by Steve Habrat
With remakes, sequels, and prequels being the name of the game in Hollywood today, I don’t really think it surprised anyone to hear that the iconic musical The Wizard of Oz was getting a prequel. It seemed that Hollywood had the good sense not to even attempt trying to update that one! Could you imagine someone other than Judy Garland belting out ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow?’ Yeah, I didn’t think so. Well, enter director Sam Raimi, the man who gave us The Evil Dead and the Spider-Man trilogy, and Disney, who seems to have their hands in everything these days, and, once again, we’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz! Truthfully, Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t a bad movie at all and it is all the more interesting that Disney handed the project, which is based on the works of L. Frank Baum, over to a director like Raimi, who seems more comfortable tossing body fluids all over his actors rather than exploring the land over the rainbow. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that Oz the Great and Powerful is actually quite fun, charming, impeccably acted, and, dare I say, cool, but there are also a myriad of problems buried beneath all the eye candy (pacing, character development, chopped editing), which may prevent it from ever reaching the classic status of the original film.
Picking up in 1905 Kansas, Oscar Diggs (Played by James Franco) or “Oz,” as he is called, is working as a small-time magician for a traveling circus with his assistant, Frank (Played by Zach Braff). Oscar is a fast-talking womanizer, giving every pretty girl he meets a music box that he claims belonged to his grandmother when in actuality he has several of them waiting to be passed out. After Oscar is revealed to be a fraud during his magic act, visited by his true love, Annie (Played by Michelle Williams), who is planning to marry another man, and chased out of the circus by an enraged strongman, Oscar manages to crawl into a hot air balloon and float away from all of his problems. Shortly after making his escape, Oscar is sucked up into a tornado and transported to the mystical land of Oz. Upon his arrival, he stumbles upon Theodora (Played by Mila Kunis), a beautiful witch that believes Oscar is the wizard that will save them all from the clutches of the wicked witch. She explains that if Oscar can save the people of Oz, he will become their beloved wizard and king. Theodora takes Oscar to the Emerald City, where he is introduced to the skeptical Evanora (Played by Rachel Weisz), who guards the Emerald City throne and acts as the aid to the wizard. After some convincing, Oscar reluctantly agrees to help the people of Oz and sets out to track down and destroy the wicked witch. As he ventures deeper into the land of Oz, he meets Finley (Voiced by Braff), a flying monkey in a bellhop suit, China Girl (Voiced by Joey King), a porcelain girl with broken legs, and the beautiful Glinda the Good (Played by Willaims), who all agree to aid Oscar on his quest.
First, let us discuss the good parts of Oz the Great and Powerful. Raimi kicks things off with a dazzling funhouse opening credit sequence that really comes to life in 3D. He then continues to play with the 3D effects as he presents the opening fifteen minutes in scrunched black and white (fire breathers blow flames out at you while debris is thrown into the black bars on the side), transitioning to Technicolor widescreen as Oscar floats into Oz, an obvious nod to the original film. Oz itself is absolutely breathtaking; a dream world with massive flowers, neon hummingbirds, and toothy river fairies filling the widescreen to the point where you fear the screen may burst. And then there is the meticulously recreated Emerald City, which is absolutely magnificent and almost always sparkling gloriously in the background. I also can’t forget the two animated travel companions that align themselves with Oscar, China Girl and Finley, both of which look utterly fantastic in all their CGI glory. It is clear that this Oz is all about how lavish the filmmakers can make this fantasy land look and you have to hand it to the special effects department. They do construct an environment that will have the adult viewer speechless and the children reluctant to leave the theater.
While all the eye candy is pleasant enough, it still can’t conceal the fact that there are a number of problems with the film. Oz the Great and Powerful runs slightly over two hours, fairly lengthy for a children’s film. It seemed like Disney was afraid that the length would turn some viewers off, so they asked Raimi and his editing department to cut certain scenes short. This chopping and slicing severely wounds some of the character development and trips up the pacing. Without saying too much, one of the witches is not fleshed out properly, making a major transition within her character seem a bit hollow when it should have hit with some major emotional force. The early scenes between Oscar and Theodora also seem clipped and rushed, with a love story developed and then quickly discarded. And then there is the dragging middle section, which goes on and on as the characters pace around and debate how to deal with the wicked witch. Screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner then decide to introduce several more characters too late in the game, yet ask us to really become attached to them even though they haven’t been in the film twenty minutes (I’m looking at you, Master Tinker and Knuck). And then we have Oscar’s arrival in Oz, which found our hero barely batting an eye or questioning this strange new environment. He was just a little too clam and nonchalant about the bizarre things he is seeing and being told.
