Review: Oz The Great And Powerful

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Oz The Great And Powerful

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 Franco’s often gravitated to withdrawn, offbeat roles and it’s certainly the latter, if absolutely not the former in this case.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

Teaser: Review: Prometheus

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"Have you found the full trailer yet?" "No, but keep looking!"

It’s not with us until June, but in December the wonderful folks at 20th Century Fox shared with us a teaser trailer, preceded by a series of teases for that teaser trailer. Well now, the full trailer will be released this week, and once again we have a teaser trailer for the trailer. Yes, you can watch 20 seconds of the trailer which is coming soon, and that 20 seconds is absolutely, positively, in no way just like the teaser trailer that was already released.

In tribute to this precisely constructed marketing campaign, may I present to you my own teaser for my review of the film itself. Now of course I’ve not actually seen Prometheus yet, but you can be sure that when my review does appear, in the first week in June, it will contain the following words:










So, hopefully that’s whetted your appetite. Join me again in a couple of months when I might tell you the first sentence.

Review: Paranormal Activity 3

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The Pitch: The kids, Marty, something’s gotta be done about those kids…

The Review: I grew up in a simpler time, when scary movies were just scary movies. But even when I was a kid, the horror franchise was becoming a well established phenomenon. These days, you can’t call yourself a horror movie if you don’t generate at least half a dozen sequels, and most are flogged well past the point where any non-horror franchise would be put out of its misery. It’s a little ironic that the genre which gets its best moments from surprising you should thrive so much on repetition, but one idea is enough to get you a career spanning several years. For many years, the Saw franchise had the monopoly on the Hallowe’en season, but it was displaced by found footage movie franchise Paranormal Activity and it’s back this year for a third stab, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Many a horror series is blighted by killing off its villain at the end of each movie and then having to find increasingly unlikely ways to bring them back next time. *cough* Freddy Krueger *cough* PA2 got around this by becoming a prequel to PA1, and in the process attempting to set up a mythology, but also expanding from a single camera to, wait for it, FIVE cameras! PA3 goes back even further, a pre-prequel if you will, and uses the conceit of a wedding photographer in the family to permit a two-camera set-up and a flashy (for 1988) editing suite to be able to review the footage. The sisters of the first two films are back, but they’re young girls and it’s their parents who find things going bump in the night.

Oren Peil, creator of the original, still has a had behind the scenes, but it’s the makers of documentary Catfish, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, on directing duties this time. Katie Featherston, star of the series, is back but only for a brief intro thanks to the format. Don’t be fooled into thinking that these changes in personnel will bring anything new to the franchise, though; PA3 is so formulaic that you can almost set your watch by it. The same sequence of increasingly escalating events, alternating between day and night, plays out in much the same manner as the first two films. If anything, there’s slightly less going on here to start with, as the early scares are less supernatural and more a series of “boo” moments as people suddenly appear in frame.

Don’t get me wrong; done well, those moments still have the power to cause an audience to leap out of their seats, and if you’re anything like me you too will enjoy watching a group of people repeatedly having the bejesus scared out of them. But it’s pretty much all there is here, and while the mythologising helped to keep PA2 fresh, it’s more of the same and it’s starting to make less sense, the fact it’s going backwards clearly not helping. The direction and the performances are all serviceable, but it’s difficult to see how the series can continue to regress from here –  if we’re to get to epic franchise levels, then Paranormal Activity may need to move forward literally as well as figuratively.

Why see it at the cinema: If you like people leaping out and going “Boo!” at you. Repeatedly. Or if you like watching fellow humans being freaked out by having that done to them.

The Score: 5/10

Review: Paranormal Activity 2

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The Pitch: [ ∆ PLAY] [ ∆ PLAY] [ ∆ PLAY] [ ∆ PLAY] [ ∆ PLAY]

The Review: I remember a time when Hallowe’en wasn’t just an excuse to churn out another half-baked sequel in a scary movie franchise. Simpler times, but money talks and the only thing that managed to derail the Saw series from picking up massive opening weekends seemingly unrelated to the actual quality of the movie was another crowd pleaser full of seasonal frights, but which this time jumped on the back of the “found footage” craze. Paranormal Activity had such an impressive box office to cost ratio that a sequel was inevitable, but how can you make money a second time round, without just regurgitating the same concept?

To an extent, this does its fair share of regurgitating in that we are still looking at video footage recorded overnight, but the writers (and producer and returning writer / director from the original Oren Peli) have attempted to retain what was so successful about the original while expanding the concept. That expansion actually works backwards in time, as this is a prequel, and it comes as a certain surprise to see the two lead characters from the first movie returning, but the onscreen caption confirming this place in the timeline does lend another slender air of suspense to proceedings.

But what worked so well in Paranormal Activity was the gradual build of tension through the repetitive structure. By edging up the drama each night, the slow burn nature gradually took its grip on, let’s be honest, some rather gullible audiences, but part of the fun was being caught up in the reactions of those around you. The sequel retains this concept, but with a succession of five cameras spread around the house that are cycled through, allowing you not only the same chance to spot what’s going to cause the scare, like a sort of horror “Where’s Wally?”, but also to speculate on which one is actually going to offer up the scares.

It was also that sense of found footage that helped those more susceptible to fully engage with the original experience, and sadly this is where the sequel compromises in two key areas. Rather than characters played by complete unknowns, we have one played by Sprague Grayden, a.k.a. the manipulative daughter of President Taylor from TV’s 24. The original also dispensed with credits in an effort to maintain the façade; sadly this tries to have its cake and eat it, with a long black screen at the end, but only the most sprightly front row patrons will be out the front door by the time that Sprague Grayden’s credit appears on screen. There’s not much more to say – if you enjoyed the first one at the cinema, and can find a big enough crowd willing to open themselves up to this, then the downsides are offset by some slightly more effective scares and a satisfying extension to the mythology. Amazingly, this franchise might not be on its last legs yet – didn’t see that coming.

Why see it at the cinema: This is a 7/10 experience rather than a 7/10 movie, in all honesty; any attempt to watch this when not fully surrounded by the company of like-minded people, with a large enough proportion jumping out of their skin at the appropriate moments, will completely diminish the effect.

The Score: 7/10