Tag Archives: The Wizard of Oz

MoMA and its Amazing Technicolor Film Series – Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

MoMA’s ‘Glorious Technicolor’ series has come to a close, and it’s hard to imagine we’ll see a line-up quite like it until Technicolor celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2115. It’s harder, of course, to imagine anywhere, even an institution as diligently respectful to film history as the Museum of Modern Art, still screening Technicolor prints one hundred years from now. The moving image archival sciences suggest the films, properly stored, can survive until then, but who will still care to view film on film? Who will still care about these 200-year-old examples of “modern” art?

Pivotally, the audiences that exist now for these films, 60 years or 100 year old, suggest the future is not as grim as my fearmongering might imply. Many of the events I attended during ‘Glorious Technicolor’ were filled to capacity, even on some beautifully sunny days when being indoors for an old movie should be heresy (and especially on some exceptionally humid days when your skin just wants to crawl off your body and escape down the nearest sewer vent).

beckysharp

The first film I caught in the second half of the series was a pivotal one, if one that all but the purest cinephiles and factoid-devotees are still aware of: Becky Sharp. Rouben Mamoulian’s 1935 adaptation of Vanity Fair, focusing as the title suggests on the novel’s saucier anti-heroine, was the first feature film produced in three-strip Technicolor. It’s a rather dull affair overall, sanitised and gifted a happy ending, and the film, much like The Adventures of Robin Hood and A Star Is Born (Mark I) lacks the radiance of what we consider today true Technicolor. The reds of the dragoons’ jackets are not quite that luscious Technicolor red, but some of the background details, notably purple curtains, stand out as definitively Technicolor. The film was partially lost for decades after the 1930s, only restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in the ’80s; the most notable repercussion of this being the fate of the final reel. No 35mm materials remained for it, so as the film reaches its climax suddenly the picture quality collapses into two-colour Cinecolor, sampled from a 16mm print. It’s a sad fate for such a cinematic milestone, although the film’s dramatic and pacing weaknesses would likely have condemned it to obscurity either way.

More tragedy indeed could be seen in a 20-minute Technicolor lighting test for Becky Sharp which preceded the film. Mostly just footage of the actors trying to keep straight faces while standing perfectly still to see how their costumes and makeup would look in Technicolor, the clapperboards that preceded each take bore the name of Lowell Sherman, the film’s original director, who died of pneumonia just a few weeks into the production. The footage however is an interesting study of just how much care had to be taken to get Technicolor looking just right on its extended debut.

A Saturday afternoon in mid-July had to be given over to watching one of Technicolor’s greatest triumphs, Gone With the Wind. The film’s vast scope, incredible story and writing, its pitch-perfect acting, sweeping score, and still-controversial politics, often obscure the fact that it is an astonishingly beautiful film from beginning to end. Gone With the Wind is surprisingly unshowy with its use of Technicolor (well, given its length, that is). Certainly some of the costumes and décor burst with three-strip radiance, but often the browns and beiges and greys of the South before, during, and after the Civil War are hardly colours Technicolor is noted for. Even the film’s most famous gown, Scarlett O’Hara’s dress sown from curtains, is off-emerald green, so as not to completely leap from the screen and belie its pauperish origins.

GoneWithTheWind

When the film’s colour does excel, however, it is by playing Technicolor’s two strongest hands – deep reds and strong blacks. Most notable during the violent sunsets and firestorms that precede the intermission, the vibrancy of the red backgrounds with the film’s principals in thick silhouette before them are Gone With the Wind’s most iconic images. Seeing this on a 35mm print, this one courtesy of George Eastman House, is one of those screening opportunities all cinephiles should seek out, regardless of their opinions on this sometimes difficult movie.

Cobra-Woman

Perhaps the purest artistic counterweight to Gone With the Wind in the Technicolor canon, Robert Siodmak’s Cobra Woman (1944) is a 70-minute B-movie-ish South Seas adventure. One of Universal’s first Technicolor movies (hard to imagine in the year of Furious 7 and Jurassic World, but they were once lagging far behind the other major studios), it was also, somewhat ironically, perhaps the most pristine print I saw during the entire film series. The film is delightful trash, with Maria Montez vamping in dual-role as sexualised serpent queen and her modest mouse-ish twin sister. Lon Chaney Jr. plays a brown-faced mute, while Sabu plays that role that Sabu plays in everything (Black Narcissus excepted), swinging from every imaginable dangling object even when totally unnecessary. It’s a fascinating film (one of a number of adventures Universal made at the time) because it looks so incredible, despite its bare-bones plot and how it almost suffocates on its own camp. Film history tries to not let us associate Technicolor’s magic with such thoroughly minor fare, and yet here it is, more colourful and dazzling than many glorified colour movies; critical darlings and award winners. It was a delighting break after so many grand and important Technicolor triumphs, and as such proved a triumph in its own way.

