Tag Archives: 127 Hours

Oz the Great and Powerful – Franco, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more…

Grave danger: James Franco and Michelle Williams

Grave danger: James Franco and Michelle Williams

When major studios aren’t rebooting properties to hold onto the rights – Sony with The Amazing Spider-Man – they’re making them because they are suddenly out of copyright and up for grabs. The works of L. Frank Baum are the latest guaranteed cash-cow to become available, and while we wait for the film musical of Wicked and an Asylum movie set in Oz, here’s Disney’s surprisingly strong stab at that universe, which serves very much as a prequel to MGM’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz.

Oz the Great and Powerful pays considerable homage to its forebear (although none to 1985’s Return to Oz), similarly opening in Kansas with a black and white sequence – shot à la The Artist in the Academy ratio to conjure up the sensation of watching a classic movie. More conjuring is done by James Franco’s Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs, a fairground magician/charlatan who can work a crowd just as adeptly as he can seduce women. But his life is hollow; the crowds want more than he can offer, he has no real friends and the one woman he might have settled down with is to marry another man. That’s when his hot air balloon gets sucked into a twister, and an overly elaborate action scene later we find ourselves in the wonderful land of Oz, candy-colour fading in and the letterboxing at the sides of the image expanding out to widescreen.

In Oz, Oz finds he is the apparent subject of a prophecy to bring peace to this magic kingdom. His first encounter is with the good witch Theadora (Mila Kunis) – innocent, ravishing and leather-pantsed – who Oz discovers is just as easy to win over as the girls back home. Mistaken for a true wizard, who can conjure fire from his sleeves and doves from his hat, Oz is charged by Theadora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) to protect the Emerald City from the Wicked Witch, in exchange for its crown and mountains of gold. Seduced by riches and terrified of being found out to be a conman, Oz sets off on the quest across various colourful and bizarre terrains. Along his travels on the Yellow-Brick Road he picks up three companions (as is the style in these parts): Finley, a winged monkey servant (voiced by Zach Braff); a tiny but spirited girl made of china (voiced by Joey King); and the good witch Gilda (Michelle Williams).

China girls, monkeys and dark woods - oh my!

China girls, monkeys and dark woods – oh my!

Oz, the land that is, all blue skies, green hills and bright yellow everything else, is very similar to what fans of the original film remember. However, the added gloss brought by director Sam Raimi and Disney’s merciless obsession with excessive CGI makes it look more like a cartoon based on the original than a story set in the same world. Whereas The Wizard of Oz looked like the world’s best-produced school pantomime, Oz the Great and Powerful is so overblown with digitally animated features and landscapes that it manages to look even less real, and less corporeal, than a film nearly 75 years its senior. Sure, the flora in Wizard looked as though it were made of papier-mâché, but then at least if you touched it you know it would feel like papier-mâché! Here, the eye-blistering graphics create too many images that look textureless, as though your hand might go right through them were you to reach out to grab them. Green-screened backdrops (all a little Dr. Seuss) are not much of an improvement on ancient matte paintings. Multi-coloured horses are seen grazing in distant pastures, but they’re so poorly animated they move like B-movie animatronics. Finley’s face never looks quite finished – put it back in the computer, lads, he’s not done yet!

But that’s not to say there aren’t some fantastic visuals on display here. The Emerald City itself looks superb, and a chase through a foggy graveyard by fearsome winged baboons is very much what you’d hope for from the director of Spider-Man 2. Lots of silly fun is had with the 3D effects, which never quite dominate proceedings, although Raimi goes overboard with having his effects break through the letterboxing during the film’s prologue. You could argue 3D is not a gimmick, but having objects fly out the boundaries of the image certainly is.

