A Look Back: Oz the Great and Powerful

Sometimes I sincerely wonder what moviemakers have been ingesting in order to come up with the wacky ideas that they do. Occasionally I wonder this when it comes to the task of stretching out a franchise, especially of a universally beloved movie/book. This happened in the nineties, when Steven Spielberg, (who can usually be relied upon to bring the magic), made “Hook,” which starred Robin Williams as an adult Peter Pan, who’d turned into a workaholic yuppie. When his neglected kids are kidnapped by Hook (i.e. Dustin Hoffman), he must return to Neverland to rescue them. When it was released, “Hook” was ridiculed by a Premiere Magazine critic, perhaps justifiably insisting that few people really care about “the problems of pudgy adults,” even if they happen to be Robin.

In 2013, something similar happened when “Oz the Great and Powerful,” starring James Franco as the Wizard, appeared on the big screen. L. Frank Baum, who likely spun around more than a few times in his grave, when Fairuza Balk played a Dorothy fleeing from electroshock treatments in “Return to Oz,” got yet another workout when “Oz the Great and Powerful” directed by Sam Raimi was released. The movie skips viewing Oz through wondrous child narrator eyes, ignoring the time-proven way of capturing kids’ interests, in order to teach James life lessons about being honest and treating one’s friends fairly. Oh, and there’s also a whole lot of cleavage, interspersed between the flying monkeys and deadly poppies. As it happens, Baum provides the Wizard’s backstory in a few Oz books but doesn’t really sex it up. That’s where “Oz the Great and Powerful” comes in to fill that gap.

Coincidentally, this prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” was released in the same year as “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” whose opening scene is almost identical and features Steve Carell as an arrogant prick of a “magician,” who eventually becomes humbled and learns life lessons about treating one’s friends and associates fairly. However, it has the major drawback of having Steve achieve this in the real world, whereas shortly into the movie, James climbs into a hot air balloon to flee a man whose girlfriend he’s involved with, as well as a mob of fairgoers who expect him to heal a little girl in a wheelchair (Joey King). Luckily, there’s a tornado handy to whirl him into a vortex where he emerges in Oz. Here he meets a friendly (and hot) witch (Mila Kunis) who offers to take him to the Emerald City to meet her sister (Rachel Weisz), as he may be the one who can save them all. He also befriends a friendly flying monkey (Zach Braff who also plays his real-world assistant).

When they reach their destination, James is thrilled to encounter a chamber filled with gold, not to mention Rachel, though she promptly sends him away on a quest to defeat another “bad” witch (Michelle Williams). (On the way, he encounters a village of broken china people, one of which he glues back together to become Joey King-as-a-china-sidekick.)  However – gasp – Michelle turns out to be good (she’s Glinda), while Mila turns out to be bad (she’s the Wicked Witch of the West). Now James must use his magician skills to return to the city, where he must defeat the Real Evil.  This involves an elaborate plan which results in a fake mechanical army being destroyed, lots of gold being blown up, ample cat fighting, and culminates with James deciding to stay and rule Oz as the Wizard, now that he’s become humble and good. And perhaps when Sam Raimi goes to Heaven, he’ll encounter L. Frank Baum who will ask, “Why? Oz is a fantasy that’s supposed to entertain children first. There’s no sex whatsoever in my books.” Or perhaps not. Maybe he’ll have already learned from “Return to Oz” that you can’t always trust Hollywood to deliver the magic so to speak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Movie Review: The Glass Castle

I don’t know what this says about me, but there’s a particular stock character in Hollywood movies who I always wind up feeling sorry for – sometimes even more so than for the protagonist, as I did in the just-released “The Glass Castle.” It’s the “nice guy fiancé” role – you know, the heroine’s dream guy, who’s witty, devoted and charming, but who is destined to either be a) left literally at the altar, or b) given an impromptu off-the-cuff speech about values by the heroine, after Life Lessons about being yourself above all, dawn on her. Here, it’s Max Greenfield, who is witty, devoted and above all, quite rich, to whom Brie Larson is engaged as the film opens. However, she has not yet told her parents (Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts) who are currently squatting in an abandoned home in New York. By all measures, Max is perfect for Brie, a magazine columnist, for whom saying that she had a chaotic upbringing is like saying the Titanic sustained some water damage. In real life, this match would make it through the wedding, but because this is your typical movie, we know from the start that Brie’s issues will get in the way, and the collateral damage won’t be pretty.