Nakedspurposter

A handful of Westerns played ‘Glorious Technicolor’, but I was only able to catch The Naked Spur. And very happy I was with that, it proved by some distance the best film I caught in the two-month-long programme that was new to me. “Packed with Technicolor thrills!” roared its poster back in 1953, and it certainly is, particularly because of how untamed the Technicolor in it is. As I mentioned previously, the Technicolor corporation controlled the studios’ use of their apparatus through regimented overseership. Thus all of The Wizard of Oz’s scenes were shot indoors – despite being mostly set outdoors – where Technicolor technicians could best control lighting and the appearance of their product. The Naked Spur, however, was shot largely on location in the Rocky Mountains, a sign of technological improvement that allowed for less bulky, more mobile cameras.

the-naked-spur

As such The Naked Spur looks like few other Technicolor films, with the barrage of natural greens and blues and greys out of the control of the designers. Gone are the rich reds and deep purples of the studio-based melodramas, here the colours of the wilderness are captured in a heightened realism that allows the locations to serve as a stage for a complex drama of greed and distrust. Colour cinema could finally roam the wild, instead of just lumbering into it and shooting whatever was nearby.

A_Star_Is_Born

Of all the losses of the Technicolor age, none has been written about more than A Star Is Born (Mark II, 1954). George Cukor’s musical update of the early Technicolor classic infamously had half an hour ripped from it by studio bosses shortly after its debut. Much of that material is now lost, but much was restored in an acclaimed 1983 reconstruction, which filled in gaps with recovered audio played over on-set photographs. These scenes remain thoroughly jarring, with the lavish Technicolor replaced with its veritable visual antithesis: still black and white frames. And yet, they also reveal the degree of dedication to the restoration. Similarly evident of this was that A Star Is Born was one of the only films shown in the entirety of ‘Glorious Technicolor’ shown on a DCP (digital cinema package) rather than on 35mm, as the surviving elements have proven too delicate to strike new prints from.

The film itself is a strong remake, which becomes a little too much a beat-for-beat repeat in the final act. Still, the central musical number, Judy Garland’s ‘Born in a Trunk’, could rival many of Singin’ in the Rain’s finest big numbers for Technicolor opulence.

20-000-leagues-under-the-sea-1954

A Star Is Born’s James Mason was up again in the next film I saw, Disney’s 1954 take on Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Another rather standard adventure film, this lacked all of the gorgeous lustre of Cobra Woman, and was easily the most disappointing film I caught during the series. Captain Nemo’s Nautilus has been imagined as a dull, rusty brown submarine, one of the only colours that the Technicolor process has proven slow to improve. With its gruelling length of more than two hours, only briefly surfacing for a beautiful Technicolor beach scene or a mildly thrilling giant squid attack, it’s hard to imagine 20,000­ Leagues could have been as popular as it was back in the day. I suppose it does have a comic-relief sea lion. Always a crowd-pleaser, that.

snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs

MoMA rounded out its summer of Technicolor with a weekend dedicated to animation. The backbone of this was a number of Technicolor prints of classics of Disney animation. I was lucky to have a chunk of spare time, and got to three of them. Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, I had not realised before, gets its unique, Grimm look from those teething pain days of Technicolor, before The Wizard of Oz and co. electrified everything. As such, its many muted fairytale colours actually help the lips red as blood and hair black as night to pop the way they do.

Fantasia, shown in all its original grandeur with intermission, could hardly look better than in a Technicolor print – it may represent Walt Disney’s ego at its most extreme, but the visuals that ego inspired are beyond compare. ‘Rite of Spring’, with its wide swath of colours and fiery reds as the world is formed, stands out dramatically, as do the bright tones of the centaurs, pegasi, and other creatures of Greek myth featured in ‘The Pastoral Symphony’ sequence.

fantasiariteofspring_zps14c3007brainbow pastoral fantasia

The final film I caught was a first for me, Melody Time (1948), one of Disney’s mash-up of shorts during those difficult post-Fantasia, post-War years. It’s colossally hit-or-miss, with some of the musical shorts delightful or charming, while others drag on ceaselessly (‘The Legend of Johnny Appleseed’, in particular). In some ways though, this saved the finest use of Technicolor for last. In one of the more middling segments, ‘Blame it on the Samba’, Donald Duck and José Carioca (that parrot you’ve seen in so many pictures but probably never seen in a movie) are brought out of a funk by the combination of alcohol and samba music. When the pair finds themselves in a giant glass of liquid samba, the sequence dissolves into a whirlwind of shapes and colours, an acid trip lava lamp, complete with live action organist and demented physical comedy courtesy of the Aracuan Bird. On the big screen, in all of glorious Technicolor’s glorious colours, it is quite a sight to behold.

