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Oz the Great and Powerful

“The Wizard of Oz” is without question one of the most magical movies ever made. It’s so lively and warm and its imagination so grand that it has remained a cinematic staple for over seven decades. So many movies have come and gone hoping to capture even a shred of its wonder, but most have failed (there’s a reason it’s in the American Film Institute’s top 10 movies of all time). To expect them to succeed would be unreasonable when the movies in question aren’t related, but when you put out “Oz the Great and Powerful,” the officially unofficial prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” (which itself had an unofficial 1985 sequel, “Return to Oz”), it’s impossible to not expect something special. Director Sam Raimi has done his best bringing this world to life, but his best proves to be futile. Despite some wondrous moments, “Oz the Great and Powerful” feels a tad dull.

The story begins in Kansas in 1905 with a traveling circus magician named Oscar, or Oz for short (James Franco). He’s a blatant womanizer, which gets him into trouble with the circus strong man. In a desperate attempt to flee, Oz jumps in a hot air balloon and takes off. Unfortunately, it’s right towards a tornado. After some close calls, he finds himself in a colorful place the likes he’s never seen. There he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) who explains that he’s in the land of Oz and is the wizard that was prophesied to appear and defeat the Wicked Witch. The people of Oz think he has magical powers, though he knows they’re only tricks, but he plays along anyway after being told that if he defeats the witch, he’ll become king and own all the gold in the land.

The first thing a discerning viewer will notice is that “Oz the Great and Powerful” is far more playful than the trailers let on. This is both a strength and a detriment to the film, a strength because the world of Oz is a charming place and should have a charming tone, but a detriment because when the film does go dark, it doesn’t gel well. The two parts separated from each other are greater than when combined into a whole, which leads to tonal problems and a sense that Raimi didn’t really know what direction he wanted to take his movie in, which has always been his primary flaw as a director (albeit a small one in a streak of mostly solid work). The finale to the film is terrific and brings its themes full circle, but the way those themes are handled in such stark contrast to each other in the two halves make something that is wildly uneven.

What could have saved the film, despite a narrative that doesn’t form a cohesive whole, is its visuals. Wow the viewer with something to gawk at and you can effectively obscure a narrative that isn’t all that interesting. Unfortunately, “Oz the Great and Powerful” feels like an odd amalgamation of live action and a half-finished video game. Take, for example, Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which nailed its look, regardless of what one might think of the film’s overall quality. It reached into the far corners of the imagination and created something that was visually mesmerizing. “Oz the Great and Powerful,” on the other hand, is half baked, at a strange middle ground where it isn’t realistic enough for the actors to blend in convincingly and not imaginative enough to make up for it. The best CGI heavy movies create the illusion that the actors are aware of their surroundings and are interacting with them appropriately. Here’s, it’s plainly obvious they aren’t, which could be due to poor performances that didn’t take the time to hear the details, poor direction that didn’t take the time to give them the details or poor post production rending that didn’t take the time to actually create the details. Who is to blame is anybody’s guess.

Rounding out an altogether disappointing movie are some casting decisions that are so bad, they’re hard to believe they were even considered, much less decided upon. If I were to reveal the most blatant, it would be considered a spoiler, but audiences across the world will undoubtedly groan when the big reveal happens, a reveal that really isn’t all that surprising to begin with. To put things into perspective, the movie isn’t all that bad, but rather the missteps are so disappointing that it’s hard not to focus on them. The film is actually kind of charming and funny and the transition from a black and white 1.37:1 aspect ratio to a brightly colored 2.39:1 is breathtaking (though it doesn’t hold a candle to the infamous transition from sepia to Technicolor in “The Wizard of Oz”), but it’s missing that magic that was so prevalent in the original film. It simply needed something more and was missing nearly all of it.

Oz the Great and Powerful receives 2/5


Blue Valentine

What a joy it is to start 2011 off on the right foot. In a month that is usually relegated for films that the studios have no faith in (known as “dump month”), I’m delighted to see Blue Valentine, a film that made the festival rounds last year and is now finally seeing a proper release. It’s so good in so many different ways that if I had the mind to do it, I’d be tempted to go back and edit my “Best of the Year” list to include it (because it’s technically a 2010 film). Despite having its DC release in this awkward transition period, which will keep it from landing on any of my year end lists (much like the terrific Crazy Heart), it’s a movie that needs to be seen and I implore you to seek it out.

The movie follows a couple, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), as they hit the ups and downs in their relationship. It cuts back and forth from the present, where their troubles are persisting, and the past, when their love first blossomed. This non-linear approach helps Blue Valentine strike a perfect balance in tone and pace. It allows us to see how good the two were together while also seeing how they’ve drifted apart.

The beauty in the film lies in the handling of the characters, neither of whom are demonized. While far from perfection, they are both good persons with flaws. Cindy is perhaps a bit selfish and her love for Dean is dissipating while Dean is occasionally quick to anger, though he never violently attacks Cindy, despite one late outburst. In fact, some of his anger is understandable, given a late movie revelation that puts an earlier argument into context. Much of it stems from frustration because his wife, whom he still dearly loves, is failing to reciprocate the feeling. Dean is not a perfect man, but it’s difficult to condemn him because of his genuine love and respect for his family.

In flashback scenes, he even comes off as charming, as does Cindy, and the actors in the roles are stunning together. I can’t recall a time when an onscreen chemistry felt as authentic as it did here. It felt like Gosling and Williams had in actuality been together for many years and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them hooking up off camera.

To say a movie is a “roller coaster ride of emotion” has become a bit of a movie critic cliché and, indeed, the phrase is thrown around far too often, but there’s simply no other way to describe Blue Valentine. Because of the constant alternations from the past and present, the good times Dean and Cindy have mix with the bad so the joy you feel one moment is immediately followed by an opposing feeling the next. Certain romantic scenes notwithstanding, this is not an optimistic movie about love. It’s not about two people who meet one day, are smitten with each other and live happily ever after. This approaches it more realistically. It’s about what happens when the love you have for someone begins to wane. It’s about coping with the idea that the one person in the world you love with all your heart doesn’t love you back. It’s about a crumbling relationship in its final stages that looked like it was going to last forever.

Blue Valentine is not an easy movie. People prefer to look at love from a certain point of view, but this movie dares to view it from another, one not filled with cutesy happenstances and longing embraces. At one point in the film, Dean expresses his own take on how love is supposed to work, going so far as to directly compare it to the multitudinous amount of romance movies he has seen. Like Dean, many people expect love to be grand and never ending, but the truth is far less encouraging and Blue Valentine never holds back from showing it.

Blue Valentine receives 4.5/5