“The Glass Castle” is based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, and charts how she and her three siblings were dragged from pillar to post across the country, often hungry if not penniless, while her artist mother painted and her alcoholic father dreamed big dreams that never came to fruition because he, too, was tormented by demons. They lived in homes with no electricity or heat (when Jeannette’s older sister points this out, her dad responds, “Ignore her. She was born without vision.”) when they weren’t staying with Woody’s evil mother. But all this was temporary, according to Woody, because he was going to one day build the titular Glass Castle. At first, Jeannette (played as a girl by Ella Anderson) finds all these adventures thrilling and has the utmost faith that Daddy will come through; eventually, she realizes that she is being “parented” by incompetents and makes a pact with her siblings to stick together until they are old enough to escape. When they do manage to, their parents follow them to New York with their youngest sister. Neither Woody nor Naomi is thrilled to see their middle daughter embracing the bourgeois lifestyle. Eventually, Jeannette begins to have doubts, as well.

The movie includes most of the memorable scenes from the book: the opener when Jeannette burns herself badly enough to land in the hospital; the scene where the kids band together against Woody’s evil mother (for good cause), and one in which Woody repeatedly throws Jeannette into the water to “teach” her how to swim. This serves as the film’s central metaphor, which is pounded helpfully into the movie-goer’s cranium. The cast all does a decent job bringing the memoir to life, but those critics who have pointed out that the film tries to wrap up dysfunction with a pretty bow have a point.

Movie Review: The Dark Tower

Stephen King once claimed in an interview that he’d like to be taken more seriously as a novelist by Those Critics Who Matter Most, but knows that’s not going to happen – partly because he’s not the greatest novelist of all time. That really shouldn’t matter at this point, however, considering that he’s in a position most writers would give their eyeteeth for – as even his grocery lists are examined seriously by Hollywood at this point to see if they could somehow work as a feature film. There are roughly two types of King movies: those grappling with big ideas in the real world without any detours into the supernatural and those that extend into the otherworldly realm. There are also films based on plots King probably came up with at 3 a.m. when he couldn’t sleep, such as “Thinner,” about an arrogant overweight guy who gets cursed by a gypsy and starts losing weight. “Dark Tower,” which opened recently, has all the ingredients of an enjoyable fantasy/action King film, but somehow doesn’t quite add up to a memorable movie. (Although the plot is far more original than “Thinner.”)

Drawing pictures in one’s spare time is usually considered a harmless childhood pastime, right up there with bike riding and marathon “Sesame Street” watching, but in the movies, it’s generally taken as a major danger signal that something is amiss in the kid’s (here played by Tom Taylor) life. According to his therapist, the pictures, along with the fact that Tom has bizarre, recurring dreams (read nightmares) of a dark tower, a man in black, and a gunslinger, are due to having lost his father in an accident. Unfortunately, the doctor no longer feels capable of dealing with Tom’s issues on his own, so when Tom’s school recommends that he be sent to an institution for further testing, his mom (Katheryn Winnick) reluctantly agrees. However, danger signals go off when Tom meets his new treatment team, and so he flees, manages to find a portal to the world of his dreams, and the adventures begin.

Idris Elba plays the movie good guy, the “Gunslinger,” and like most action heroes, he is resolute, stoic and concealing a painful past. Matthew McConaughey plays the bad guy, with his hair slicked back and a perpetual sneer on his face in case the viewer harbors any doubts. Idris soon hooks up with Tom, and explains things for him and those who haven’t read the series. Tom learns that the “Tower” really does exist, but can be brought down by the mind of a child with particular powers. Matthew is busy recruiting children who can possibly do this and so needs to be stopped. As Idris and Tom are pursued by any number of supernatural creatures, including one that resembles “The Neverending Story’s” Rockbiter but much less cuddly, Matthew pops through a portal to wreak havoc in the real world – also putting Tom’s mother and stepfather in peril. I won’t give away the ending, but it sets up things for a sequel, which I’m sure is planned and which I hope, is a lot better than this movie. I’d recommend that King fans wait for the remake of “It,” due out later, as long as they’re not clown-phobic.

Movie Review: Detroit

Back when he was a regular on “Saturday Night Live,” Eddie Murphy did a sketch called “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.” “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…but when I move in,” he deadpans sorrowfully, “you all move away.” I thought of this when the opening of “Detroit,” explains how “white flight” followed the mass migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities hoping for a better life, but resulted in job loss and general disarray for the residents who stayed behind when whites departed for the suburbs. The viewer is plunged immediately into the city-wide chaos that is triggered when policemen raid an after-hours bar in July of 1967, supposedly because they lack a liquor license. While cops and the National Guard are brought in to deal with the rioters, we witness a police officer (Will Poulter) shoot an unarmed man fleeing down an alley. When confronted with his crime by his superior officer, Will just shrugs and points out that well, a black guy carrying groceries probably has a firearm tucked on him somewhere. Thus the stage is set for the main act – and tragedy.