I was very fortunate to see as many films as I did during ‘Glorious Technicolor’, and so often in prints of such superb quality. And yet, I missed many more than I saw (Leave Her to Heaven was a particular sore one for me). I was especially sorry to miss the great range of shorts programmes MoMA had running, from classic cartoons to travelogues, and fragments of early, mostly lost Technicolor features. What I did catch was the 1949 industrial film imaginatively titled Technicolor for Industrial Films, played before Cobra Woman, that is both sales pitch and triumphant example of what Technicolor can do. It’s also a great example of awful, awful 1940s voiceover work.

Powell and Pressburger’s magnificent 1946 afterlife drama A Matter of Life and Death is famous for inverting the colour stylings of The Wizard of Oz: its heaven is monochrome, its earth – life itself – is bursting with colour. As a heavenly messenger, played by Marius Goring, travels between worlds, he stares lovingly at a rose as it blooms into redness. “Ah,” he exhales, “one is starved for Technicolor up there.” In this age of digital desaturation, Netflix, and poorly calibrated TV screens, we’re all a little starved for Technicolor down here these days too. For one summer in New York in 2015, we feasted.

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MoMA and its Amazing Technicolor Film Series – Part 1

(the above trailer for ‘Glorious Technicolor’ has been removed since the series concluded)

Technicolor – company, chemical process, aesthetic. The word is part of our common lexicon, representing the bright, the luscious, an effervescent burst of colour. It transformed the look of Hollywood cinema, and, due to its high costs and complicated use and development, became a prestige product, akin today to IMAX. With no sizeable competitor for almost 20 years from the launch of the three-strip process in the early-mid ’30s and the arrival of the far cheaper monopack Eastmancolor in 1952, Technicolor reigned supreme in its time. Its patents were so locked down that no one could compete, and the company had its contracts allow its representatives creative control of lighting on the set of major studio films. At its height, Technicolor was as big a name as Universal or MGM.

Now celebrating 100 years since the company was founded (although it made little impact until two-strip Technicolor emerged in the mid-’20s and did not become an iconic term until 1937 saw the dual release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and A Star Is Born), Technicolor has a withered role in the industry today, but its name still carries that unmatched prestige. At the Museum of Modern Art, a summer-long series of Technicolor classics is currently running, and is the highlight of the season for most New York cinephiles.

Programmed by Josh Siegel, ‘Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond’ has some 80 films on show, mostly 35mm presentations, representing the earliest incarnations of Technicolor to the final three-strip films made in the U.S. in the mid-1950s.

While the series opened with La Cucaracha (1934), the opening night presentation was a breathtaking 35mm print of The Wizard of Oz, the film best positioned to be the standard-bearer for Technicolor. Oz is the ideal Technicolor film, creating a brightly coloured otherworld, but entirely within a studio, where the hulking Technicolor cameras could be best controlled to capture the choreographed action. Better still, that infamous transition shot from the sepia prologue to the dreamy Technicolor land of Oz is the perfect ambassador for the process, capturing in one shot what Technicolor brings to cinema. Beyond that, the film is actually surprisingly subtle in its use of Technicolor (its also way way funnier than you remember, go revisit that asap). The four leads are all dressed in pastels, dull earth tones, and silver, none of which (ruby slippers aside) are colours that pop in Technicolor. Because of this, the Land of Oz itself bursts forth, with its yellow road, and emerald city. The Munchkins’ town is all browns and greens, but when the Munchkins themselves emerge they are all dressed in bright reds, royal purples and deep blues. The Technicolor hits all the harder for the restraint shown.

If The Wizard of Oz represents a fantastical magic of the Golden Age of Hollywood, then Gene Kelly represents the pinnacle of Hollywood star power, a different but equally wondrous kind of silver screen magic. A Gene Kelly double bill took place at MoMA on June 20th, made up of his two greatest movies, Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. Perhaps unwisely screened in that order for those double-dipping (Singin’s energy is locomotive throughout, while American dips in its final act but demands the awakiest of attention for its final Gershwin ballet, so drowsiness was inevitable), the two films showcase Kelly’s finest dancing, choreography, and comic chops, as well as the full glory of detail in Technicolor.

