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.
RELATED: 15 'Oz' Adaptations You Didn't Know You Needed (and 2 That Are NSFW)
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.
RELATED: Watch: Dr. Oz The Great And Powerful!
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]
There are two ways to watch a film like Just Go With It. The first is to look at the characters and situations as if they existed in the real world. Through this lens as with most Hollywood productions the story is far-fetched and trite the characters too stereotypical to stomach. However even if you leave practicality at home and well just go with it it’s hard to find anything to enjoy in Adam Sandler’s new movie about a playboy plastic surgeon that convinces his assistant to pose as his ex-wife in an attempt to woo a new lady friend.
Danny Maccabee is afraid of having his heart broken like it was when he was in medical school so he uses his would-be wedding ring from a disastrous engagement as a chick magnet because you know all single ladies love married men. However when he finally meets and beds the girl of his dreams the tactic backfires as she thinks she’s just wrecked a home. Enter Katherine (Jennifer Aniston) Danny’s ordinary (well ordinary when compared to bombshell Brooklyn Decker) office mule who is lured into an ever-expanding web of lies so that he can win his Ms. Right.
The film’s weakest link is its script from writers Timothy Dowling (Role Models) and Allan Loeb (The Switch). Their simple story relies heavily on Sandler’s tried-and-true formula of physical gags and broad family humor offering the audience nothing they haven’t seen before and virtually no organic comedy. While the premise and principle players are very predictable the supporting cast injects some life into the picture most notably young starlet-in-training Bailee Madison whose cutesiness is the only thing I didn’t get sick of throughout the film. Honorable mentions also go to Nick Swardson as Sandler’s crazy cousin and Nicole Kidman who ought to try her hand at comedy more often.
Unfortunately their charm doesn’t compensate for the film’s uneven pacing. I was incredibly bored throughout the second act which is hampered by scenes that play longer than they should but biggest conundrum is Sandler himself: the main draw in Just Go With It as well as its most unlikable element. His character’s arc not to mention his performance is about as artificial as the breasts he gives his clients. Not only is Maccabee a self-centered liar; his deceptions go unpunished as he coasts through the film’s climax into happily-ever-after territory. Some will accept even embrace the Hollywood ending but the conclusion is a loss for Aniston’s character who is otherwise pleasant to watch. A dignified single mother she’s at first reluctant to help Danny due to the immoral nature of his plan but falls for him because he eventually develops a relationship with the kids. I guess she didn’t see him throw them in the mud earlier in the movie.
Generally speaking the greatest strength a contemporary romantic comedy has is its funny factor but director Dennis Dugan unexpectedly creates a comfortable quixotic vibe in Just Go With It which is surprising considering his past endeavors with Sandler (among them I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Grown Ups). It doesn’t make up for the lack of natural laughs but will sate the target audiences’ appetite for a harmless and forgettable Valentine’s Day snack.
Sometimes it sucks being Spider-Man. Two years of playing superhero has finally gotten to Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) who finds himself in the middle of an identity crisis. Not only does he feel underappreciated as Spider-Man he's also broke flunking out of college and of course still can't get the girl. He wishes more and more he didn't have this "gift " so he can live a normal mild-mannered life and declare his love to Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). She wants to love him too if she could only get some kind of signal but Peter keeps pushing her away (for her own good of course) until she decides she has to move on with her life. Poor Peter. The reluctant hero is also on tenuous ground with his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) who is now working for his late father's company but whose growing vendetta against Spider-Man clouds their friendship. While Peter wavers on giving the whole superhero gig up for good across town there's a new even more powerful nemesis in the making. Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) a scientist working on a breakthrough fusion-energy invention for Harry's company has a freak accident (is there any other kind?) in his lab which leaves him with four deadly mechanical tentacles fused to his back--and his mind diabolically twisted. Suddenly the city is desperate for Spider-Man's help as the madman dubbed Doc Ock runs amok. For the love of god pull yourself together Peter accept your fate and put those Spidey powers to good use!
As if there are still any doubts Tobey Maguire's performance in Spider-Man 2 reaffirms the fact he fits the Peter Parker/Spider-Man persona perfectly. It's in his eyes his red-rimmed soulful eyes which show every sentiment. Maguire is not afraid to embrace Parker's sensitive albeit nerdy nature. Beneath the buffed out exterior and superhuman abilities he's still a lovable geek deep down (watch him trip over his feet when he walks down the street). As Mary Jane Dunst is thankfully no longer just the damsel in distress but also a thriving and successful actress who displays her own fair share of emotions over their unrequited love. Spider-Man is in essence a love story and these two talented actors continue to spark like the best of them (although rumor has it they can't stand each other in real life. Oh actors.) The intense Franco chews it up with gusto as the angst-ridden Harry. But what truly makes Spider-Man 2 rise above the original is the malevolent Doc Ock played with relish by the brilliant Molina (Frida). Far more menacing and formidable a villain than the Green Goblin (sorry Willem Dafoe) the multi-tentacled mad scientist just plain scares the bejeezus out of you. Yet he also elicits sympathy if you can believe it watching the relatively sane man buried deep within the madness struggle to break free. Heck just about everyone's conflicted in this flick.
It's no wonder Spider-Man 2 surpasses its predecessor. Thanks to comic-book guru Stan Lee who created something operatic in the Spider-Man story the film's heartfelt and inherent conflicts--tortured souls undying love vs. duty to fellow man villains with a conscience--just keeps getting more and more interesting. And luckily director Sam Raimi rarely strays from the main source. From the opening credits where scenes from the first film are shown through glorious artwork Raimi crafts the movie to combine the best in visuals with the compelling story fashioning a thrill ride with heart. One of the best examples is when Spider-Man uses all his strength to stop a speeding train and falls exhausted only to be caught by the people on the train and carefully placed on the ground. Exposed and vulnerable Spider-Man's faith is renewed when the folks around him tell him they'll keep his secret safe. Classic stuff. The only minor drawback is the time it takes for Peter to get over his identity crisis; the "will he won't he?" drags a bit. Maybe we just get a little anxious for Parker to realize people really do need Spider-Man and to finally go webbed head-to-mechanical tentacle with the nasty Doc Ock. It's what a must-see summer blockbuster is all about baby.