventurer from the States, and four treasure hunters, along with many other nameless pieces of monster fodder, destined to emit screams.

On the journey, their ship is attacked by fighters who protect Imhotep’s tomb called the Medjai. O’Connell sets one on fire, who jumps off the boat, screaming “Hoo, hoo, hoo-aaaaah!” (splash) Once they arrive at Hamunaptra, three Arabic-speaking guides are melted by acid in a booby trap,

Aaagh!

Aaagh!

Owwie!

A warden has a golden beetle come to life, burrow into his foot, then up his body and into his brain, causing him to go mad and run screaming down a corridor into a wall

Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Smack

And finally, Evie reads from the Book of the Dead, bringing Imhotep back to life. “Noo! You must not read from the book!” As soon as she does, a storm of locust comes up, forcing the adventurers inside the ancient temple that is now stalked by Imhotep. One by one, all the extras are killed either by Imhotep, the beetles, or booby traps, resulting in screams to numerous to transcribe.

They return to Cairo but the Mummy follows them. Four treasure hunters are under a special curse for opening Imhotep’s organ chest, and he kills each of them before moving on to the rest of the world. While the first one dies screaming “No! Please, please, please …” the rest of them go out with more of an “Aaaeeeiiieck*” as Imhotep drains them of their life. Each time he does so, he partially regenerates, until he looks like a living man. Which raises some questions: what would he have done if fewer than four had opened the chest? If no one had opened the chest, but Evie had read from the book, would he have just destroyed the world as a walking corpse? For that matter, since he plans on destroying the world anyway, why bother with these guys?

The Mummy; half-way through his curse victims, so ... 50% regenerated?

The answer is, you have to think like Steven Sommers. For Sommers, making sense is nothing; spectacle is everything. Nothing goes into the “plot” of this movie unless it will lead to either a fight scene or a horrific, screaming death (although the deaths involve an implausible omission of red liquid to keep that all-important PG-13 rating). The curse on Imhotep’s organ chest is nothing more than an aside, crammed into the movie to give Sommers an excuse to kill four more guys.

Frankly, the rest of the movie is pretty much the same thing. More screams, people dying by the hundred, and inane scripture quotations with no meaning. Beth eventually showed me the sequel, and I actually liked it a little better, though I think it was mostly because I had lower expectations. If you’re interested in Sommer’s work, or in Universal Studios monsters, your time would be better spent checking out Van Helsing (2004). It has all the same stupidities as The Mummy, but at least has cooler characters, awesome action scenes, and some really wicked gadgets.

To summarize my impression of The Mummy:

Sitting through it once: “Eh.” (In other words, )

Being subjected to it over and over:

“Aaaggh!” “Eeee!”  “Aaaaa!”

“Hoo, hoo, hoo-aaaaah!” (splash)

Aaagh!

Aaagh!

Owwie!

Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Smack

“No! Please, please, please …”

“Aaaeeeiiieck*”

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The Lovely Bones

Visual excess abounds for Peter Jackson, whose imagination runs wild with the imagery provided by the text of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel.  Surprisingly, Jackson has less of a human element present in his crack at  ‘The Lovely Bones’ than he did in his spectacularly bloated rendition of ‘King Kong’ four years ago.  With so much lush opportunity to capitalize on an emotional resonance of his earthlings, Jackson instead seems far more eager to establish his flavor for special effects provided by the story’s setting.

Brilliant young actress Saorise Ronan (Oscar-nominee for ‘Atonement’) plays Susie Salmon (like the fish), a fourteen year-old suburban middle-schooler, well-behaved, adventurous, with a thrill for photography and a longing for her first kiss with the dreamy English-accented Ray (Reece Ritchie).  Susie narrated the events of the film from beyond the grave, always keeping her audience ahead of the game.  She informs us that she was murdered on Dec. 6, 1973.  One afternoon on her way home from school, creepy neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) stops her in a field and lures her into an underground ‘playhouse’ he tells her he constructed for the neighborhood children.  Horror follows as Susie never finds her way out, at least not in physical form.  Her spirit goes to the ‘in-between’ where she waits until her murder is solved.  Mark Wahlberg plays her determined father Jack.  Rachel Weisz plays her emotional-wreck mother, Abigail.  And Susan Sarandon plays her hard-drinking, chain-smoking grandmother.