Singin’ in the Rain (I won’t discuss the story, you’ve already seen it. You have seen it, right? RIGHT?!) is relatively subtle with its use of three-strip at first, mostly waiting until ‘Beautiful Girl’ to show off its full range of colours as used in some horrendous 1920s fashion. But its Kelly’s glorious ego trip, the Broadway Melody sequence, that blasts the audience’s eyes with Technicolor like David Bowman travelling through a flamboyant Stargate. In its central dance number, there’s a divine fusion of colours, with the crimson background, Cyd Charisse’s emerald green dress, and Kelly’s pink tie and waistcoat so yellow it’d put a canary to shame (“It’s so yellow, I think I’ll kill myself,” a canary is said to have remarked at the film’s premiere).

By comparison, An American in Paris is far less showy with its colours (although far more showy with its ballet). Where the Technicolor really shows off is in the final scenes at the masked ball, where everyone is dressed in black and white. More so than any other colour process (including and especially digital), Technicolor gets blacks truly black, giving the scene a rich checkerboard look. It is one of the oft-forgotten ironies of the name Technicolor that black and white are two of its strongest colours.

A Douglas Sirk double bill was less successful, for a few reasons. Certainly his two most famous Technicolor films (All that Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind) were absent – Imitation of Life is Eastmancolor – so the choice of Magnificent Obsession and Captain Lightfoot seemed perhaps unwise. One of the great benefits of Technicolor is that the imbibition process used to stabilise the colour dyes has the effect of keeping the colours as they should be seen far beyond that of other film processes. Eastmancolor, by comparison, has been notorious for the colour fade in prints even within a decade of being struck. But no film is immune to physical damage, and the print of Captain Lightfoot MoMA presented had seen better days. The film itself is tremendously difficult to take seriously, with Rock Hudson trying his best brogue as an Irish highwayman who joins the Republican cause in the early 1800s. It regularly forced this Irishman to suppress giggles, while the final 20 minutes features more unnecessary plot twists than any film should have. The film was actually shot in Ireland, a country whose grey skies and greyer buildings don’t quite lend themselves as advertisements for glorious Technicolor, making it all the more curious a choice for the series.

Sirk is a filmmaker it took me a long time to come around to, until Written on the Wind helped me crack the code of his particularly brand of camp. I was loathe to give Magnificent Obsession another chance, but this time its melodrama-on-steroids and hysterical religious undertones actually worked for me, overall. But it’s far from Sirk’s brightest and most colourful work, with only small details in flowers and dresses blooming properly in Technicolor. What’s more, the print appeared to be quite heavily water damaged, distracting often from the cinematography (and occasionally garbling the soundtrack). In a series of numerous highlights, this was one of the few letdowns.

Rouben Mamoulian was the first filmmaker to shoot a feature in Technicolor (1935’s Becky Sharp), and his 1941 matador melodrama Blood and Sand is a fine example of his flair for colour cinema. (Although of his best movies were in black and white, no contest) Used to great effect in illuminating the costumes of Spain, and for highlighting the white gowns and red lips of arch-seductress Rita Hayworth, Technicolor is curiously not used to pronounce the reds in blood, until the final, groan-inducingly unsubtle last shot.


Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film series so far was a new print of Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, from a new restoration undertaken by MoMA’s Peter Williamson. The print looks completely different to almost any version of it seen in the past 75 years, with the colours far less saturated, and far less blatantly Technicolor – similar to its contemporary A Star Is Born. The film looks far more natural now, although the classic Technicolor triggers, especially purple, still pop in costumes during the archery tournament. It may be a disappointment for those used to seeing undiluted Technicolor on their Errol Flynn, but keeping to MoMA’s standards of film preservation, this is probably as close as we can now get to how it looked in ’38. (although probably not close to how things actually looked in the 1190s)

But if there was any surprise to demonstrate what Technicolor can do when masterfully deployed, it was Vincente Minnelli’s 1948 musical The Pirate. Yeah, don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of it before either. The film, a charmingly slight comedy of mistaken identity, shown at MoMA in a spectacular print, would be largely forgettable if it weren’t for its stars, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. The pair, especially Kelly, show off everything they’ve got, while faking chemistry in a way that actors have since forgotten how to do. But the highlight of the film comes in its fantasy ballet, when Garland imagines Kelly’s womanising actor as a marauding pirate. Kelly, his legs limber trunks beneath his tiny black shorts, proceeds to dance, pillage and murder, in front of a glaring sky lit up in Technicolor red. On the big screen, on a glimmering print, it’s an intoxicating sight to behold.

