Despite looking like a spiritual sequel to 2010's Alice in Wonderland and sending every punctuation stickler into a tizzy, the Wizard of Oz preboot Oz the Great and Powerful works magic on the big screen. Director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) fixes all of Alice's mistakes, fluffing up the eye-popping CG decor with bright colors and fueling his fairy tale adventure with a good deal of soul. Like 2011's Hugo did with the early days of cinema, Raimi turns Oz into a love letter for old school magic, mesmerizingng Technicolor, and the fantastical approach that made the 1939 original a classic. Alice may have made a billion dollars at the box office, but Ozis the success — whimsical, silly, and totally transportive.
James Franco stars as Oscar Diggs, the man who eventually becomes "the Wizard" that we know. But first, he's a magician from the Dustbowl Era, willing to con even his closest friends to have life go his way. To help him learn a lesson, the Forces That Be ensnare him in a tornado — a one way ticket to the land of Oz. After quickly shaking off the fact that the alternative universe bares his same name, Oscar crosses paths with Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch who believes him to be a prophetic Wizard sent to save Oz from the Wicked Witch of the West. So begins their cross-Oz journey — and Oscar's greatest con to date.
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As the "Wizard" learns the ropes, accepting the challenge to defeat the Wicked Witch after learning of Emerald City's vast treasures, he meets the real stars of Raimi's show. Rachel Weisz has a ball as Theodora's dastardly sister Evanora, who pulls strings in the Emerald City as the citizens await the Wizard. Continually sending into a Mommie Dearest-level rage is Glinda. Michelle Williams captures the innocence and elegance of the Glinda from the '39 film with an added snap of wit. She may be the nicest witch in all of Oz, but piss her off and she'll blast you with magic. Much of Oz the Great and Powerful is dedicated to exploring the expansive world Raimi has designed — The crystalline Emerald City, Munchkin City and its wholesome residents, the delicate "China Town" (made of actual China plates) ravaged by the Wicked Witch's flying monkeys — and it works thanks to the host of characters carrying it along. Even Zach Braff as a talking monkey works as comedic relief (providing a few of the surprisingly effective 3D gags).
The only thing that falls flat in Oz is Franco. And not just a little bit — like a house lifted up by a maelstrom and slammed back into the Earth kind of thwomp. Oscar is supposed to be a man in need of redemption, a self-obsessive who is destructive to the people around him. Franco fits the bill… but it doesn't feel like a character. The actor is self-aware of his non-existent surroundings. He's goofy instead of theatrical. His smug grin creates a disconnect between him and his costars, real or digital. At one point Oscar cradles a living porcelain doll he finds in the smoldering remains of China Town. It's a touching bit of sadness that Franco sells. But as Oscar begins to "change," Franco stays put, acting like the world of Oz is one big joke when we're waiting for him to wake up to the fact that it isn't.
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But not even Franco's laid back approach can sink Raimi's inspired vision, which unexpectedly expresses all of the director's quirks right down to the wild camera movements, bold canted angles, and an instinct that allows Oz to get a little scary (don't worry, children: not Evil Dead scary). Raimi's film pays its dues to past Oz incarnations, down to a riff on "Lollipop King" from composer Danny Elfman, but still feels innovative. The director contends with Franco around every turn of the yellow brick road, orchestrating action sequences, fantastical encounters, and even a musical number, around him in hopes of drowning Oscar in imagination. The combined powers of Weisz, Williams, and Kunis do the trick against the charisma-lacking leading man. Maybe just the three ladies for the sequel?
What do you think? Tell Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!