Even though characters are not properly developed, the performances are still quite strong, which is surprising. Many have said that Franco was miscast as Oscar, but I actually liked him despite the fact that his character is a heartless jerk. Franco is certainly enjoying himself and his enjoyment is infectious. It has come out that Robert Downey, Jr. and Johnny Depp were considered for the role, but I can’t really picture Downey in the role and Depp seems like he’d be a little too quirky. Then there is Mila Kunis, who I personally felt stole the entire film. Even though her scenes as Theodora are brief, she makes the best of them and tries to work her way into out hearts before her stunning transformation. I don’t really want to spoil anything, but Kunis really nails her massive part. Weisz is seductively evil as Evanora, who is skeptical of the overly confident magician Oscar and quietly manipulative of her poor heartbroken sister. Rounding out the witches is the sweet-as-sugar Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good, a radiant sunbeam that gushes over the munchkins and China Girl. It is almost impossible not to fall in love with her. Then we have our to CGI characters, Finley and China Girl, both who could have become seriously annoying but end up being rather clever additions. They actually steal some of the films best lines, especially the feisty pint-sized China Girl.
While Oz the Great and Powerful suffers from a number of problems, one can’t deny that Raimi doesn’t craft a rousing twenty-minute finale. It has everything you could possibly want and then Raimi puts a cherry on top in the form of fireworks just because he can. I really can’t rave enough about it, mostly because epic blockbusters like this fail to muster a satisfying climax. For the fans of Raimi’s earlier work, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find the director refusing to soften during the eerier moments of the film. His flying baboons will nab a few jumps, his trip into a haunted forest will send chills up and down your spine, and he even throws in a haggard old witch that looks like she would have been right at home in The Evil Dead or Drag Me to Hell. Rest assured that there are no evil trees ready to violate any of the female performers. Overall, Oz the Great and Powerful is going up against gigantic hype and inflated expectations, which basically sets it up for overwhelming disappointment. While it certainly has its fair share of problems, Raimi doesn’t forget to give this epic a big heart and irresistible charm, which single handedly makes up for everything else. Oh, and make sure you see it in 3D. You’ll thank me later.
I just wanted to take a brief second to wish you all a very happy 4th of July. I hope you are downing a few beers, grilling up some burgers, and lighting a couple of sparklers this evening in honor of the day. To really get into the spirit of the holiday, do yourself a favor and watch that classic speech from Bill Pullman Independence Day. You know the one I’m talking about.
Also, if you haven’t checked out the Anti-Film School review of The Amazing Spider-Man, you should check it out immediately. It can be found directly below this post. You can also check out the reviews of the previous three movies by clicking the links below.
If you haven’t heard on Twitter, Anti-Film School is going superhero crazy throughout the month of July. Get ready for the tights party, readers!
-Theater Management (Steve)
by Steve Habrat
If Sam Raimi failed to properly mesh campy humor with horror in Evil Dead II, he more than gets it right with 2009’s superb horror outing Drag Me To Hell. It was nice to see Raimi return to horror, a genre he happens to do quite well, after his trio of big budget Spider-Man films that seemed to be wearing out by the third installment. Scaled back and armed with a smaller scope, Raimi’s return to the genre is triumphant, as he makes a film that is bursting with sheer terror all while retaining an old school aura. It helps that he uses the Universal Studios logo from the 1980’s and uses a retro looking Ghost House logo to begin the whole experience. Then, Raimi dives head first into a bottomless pit of body fluids and demonic torture, filling his frames with tributes to his Evil Dead series and putting his star Allison Lohman through a truly arduous experience that had to have left her covered from head to toe in bruises. I can only imagine what the stunt double looked like after the shoot was complete.
Drag Me To Hell introduces us to bank loan officer Christine Brown (Played by Allison Lohman), a sweet girl who seems to have everything going for her. She is up for a promotion at work, favored by her boss Jim Jacks (Played by David Paymer), and is in a relationship with successful young professor Clay Dalton (Played by Justin Long), who also happens to come from money. It doesn’t appear that Christine has a nasty bone in her body until she has to put up with her competition at work, the kiss-ass Stu Rubin (Played by Reggie Lee), who is also trying to snag the coveted promotion that Christine so desperately wants. That nasty bone also pops up when an elderly woman named Sylvia Ganush (Played by Lorna Raver) shows up at her desk hacking phlegm into a handkerchief and begging for a third extension on her mortgage payments. To prove herself worthy for the promotion, Christine denies Sylvia another extension, meaning that Sylvia will loose her home. Sylvia unleashes a violent attack on Christine and then proceeds to put the curse of the Lamia on Christine, meaning she will be ferociously tormented for three days by a demonic force and on the third day will be drug to the fiery depths of Hell.