Continuing for another month, ‘Glorious Technicolor’ still has a plenty to offer, and will culminate with a series of unmistakable classics from the early days of Disney. It’s the sort of film history kick that reminds cinephiles why we love the movies, and for those whose hearts still prefer celluloid to digital, a chance to get your yearly fill of 35mm in just a few weeks.

One of the most affecting moments of the series came before the opening night screening of The Wizard of Oz, when Josh Siegel made a few welcomes and thank yous while clutching a tiny girl in his arms. His daughter, not yet three years old, was there to see a film on the big screen before. Murmurs of terror rumbled through the audience at the thought of the tiny tot being scarred forever more by melting witches, flying monkeys, and effeminate manlions, but sure enough when the lights went up she was still there, and still awake. Chances are she may never remember the experience, but seeing The Wizard of Oz on the big screen, on a 35mm IB Tech print; that’s not just being introduced to the movies, that’s how lifelong love affairs with cinema begin.

Part 2

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Live from Culpeper, Virginia, it’s the 86th Academy Awards (liveblog)

Life is good. Oscars may be.

Life is good. Oscars may be.

There’s a snow storm coming, but inside there is beer and the Oscars. We can only hope for an entertaining night, full of probably not that many surprises, but surprising non-surprises.

[All times are in Pacific Time, all Thai food is in my belly.]

4:44pm – Chiwetel Ejiofor is the coolest African-American guy who is not African-American in the world.

4:46pm – Who are all these Oscar interns and why am I none of them?

4:47pm – Thank god U2 are here. I thought for a moment I couldn’t play the bitter annoyed Irish card all night.

4:51pm – Alfonso Cuarón, his O looks small because you can’t put an accent on a normal O.

4:54pm – Russell Brand Jesus is wearing a white tux. Good for him/her.

4:56pm – Tyson Beckford looks like he has been PhotoShopped to life.

4:59pm – Bradley Cooper: too handsome to like, too charming to hate. He’s the Switzerland of people.

5:01pm – Good lord look how much Mrs. Hill looks like wee Jonah!

5:02pm – Lupita Nyong’o in white. Seems she takes her memes to heart.

5:05pm – Wow, a homeless man in a tux! And oh no it’s Bill Murray.

5:06pm – The Oscar coverage is making fun of people tweeting the Oscars… this sketch is going nowhere good fast.

5:09pm – That Jimmy Kimmel sketch was drenched in classism, and lightly sprinkled in not good comedy.

5:13pm – It’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith! No, not Brad and Angelina (nor Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard), it’s Will and Jada Pinkett!

5:15pm – Nobody doesn’t quite wear a goatee quite like Jeremy Renner.

5:16pm –

“The person I went into as filming this movie is not the person I came out of this movie as.” – Sandra Bullock says, referring to her paycheck.

5:23pm – Take a deep breath everyone, we are now in the theatre!

5:30pm – It’s the Oscars. Champagne please! Also Ellen.

5:31pm – Weak start for Ellen. Pick it up pick it up pick it up!

5:33pm – I hope the real Captain Phillips and the real Philomena make out at the after party.

5:35pm – Some savage material from Ellen DeGeneres here. It could be more biting than actually funny.

5:37pm – Jennifer Lawrence getting a ribbing for falling on her face. Ellen managing to get off her own with this bit.

5:39pm – Ellen has gone for the penis joke!

5:40pm – Crap, if 12 Years a Slave doesn’t win, we are ALL racists!

5:42pm – If Best Supporting Actor goes where I think it’s going, it’s gonna be a very predictable night.

5:43pm – Jared Leto wins! He played Rayon, now he’s wearing spray-on.

5:44pm – Leto tells the story of his mother instead of thanking people he worked with. Ungrateful prick!

5:46pm – Ellen DeGeneres makes a live-tweeting joke. So contemporary.

5:48pm – Jim Carrey is recovering this sketch… just about.

5:50pm – About 70% of those animated films were made after the year 2000. An absolute embarrassment from the Academy there.

5:51pm – Will Ferrell is performing a happy song in blackface. How is this appropriate?

5:53pm – In fairness, the choreography here is pretty delightful.

5:57pm – What’s with the wall of roses?

5:58pm – Naomi Watts and Sam Jackson throwing out some tech awards. First up: costume design.

5:59pm – Gatsby wins! This spells ill American Hustle. Ironically the costume designer’s dress is awful.

6:00pm – Now… Dallas Buyers Makeup.

6:02pm – Shouldn’t Matthew McConaughey be home watching True Detective?

6:03pm – Harrison Ford is out. Of. It.

6:05pm – Channing Tatum is here to show us those damned students again. But I wanna be one of them!