Forget it James, it's China Town

Forget it James, it’s China Town

 What makes Oz work, if it works at all, is the competence of it script. Adapted by Mitchell Kapner and polished by the formidable David Lindsay-Abaire, whose ability to avoid patronising young audiences is a rare gift in Hollywood these days, the screenplay for Oz the Great and Powerful toys brilliantly with the expectations set by The Wizard of Oz. Borrowing that film’s “and you were there, and you were there…” concept, cast members carried over from Kansas to Oz allow Franco’s character to repair the damage he did in his real life. He comes to treat Finley with the respect he never showed his sideshow assistant, also played by Braff. A faith-blinded wheelchair-bound girl at his carnival show who begs him to use his “magic” to heal her legs becomes in Oz the china girl, whose shattered legs Oz can mend using magic from his own world. As he flees Kansas, his declaration to a lost love, Michelle Williams again, that “I’ll see you in my dreams”, again references The Wizard of Oz, while also allowing the events that follow to be seen as a dream. The egotist Oz finds himself in a land named after him, where he can be king, women adore him and he is respected and adored for his powers.

Where the script fails is in its representation of the three witches. The Wizard of Oz is often quoted as an early work of cinematic feminism, and while that may not be quite accurate, it certainly had a well-defined female protagonist and a villainess who was a serious force to be reckoned with (provided she wasn’t reckoning with water).  Here Weisz is a far less dominant witch; she nails the role with a completely appropriate hammy performance bordering on camp, but it’s hardly a well-drawn character. Reminiscent of characters in Raimi’s disastrous Spider-Man 3, Kunis’s Theadora goes through a trilogy’s worth of character evolution in just three scenes, reducing what began as a promising character to a rather basic female stereotype. Williams, positively glowing as Glinda, cannot bring much to a character whose only characteristic is being good. There’s a reason Glinda was the deus ex machina of The Wizard of Oz – “goodness” does not good drama make.

Sister, Sister: Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis

Sister, Sister: Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis

As for Franco, I have never been one to shy from revealing my dislike for the cocksure actor, but have always given him credit where due, such as in 127 Hours. But I maintain my belief that the actor is a pretentious fraud who has managed to fool most of Hollywood (and apparently publishers, universities and music labels) into believing otherwise. This all, of course, suits the character of Oz rather perfectly, and Franco excels here, naturally playing a fraudster pulling the Technicolor wool over everyone’s eyes. Constantly “acting”, Franco’s discomfort with the size of the production carries into the character of Oz, who is constantly out of place in a world so much bigger than him. A speech he gives about Thomas Edison, a “real wizard”, sounds like the sort of community college gibberish one imagines he produced during his time at Columbia University and NYU. It’s hard to imagine more suitable casting, although younger audiences will miss out on these hidden depths.

Which is all to say that Oz the Great and Powerful is really quite an entertaining ride, with a story and dialogue that are often far smarter than you might expect. While Disney had no rights to use certain MGM properties (the ruby slippers are sorely missed), the film leaves enough gaps for willing viewers to fill them in themselves.

A sequel has already been announced, which will hopefully take a very different tack with the land of Oz. It would be nice to see some new ideas and wonderful landscapes, with less of a Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland vibe.

Hopefully the next one will at least be a musical.

3/5

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A guide to recognising your Oscar nominees

The BAFTAs are now over so it is officially time to go into Oscar-mania overdrive. A fortnight from this moment fever pitch will have been reached, and four hours of so-so entertainment will begin. As someone switching on Around the World in 80 Days for the first time will think: with this many stars it has to be amazing, right?! Eh, it’s fine. The Oscars will be too.

As many have noted the problem with the Academy these days is that, coming in rapid succession after the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and VAGs (Various Assorted Guilds), the word Oscar is now synonymous with predictable. But somehow I am holding out hope for a few surprises this year. I’m also holding out hope that hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway don’t suck – a boy can dream, right?

