The Pitch: We’re off to make the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz.
The Review: Origin stories are a curious phenomenon. It seems you can’t start a comic book franchise without first explaining how characters have obtained their superpowers, as if some justification is required for otherworldly abilities rather than just plain, old fashioned story-telling. The question will always be if these stories are worth telling: no one has yet decided to put pen to paper to attempt to explain whether the Three Little Pigs had endowment or repayment mortgages, or wondered whether The Three Bears sourced the home furnishings that so aggrieved Goldilocks from IKEA or some other home furnishing store. But Sam Raimi has seen a gap in the market: how did the man behind the curtain get behind the curtain in the first place? Is the wizard’s story as compelling as that of Dorothy, or indeed any of the other characters outlined in L. Frank Baum’s fourteen novels based in and around the land of Oz?
As with any venture which calls on well-known or beloved characters, there’s a risk of going too far to either extreme; if you don’t use the existing characters enough, then you’ll alienate the core audience, but fail to include freshness or originality and your purpose will seem false. The restriction that Raimi and Disney had to work under is that Baum’s original novel is now in the public domain, but the original Warner Brothers adaptation from 1939 isn’t, so elements introduced by that adaptation were strictly off limits. This still leaves a pretty open playing field, as long as you don’t want to be wearing ruby slippers (originally silver in the novel), but since this is the wizard’s story, not Dorothy’s, there’s less conflict than you might think. Some excised or ignored elements from the source do make an appearance here, including a land made of china cheekily renamed Chinatown – but this prequel errs on the side of the familiar rather than the fresh.
Indeed, some of the performances feel as if they’ve been lifted directly from 1939, not least James Franco’s cheesy, surprisingly lively interpretation of the titular Oz. Franco’s often gravitated to withdrawn, offbeat roles and it’s certainly the latter, if absolutely not the former in this case. His performance might be an acquired taste, but it’s just one of a number of broad turns which include the witches three (Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis) and some motion-capture LOLs from the wizard’s sidekicks (Zach Braff and Joey King) that stop just short of pantomime. The overall feel is very much in the same vein as Tim Burton’s recent Alice In Wonderland, from the neon brightness of much of the CG backgrounds to the typical Danny Elfman score, but with Raimi, as he so often did with the Spider-Man films, just occasionally adding his own specific flourishes.
What unfolds over the slightly bloated two hour plus running time can be broadly broken down into three phases; the opening twenty minutes, shot as the original Oz was in black and white before unleashing the colour, and featuring some faces of the key players in both narratives; then the tornado lifts Oz and his balloon and it’s practically a theme park ride until Oz encounters other characters in what at first appears to be a sparsely populated land; and finally we settle into the actual story, where Oz looks to understand who he really is. If that sounds like the sort of hackneyed moral that normally underpins middle of the road animation, then it absolutely is, but the gentle humour and the simple characters actually serve to elevate it. It’s hardly revolutionary, but there’s a certain amount of charm in watching how the various elements of the original story fall into place, and while it can’t compare to the 1939 Wizard adventure (or indeed, even the dark charms and originality of the almost cult classic Eighties sequel Return To Oz, which did a better job of drawing on the source material), it’s an entertaining ride that just about justifies its existence.
Why see it at the cinema: Raimi goes big on the visuals and throws in a few trademarks, including POV shots, and there’s no shortage of spectacle or detail, all of which make this a worthwhile experience to make the trip out for.
Why see it in 3D: You’ll notice that the title of this review doesn’t have a “3D” suffix as I saw it in 2D, but I’m going to strongly recommend that you see it in 3D if you can based on what I saw. Not only does Raimi have a good go at two different styles of 3D, including the waving-stuff-in-your-face and also the layered perspective mastered so well by Ang Lee in last year’s Life Of Pi, but seemingly to compensate for the brightness issues of 3D the day-glo aspects have been ramped up, and there were a couple of scenes which cut from darkness to bright sunshine quickly which caused my corneas to attempt to retreat into the back of my head. Even now, the next day, I think there may be images of flying baboons seared onto my retinas, so if you can see this wearing sunglasses – frankly in 2D or 3D – I’d suggest it’s the better option.
What about the rating? Rated PG for mild fantasy threat. The key line is in the BBFC’s extended classification info, where it states that “a PG film should not disturb a child aged around eight or older.” I would just advise a little caution if taking children younger than that, as it’s an occasionally dark film that might trouble the very young.
My cinema experience: Saw this at the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds, where I was instantly plied with chocolate – a combination of a two for £4 offer on bags of chocolate and our Unlimited Premium discounts meant I got a large bag of Maltesers for effectively 75p – and a sparse and talkative audience thankfully seemed unfazed by the first twenty minutes being in black and white, Academy ratio. (I know at least one other Cineworld has been tweeting this out regularly to try to avoid complaints.)
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Tidy. Just three trailers and a meagre selection of public service announcements meant that it was a mere 21 minutes between advertised start time and actual film start time.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: It’s surely the dream of any film studio to launch a successful franchise, and few over the years have been as successful as the Planet Of The Apes movies. The original series of five films then spawned two television series, a live action and an animation, and like many such franchises it felt ripe for rebooting as we entered the 21st century. Tim Burton, however, made such a hash of it, with a tedious plot and utterly nonsensical ending, that we’ve had to wait ten years for the next attempt. One thing that all of the previous incarnations had in common was that they had essentially human characters in ape clothing, repeatedly stretching the boundaries of what was possible with make-up and other techniques. The Tim Burton iteration took that look closer to monkey than man, but it was still essentially subject to the restrictions of a man in a suit.
