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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



I wanted to start this review by saying that expectations were high for Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s first feature length film, Ted, but let’s face it. Being a fan of that show (especially after its return from cancellation when it devolved from cheerful subversion into intentional offensiveness) means already having such low expectations, it would be impossible to not exceed them. Ted thankfully manages to build some heart amidst its inanity, which is something Family Guy has never done in its 13 year existence, but its comedy is still well within MacFarlane’s comfort zone. He fails to branch out like he should, making Ted one of the most redundant comedies to come out in quite some time.

The movie begins in Boston in the mid-80’s. A young John Bennett (Bretton Manley) goes about his days friendless and lonely until one Christmas morning his parents give him a stuffed teddy bear. That bear eventually becomes his best friend and one night he wishes that he would come to life so they could be best friends forever. A voice over narration provided by the always wonderful Patrick Stewart explains that there is nothing more powerful than a child’s wish (except for an Apache helicopter, of course) and the next morning, the bear springs to life. He becomes an overnight celebrity, but never forgets his friend John. Now John (Mark Wahlberg) is all grown up and he and his bear, whom he named Ted (MacFarlane), live together with his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis). Lori is becoming tired of being the third wheel in their bro-mance, however, and things begin to change, much to the chagrin of the two friends.

There’s a joke fairly early on in Ted where Ted makes a joke, then Lori makes essentially the same joke in a different manner. Ted then condescendingly remarks on how Lori basically just took his joke and then repackaged it. It’s an ironic moment because MacFarlane has been doing that for years. The same handful jokes have been played over and over and over again in Family Guy and his lack of comedic flexibility pours over into Ted, to the point where at least one of the characters in the movie is nothing more than a live action version of someone from his show. Aside from the greater freedom provided by the film format in regards to content and the language used, this is simply more of the same from MacFarlane, including copious amounts of out-of-date or obscure pop culture references to things like Diff’rent Strokes, Top Gun, Saturday Night Fever, the Pink Floyd song, “Another Brick in the Wall,” and even Flash Gordon, the latter of which plays from nearly the first frame to the very last.

But it’s not just the pop culture references that are played out. MacFarlane, being the outspoken atheist he is, makes quite a few religious jokes, at least two in the first few minutes, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing had he not already beat us over the head with his beliefs in his television shows. Similarly, the film makes multiple references to 9/11, another strange obsession MacFarlane has joked about far too many times before, and it’s just not funny, not because it’s offensive, but because it’s unnecessary. One must praise him for his political incorrectness in a world that stresses the importance of the opposite, but you can’t help but feel like he says these things solely because he knows they’re controversial, hoping the audience will mistake forced controversy for humor.

It’s such a sad state of affairs because MacFarlane is a gifted voice actor, even if his style of comedy has run its course. He delivers his lines with spot-on comedic timing and an enthusiasm that few match. Put him in an animated movie written by someone who has comedic range beyond controversial topics and bodily function jokes and he’ll amaze like none other.

Because it spends so much time on pop culture references and jokes about defecating on a hardwood floor, Ted barely manages to muster up much of a story and the character relationships are thin, the little bit of its aforementioned heart coming more from childhood memories over the loss of a loved toy than from the movie itself. That’s not to say those references aren’t occasionally amusing (and if there was ever a movie that delivered a poop joke as well as one possibly could, it’s this one), but Ted is hardly breaking new ground. This is the same old same old we’ve grown accustomed to through the many years of Family Guy’s existence. Of course, if you’re still a fan of that show, I imagine you’ll find Ted hilarious. As for me, though, I wanted something more than what I’ve seen nearly 200 times already on television.

Ted receives 2.5/5


Friends with Benefits

In a cinematic landscape full of poor romantic comedies, Friends with Benefits should be seen as a breath of fresh air. It’s funny, raunchy and it has a big heart, even if it does amount to little more than an amalgamation of those that have come before it, borrowing everything from its central premise (think No Strings Attached) to its most insignificant, said-in-passing plot points (one character moved around a lot as a child when her mother broke up with her boyfriends, like in The Perfect Man). It doesn’t reinvent the romantic comedy genre, that’s for sure, but it works nevertheless because of its witty writing and charismatic leads.

As the film begins, Jamie (Mila Kunis) and Dylan (Justin Timberlake), who don’t yet know each other, are being dumped by their partners. The reasons behind the break-ups are ridiculous and even a little hurtful, so they both decide they’re done with relationships. At some point later, Dylan, an LA boy, flies out to New York for an interview at GQ Magazine, set up by “headhunter” Jamie and lands the job. Because he’s new to the town, he strikes up a friendship with Jamie, which inevitably leads to physical intimacy. But because of their pasts, they both agree that’s where it should begin and end. They will be friends with benefits, nothing more.

Friends with Benefits is one of those hipster, self-aware movies that seem to be all the rage these days. It references other romantic comedies, the characters watch them and at one point, Jamie even mentions wanting her life to be like one, admitting she approaches relationships based off them. In one hilarious bit, Dylan even ridicules the obligatory upbeat pop songs these films so often have. If one thing can be said about it, Friends with Benefits knows it’s a romantic comedy, but that self-awareness doesn’t go further like it should (it doesn’t spoof the genre the way, say, Scream did to horror); it merely acknowledges the clichés before acting them out. And there are plenty of upbeat pop songs.