6:11pm – Hahaha remember Ed TV.

6:12pm – Best Animated Short goes to Mr. Hublot. I did not see it. My friend said it was awful. Now I don’t know what to think!

6:13pm – Aw, nervous French guy is nervous.

6:15pm – Frozen or The Wind Rises or I go home.

6:16pm – Hooray for Frozen! Plus it burst a billion today! All the money and success. Disney’s first animated feature Oscar.

6:17pm – Sally Fields!

6:19pm – Look at all these famous films! They’re so famous! Yay! Fame!

6:20pm – Did Peter O’Toole just light up the Will Smith?

6:21pm – And the gravity award for best gravity in a gravity-themed film goes to… Gravity!

6:24pm – Zac Efron presents Karen O. She will now sing a lovely song that will slow down the entire night to a crawl.

6:30pm – Kate Hudson, absent from Kate Hudson’s life for some years, looks rather well presenting the short film awards.

6:31pm – Helium, assumedly the antithesis to Gravity, wins Best Short Film.

6:34pm – Best Documentary Short goes to The Lady in Number 6. The subject of which like just died the other day. What terrible terrible timing.

6:36pm – Not enjoying Ellen’s aisle shtick. Not at all.

6:37pm – Best Documentary Feature goes to 20 Feet From Stardom. I did not see it, but The Act of Killing was surely robbed.

6:39pm – There is a singsong going on on stage right now. It’s the Oscars, why isn’t this happening always?

6:40pm – Kevin Spacey cannot shake his Frank Underwood accent.

6:41pm – Lifetime awards to Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin and Angelina Jolie. Which coincidently enough is the dream cast to play me in the movie of my life.

6:49pm – Ewan McJared Leto and Viola Davis presenting Best Foreign Language Film.

6:50pm – Paolo Sorrentino wins the Oscar for Il Divo! But also I guess for The Great Beauty.

6:51pm – Oh, so that’s what Tyler Perry looks like.

6:54pm – Brad Pitt is here. He is going to do something important I wager.

6:55pm – Oh nope he’s just presenting U2. Never mind.

6:56pm – I can’t deal with ordinary U2.

6:58pm – In fairness, Bono can still kinda bring it. I guess.

7:03pm – Not retweeting Ellen’s tweet out of principle.

7:04pm – WHERE’S WALLACE?!? Oh, he’s at the Oscars…

7:06pm – It’s Thor and Charlize Thoron!

7:07pm – Sound Mixing goes to Gravity. Which is ironic because there’s no sound in space.

7:10pm – Sound Editing. Gravity. Called it. So there you go.

7:12pm – Christoph Waltz is here to present the decider for the rest of the night; Best Supporting Actress.

7:14pm – Cheers for Lupita Nyong’o! That makes tonight a rollover, in exactly the right direction.

7:16pm – A beautiful, passionate and tear-flecked speech from Nyong’o. Bravo bravo and bravo.

7:21pm – Ellen ordered in pizzas. They have Coca-Cola logos on them. This is not OK.

7:22pm – Remember when the Oscars did music numbers and was an actual show?

7:24pm – Wooo! Archives!

7:26pm – Amy Adams and Bill Murray. I would read that slash fiction.

7:27pm – Harold Ramis! We miss him.

7:28pm – Gravity wins Best Cinematography. But it already won this award for Best Special Effects…

7:29pm – Anna Kendrick and Gabourey Sidibe, announce the nominations for Editing.

7:31pm – Gravity wins again. Another tech award for the pile. Not convinced it deserved that one either…

7:33pm – Whoopi Goldberg presents a Wizard of Oz retrospective, in Wicked Witch footwear.

7:35pm – It’s Pink! In red! Those things clash!

7:36pm – I associate Pink Floyd with The Wizard of Oz, not Pink…

7:38pm – Remember when they made films like The Wizard of Oz… not like Oz: The Great and the Powerful?

7:42pm – Ellen is dressed as Gilda. I guess this is OK.

7:44pm – Jennifer Garner and Sherlock Khan present Best Production Design. Gatsby?

7:45pm – Gatsby gets it again! Can American Hustle win anything?

7:46pm – Everyone who didn’t design the Oscar stage tonight deserves Best Production Design.

7:47pm – A tribute to superhero movies. Otherwise known as the box office.

7:54pm – Glenn Close presents the sad bit.

7:58pm – Not Jim Kelly! Paul Walker! Peter O’Toole! Richard Griffiths! Joan Fontaine! Harold Ramis! Philip Seymour Hoffman! (and no Alain Resnais)

7:59pm – Bette Midler sings ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’. Everyone everywhere is crying and sad and crying sad.

