Please, Disney, please don't turn Sam Raimi into Tim Burton. The parallel tales of two highly-stylized, semi-cult filmmakers whose individual visions became progressively more watered down have seemingly collided in the Mouse House. And while Oz the Great and Powerful never even approaches the depths of drudgery that was Alice in Wonderland, it's hard not to notice the candy-coated, pixel-laden, Disneyfication that drapes both films. Fortunately for Oz, Raimi is a strong director and storyteller; mostly saving the proceedings from the self-referential boredom that was Alice. Or the just straight up boredom of Jack the Giant Slayer.
Squeeze Donít Pull. In Dead Man Down, Colin Farrell plays a Victor, who is a lover and a fighter, but mostly a fighter.
Oz the Great and Powerful (James Franco, The Pineapple Express) is a sideshow charlatan, whose underwhelming magic show isn't making him and his assistant, Frank (Zack Braff, Garden State) any money. That doesn't stop him from trying to woo every leading lady with the same family heirloom, a music box -- or to rebuff his true love, Annie (Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine). "I don't want to be a good man. I want to be a great one," Oz says, fostering dreams on being the next Edison (never realizing that Edison only ripped off Tesla).
When Oz pisses off a bunch of circus strongmen during a thunderstorm he's forced to escape in a hot air balloon, where he has a run in with a twister. When he comes to his senses he finds himself in the scenically weird Land of Oz.
Little does he know, he's fulfilling a prophecy when he meets the Good Witch, Theodora (Mila Kunis, Black Swan), who has been waiting for a powerful wizard to defeat the Wicked Witch and is destined to rule the Emerald City in peace and prosperity. The shyster Oz decides to play the part of prophesied wizard, despite his inherent lack of wizardry.
Along the way Oz saves the life of a flying monkey (voiced by Zack Braff), earning his eternal devotion. Oz also tentatively tests the waters of monarchy when he gets to the Emerald City and meets Theodora's oddly creepy sister, Evanora (Rachel Weiss, The Constant Gardner). When Evanora shows Oz his new kingly digs, he's ecstatic at finally finding greatness -- until he learns that the riches of the Emerald City won't be his until he defeats the Wicked Witch.
There's no question that Raimi's direction ratchets the lopsided script by Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rise of the Guardians) into place. The opening is slightly bloated, though I loved the 1:33:1, black and whiteness of it, and it sets up a playful tone. But Oz suffers from a narrative awkwardness that hurts as much as it helps. It likes to dwell in its world, though it never becomes truly boring, thanks to a few nice plot reveals and Raimi's ability always to make a fun movie.
But at the same time, the veneer of Disney makes it feel like a cookie cutter cinematic experience. It's a middling story sculpted by the guy who made Spiderman 2, one of the best superhero films ever made. And at the end of the day it's drenched in fake-looking CG backdrops, bad compositing, and everything else that is wrong with gigantic FX films since The Phantom Menace -- that even live action movies are mostly animated. From digital doubles to Oz's monkey-pal to the pixel-painted Emerald City (which actually recalled a jade Coruscant minus the space ships), none of the copious CG FX have any weight or inventiveness or mystery. They don't trick you.
To this day I don't know how they made the tornado in The Wizard of Oz look as real as they did -- in 1939.
Franco provides a stoned version of Oz -- he's got that "are you kidding me?" pinched grin on for much of the time, and a breathless delivery that is only tempered when he's supposed to be serious. Mila Kunis has the plum role as Theodora, if only because her arc was the saddest one and her performance of it was perfectly pitched for the tone of the material, even when she becomes a more well-known, maniacal character in the Oz universe. Her inherent sexiness and sweetness play into a compelling downfall. Michelle Williams is typically great as Annie (and as Glinda, the other sister witch). She's totally in the world and the role and embodies something ethereal. And as Evanora, Rachel Weiss brings her trademark, cutting delivery that practically drips Cruella DeVille. It's the women who really rule Oz.
Sam Raimi's chops are still apparent, though. Despite the oversaturated artifice of it all, he knows how to shoot an attractive and visually kinetic film, while applying some of his more trademark stylistic flourishes.
The Danny Elfman score is particularly unmemorable.
But it could never really be compared to The Wizard of Oz anyway, outside of being set in the same world. Oz the Great and Powerful is a little like 2010: The Odyssey Continues -- the sequel to Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey -- an expensively decent flick that couldn't possibly re-capture or improve on the qualities of its predecessor.
Dead Man Down
Danish-born director Niels Arden Oplev made a name for himself for directing the Swedish adaption of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the best film of that trilogy and notable for being remade by David Fincher). And as is inevitable with marketable foreign directors since John Woo and beyond, he's been enticed to make an American movie. The results are the almost satisfying Dead Man Down.
Opening in the middle of the action we find Colin Farrell (Minority Report) portraying Victor an enforcer on a crew working for an unscrupulous New York kingpin, Alphonse (Terrance Howard, Iron Man), who is diligently searching for whoever is threatening his life with a series of FedEx packages containing cryptic messages and the cut up pieces of a picture that his stalker wants him to methodically put together. When they find one of their dead crew members in a freezer, Alfonse leads them to some British Jamaican drug lords, believing them responsible. The ensuing bloodbath puts Alphonse in Dutch with the local mafia, increasing his already clinical paranoia.
But maybe he's not so crazy. Victor, his trusted sidekick, is more than he seems to be. Living in a tower block high rise, his neighbor in the adjacent building, Beatrice (Noomi Rapace, Prometheus), learns as much when she witnesses Victor murdering the crew member who wound up in the freezer. Her face scarred by an accident with a drunk driver who still drives free and drunk, Beatrice blackmails Victor into killing the man who deformed her in exchange for her silence about the murder. The local kids pelt her with rocks, as if she were Frankenstein -- which is kind of hilarious in that it would never really happen. Her deaf, live-in mother (Isabella Huppert, Amour) thinks Victor is a good catch.
Suffice to say the pair team up and sparks fly when their budding attraction conflicts with Victor's true agenda.
Hitchhiking the Yellow Brick Road. While Oz the Great and Powerful is a fantasy movie, one gets the impression that this isnít James Francoís first conversation with an inanimate object.
In a victory of style over substance, Dead Man Down's noir sensibilities are subverted by a lot of inconsequential crime thriller plotting while being saved by the relationship between Victor and Beatrice. Oplev gets excellent performances from Farrell and Rapace, and while his visual style sets up a palpable atmosphere, the mechanics of the overall plot feel lightweight in comparison to the palpable chemistry shared by his leads. Shots of them talking to each other from their sterile balconies set against the foggy, oppressive cityscape set a moody visual tone (most of the film is dark and dreary and humorless), which establishes a nice contrast for the genuine warmth of Victor and Beatrice's relationship. Between Farrell, Rapace, and Dominic Cooper as Victor's only real friend from Alphonse's crew, the cast is well chosen and brings the goods. Plot holes abound, but much of Dead Man Down is solid technical filmmaking.
The same can't quite be said for Terrance Howard. As Alphonse, Howard is the most non-threatening killer set to the screen. Never once does he seem in control of his own game and while he's more underwritten than Victor and Beatrice, he never generates the sense of true malevolence of a villain. Someone like Sam Jackson could create that sort of duality in his sleep. In fact, the character of Alfonse isn't too dissimilar from Ordell Robbie, Jackson's overconfident, yet utterly cagey badass from Jackie Brown. Howard's Alponse is just a case of major miscasting and thin writing.
When it's all said and done, Dead Man Down is a fairly satisfying story that could have used a few more drafts and a more compelling bad guy. It'll be worth your time once it hits video.
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