So it follows the formula of your typical romantic comedy, which includes the girl-sees-how-good-guy-is-with-family and ailing-family-member-momentarily-overcomes-illness-to-speak-words-of-wisdom scenes, but it works nonetheless because it dares to go places other movies won’t, taking its two talented and good looking stars and allowing them to say and do things that will make even the least prude audience member blush. It’s the type of humor that those with life experience will be able to understand, including a great (and truthful) joke that will speak to the men in the audience who understand how difficult it is to…well, I’m not so sure I’m comfortable typing it here.

Of course, most romantic comedies succeed or fail on the chemistry (or lack thereof) of its two leads. In this regard, Friends with Benefits soars. Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake are so good together, it seems a shame the two aren’t a couple in real life (though there have been rumors). At times, the film runs the risk of losing us thanks to its egregious product placement of things like the Playstation Move, which sticks out like a sore thumb due to the incandescent wand the characters hold and wave around (giving the placement of T.G.I. Friday’s in the recent Zookeeper a run for its money), but it always manages to win us back. It’s funny, good natured, fun and it includes not one, but two well choreographed flashmob performances. And who doesn’t want to see that?

Friends with Benefits receives 4/5


Black Swan

In today’s cinematic world, nobody nails surrealism like Darren Aronofsky. While you could argue he has some contenders, namely David Lynch, Aronofsky one ups them all for one reason. The weirdness doesn’t overwhelm the story. Lynch’s films are mind bending, but don’t make a heck of a lot of sense. Lost Highway and Eraserhead in particular come off as weird simply for the sake of it and any type of analytical conclusion one could derive from those films is probably nonsense. Lynch himself has even stated that he has never read an analysis of Eraserhead that fits his own. Aronofsky, on the other hand, hits the perfect balance. He messes with your head and sometimes confuses you, but it’s nothing a second watch can’t fix. There’s more to his movies than meets the eye and his latest, Black Swan, is no different.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a dancer in a New York ballet company that has just announced their next project, a production of “Swan Lake.” The play requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan and the Black Swan and Nina thinks she is right for the part, but the director, Thomas, played by Vincent Cassel, isn’t so sure. When she dances, he sees the angelic White Swan side of her, but not the other darker half. Nevertheless, he gives her the part of the Swan Queen, but she soon finds herself competing with Lily (Mila Kunis), who she thinks is trying to steal it from her. To keep it, she trains rigorously with a disregard for her physical and mental health and it begins to tear her apart.

At various points in the movie, Nina is told to “lose herself” in the role and she does, but not in the way the director intends. The story of the Swan Queen begins to mimic her life and it becomes her all. In the play, the White Swan morphs into her evil twin and Nina does the same. When we meet her, she is a fragile girl who is dealing with various kinds of abuse from those around her. Her mother is living vicariously through her, wishing for her to have the career she never had. She is seemingly friendless and she lacks the courage to stand up for anything, breaking down any time confrontations occur. It's this initial meekness that makes her eventual transformation so powerful.

The obvious color contrast between the good and evil sides of the play’s title character is not lost on the rest of the film. Black Swan plays with the motif of black and white, good and evil. Entire rooms exist that are washed in the two opposite colors and the main characters, Nina and Lily, wear clothes colored almost exclusively with one of them. In fact, I can’t recall one scene where Lily wore something other than black. The clashing colors is a stark reminder throughout the entire film that something has gone, or is about to go, horribly awry.

Refusing to simplistically limit itself, Black Swan also has fun with how Nina sees herself and the world through reflections. Mirrors surround her, whether she’s practicing in the mirror encompassed rehearsal room or passing through her house, someone or something is always staring back at her. The mirror theme may be too abundant, however. They’re so noticeable in the first half of the film that when crazy things do begin to happen, it's expected and not as shocking.

But that doesn’t detract from its intelligence. Black Swan is a smart film that may not make perfect sense right away, but slowly reveals itself upon reflection. To completely decipher the puzzle, multiple viewings are required and that’s okay because this is a fantastic movie that is anchored by Portman’s powerful performance. Even Mila Kunis, who had yet to convince me she had what it took to be a good actress, won me over here. Still, this is Aronofsky’s masterpiece. After his most straight forward film, 2008’s The Wrestler, he returns to the style that put him on the map. Like Requiem for a Dream and Pi, Black Swan is a dark and beautiful look into the macabre, and he spices it up with some terrific camerawork, like one nifty point of view shot as Nina pirouettes.

As you watch Black Swan, your eyes and ears will catch things that you’ll swear can’t really be happening, but they are. It will trick you into noticing things that are out of the ordinary, but that’s precisely the point. As you think back on them, you’ll begin to see their significance and that is perhaps the film's greatest strength. This is Aronofsky’s best work to date and a late contender for one of the best of the year.