Fast forward to nighttime as our main characters (led by Algee Smith and Fred Latimore), who are about to have the night from Hell, wait in the wings to perform Motown (while the group onstage belts out a rousing, “Nowhere to Run”). They are soon interrupted by police who insist that everyone clear out and go home. Meanwhile another young man (John Boyega) gets a call that he has to show up unexpectedly at his second job: a security officer. While John attempts to make the best of the situation and establish from the start that he’s there to work with the authorities, Algee and Fred decide to take a room at a run-down hotel called the Algiers. When they meet two white young women, who claim to be from Cleveland, the group eventually migrates to the room of Jason Mitchell, whose hot dogs are a welcome refreshment but whose play with a starter pistol is not. After the foursome leaves, Jason then does something that triggers those patrolling the street nearby, which includes Will. Assuming there is a sniper on the hotel roof, Will and his colleagues rush the Algiers, killing several black men in the process, then proceed to take the two white women and their black companions hostage, not letting them leave while they interrogate/brutalize them for a harrowing several hours – which eventually leads to a trial in which justice is sort of served, but mostly (spoiler alert) not.

Though far apart in time and location, “Detroit” reminded me of “Dunkirk.” We’re introduced to several groups of men (mostly) behaving nobly as they deal with being under perpetual siege. We learn very little about their pasts, and it takes awhile before we even figure out all their names. However, we’re instantly drawn into their world and endure their ordeal beside them, hoping for the best. Sadly, the real life events did not result in a satisfying come-uppance for those who deserved it, but the movie is well worth seeing. “What a load of (expletive),” Will exclaims, high fiving his lawyer after being exonerated at the trial. However, you can’t say the same for “Detroit.”

 

.

A Look Back: Dark Shadows

When some infants are born, those present may make prophecies, although this mostly just happens in fairy tales. But I suspect that when Johnny Depp came into this world, the doctor examined him briefly and proclaimed, “One day, this lad will play a vampire on the big screen.” So far in his career, Johnny has portrayed a Jesus figure with scissors for hands, several real-life criminal masterminds, the current POTUS, a sad sack small town guy with the world’s most dysfunctional family, and the owner of a magical chocolate factory, not to mention a pirate with an over-fondness for eyeliner. He began as an undercover cop/high school student on a popular eighties’ TV show, but by 2012, he was ready to fulfill the prophecy and play Barnabas Collins, a time traveling vampire on “Dark Shadows,” the titular soap opera made into a Tim Burton movie. (Like many vampires, Johnny is rather gentlemanly – except of course, when he gets thirsty, and then the manners go out the window.)

If you wish to flee a curse, as young Johnny’s parents attempt to do in the 1700’s, traveling a fog-filled route from England to America probably won’t achieve the desired effect – particularly if a little girl is eyeballing your son, and she grows up to be Eva Green, a witch with an undying crush on him. However, Johnny is more bewitched by a young maid (Bella Heathcote), although he is the scion of a wealthy, influential Maine family. This upsets Eva to the point where she forces Bella to leap off a cliff, enchant and entomb Johnny but not before (she’s on a roll) turning the entire town against his family. Fast forward a couple hundred years, and Johnny’s resting place is disturbed, so he awakens in the seventies. Not the best era to awaken in, but Johnny makes the best of it, returning home to his family mansion, (after performing an enchantment of his own on the groundskeeper, Jackie Earle Haley), which is now headed by Michelle Pfeiffer and Jonny Lee Miller. Also present is the new governess (Bella again) for Jonny’s son (Gully McGrath) who sees dead people and as a result, has a live-in psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter, like Johnny, playing yet another resolutely not normal person). In addition, Chloe Grace-Moretz plays Michelle’s rebellious daughter who has a hair-raising secret of her own. Thus the stage is set for wacky high jinx galore.

Unfortunately, Eva is also still very much around, and soon tangles with Johnny, who manages to get the family business back in gear, and have both a sexual encounter with Eva and a chaste but charming meeting with Bella on the cliff. To celebrate, the family holds a ball featuring (yes really) Alice Cooper. (“Ugliest woman I’ve ever seen,” quips Johnny.) However, the course of love is never smooth, resulting in a series of unearthly encounters, attempted murder and entombing, escape from a drastic house fire, villains receiving their comeuppance, and Bella making an extreme deal so that she and Johnny can be together forever. The soap was before my time, so I can’t say how well it’s replicated, but “Dark Shadows” certainly serves up a healthy helping of cheese. Offhand, I would say Velveeta.