Monday, March 25, 2013

JIMBO GOES TO THE MOVIES: “Oz The Great and Powerful” Review

I can think of at least two ill-fitting adjectives in the title of this movie…

When Sam Raimi makes a movie, the final product generally takes one of four potential forms. When he’s firing on all cylinders, the end outcome is modern, American cinematic gold -- “The Evil Dead” and “Spider-Man 2” immediately spring to mind. Then, there are his movies that, while mostly enjoyable, feel a little intentionally light and empty; “Drag Me to Hell” and “Darkman” are probably the two best examples from his oeuvre. Then, there his movies where he’s trying so hard to not be Sam Raimi that you can almost feel the DVD itself straining to not throw in a Three Stooges sight gag or display a hurdling object zooming towards someone in first-person. “For Love of the Game” and “A Simple Plan?” I find both of you guilty as charged.

And then, there are the films where it’s apparent that he just doesn’t give half a good goddamn what he’s doing, and the final dividend is just straight up rubbish. There are still innocent victims being pulled out from underneath the cinematic wreckage of “Spider-Man 3,” I hear.

Raimi’s latest is a film that seems to be something of an interphase between “OK” Sam Raimi (he who gives us “Crimewave” and “The Gift”) and the Sam Raimi that’s just churning out stuff because it’ll result in a paycheck of some kind (anybody remember “M.A.N.T.I.S.” or “Cleopatra 2525?”)

“Oz The Great and Powerful” isn’t really a bad movie, per se, but it’s certainly underwhelming when taken as a whole motion picture. There’s plenty of great ideas to be found in the movie, and the aesthetics, as expected, are pretty great, and there’s even a few really clever elements to the script, but none of those things add up to a cumulatively engrossing movie-going experience.

Problem number one, of course, is the “source” material. Even thinking about approaching a property as beloved as “The Wizard of Oz” is usually a recipe for disaster, and Raimi’s lame attempt to subvert the matter (“it’s not a remake, it’s a re-imagined prequel!”) is an insufficient cover-up for the fact that there’s hardly anything new to be found herein. Hell, at least “The Wiz” had a cameo appearance by Richard Pryor as an evil robot head that shoots fire at stuff.

Raimi’s flick, in an obvious homage to the 1939 original that actually wasn’t the original, begins with a lengthy black and white sequence, in which we are introduced to Oz, a down-on-his-luck, philandering, conning, conniving and generally douchey stage magician that makes a living (barely) by hustling country bumpkins and abusing his best friend while he makes “Police Academy!” sound effects behind the curtain. Oz, in case you weren’t aware, is played by James Franco, who I swear, is actually David Arquette in disguise. Go ahead, look at them side-by-side, and tell me we are talking about two different people here.

So, we’re introduced to a bunch of seemingly one-off characters (a gaggle of Oz’s bitter romantic conquests, his best girl -- who is about to get married to someone else -- and even a paraplegic girl that wants the phony Oz to use his “magical powers” to heal her of polio. All the while, a tornado picks up steam in the background, and well, you know what’s destined to happen next.

After getting sucked into a funnel, Oz finds himself awakening in the pastel, 3-D, wide-screened wonderland of Oz (yes, both the main character of the film and the location of the film have the same moniker) and he runs into Meg Griffin, whose wearing a really funny looking hat and way too much red lipstick. Anyhoo, she tells Oz that he’s been prophesized by the oracles of Oz to just fall out of the sky and save the kingdom from the tyranny of an evil queen. So, yeah, it’s pretty much the same thing as the ending of “Evil Dead 2,” really, only with less chainsawing and arterial explosions.

Sigh...why couldn't have "The Quick and the Dead" gotten this much merchandising muscle?

So, Oz enters, uh, the kingdom of Oz, and he runs into Rachel Weisz, who plays one of Meg Griffin’s sisters, who claims that their other sister is really all evil and shit. Of course, Rachel Weisz’s character is actually the evil one and the hitherto unseen third sister -- played by what’s her name from “Dawson’s Creek” -- is actually the only one of the sisters that’s worth a damn, and yeah, you don’t care. At one point, Oz decides to do a Scrooge McDuck cannonball dive into the Emerald City castle’s treasury of golden riches, and despite only knowing him for about five minutes, Meg offers to marry him so they can co-rule the kingdom. Eventually, Rachel Weisz manages to send Oz on a wild goose chase, in which he’s supposed to kill the “evil-but-actually-good” witch, and along the way, he runs into a horrifying, wise-cracking CGI monkey in a bellhop uniform and a living porcelain doll that lives in a kingdom of teapots called “China Town” -- probably the best bit in the entire movie, as far as I am concerned. And oh yeah, did I mention that all of these characters are somewhat modeled after people we were introduced to in the film’s sepia-tone first half? Well, they are.

The movie really hits a snag once Oz and his buddies enter the suburbs of Oz, where the suspiciously multiracial community consists of men with curly mustaches and women with even curlier ponytails. Oh, and that black midget from “Bad Santa” plays a stagecoach driver, because if there’s one thing the ‘39 “Oz” lacked, it was blatant racist subtext.

Eventually, Oz, his monkey sidekick, his china doll liability and Michelle Williams decide to wage war against the combined forces of Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis, who gets turned into the much more traditional, hook-nosed, green-skinned witch-y poo we usually associate with L. Frank Baum’s works after her sister feeds her a poisonous apple. I think it was around that point that, amidst a small ocean of assured “Once Upon a Time” fans in the theater, I stood up and yelled “that’s not even the right license!” before being shot with literally dozens of disappointed gleams.

The denouement involves the evil winged baboon forces and eleven foot tall nutcracker soldiers of the Emerald City taking on a junta of Oz communitarians. I’m not sure if Raimi is trying to make some sort of snide comment about the rift between the rural and the urbanized here, but a pivotal plot point to the film is that, under absolutely no circumstances, are the citizens of Oz allowed to kill anyone or anything, while the denizens of the Emerald City are some hyper-violent mofos that have no qualms about killing everything and anything. Like I said, no sly sociopolitical context going on here, at all.

Of course, Oz and his brigade of common, decent country folk, simple industrial laborers and, uh, midgets, concoct an elaborate ruse implementing the main character’s carny-knowhow to trick the Emerald City forces through video projectors, scarecrow automatons and plenty of firecrackers. I can applaud Raimi for incorporating a (largely) nonviolent ending to the picture, but at the same time? There’s no way around the anticlimactic dullness of the film’s final twenty or so minutes.

Unless you are an idiot, you’re not even going to ask if this film is on par with the 1939 film. For that matter, I reckon it’s not even on par with “Return to Oz,” and let’s face it, that movie kinda’ sucked a little. Even though Sam Raimi is a registered Republican, and hence, I should have suspected nothing of the sort, I was just a tad disappointed that the director didn’t touch upon the super-socialistic roots of the source material - - bet you didn’t know that “The Wizard of Oz” is actually a hyper-allegorical tale about populism and the plight of the lower class, didja?

As before, I didn’t hate the movie, but I certainly didn’t enjoy it all that much either. It has some decent moments, and I guess you’ll stay awake for most of it, but at the end of the day? All we’re talking about here is a yellow brick road to disappointment.

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