And the nominees for Best Picture are…

The King’s Speech

Leading the pack with an impressive, perhaps surprising twelve nominations, The King’s Speech is certainly a forerunner, though hardly anointed. It has the Hurt Locker edge, having won the BAFTA while the curiously unprescient Globes* gave their top nod to The Social Network (the Globes embarrassingly whored themselves out to Avatar in 2010). It also has a slew of top talent at next-to the height of their game – Colin Firth is a very difficult one to challenge for Best Actor, while Geoffrey Rush has lost none of his Shine (not apologising, you can’t make me) and would be a shoe-in for Best Supporting in other years. But the film has everything an Academy favourite needs: costumes and colour, wit and drama, happily-ever-after love, a WWII setting and of course a triumph-over-adversity tale that would make it this year’s Rocky if Rocky weren’t already nominated this year (see The Fighter, below).

Don’t expect a clean sweep, but if it starts one, it’ll nail Best Picture.

True Grit

The Coen brothers have been Academy favourites for some time now, and in the rare position that the film-going public at large love them also. True Grit is a spectacle alright, put together with all the flair the Coens can manage, but is it enough? Jeff Bridges could dethrone Firth (pun noticed, but unintended) for Best Actor, but despite their shared alcoholism the role is more The Dude than Bad Blake – his Oscar-winning role from last year’s Crazy Heart, and unlikely to steal the Academy voters’ hearts in quite the same manipulative way. The film’s breakthrough star, Hailee Steinfeld, has a much greater chance of taking home the Best Supporting Actress gong, although the Academy has been destructively patronising in not granting the youth a nomination in the leading category.

With ten nominations, most positively Art Direction, Costume Design and Cinematography, it may not win big, but it’d be a shock if it walked away empty-handed.

Inception

So The Dark Knight is held solely responsible for there being ten nominees in the Best Picture category now. Christopher Nolan is one of the most talented filmmakers alive today, but damn his fans are more terrifyingly devout than a Jihadi horde! So with an extra five spaces there would be further outrage/terror campaigns if his first film since The Dark Knight did not make the cut. And rightly so, Inception was one of the best films of 2010, but it is still the token audience-panderer, and has no chance of taking the big prize. The big coup would be for it to win Best Original Screenplay, but against The King’s Speech, Another Year and The Kids are All Right it seems to hold only a small chance. But technical awards should abound, and its music stands a fighting chance as the bombastic epic score against The King’s Speech‘s more traditional and The Social Network‘s more experimental nominees.

The Nolanistas will be disappointed.

The Social Network

Until recently this appeared unchallengeable to take Best Picture, but that seems uncertain now. Fincher’s drama has a lot to say for itself; it’s modern, character-driven, dripping in style. Outside of the director’s traditional thriller zone, he’s produced a mighty impressive movie. But it’s one that is greater than the sum of its parts (unlike The King’s Speech, which is simply a collection of great parts), so it will likely not clean up on the awards, which may affect its Best Picture chances. Jesse Eisenberg stands almost no chance at Best Actor, but if it loses out on Best Picture a win for David Fincher would be a great runner-up prize. Aaron Sorkin, a master of dialogue, seems destined to win a writing Oscar some day. Taking Best Original Screenplay this year is a strong possibility.

If it doesn’t win Best Picture, it could easily cut into The King’s Speech‘s spoils. It’s not out of the race yet.

The Fighter

Ah bless, how we struggle against adversity. And not just one adversity, but two! Two characters, struggling against two adversities! Why the fighter of the title could refer as easily to the struggles of the main characters as it could to the fact that the film is about boxing! OK, I’m being far meaner than this strong film deserves. The Fighter would be a superb film if it weren’t so darn familiar. With no chance at the big awards and unlikely to receive many technicals, The Fighter‘s strongest suit is in its supporting stars. Christian Bale will have little competition for Best Supporting Actor, given a superb turn as a crack-addicted former “star” boxer, unless the Academy decides to effectively dry hump The King’s Speech and throw this to Geoffrey Rush. Amy Adams, always the supporting bridesmaid, never the supporting bride, has already lost this to her co-star Melissa Leo, who is Hailee Steinfeld’s big competition. That will be a fun one to watch…

In another year it’d have had a crack at the title. All it can hope for now is a supporting sweep.