The tagline on the poster stated: “The story of a life and everything that came after.”  While in some ways, that’s true, “The Lovely Bones” seems less interested in the effects of Susie’s death on her family.  I never once felt as though Peter Jackson meant to explore the family’s emotional devastation.  Instead, much of our time is spent through these other-world visualizations with ‘Hitchiker’s Guide to Galaxy’ style imagery that Susie occupies mostly on her own.  Here and there, another younger girl shows up named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) who advises Susie to keep moving forward toward Heaven.  Since the audience fully knows of the details concerning the murder of Susie, and her killer’s identity, two hours are spent watching the police and the Salmon family overlook Harvey’s involvement, even though he sits next door.  Frustratingly, Jackson focuses a lot on Susie’s lone explorations, as he cuts and pastes gorgeous desktop wallpapers together to create his lavishly haunting vision of afterlife.  Instead of dealing with the Salmon parents’ emotional devastation, he uses their breakdowns as a backdrop for landmark special effects sequences that play pretty for sure, but they also never allow us access to real people occupying Jackson’s movie.  He spends so much of his efforts creating a surreal visual experience, that his protagonists become one-dimensional and without an inlet for the audience.  Where Jackson could’ve shifted focus and made Jack and Abigail dual lead characters whose relationship slowly faces demise as a result of Jack’s obsession over the murder case, the movie is constantly distracted, where only marginal suspense can be generated.  Since Susie tells us everything we need to know before it occurs, there’s really no surprise left in store.  At the very least, Jackson could have allowed us to get caught up in Jack’s investigation efforts and findings.  Instead, he goes back and forth with sub-characters that only seem to hinder and confuse the storyline, as well as skew the reality of what happens onscreen.

Most of what confuses is a supernatural element that never becomes clear.  There’s a character who seems to have the ability to contact/see the dead walking among the living.  She witnesses Susie’s spirit leaving Earth, and senses her presence later on toward the end of the film.  There are also moments where Susie seems to have access to her father, instances where he tries to reach out and touch her, as Susie watches him in her Purgatory-esque  existence.  She even seems to be able to intervene in terms of her father’s emotion–sort of an E.T. like connection where they can feel each other’s pain.  This idea seems to give way to improper character motivations and realizations.  Eventually Wahlberg’s character suspects Harvey, but for no apparent reason, other than his image in a photograph.  Soon enough, he’s trying to smash in Harvey’s door and declaring him the killer.  Sure, the audience knows he is, but for Jack to have this sudden realization, it really makes little sense.

Stanley Tucci, unrecognizable from his standard supporting affairs in films like ‘Julie & Julia,’ really has all the meat this script has to offer.  Weisz, Wahlberg, and Sarandon literally disappear in this movie and their struggles go overlooked.  Instead, the serial killer of Harvey manages to steal all the thunder.  When Tucci makes his way to the forefront, the movie has an undeniably unsettling quality.  Perhaps that has to do with Jackson’s way of lingering on an up-close shot of Tucci’s mug or him tapping his fingers ever-so eloquently.  Tucci ends up stealing the movie with a haunting performance.  Of course it is easier to steal a movie as a memorable villain, but Tucci never has to compete with anyone onscreen.  His presence dominates any acting on display, whether it be Oscar-nominee Wahlberg, or winners Weisz and Sarandon.  Ronan manages to put on a strong performance, but once she exits Earth, her character loses almost all depth.  That leaves ‘The Lovely Bones’ to rely on Harvey and his potential capture.  Luckily “Bones” has Tucci to the play the character, because he manages to place that weight on your chest early on that the movie never lifts.

Other than impressive special effects sequences and a memorable performance from Stanley Tucci, Director Peter Jackson has a movie that is so obtuse that I don’t even know how to classify it.  If James Cameron is to be chastised for inventing a picture based on his obsessive visual excess, then Jackson should face a similar fate of criticism.  To Cameron’s credit, he never intended on placing his focus on genuine human characters.  Jackson did.  While part of his misfire may have to do with the source material, “The Lovely Bones” nevertheless misses its opportunity to illuminate a family torn apart by murder.  Even though part of me wants to give this a marginal recommendation due to its haunting and unsettling presence, I am slightly forced to move in the other direction.  Jackson has delivered another overlong, bloated movie (that I didn’t love as much as ‘King Kong’) that is a bit anti-climactic and confusing as to what its intentions really are.  I don’t know what to take away from ‘The Lovely Bones.’  There is only little resolve for the family characters, and not much invested in them anyway.  If I was meant to be captivated by Susie’s journey beyond the grave, then I’m left unengaged.  Jackson’s version of Heaven, while a culmination of raw technology efforts, feels desolate and lonely. I can’t say the movie didn’t impact me–it sure startled me, and stirred up emotions, but its protagonists did not, leaving a gaping emptiness all the special effects in the world can’t fill.

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