The original was released in the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the latter’s benchmark for visual effects has been surpassed so many times that we’re now in a position to be able to use entirely special effect monkeys, without the need for any make-up at all. The joys of motion capture and the seamless integration of visual effects means that men covered in tight lycra suits and ping-pong balls can now act out a scene with more normally attired people, and be seamlessly replaced in post-production with something that closely enough resembles an actual primate that it won’t take you out of the story, and that a key early plot point about changes in the apes’ irises can be easily realised with dramatic zooms and close-ups. Just to be on the safe side, it’s worth having experts in the technology, so both Weta’s digital magic and Andy Serkis’ monkeying around in a stupid outfit get rolled out here again after their first memorable team up in the King Kong remake.
No amount of special effects, though, can cover up a weak story, so it’s refreshing that Rise… has managed to find such a compelling new take on old material. Here it’s a potential cure for Alzheimer’s that kicks things off. James Franco is reasonable as the young scientist who keeps his project going when his company try to shut it down, and uses father John Lithgow as a guinea pig (not literally, although it would be amazing to see what Weta could do with that). Other than that, it’s a slightly eclectic cast, with Frieda Pinto and Brian Cox doing what they can with slightly thin roles, but the juiciest other human role goes to Tom Felton, and he gets to be far more believably dastardly here than he ever managed to be as Draco Malfoy.
But the stars of the show are the apes, not least Serkis who has the animal acting down to a fine art and crucially invests Caesar with enough believable behaviours to go with the digital wizardry on show. The rest of the apes are filled out by stunt performers and others with backgrounds in this type of work, which is starting to become a serious niche in the acting world, and despite a slightly cartoonish look to some of the young apes, the adults are all incredibly rendered and you will struggle to distinguish some, such as Maurice the organgutan, from the real thing. So the apes are virtually flawless, and end up being the stars of their own prison movie (maybe no surprise, given director Rupert Wyatt’s previous form on The Escapist). The plot bubbles along nicely, and builds slowly, not feeling the need of many summer blockbusters to show its hand too early, and culminates in a well thought out set-piece on the Golden Gate bridge which doesn’t lose sight of the needs to service its characters in among the carnage. Rise… is a very satisfying addition to the Apes mythology, with some subtle (and some more blatant) nods to previous films, this one stands apart, but might well be the first in another successful simian series.
Why see it at the cinema: Some of the apes are just astonishing, and many of the grown-up monkeys will have you forgetting you’re watching animated characters. The Golden Gate bridge scenes are also suitably epic and worth hunting down on the largest viewing area possible.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: It’s a fair question to anyone who’s ever won a major award, especially something as high profile as the Best Director Oscar – what next? Looking back over the last decade of winners, it would be safe to say that, with the possible exception of the Coen brothers, every winner has either peaked when they won the award or sometime before it. Slumdog Millionaire might have been his Oscar winner, but Trainspotting had been his calling card for a decade before that, and try as he might, until the his trip to the slums he’d struggled to repeat the composed brilliance of that and his first feature, Shallow Grave. However, another common theme of those award winning directors is their desire and ability to swap between genres and styles as if it was almost compulsory, and in that respect Boyle is no different.
So after a sweeping epic with a touchstone of popular culture at its core, Boyle has decided to make a high concept true story. If you don’t know by now, Aron Ralston was an experienced and cocky young canyoneer who ventured into the rocky wilderness of Utah in 2003, and didn’t feel the need to tell anyone his whereabouts. Several hours later, Ralston came to be stuck at the bottom of a tiny crack in the rocks, miles from civilisation, his right arm pinned by an immovable boulder. Having explored his options, he eventually concludes that the only realistic option for his survival is to cut it off…
If you were unaware of that particular development and are now about to complain strenuously about spoilers, then don’t. Rather than the structure of a thriller, the hours counting down like a reverse Jack Bauer marathon, Boyle has fashioned a character piece, albeit one with hallucinations of a giant inflatable Scooby Doo and old girlfriends thrown in. The intention is to put you resolutely in Ralston’s shoes, to feel what he feels, and to understand what you’d do in that hopeless position. In much the same way as Ryan Reynolds did in that coffin last year, James Franco gets to prove his acting chops with some varied challenges and acquits himself remarkably well. Which is a relief, for despite odd appearances from Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn as the girls he meets on his way to the cavern, and Clémency Poésy as the apparitional ex, Franco is the only person on screen for the majority of the run time.
Boyle has a kinetic and restless visual style, so doesn’t remain pinned down for a second; his visual shorthand seems odd at first, such as shots from the inside of a water bottle, but allows for reams of exposition without requiring a man to spend the best part of ninety minutes talking to himself (water refreshing, water lower, water running out, water… oh wait, that’s not water); Ralston had a video camera and so we do get a little inner monologuing. But what we are doing to a certain extent is killing time until the third act, and it’s the structure that is the only real drawback here, our hero (who is not seen as a totally reformed character by his experience, more fortunate to possess the necessary skills to execute the deed) stuck early on and the mere title causing us to keep checking our watches until the clock runs out and… Right, those of a nervous disposition needn’t bother, for at this point Boyle cranks it up to the max, and you will feel every action to your very core. Boyle uses every trick in the book to help you truly understand what a man goes through when he has to remove a decent sized chunk of himself . But for the lopsided structure, this could have been another classic; instead, it’s a worth watch and a wonderful tribute to man’s endurance, but it just may test your endurance a little before it’s all over.
Why see it at the cinema: If you want to test your mettle and don’t feel up to torture porn, then 127 Hours has all of the gore and the anguish but comes with more character work and added street cred. Sorted. Wicked. Innit.
The Score: 8/10