127 Hours

Danny Boyle is clearly still riding high on Slumdog Millionaire, as the same film made by any other director (not that it could have been, this well) would never have gotten a nod here. Still, it’s good to see this terrific film getting a chance at the big award – no ‘arm in that now, is there? (sorry) It’s biggest chance at an award is in the editing category, which it is undoubtedly deserving, but may be a touch too experimental for the Academy’s liking. James Franco deserves his Best Actor nomination in a role that showed the performer reveal a more mature side to himself, although the show’s host will no doubt be left a little red-faced when his name is not announced on the night. This is a problem the Academy should have foreseen and never allowed to happen.

Maybe editing, maybe nothing.

Black Swan

Quite the nail-biter (OK, I’ll stop), Black Swan looked like a major contender when its trailer first hit the internet last year, but I suspect it will be too much of a horror for the voters to make it Best Picture. A Best Director trophy for Aronofsky seems similarly unlikely, but the film will likely escape with an enviable Best Actress award in a very competitive year – Natalie Portman’s mesmerising physical presence in the film is worth a nomination before she even opens her mouth. Cinematography could go Black Swan‘s way, but competing with True Grit, Inception, The King’s Speech and The Social Network, I wouldn’t hold out hope for it.

Too gruesome to take anything more than a well-deserved Best Actress award.

Toy Story 3

Last year, Up‘s nomination in the Best Picture category made a bold statement about what a remarkable animated achievement that film was. While Toy Story 3 is also a triumph for Pixar, it is not one on the same level as Up, and its nomination in the Best Picture category only serves to give it an unfair advantage in the Best Animated Feature category, where it is up against superb (and arguably superior) competition in the form of The Illusionist and How to Drain Your Dragon. A shame really.

Pixar win another gong, but it should not have been the anointed animated victor the Academy has made it.

The Kids Are All Right

The token indie drama, this pleasant but confused little film never stood a chance at Best Picture. Mark Ruffalo, nominated Best Supporting Actor for his hardly outstanding role, needn’t bother turning up on the night, while Annette Bening is standing in for Meryl Streep this year. Its only hope is Best Original Screenplay, but even that seems far out of reach.

The Awards Are All Lost

Winter’s Bone

A curious addition, more comfortable triumphing at Sundance than in Hollywood, Winter’s Bone has few hopes of victory, though the nominations will boost its profile (and particularly that of its star). Despite its bleak setting and social commentary, it’s a surprisingly straightforward tale – perhaps why it sat well with the Academy voters – so it hasn’t really got the narrative punch to get it much of a look-in for Best Picture. Jennifer Lawrence would be a deserving Best Actress winner, but to steal it would be almost impossible; this is Natalie’s year. John Hawkes, star of several films previously but practically unknown to most, can expect a surge of interest after his turn here, but with Rush almost guaranteed the Supporting Actor gong if Bale somehow fails to take it home, he doesn’t stand much of a chance.

A miracle, albeit a happy one, is needed to get this a single gong.

As for the rest of the awards, nothing is too certain. Certainly a win for Banksy with Exit Through the Gift Shop would be a turn-up for the books, and perhaps lead to the most memorable acceptance… speech?… in Academy Award history. Biutiful has Javier Bardem behind it for Best Foreign Language Film, but after last year’s frankly insane spurning of The White Ribbon and A Prophet (as well as the noticeable absence this year of the heart-wrenching Of Gods and Men) anything could happen. Dogtooth could win the damn thing!

The real winners or losers on the night will be the show’s producers, however. They’ve taken a huge gamble on their hosts that could backfire enormously. We’ll have to wait and see.

See you in two weeks.

* Since 2004 the Golden Globes have only awarded their Best Motion Picture – Drama award to the eventual Oscar winner once; Slumdog Millionaire in 2009.

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