Because of the Wonderful Things He Does

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL should be seen for the fab 3D — Sam Raimi has always been a 3D filmmaker anyway, punching at that screen with his little girlish fists, trying to smack the audience in the face as if it were one of his beloved Stooges, and now he can finally do it, if only virtually. There are some really gorgeous effects here, particularly the snowflakes, which had us all swiping at the air like babies encountering soap bubbles for the first time. And during the Academy Ratio b&w opening sequence, Raimi keeps breaking the frame by having things like a fire-breather’s blazing puff burst out of the edges of the shot and into the auditorium.

There are, admittedly, some problems with the drama. There isn’t a lot of what you might call thrilling action, the non-period dialogue is irksome, and the mechanics whereby James Franco’s Oz actually destroys a decent character are troubling — he can never really be redeemed from this, and certainly doesn’t deserve to get the girl. If you watch this and then watch the 1939 original, the bit where Oz sends Dorothy to kill his ex-girlfriend will strike you as tonally rather off.

And an early scene where Oz, a Kansan magician, is threatened by an audience because he is unable to cure a crippled girl, is just peculiar. These may be hicks, but it’s unlikely they would expect a stage magician to perform actual miracles of healing. The scene could only make sense if Oz were a snake-oil salesman or faith healer, and I can only presume somebody thought that was too unsympathetic. But the character is pretty hateful at this stage anyway. He’s just ineffectively hateful.

My thoughts on the film seem to be whirling around like uprooted picket fence posts in a cyclone: let’s just sit by the window and check them out as they drift past. However — the movie may be best experienced knowing nothing about the story, so be aware there are a few spoilers below, and maybe avoid reading until you’ve seen the movie, if you plan to.

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The movie is a remake of Raimi’s ARMY OF DARKNESS. It is. But the ending is swiped from INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. (“Revenge of the Big Face.”)

All along I had a problem with Franco, who can play a phony but can’t play calculation, insincerity and confidence-inspiring baloney. Fiona initially disagreed: “I liked him, I thought he was fine.” “They turned down Robert Downey Jnr.” “WHAAAAAAAT???!!!”

Michelle Williams is the best: the only character you always believe, for every line and look. There’s never any doubt with MW. And she’s playing the Billie Burke role, for God’s sake. It doesn’t exactly strike one as a gift to the actor. But she embraces the challenge of making Goodness and Strength interesting. Raimi has always had a touching faith in sweetness in women (and a corresponding fear of female sexuality).

Raimi’s connection to Oz goes back at least to the animate trees of EVIL DEAD, though his are considerably nastier than those Dorothy Gale tangled with.

Bruce Campbell gets hit with a stick, so that’s fine. By the dwarf from BAD SANTA: you get extra points for that.

Raimi’s still casting all his kids in crowd scenes, but he doesn’t shoehorn in irrelevant dialogue for them this time, as he did in SPIDER MAN III.

Fiona reckons Mila Kunis must look scary in real life, since her eyes are somehow bigger than the head that contains them. I was wondering how she would manage to the transformation from spherical to pointy head. Maybe she’d end up looking like a Sputnik. But the makeup is quite effective. Nobody can be Margaret Hamilton except Margaret Hamilton, though.

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The main reasons I liked this a lot better than Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND, which had the same producers and also a by-the-numbers Danny Elfman score:

1) You can’t turn Lewis Carroll into a parable of good versus evil, and only an idiot would try. It’s about sense versus nonsense, or ordinary logic versus strange and sublime logic.

2) Fewer curlicues in this one.

3) Burton had no ideas for 3D whatsoever, and seemed unable to focus pull or edit without throwing the viewers’ brain out of whack, since what your eye was led to by the 3D was never consistent with the other filmmaking choices.

4) Admittedly, nobody in OTGAP is as good as Anne Hathaway in AIW. But nothing is one tenth as bad as Johnny Depp’s dance.

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China Girl is a really great SFX creation. Too bad they couldn’t have left her sweet and sentimental: the more raucous humour spoils the character a bit.

The Munchkins attempt a song, making this the fulfillment of Raimi’s dream for the ill-fated CRIMEWAVE: “I wanted to make it the Ultimate Film of Entertainment.”