After the sweeping Hollywood productions that were the Spider-Man films, Raimi once again seems back at home with a smaller film. Drag Me To Hell is filled with techniques that he applied so skillfully in 1981’s The Evil Dead. Raimi resorts to his old restrained moments that are broken by tantrums of horror that are maxed out. Every demonic attack in Drag Me To Hell is presented as a grand finale, making the audience ask, “What can Raimi possible do to this poor girl by the end?” It turns out, quite a lot, and you better believe he comes armed with a final second twist that is wickedly delicious. It’s also quite coincidental that Raimi sets his sights to demonic haunting and loose possession after swinging around New York with your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He terrorizes Christine much like he did Ash in The Evil Dead, Christine always by herself when the Lamia lashes out against her, usually resulting in Christine being knock around a room or terrorized by guttural growls and clanking, mocking inanimate objects. I don’t want to ruin all the fun in spotting all the references to The Evil Dead in Drag Me To Hell, but during a sequence where Christine enters a shed in her backyard, keep an eye out for a very cool nod to his masterpiece.
Much like Bruce Campbell in The Evil Dead, Allison Lohman is up for the beating that Raimi dishes out, making her a worthy successor to Ash. Christine retains the glowing persona that Ash had at the beginning of both The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, a seemingly sincere person who is always trying to do the right thing. Yet when she cuts someone down to get ahead, she faces forces beyond her comprehension. She barely stands a chance to overcome the relentless Lamia. It helps that with a B-movie premise such as this; the actors are all game to approach the material on the material’s terms. No one here is going for Oscar gold, which actually makes everything more fun than it already is. Long is having a blast as a concerned boyfriend who is skeptical of everything happening to Christine. Raver’s Sylvia is sublimely hellish, popping up like a rotten jack-in-the-box to rip out a handful of Christine’s blonde hair. Lee is hysterical as the kiss-ass Stu and I would have loved to see more of him. Paymer plays his role straight, a bit left out of the schlocky events, although he does get a good one-liner when he is showered with blood spraying from Christine’s nose. Dileep Rao shows up as an overly mysterious fortune teller and Adriana Barraza shows up as a damaged medium that does battle with the wicked beast that is the Lamia, a sequence that is the standout of a film that is packed from beginning to end with standout moments.
A smart burst of nostalgia from a man that helped shape the horror genre way back in 1981, establishing himself as a low budget master of horror, Drag Me To Hell is bursting with moments that will have you chewing your fingernails clean off. He crams his frames with deranged special effects that are both unspeakable and merrily creepy. It was also nice to see Raimi trade his gallons of blood and guts in for gallons of pus, vomit, and phlegm, all which are sprayed manically on the audience. Drag Me To Hell is truly awesome because Raimi finally understands how to mix black humor with drippy horror, making the moments that he wants to be creepy sequences that reduce us to quivering piles of flesh and bone. It’s evenly balanced unlike the slapstick heavy Evil Dead II, which was more concerned with the chuckles rather than the teeth chattering. Of all the recent horror films that are either comatose remakes or uninspired garbage, Drag Me To Hell ranks as one of the best horror films of recent years, wetting our appetite for more horror from Raimi, a living legend. Sometimes it takes a living legend to show these new kids how it is done and Drag Me To Hell schools the new school of horror.
Drag Me To Hell is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
It’s official, boys and girls, the summer of 2011 belonged to tights clad do-gooders who saved the world countless times from certain doom. They protected the innocent from world annihilation and we cheered them on every punch and kick along the way. We saw three superheroes from the Marvel Comics camp and one lifeless cosmic cop from DC Comics. I feared that Marvel would have too heavy of a presence at the local cinema, but I have to commend them for the quality films that they delivered. They were smart, colorful, and just downright entertaining until the last villain was knocked out cold. I had some hostility to Thor at first, but after watching him hurl has hammer at Loki a couple of times, I was hooked. I loved his brutish arrogance and empathized with him when he had his powers taken by his old man Odin. I had my doubts about X-Men: First Class. I was convinced it would be a cheap money grab of a film that was just milking a name. What I saw was easily the most unsettling, brooding, and arresting superhero film since The Dark Knight. Sure, there were moments were it winked at it’s comic roots, but that earth shattering climax is a must see and was played absolutely straight. And how about Captain America? How could that not put a smile on your face?! It was a retro, rip-roaring escapade that was actually better the second time I saw it (and yes, I LOVED it the first time I went to see it). It was the kind of summer movie we wish for but we rarely get. We just get more transforming robot aliens and alien invasion movies (yawn).