8:05pm – The Oscars crashed Twitter. Hopefully that’s not the best thing that happens at the Oscars tonight.

8:06pm – Goldie Hawn is talking 12 Years a Slave. I have never thought of one without the other.

8:08pm – John Travolta present Idina Menzel singing ‘Let it Go’.

8:09pm – Well now they know.

8:11pm – Menzel kills it. The audience has to stand because they did for U2.

8:13pm – Jamie Foxx and Jessica Biel are getting their groove on on stage. Or at least he is.

8:15pm – Steven Price wins for Gravity’s score. Certainly one of Gravity’s most deserved awards.

8:17pm – ‘Let It Go’! let it go! I can’t because it deserved to win!

8:18pm – OH MY GOD THOSE TWO ARE SO ADORABLE!!!

8:22pm – Are the Oscars over yet?

8:23pm – Ellen is passing a hat around the audience to raise some money. Hopefully to go towards some better bits.

8:23pm – De Niro. Cruz. Writing awards. Coming this summer.

8:25pm – Best Adapted Screenplay goes to 12 Years a Slave. Good job.

8:26pm – “All the praise goes to Solomon Northup; those are his words.”

8:27pm – Best Original Screenplay goes to Spike Jonze for Her! Great stuff. Very emotionally honest and mature writing.

8:32pm – Angelina Jolie helps Sidney Poitier to the stage. A superb ovation for him. Nomination for Best Director pending…

8:34pm – Alfonso Cuarón wins Best Director, for best handling of a film that should have been awful.

8:37pm – A fine speech by Cuarón, and an important moment for Hispanic filmmakers overall.

8:41pm – Daniel Day-Lincoln is here to present Best Actress. Also Best Handsome. For him.

8:43pm – Terrible clip to show off why Sandra Bullock is even nominated in the first place.

8:44pm – Cate Blanchett wins which was expected why I am even mentioning this?

8:45pm – “Random and subjective” – Cate Blanchett on the Best Actress Oscar. Good for her.

8:47pm – No thanks for Woody Allen…?

8:48pm – Jennifer Lawrence is here to present lust. Lust to all. Lust.

8:51pm – Matthew McConaughey wins the Oscar for Best Career Comeback Fuck All Y’All Alright Alright Alright.

8:53pm – Matthew McConaughey thanks his mama, and… Charlie Laughton? Sure, why not?!

8:55pm – Best Picture Make Go Now. Shut up Ellen. Shut up Will Smith.

8:56pm – Best Picture goes to the animation to present best picture.

8:57pm – Actually 12 Years a Slave. So deserved. So gloriously deserved.

8:58pm – BRAD PITT ENDED SLAVERY!

8:59pm – Steve McQueen gets his say. Nervous, emotional, but he says what he must, focusing on the powerful women in his life. Wonderful.

9:00pm – A final call to end slavery around the world, and a leap. A leap for joy from Steve McQueen. True Oscar magic.

And that was the Oscars 2014. An enjoyable night, although low on spectacle, but the awards went mostly to the right people. And now to not think about next year’s show for a very, very long time…

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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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I love the smell of free movie in the morning…

Smelled like… victory.

So a few weeks back, the Screen Cinema in town held a pub quiz to raise money for its rather run-down forecourt, and to give a nice polish to Mr Screen, the ever-so-creepy miniature usher statue that stands in the garden there. But it wasn’t just a pub quiz; it was a movie pub quiz.

Mr Screen, not so clean

Rarely one to miss a pub quiz, and never one to miss a movie quiz, I set about assembling a crack team to enter and win. None of that Oceans 11 nonsense mind, we’re talking full-on MASK here (except I texted them, no fancy watches). My crack team consisted of indie and ’50s specialist and fellow unpaid film critic Fergal, US arthouse and modern European cinema encyclopaedia Paul, collected all-rounder James and film studies master Pete. We thought we had it made…

So confident were we of winning that we decided to go for a team name that would, in theory, consign us to defeat. Now, it needs to be said that my pub quiz teams are known for their provocative titles. Some years ago our first film quiz name was the all too prophetic ‘Roman Polanski’s outstanding arrest warrant for statutory rape’. We came second. In a literature pub quiz shortly after, we kept the theme going with ‘Ayatollah Khomeini’s outstanding fatwā for Salman Rushdie’ – we won a sweeping victory. So the idea pitched for this quiz’s team name was to list off character traits in movies that would imply an early defeat (thus surprising everyone when we won). And that was how we came up with the team name ‘The corporate black guys wearing red shirts who have only one day to retirement’. Feeling this too long, we settled on the shorthand ‘Black guys in red shirts’, ensuring everyone at the quiz thought we were a pack of racists. You can’t win everything.