(Is this the modern cinema experience in a nutshell: a big, bloated, yet oddly uneventful event, miscast and indifferently written, yet winning a measure of our respect just by virtue of presenting a slight variation on the usual form of spectacle? But wasn’t it ever thus? But isn’t it more so now?)

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21 Responses to “Because of the Wonderful Things He Does”

  1. Yes, “winning a measure of our respect just by virtue of presenting a slight variation on the usual form of spectacle” is it in a nutshell, but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this. I managed to look around, over and beside James Franco most of the time, which was infinitely preferable to looking at his insipidity. The story makes zero sense, but hey, I wasn’t bothered because there was always something to be beguiled by. Gabriela loved it (and has since gone back to see it a second time) largely because of the China Doll, which as you rightly point out is one of the great CGI characters of recent times (check out how it was done if you have a moment – they used an on-set puppeteer, the guy who did Being John Malkovich!).

  2. Oh wow, that’s a GREAT approach! Makes so much sense, and they clearly reaped the benefit in all kinds of ways.

  3. See here http://www.slashfilm.com/how-sam-raimi-used-live-puppetry-and-performance-conferencing-to-create-oz-the-great-and-powerful/ – it also raises the image of a tiny monitor on a little crane carrying Zach Braff’s little face around on it. Which I for one enjoyed.

  4. Leave us not forget that the Wizard Of Oz, the movie at least, itself is no paragon of narrative cohesion. I remember seeing the film for the first time as an adult and being shocked by how tin eared the editing and continuity was. It’s hard to think of another film with so many bizarre gaffs, and it’s even harder to think of an A budget one from the studio era. That the film remains a classic has to be put up to Hollywood alchemy.

  5. Hmmm…I guess I just have to go by your testimony, as I haven’t seen OTGAP. From the posters and trailers, alone, I decided to skip it, and the generally bad reviews here in the US about Franco’s acting and a general lackluster quality which led me to believe I was justified.

    I get very affected by production design and film art in general. I can’t see certain animation projects at all, if the style is”off” for me, and the same goes for films like this and the Robin Williams tear-jerker “When Dreams May Come”. The production design just screams out a black-velvet painting tonality that just makes me cover my aching eyes and think…”you know, sometimes, more is just MORE.” The only screen design overload that worked for me was Avatar (the plot, not so much, but the milieu…fabulous!) which, oddly, was done by the same production designer as OTGAP, Robert Stromberg. Perhaps his partner on that one, Rick Carter, balanced his color sense out.

  6. You’ve made me want to find some footage of the China Girl, though…interesting article, Paul. Thanks for posting it.

  7. Hmm, regarding the narrative cohesion or competence of the 1939 Wizard of Oz — I read the first Wizard of Oz book as an adult (actually fairly recently), and it left me impressed with what an intelligent and sophisticated job the 1939 screenwriters had done. One of the charms of the book is that Oz is a magical version of the American prairie. For example, the people made of china come right off the knick-knack cabinet of a Kansas farmhouse. The movie leaves out the china people along with the entire second act in which they appear, but it incorporates the homely Kansas-Oz connection by casting the same actors in the Kansas and Oz scenes and linking the characters. This is an element that isn’t in the book but is natural and tailor-made for a movie.

  8. Mila definitely has supernatural powers

  9. I met her a number of years back when she was doing That 70’s Show. She’s truly “something else.” Her family got out of Bosnia by the skin of their teeth, came to L.A. and put her in Fairfax High, where she was almost instantaneously discovered.

    Currently she’s making time with her That 70’s Show co-star Ashton Kutcher, who she snagged on the rebound from Demi Moore. Oh what a world, what a world!

  10. Yeah, considering that the MGM Oz had many screenwriters, songwriters, and not a few directors, it hangs together pretty well. Salman Rushdie took issue with the whole “no place like home” thing, but even that is prepared for by the fact that Oz IS Kansas as Katya points out.

    I really like Mila Kunis — in that interview and in Forgetting Sarah Marshall where she displays a similar snappy energy (and if that’s her deathly ill, what must she be like in the pink of health?). Oz doesn’t allow her to relax that much, alas.