Black Swan receives 4.5/5


The Book of Eli

The end of the world seems to be all the rage these days. Everywhere you turn, some nonsense theory pops up. If it's not the Mayan calendar proclaiming Armageddon, it's cries of the Antichrist finally coming in the form of Barack Obama. Both have zero validity, but that doesn't stop Hollywood from capitalizing on them (though we're still yet to see that Obama movie). In recent years, post-apocalyptic movies have flooded our screens. Just in the last few months we've seen director Roland Emmerich blow stuff up real good in 2012, the Oscar worthy picture The Road, and the vampire and zombie apocalypses in Daybreakers and Zombieland. Chalk another one onto the ever growing list with The Book of Eli, a moderately entertaining film that will appeal to the following interests. If you want to see three decapitations in about that same amount of time, you'll like The Book of Eli. If you want to see a guy get an arrow through his crotch, you'll like The Book of Eli. However, if you want to see a post-apocalyptic tale with heart and meaning, you may want to look elsewhere. It's basically The Road meets Mad Max, but it's only about half as good as either of those films.

The movie opens with Eli (Denzel Washington) as he embarks on a trip to the west (as opposed to the trip down south the characters take in The Road—totally different). The world has been destroyed by a war and something they call "the flash," assumably referring to a nuclear war, which blinded many of the remaining survivors. It's been thirty years and a new generation has now grown up not knowing about the times before where, as Eli puts it, "people threw away what they kill each other for now." On his trip, Eli stumbles into a broken down town where he is violently confronted. He asks for no trouble, but is forced to kill a whole bar full of people. Carnegie (Gary Oldman) takes notice. He's the leader of the town and has a slew of henchmen he uses to track down an old book, one he claims will be able to control the lives of those he reads it to, thus giving him power. Little does he know Eli has that book.

What transpires is nothing more than a battle between the two factions for possession of the book. But what is the book? Well, if you have half a brain, you should be able to figure it out fairly quickly, though some still deem a reveal a spoiler, so I suppose I should offer up a warning. I will discuss what the book is and how this affects the overall picture, so if you want to go into the movie in the dark, stop reading.

Now, with that out of the way, the book is the Bible. Again, that shouldn't be too hard to figure out. A quick glance at the poster should be enough to give it away. "Deliver us" isn't exactly the most subtle of taglines (nor is the more succinct Gary Oldman one-sheet, "Religion is Power"). Then again, there's also a giant freaking cross on the cover of the book, which you see very early on in the movie. But why did I feel the need to bring this up? Because it is necessary to discuss the message, one that is admittedly fresh in a business that seems to continuously be at odds with it.

The recent comedy, The Invention of Lying, made it a point to deem religion a falsity. In fact, that was the whole basis of the film. The documentary, Religulous, does exactly the same (given the snarky title). But The Book of Eli is decidedly different. Its message here, without giving away the ending, is that there most certainly is a God and he (excuse me, He) uses people for a greater purpose. There's no doubt about it. He exists and works in all of our lives in ways we cannot possibly imagine. It's refreshing regardless of your religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, I've always been one to lean on the side of thought and interpretation rather than the straight forwardness of The Book of Eli. The Invention of Lying may have been anti-religion, but it posed questions. Would the world be better without it? Would there be war? Would it even exist in a world where nobody could lie? The argument it makes is that religion is merely a temporary solution to life's problems and that speculation about the afterlife is time wasted when we could be doing so many other positive things right now. Religulous, in it's own sarcastic way, does the same. These films make us question our beliefs and the beliefs of those around us, which is fascinating. The Book of Eli doesn't.

Sadder still is that it sets itself up to do just that, but never does. As noted before, Carnegie is searching for the book, knowing full well that it is the only Bible left in existence. He wants to use it to control people, insinuating its power and how it can be, and most certainly is, used for evil. At one point, Eli mentions that some people even think that it was the cause of the war that destroyed their planet. Well, religion is used to justify wars. Why not explore those themes?

Regardless of its missed opportunities, it was nice to see a pro-religion film. It just would have been nicer for it to pose questions rather than state facts, something too many religious people do already. But there's more to this thing than just its religious message and, unfortunately, not much of it is particularly impressive. It may be supporting Christianity, but boy does it get bloody. This is an action movie after all. Though the action is stylish and fun, it usually comes about arbitrarily. One scene that ends with multiple bodies strewn across the floor is initiated by Eli shoo-ing a cat away from his things. The cat's owner is none too happy and attacks Eli. Too many action scenes felt randomly placed in the movie rather than working out of necessity of the story.

The Book of Eli is a moderately successful, sporadically entertaining post-apocalyptic film that borrows from other, better movies ranging from a shot taken directly from The Road to a scene that mimicked The Devil's Rejects. Outside of the admittedly clever twist, which nevertheless is never completely satisfactory, The Book of Eli doesn't offer much other than an unexplored message stated matter-of-factly. This might work for some, but for those who like to think about religion and discuss it rather than have it shoved down their throats, The Book of Eli is a bust.

The Book of Eli receives 2.5/5