Many audience members will be quick to argue that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 was the real king of the summer but let me point something out to the ones who defend the Boy Who Lived until they are blue in the face: He had no staying power. As quickly as he made a bang, he fizzled. He quickly faded from the memory of audiences and we were right back to rallying behind Captain America. Sure, it was sad to see the Potter franchise finally come to an end but the film was honestly a bit underwhelming. I will give Potter credit, he now holds the title for the biggest opening weekend of all time but let’s not overlook those inflated 3D tickets. Thor opened to a respectable $66 million when it debuted, X-Men: First Class pulled $56 million, and Captain America mustered up $65 million respectably. And yes, I am aware Thor and Captain America were in 3D as well but they seemed to linger a bit longer near the top of the box ofice than Potter did. I still distinctly remember moments of Thor and I still shudder at the final frames of X-Men. The most distinct memory I have of Harry Potter was the jaw dropping teaser trailer for The Dark Knight Rises and few haunting images from the film itself. But as far as moments go in HP, I got nothing.
Perhaps the nation was under Potter fatigue. They were ready to just get the inevitable end over with. Yet I feel like more people actually saw Thor, X-Men, and Captain America than saw Harry Potter. I have one theory as to why audience members responded well to those three films. If we take a look at the news, all we see is one disaster after another. This year alone, we have seen the devastating tsunami that ravaged Japan, a shooting rampage in Norway, a shooting rampage in Arizona, another shooting rampage right in my backyard (Copley, Ohio), Casey Anthony found not guilty for the murder of her daughter, war in Libya, riots in Egypt, Hurricane Irene, etc. The world seems now more than ever in need of some form of hero. The times are undeniably grim and now, we are coming up on another anniversary of the horrifying September 11th attacks. Maybe that is why we flock to see the heroes vanquish evil. We need some form of comfort and even if it’s just pretend, we can still sleep better at night with the hope that someone will come around and protect us.
Next year, the summer movie season will see The Avengers, which teams up Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and The Hulk to wage a war on terror in the form of Loki. We will see a fresh take on everyone’s favorite web head, The Amazing Spider-Man, and to top it off, we will see the third and final chapter in Batman legacy, The Dark Knight Rises. Next Christmas, we will see the return of The Man of Steel himself, Superman, to stand once again for truth, justice, and the American way. While I feel that Batman is really the only superhero to actually engage politically (rather blatantly might I add) as The Dark Knight is now acting as the defining film of the Bush era, there is still something about the remarkably wholesome Marvel good guys. If we also look at the suspected plots of these films, there are some rather disquieting comparisons to what many speculate will occur next year: An unstoppable, apocalyptic event. We see four powerhouse heroes joining together to fight Thor’s God-like half brother and (supposedly) a race of aliens in The Avengers. In The Amazing Spider-Man trailer, Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard asks Spidey if he’s “Ready to play God”. Judging by the trailer, this will be a much darker portrayal of the character and there are a few moments of what appears to be apocalyptic action. But what does this particular line of dialogue mean? Spidey has to play God and save us all from destruction? And lets not forget that jarring trailer for The Dark Knight Rises. It is rumored that Batman is going to need a little help from Catwoman to defeat the brute force that is Bane and save Gotham from annihilation. Just take a looksy at the final image from the trailer, which shows Bane advancing on a winded, clearly in pain Batman. Gotham is going to need more than one hero to save it. When we look at The Man of Steel, all we can do is speculate, as we have no trailer to go off of. The main villain has been confirmed as being General Zod, who wields the same powers as Superman. Has Superman finally met his match?
It makes sense to me that both Marvel and DC Comics would unleash their A-team next year to protect us from the rumored apocalypse. Maybe it is to subconsciously reassure us and give some hope to the individuals who are convinced the apocalypse will occur. But one aspect is certain, that superheroes were the true rulers of this blockbuster heavy summer. Together, Marvel had a mighty pull and combined, the three films were a juggernaut. Combined all together, I suspect that The Avengers is going to become one of the highest grossing films ever made. And what about the hype that has surrounded The Dark Knight Rises? It’s poised to become another monstrous victory for superhero movies. So is the Boy Who Lived really on top? He won this battle, but he will most certainly fall to another do-gooder next summer. His triumph was brief. Enjoy it now Potter fans, because it’s a superhero world and we are all just living in it.