Oz the Great and Powerful Review

            Despite having a bare-bones plot and effects that have long been surpassed, The Wizard of Oz is still considered by many to be a classic and one of the best fantasy films ever made.  Considering the film’s status has surpassed the film’s actual content, making a prequel would seem like a fool’s errand.  Oz the Great and Powerful only proves that.  While Sam Raimi’s film has noble intentions, it ultimately falls under the weight of poor casting and some odd plot mechanics.

            Oz the Great and Powerful follows Oscar (played by James Franco, who is having quite the year for himself), a struggling inventor who is trying to make a living as a magician.  After a failed attempt to escape from some angry customers finds him caught in a tornado, Oscar is suddenly transported into the world of Oz.  There he meets three witches (played by Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz) and learns of a prophecy that suggests he will be the savior of this beleaguered land.  The film is directed by famed genre director Sam Raimi and is written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole).

            While I personally had little interest in this project, Sam Raimi seemed like the right fit for the director’s chair.  The early parts of this film only supported this conclusion.  There’s a lot of technical mastery on display here and Raimi adds a bunch of wonderful odes to the Golden Age of Cinema.  I left the film being much more amazed by Raimi’s portrayal of Kansas (which harkened back to the films of the 30s) than Oz.  That’s not to say Oz was poorly constructed.  In fact it is a strong update that fits with the original film’s portrayal while still being able to add on some fun and visually stunning components. 

            The only time that Raimi runs into trouble is when the screenwriting or the casting lets him down.  Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire’s script is fine for what it is except in one critical aspect.  Its portrayal of the three witches is horrendous.  The screenwriters decided that they needed to make the identity of the Wicked Witch of the West a big plot twist.  The problem with this is the answer isn’t all that surprising.  Yet the writers decide to give it a go anyway and there are so many uses of illogical deceptions that the film almost buckles under them.  What makes this all even worse is that the actress chosen to portray the Wicked Witch of the West is so badly miscast that the film once again almost nearly buckles under this awful casting choice.

            Other than that though the acting is solid.  James Franco is a wonderful lead and he can add this performance to what will probably be a banner year for him.  Michelle Williams comes out the most unscathed out of the witch characters and proves once again why she is one of the best actresses in the business despite the role being quite lightweight.  Rachel Weisz delivers a fun performance while Mila Kunis’ performance is quite inconsistent.  Zach Braff and Abigail Spencer also offer some great voice work.

            If it weren’t for some bad plot mechanics and a terrible depiction of the Wicked Witch of the West, Oz the Great and Powerful could have been something special.


Spring Breakers Review

            The advertising around Spring Breakershas consisted of promising audiences former Disney stars gone bad and James Franco delivering a chameleon-eqsue performance.  The film certainly delivers on those two promises, but it will still have plenty of trouble connecting with mainstream audiences.  The film (which feels like Drive meets Girls Gone Wild) is sure to lure in teens and tweens, but what the advertising for this film has hidden from the audience is a pretty damning commentary of the generation the film is geared towards. So despite an inevitable backlash against the film from audiences, this film succeeds completely creatively as it combines a well constructed commentary on present day culture with exciting visuals and a career best performance from James Franco.

            Spring Breakers follows three college students (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine), who rob a local fast food joint in order to pay for their spring break trip to the Florida coast.  After convincing their more reluctant friend (Selena Gomez) to come along, they end up arrested after a few days of excessive partying.  After fearing that their parents might find out about their predicament, they are surprisingly bailed out by a gangster-turned-rapper (James Franco), who shows them just how “fun” a gangster’s life can be.  The film is directed and written by Harmony Korine.

            Harmony Korine has made a career out of edgy independent films, but this film is a strong introduction to his work (this is the first time I have seen any of his work).  Korine’s work here is visually slick.  Colorful, choppily-edited and containing many enduring images and lines, Korine’s style certainly is original.  Even if you think the film is unpleasant, it is hard to look away.  However, what really takes Korine’s direction of the film over-the-top is his ability to mix in social commentary into the film.  At first glance, Korine’s script seems extremely barren, but underneath the surface is a compelling deconstruction of this current generation that has grown up on reality TV shows and been given trophies for even finishing in last place.  In many cases the inclusion of social commentary into a film can sink it with its bluntness, but Korine never lets that happen and utilizes it extremely proficiently.

            The real highlight of the film, though, is James Franco.  The film instantly improves when he appears about halfway through the film.  The performance is such a departure for Franco as he completely loses himself in a character that has distorted himself (even physically) in order to achieve his interpretation of the American dream.  While no one is in the same range of Franco, the four female leads at least don’t weaken the film.  Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson are fine but there is not much to differentiate the two from one another.  As a character more central to the film’s plot, Selena Gomez could have become annoying but the film finds the right amount of screen-time to give her.  The best of the four female leads is Rachel Korine.  It helps that she has the best-written character of the four, but Korine also brings a lot of personality to the role.

            While it’s definitely not for everyone, those that can see through the naked bodies and kegs of Spring Breakers will find a film with a dark and well-crafted message.


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