That over-confidence was shattered on arrival at MacTurcaills, the venue for the evening, when we saw the quality of some of the other teams, including one made up of the assembled film critics of Dublin, led by The Irish TimesDonald Clarke, and friends from the Irish Independent and Hot Press magazine. *Gulp* we thought. And indeed some of us did – approaching drunkenness would be another spanner in the works of our otherwise well-oiled (and apparently racist) machine.

Do you know these men?

And yes, as a few rounds passed, we suddenly became aware that we were doing very well. The few we missed were close – the year the original Terminator was sent back from was 2029, not 2027. Then there were the lucky guesses – Nic Cage’s character Hi does in fact work at a Hudsucker plant in Raising Arizona, and somehow I remembered reading somewhere that The Wizard of Oz went through four different directors. And then there were the incredible moments – Fergal amazingly (and I might add ludicrously) naming all four Ghostbusters (first and last names); Paul delving into his brain to retrieve the name of Let the Right One In director Tomas Alfredson. But it was the themed rounds where we crucified. Quotes from films – 10/10. Matching actors to roles and roles to actors – 10/10. Naming foreign films based on their original titles – 10/10. That last one was a great round for me, if only because I always call Wild StrawberriesSmultronstället’; not out of pretension, the word just amuses me.

So yeah, we won. By a good margin, too. We triumphantly went up to claim our prize, with only one person coughing *racists* as we went. I’d rather be a racist than a loser. Though I’ll reiterate – not a racist.

Now, while in a way the real prize was beating the venerable Mr Clarke, whose own perplexing film quizzes have often ruined my Fridays, in another more accurate way, the real prize was the prize we received – a free screening of any film of our choice in the Screen. Win win.

There were complications of course: it had to be shown before the cinema opens at 2pm, so we’d need to start the film at 11am, limiting us to a 150min film. Also, only a Sunday would suit the five of us. More worrying, how do five people agree on the one film they want blown up on the big screen?  We each pitched five films, an odd mix of classics (The Adventures of Robin Hood, A Matter of Life and DeathÀ Bout de Souffle), blockbusters (Jurassic Park, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and retro cult delights (Labyrinth, Repo Man, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) that might never see a cineplex ever again. Then we each vetoed one film, leaving us with 20. Some good films fell by the wayside there, such as Battle Royale, Road House, Bridge on the River Kwai. To make the final decision, we turned to the cornerstone of Western democracy – Eurovision!

We each voted for our 12 favourites, giving them from one to 12 points, and some interesting films came to the fore. In fifth place came the delightfully manic Crank – probably for the best, as we’d have been so over-energised that Sunday morning we’d have spent the rest of the day running around punching strangers in the face. In fourth place came The Lion King, a nostalgic necessity (though soon for re-release, rumouredly in vile 3D). In joint third came Repo Man and T2 – both worthy contenders, especially since we were all too young to have seen T2 when it was originally released. Second came a pitch of mine, and one of the entries in my pantheon of great movies – Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. But the clear winner (with an impressive 39 votes to Mononoke’s 33) was Apocalypse Now.

Mr Clean, not so... not riddled with bullets

Surely if there is a list of the films you must see on the big screen before you die, then Apocalypse Now is amongst them. The broad visuals, the alarming soundscape, the terrifying performances. It was indeed a perfect choice (albeit a touch heavy for a Sunday morning – the horror… the horror…). So we arrived at the Screen on Sunday morning with a few extra friends (the ones who weren’t hungover) in tow and enjoyed an audiovisual feast. It really did smell like victory. And coffee.

The whole experience was a delight. I had, admittedly, never seen the original, non-Redux cut of Apocalypse, and enjoyed the smoother flow of the story. Our slim audience, seen embarrassingly out of focus below, were for the most part hugely impressed. Many had never seen any version of the film, and none on the big screen, especially a private big screen.

Not a full house

On our way out, the girl who ran the quiz asked us how we’d enjoyed the film, and told us that the quiz had indeed raised enough money for a little polish for Mr Screen and a sprucing up of his cobblestone garden. On the off-chance there will be another quiz, she asked us what hypothetical rounds we might do poorly in to give other teams a chance. We weren’t sure, so suggested romcoms – nothing we can’t bone up on in the interim. “You know you beat Donald Clarke?” she asked, still surprised. Yes. Yes we did.

And as an extra bonus, Apocalypse Now had totally vindicated our team name – the two black guys died first.

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