    It should be admitted that the ’39 Oz has some tacky plasticky imagery, as well as sublime shots like the glassy tunnel leading to the Wizard’s court. The Raimi film is inconsistent in almost the exact same way: striking deco interiors will give way to awkward greenscreen fake walking scenes. It’s bumpy.

  11. The only special effect in the ’39 Oz that mattered was this —

  12. Well, the human element rightly dominates. But just in that scene, the sky’s a cyclorama, the horizon a forced-perespective miniature. Then there’s the magnificent fibre glass cyclone, the rear-projected view from the window, the matte painted city of Oz, the wire-work flying monkeys, the melting witch, her pyrotechnic display, and Oz the Great and Powerful himself!

  13. What I was referring to was not plot itself, but the lumpiness of the editing, specifically referring to all the cut scenes still referenced within the film itself. The now non sequitors talking about the Bug scene, and the poppies scene which just sort of starts and then ends are just odd if you have no background knowledge.

  14. Finally saw it last night, and while it was far from perfect, I enjoyed a great deal more than I expected. Watching it here in the UAE, where the audiences tend toward the raucous and would have had less of a visceral connection to the source material than Americans, was interesting – it really held their interest far more than most pictures we see here.

    I largely agree with your thoughts, and I’m grateful to you for putting them together far more coherently than I had mine. To me, the major weaknesses are the forced imposition of a standard plucky-underdogs-fight-back plot (does every story these day have to have it? I mean, really, “The dream of the people lives on”? Oy. Although WIlliams carries it) and the gratingly modern voices of Kunis and Weisz (and, at times, Franco). Elocution lessons all around! The pluses, though, large and small (from the China Girl to the ruby flowers) are all pretty persuasive…

  15. It is, at base, another narrative about Americans traveling to a troubled foreign land and sorting everything out. That’s a story that perhaps decline in popularity a bit in recent years but seems to have bounced back. I’m picturing a “Mission Accomplished” sign over the Emerald City.

    Mike Hodges tried to parody this political wish-fulfillment idea in Flash Gordon, but it’s awfully resilient.

  16. And in Flash Gordon Hodges had the luscious Ornella Muti — the Mila Kunis of her day.

  17. “his little girlish fists”
    Hmmm? Or rather, Eh?
    A somewhat sullen comment, so, not to put too fine a point on it, whence the snark and why the vaguely (albeit very vaguely) homophobic petulance?

  18. Oh lordy! That’s the best promotional interview I’ve ever seen.

  19. Raimi isn’t gay that I ever heard of so whence the homophobia? I just indulged in some verbal ebullience as is my wont. Raimi always struck me as nice, kind of childlike, soft and un-macho, so something was need to balance the image of hitting the audience in the face. His cinema is often violent and kinetic but he just wants to please.
    Regular readers know I’m only snarky when somebody commits some outstanding cinematic crime.

  20. Saw an article that a sequel is already planned, so perhaps they’ll explain how Oscar and Glinda broke up. Or maybe they’ll go whole hog and redo WIZARD OF OZ itself, since this is an unofficial prequel anyway. That would give them a chance to sort out the relationships (The prologue of OZ has an ex-girlfriend — a serious one — saying she’s going to marry a man named Gale. Foreshadowing!).

    The wild card is WICKED, the musical of the novel and to some extent the engine of the whole Baum revival. Will that ever be filmed? If so, will it knock this and the other Oz projects into the background or will it end up like Webber’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, years late and several dollars short (a straight-up horror movie and a TV miniseries, not to mention a competing stage version, all came and went long before the movie finally appeared).

  21. I’d say Wicked has already had her thunder stolen — we’ve seen a 21st century Oz, and in 3D yet.

    That sequel’s going to be tricky. They need a middle film before any straight remake, to explain why Oz wants the Wicked Witch dead. Hmm, maybe she breaks up his relationship with Glinda? Still, sending a little girl to murder her seems severe. The sequel also needs to keep all three main characters alive, since they’re all needed for when Dorothy arrives…

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