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Oz: The Great And Powerful

West Of Memphis

March 14, 2013

Oz: The Great and Powerful (**) PG

When the studio powers that be decreed a prequel to The Wizard of Oz should see the light of day, Sam Raimi, the director behind the original Spiderman trilogy and the Evil Dead films, seemed like as good a guiding hand for the project as any. Raimi, coupled with his childlike enthusiasm and a giddy affection for the movies shared by all movie geeks, has been a director who with few exceptions has rarely managed to disappoint. That’s what makes the curiously detached feel of his take on Oz: The Great and Powerful seem so out of place for such a usually dependable director. Raimi seems to be somewhat out of synch here, going through the paces and rarely if ever offering any surprises throughout the film’s two plus hour running time. Perhaps the sheer weight of what looks to have been an enormous production wore him down or perhaps the problem lies in the scripting phase, credited to writers Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, and to which Raimi appears to have had little input. Where the root cause of the film’s problems stem from isn’t really all that important. The point is that Oz: The Great and Powerful is riddled with them, from an inconsistent tone down to an air of plot point predictability. Sure, it has great visuals and stunning production design, as one would expect from a project such as this, but like too many films of this type which aim to tap into the nostalgia factor of its adult audience members, it simply fails to engage from a storytelling standpoint and that’s a deadly cinematic sin.

The film manages to keep the template that was used in the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz, namely that as the action begins in 1905 Kansas, the film is shot in a square frame and in black and white, eventually giving way to color once the action shifts to the Emerald City.

Michelle Williams in Oz: The Great and Powerful

It’s here in the early scenes where we are introduced to Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a circus magician with echoes of a con man looming in his character. We see him performing his circus tricks to a mostly enthusiastic audience and, in a nice nod to the beloved 1939 film, Oscar’s girlfriend gives him the news that she’ll be marrying John Gale and carving out a life in Kansas. Only true film buffs, however, will remember that Dorothy’s father’s name is John Gale but that doesn’t matter, it’s one of the few inspired moments in the picture and it’s a welcome respite from the predictability that soon ensues.

Once Oscar/Oz gets to the Emerald City, via a tornado, as in the first film, he bumps into Theodora (Mila Kunis), who quickly introduces him to her sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz). The duo explain to him that they are good witches and need help in banishing the wicked witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams). They notify him that if he can successfully smash her magic wand he will inherit all of the Emerald City’s treasures. On his quest Oscar/Oz is eventually joined by a couple of poor stand-ins for the beloved characters from the 1939 film. These include an annoying animal sidekick of the Jar Jar Binks variety, a flying monkey voiced by Zach Braff, and a living china doll (Joey King provides the voice here), whose broken legs Oscar/Oz glues back together. Later, Oscar/Oz learns he’s been duped but I won’t say anymore at the risk of spoiling the film’s few surprises.

Oz: The Great and Powerful is visually arresting enough and performed with enough gusto—Kunis and Franco, the only exceptions— to keep the younger members of the audience in their seats. You’d be hard pressed to say it was a bad film, even if it’s overlong by at least a half hour. It’s an okay film and that’s the problem. When it comes to films with the word Oz in the title we’ve come to expect something that gives us a sense of wonder. Unfortunately, this film isn’t it.

West of Memphis (*** ½) R

 I think it may be best to begin my review of West of Memphis on the assumption that some of you out there aren’t aware of the case of the ‘Memphis Three.’ The case involves the 1993 murders of three seven and eight-year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, whose bodies were found submerged in a creek. Three teens rumored to be Satanists, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, and Damien Echols, were quickly charged with the murders in spite of very little actual evidence. The prosecutor’s case mostly hinged on Misskelley’s testimony, which was questionable since Misskelley’s IQ hovers in the 60-80 range. As a result, the three were sentenced to prison, with Echols being charged with first-degree murder and possibly headed to death row since he was characterized as being the ring leader.

My initial reaction upon learning of a fourth film documenting the controversial case of the Memphis Three was one of surprise. I couldn’t help but wonder what any filmmaker could possibly hope to say about the case that had not already been cinematically stated in the three Paradise Lost films, made over a period of three separate decades. In her film West of Memphis, documentarian Amy Berg—the filmmaker behind the jarring doc about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Deliver Us From Evil—lets us know right from the start that there’s much that we don’t know about the Memphis Three case. So, yes, as it turns out, we do need this film.

The new film differs from previous attempts to document the case in that this time out director Berg is granted access to the findings of a private investigator, funded by film director Peter Jackson. Jackson, who found out about the case via the aforementioned Paradise Lost films and appears on camera here, was outraged at what he believed was a grave injustice and made it his mission to see that the previous rights were wronged. Other celebrities also got involved, among them Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, actor Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks, and we see them in the film as well. This new evidence sheds light on little-known aspects of the case and makes for a maddening and emotional moviegoing experience. You are angered, outraged, and, above all, saddened. Saddened not only for the loss of the lives of the murder victims, but saddened at the three teens who were sentenced and spent the eighteen years of their lives wrongfully imprisoned.  It’s a great film that deserves to be seen and, though it may not be able to outdo what was accomplished with the Paradise Lost films, West of Memphis stands solidly on its own two feet. For those who love great documentaries this is one to seek out.

West of Memphis is playing in Charlotte at The Manor Twin, 609 Providence Road, 28207.

Questions or comments - email Adam Long at filmfan1970@hotmail.com

 

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