Friday 22 March 2013

Review: Oz: The Great and Powerful

Year: 2013
Director: Sam Rami
Screenplay: David Lindsay-Abaire, Mitchell Kapner
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zack Braff

Synopsis is here:

I love those moments of spectacle in a film which give off that feeling of wonder. There's nothing I like more than being carried away by a movie moment. An instant when I can forget about the how and the why and I'm just there with the character. The magic takes me and I'm no longer "just watching a movie". Pretentious? Perhaps, but that's just me. Like music, I enjoy being whipped up in the emotion of it all.
Here are two examples of such moments for me:
• When Peter Parker learns how to Web Sling in Sam Rami's Spider-Man (2002)

• When Dorothy finds herself in the Land of Oz in the 1939 film; The Wizard of Oz

I'll happily spew hyperbole about the joy of watching those moments. All big film fans have them and these are just two of mine. Moments that capture a certain "magic".

In an event of serendipity these two scenes are now bizarrely bound together, with Rami now directing Oz: The Great and Powerful, a prequel to the aforementioned Wizard of Oz based on the characters and situations from the introductory book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.

We all know of the old adage if it's not broke, don't fix it. Such a quote applies heavily to a film like Oz: The Great and Powerful, for a matter of reasons. It should surprise no one that Disney is the studio behind the film and that the producers are the same guys who undertook Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010). So it also shouldn't shock you that the film has no surprises.

From a narrative standpoint; Oz follows Burton's risible re-imagining almost beat for beat with little to no diversity and in this day and age, why not? If you have a movie that made over a billion dollars worldwide why muck around with the blue print? However, Rami, his screenwriters and cinematographer Peter Deming manage to infuse the feature with stronger humour, visual appeal and a tad more emotion. Despite being quite forgettable (it's only been a day and I'm struggling to remember the film), Oz manages to be sweet enough but not saccharine sickly.
Despite Rami seemingly being under orders to imitate another filmmaker (seriously check out the Danny Elfman score and Weisz's Helena Bonham Carter impression). The film is weighed down enough by an offbeat and amusingly smarmy turn from Johnny Dep...I mean James Franco. Meanwhile Michelle Williams is pleasant enough to drown out Mila Kunis. Kunis; usually a fun actress to watch is miscast in a role that may have needed someone with further range.
The main problem with Oz is quite simply nothing reaches the same dizzying peaks as the glorious sequences I mentioned and enjoyed before. Despite it's sweet nature, there's a distinct whiff of cynicism that wafts over many aspects of this venture of Oz. It's important to remember while the 1939 version of Oz and Rami's own Spider-Man were made to make money, they feature moments which break past that fact for someone like me. Oz the film is a little like Oz the man, an amusing aside, but a bit of a con.

Review: Side Effects

Year: 2013
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Scott Z Burns
Starring: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta Jones

Synopsis is here

If the rumours are true (and the interviews point towards yes), it seems that Side Effects will be Steven Soderbergh's final theatrical feature. Threatened once before but now looking much more definite, the announcement is an intriguing one. At age 50; the chameleon-like director still looked like he had a lot more in him. This said, the film maker has stated he is tired of the format and would rather spend his time painting.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. A television interview on CBS with Quentin Tarantino had the motor mouth director mention his worry of becoming "out of touch" as he got older. Some could say that he may have a point. There's nothing wrong with going out on a high, and while others may draw attention to some elder statesmen who have placed some decent turns in their career "twilights". I doubt many would pick those later films over the likes of Taxi Driver, Manhattan, One Flew over the Cukoo's Nest, M.A.S.H and the list goes on.

So Soderbergh has decided to end the career here. Not with a bombastic, mega multi dollar showcase (imagine Ocean's 14), but with a tightly controlled psycho thriller which highlights not only the assured direction of the director, but the themes that have followed him throughout an industrious career. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who noticed that a few of the films revelations rely on sex, lies and videotape.

Sharply placed against the backdrop of big pharmacy and insider trading, Sodenbergh carefully blends topical issues to create near plausible horrors. Before the outrageous mechanics of the final third take hold, we are exposed a nightmare of dubious after effects, presumed wrong doings and shady double takes. Framed in a dreamy soft focused haze, nearly every shot in Side Effects (Sodenbergh lenses' the film under the name Peter Andrews) layers a tinge of self doubt within a viewer. You notice that much like a drug addled mind, the world around these characters are blurred and obscured. Sometimes only the character is in focus. Yet even so, their words bring no clarity. 

Soderbergh's tricky thriller does much to prime us correctly so even the films more lurid moments later on have a feeling of plausibility. This has much to do with the films two leads as well as its smart direction and scripting. Jude Law hasn't been this watchable for years, getting the subtle ruthlessness of his character down to a tee. Yes, he comes to the aid of an ill woman, but like a Coen's movie, notice just how quickly he's willing to snap at the dangling carrot. Rooney Mara is even better. Showing her display in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn't a fluke, she acing every scene with the ability to managing to be scared and scare at the same time.

Whether or not Soderbergh leaves the cinematic world, he has undoubtedly made a sizable dent in it. Side Effects shows the work of a craftsman: assured, accomplished and solidly built. He could be tired of the format; he could hold the same fears as Quentin. Either way his swan song makes sure he goes out flying.