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Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
Not a Great Movie, but Still a Good Movie
I went into this film prepared to be disappointed. Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland felt a bit lifeless to me (except for Johnny Depp's Hatter) and I couldn't help but compare this movie to that one in my head. So, I went and saw this one with reservations.
I'm a huge Oz fan. I love the original books. I love the movie. I love Wicked (book and musical), Tin Man, Return to Oz, The Wiz (the musical more than the movie), and even Geoff Ryman's oh-so-depressing novel Was. There's no such thing as an "official" version of the story anymore, so I don't mind a little pastiche here and there. After all, Baum's Witch was short, wore an eye patch and a very tall hat, and brandished an umbrella, but Margaret Hamilton effectively erased that version in favor of the glorious green-skinned villain we all know and love. So talk of "the real version of the story" is pretty much moot at this point.
This movie didn't disappoint me at all. Yes, it had some issues, but I didn't really mind overall. I left the theater with a big goofy grin and I'll probably go see it again. It was an enjoyable romp through a gorgeous landscape with enough insider references to merit multiple viewings. It rarely takes itself too seriously, and never tries to step on the toes of any other version of the story. There are references to events in the books which, before now, have never made it into any other adaptations (such as the China Girl), as well as many familiar visual cues from the 1939 film (the guard's outfits, the spiral where one fork of the Yellow Brick Road begins, and even a shot of the Kansas horizon with a scraggly grasping tree seem comfortably familiar). There was even a visual cue that, while it may not have been taken from this source, certainly suggested a character from Tin Man.
I felt that Mila Kunis came across as a bit flat. Her character arc seems too forced and we don't really get to see much progression. I didn't mind James Franco, to be completely honest. He was appropriately sleazy when he needed to be and charming in a goofy way when needed. I think he could have invested his character with a bit more depth, but it never really turned me off his character at all. Superficiality is a huge part of his character, and I thought it worked, overall. The side characters were a delight, with some of the best comedic lines coming from Oz's traveling companions. And, of course, Rachel Weisz steals the show with a delicious performance, embodying a great number of classic villains from Snow White's Evil Queen to Star Wars' Emperor Palpatine.
Visually, the film is a delight. Sam Raimi turns Oz into its own wonderland without it ever seeming predictable or tired. One criticism I had with Burton's Alice was that it didn't really give the audience a chance to luxuriate in the bizarre landscapes of Underland all that much. It had great character design, but the landscape seemed a bit low- key. Raimi, on the other hand, gives audiences exactly what they're looking for. Gems, flowers, waterfalls, mountains, rock formations, sunsets, etc. that are completely breathtaking. Not only that, but the CGI is crisp and clean.
Danny Elfman's score was...OK. One thing I've noticed with him lately is that almost everything he does now sounds less and less unique. We've got the requisite haunting waltz and the spectacular pounding swirling opening credits theme, but other than that, I found almost everything to be a bit forgettable, which is sad because Elfman is one of my favorite film composers. The music isn't bad, but it just doesn't add as much as it could have.
But overall, I really enjoyed this movie. It's a delightful romp through a colorful wilderness that asks nothing more from its audience than a chance to have fun. This isn't a thoughtful, complex Oscar-winner nor is it a gritty realistic fantasy a la Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. It's a kaleidoscopic portrait that seems at once familiar and new. Children will love it (though very young children may be scared by a few of the antagonistic creatures) adults will enjoy picking out all the loving homages to the books and the 1939 film. It's a fun way to spend an evening, and you won't be disappointed, just don't go in expecting deep, complex high fantasy. If you liked Burton's Alice, you will definitely enjoy this film (and you'll probably enjoy it more, if I may so myself).
Les Misérables (2012)
And Excellent Film, but a Disappointing Adaptation of the Musical
Movie musicals are tricky things. For a long while, they were just frothy confections to distract people from the unsettling goings on around them (the Depression, WWII, etc.). They were never really taken seriously as a legitimate art form for a long time. But after a while, some truly quality movie musicals came out of Hollywood, and things changed.
In recent years, musicals have come in two varieties. There are the light-as-air escapist musicals that people watch because they're fun, don't require much thought, and are great fun to sing along with (Moulin Rouge comes to mind; though it's completely predictable and dripping with melodrama, it's so darn entertaining, you can't help but like it). Then, there are the movie musicals that have a bit more substance, like Chicago, which is stylish, sophisticated, and beautifully executed).
On stage, Les Mis is a flamboyant, stirring, explosion of emotion that blows audiences away from the thundering opening notes to the final chords belted out by the whole company. But, beneath that, it is also an excellent story, taken from Victor Hugo's mammoth novel of the same name. The characters are numerous, but relatable, and one finds themselves genuinely challenged by what, on the surface, seems to be a bombastic melodrama.
This particular version of the musical digs into the emotional journeys of the characters, not seeking to sugar coat anything. In fact, it's so emotionally raw that, at many times, it's actually uncomfortable to watch.
I have nothing against Hooper's decision to have the actors sing live, but when the actors are digging into raw nerves in order to choke out their songs through heaving sobs and strained, broken voices, the results are incredibly unpleasant. Most of the main songs aren't so bad. "I Dreamed a Dream," "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," and "On My Own" are incredibly done, as are the anthemic "Red and Black" and "Do You Hear the People Sing?" (two songs which couldn't be boring if they tried). Things get shaky, however, when the actors force themselves too hard and lose control of the music. in many cases, it would have been better if they had just spoken the lines instead of whisper/croaking them out. It wouldn't have been true to the musical, but it would have been a better alternative. In many cases it seemed like the actors were frustrated with the fact that they had to half sing their lines because it seemed to be interfering with their performances. It was raw and genuine, yes, but it was not pleasant to listen to.
Visually the film looked great. I'm not sure if anything different was done with the cameras, but the picture was absolutely crystal clear, almost as if it was filmed at a higher film speed (like the Hobbit). I could have done with more wider camera angles here and there, though. Sure it was intimate and personal, but it also made the film seem cheaper, as if it had a small set budget and didn't really have much to show the audience, which made it seem very studio-bound. It never really felt like Paris; it felt like a soundstage.
In the end, I clapped along with the rest of the audience and had the songs stuck in my head all the way home, so it wasn't a terrible film. It was entertaining and featured great performances, but it just didn't work for me. It took itself too seriously and showed a lack of faith in the power of the music itself.
It was as if Hooper said, "How will people know it's a sad song? They'll never figure it out on their own. Let's add rain and darkness and a giant neon sign that says REMEMBER THAT YOU SHOULD FEEL SADNESS NOW so they'll understand the emotion of the scene."