[Photo Credit: Merie Wallace/Disney]
So exactly how DO you eat fried worms? Very carefully. Or if you’re the gaggle of pre-teen boys in How to Eat Fried Worms in as many inventive and repulsive ways as possible. Based on the hugely popular novel by Thomas Rockwell the story focuses on Billy (Luke Benward) a new kid at school who on his first day is immediately harassed by bully Joe (Adam Hicks) and his crew. But Billy isn’t the type to just roll over. He decides to stand up for himself and excepts a bet to eat 10 worms in one day. Of course he’s secretly horrified but by god he’s going to go through it—eating one disgusting worm concoction mixed up by Joe’s gang after another. Of course the kids eventually learn some important lessons giving us that certain warm and fuzzy feeling. Right after the queasiness passes. The child actors are all appropriately scrubbed fresh and generally act like regular kids without being too hammy. Benward (Because of Winn-Dixie) does a fine job as the hapless Billy. You definitely have to admire him for sticking to his guns and plowing through those worms no matter how revolting. Hicks (Disney's The Shaggy Dog) is actually refreshing as a bully in the fact he doesn’t exactly look like one besides being slightly taller than the rest of the boys. He’s skinny with red hair and freckles but he throws his weight around effectively. Some of the other boys you might recognize: Alexander Gould (Weeds) plays Twitch aptly named for his spastic behavior; Ryan Malgarini (Freaky Friday) as Benjy the chef du jour; and the most veteran of the kids Hallie Kate Eisenberg (Bicentennial Man TV’s The Miracle Worker) as the lone girl in the group who proclaims regularly “Boys are so weird.” As for the adults Ed’s Tom Cavanagh and According to Jim’s Kimberly Williams stand out as Billy’s parents. Production company Walden Media’s mission to bring wholesome family movies based on kid novels to the big screen is actually a smart move because there is definitely a market for good clean entertainment combined with popular children’s literature. They’ve already had tremendous success with The Chronicles of Narnia as well as with modest hits Because of Winn-Dixie and Holes. Of course these movies (besides maybe the fantastical Narnia) are still glorified after-school TV specials but I suppose with a little more money behind the idea feature films work. How to Eat Fried Worms has been a pre-teen staple on the bookshelves since it was first published in 1973 and writer/director Bob Dolman (The Banger Sisters) certainly captures the novel’s spirit. It’s down to earth has a message we can all relate to—and the worm shenanigans should tickle your youngster’s fancy.
We've all heard the tale: In 1836 a motley group of brave Texan soldiers aided by American legend Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) defended The Alamo to their bloody deaths at the hands of Mexican General Santa Anna's well-trained army. That's pretty much the same ground covered by the film so don't expect any surprises. What you can expect early on is some fairly convoluted political back story centering on aspiring nation-builder Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) plenty of soap opera-quality bickering between leading characters Lt. Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson) and knife aficionado Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) and a good amount of pompous preening on the part of Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria). Like Glory The Alamo takes its time (about 90 minutes) to lead up to the pivotal battle using the rest of the time to introduce major characters and conflicts; unlike Edward Zwick's masterful Civil War drama Hancock's epic wanna-be loses the audience's attention in the process.
Poor Dennis Quaid -- all of the good subtle work he's put in over the last couple of years in smaller movies like The Rookie (also directed by Hancock) and Far From Heaven could well be swept from filmgoers' minds in an instant if enough of them remember The Alamo instead. As Houston one of Texas' almost-mythic heroes he blusters orates and generally overacts his way into becoming a living cartoon. Meanwhile Wilson Patric and Thornton are all given one-note characters: Col. Travis is an uptight by-the-book goody-two-shoes (until naturally he gets his one big chance to redeem himself) Bowie is a hard-drinkin' hard-livin' man's man and Crockett is the consummate good ol' boy relying on his aw-shucks demeanor to make friends -- and disguise the true depth of his pithy insights -- wherever he goes. (Thornton does what he can with Crockett but subtlety is lost in this movie.) On the other side of the trenches Echevarria's Santa Anna might as well be Dr. Evil for all of the sense he makes or the respect he earns from his lieutenants. Screenwriters Hancock Stephen Gaghan (an Oscar winner for Traffic) and Leslie Bohem must have taken the general's "Napoleon of the West" nickname literally when it came time to craft his petulant volatile character.
Hancock -- who stepped up to helm The Alamo after original director Ron Howard wisely bowed out -- is a newbie in the realm of historical epics and it shows. For all the time and money that obviously went into the film's costumes sets and effects (the re-created fort is wholly convincing and some of the nighttime battle sequences are pretty impressive) too little was spent developing characters that were equally realistic. Just because people like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie have become larger than life in the American pop mythology doesn't mean they didn't have their faults (as presented in the movie Bowie's resolutely dissolute lifestyle is almost as trite as the rest of his character). And just because these martyred heroes were so colorful doesn't mean that watching them slouch around a dry dusty fort for an hour before anything really happens can be considered entertainment--even the best true stories can use a little help from the editing fairy now and then. Carter Burwell's heavy-handed Braveheart-meets-Glory score (Crockett's catchy fiddling notwithstanding) just underscores the fact that the movie is trying to bully you into feeling certain ways at certain times; when the music swells you gear up for something exciting only to be left hanging again and again. Looks like the suits at Touchstone Pictures knew what they were doing when they delayed The Alamo's release date from Oscar-bait December to dead-zone April.