Oz the Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, 2013)

Having only properly watched The Wizard of Oz last year, this new version of an episode in the tale of Oz held some attraction, though I’d really intended to watch Return to Oz first, and there were other cinema releases higher in my watch-list. Nonetheless, cinema release schedules demanded that this was the one that I watched, so how did it stand up, both as a prequel and in its own right?

A quick precis of the set-up; Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a young travelling stage magician in Kansas, struggling to make a career, hampered by both his weakness of character and his overweening ambition. He wants to be great but lacks the talent to be so. After a visit from his sweetheart, Annie (Michelle Williams) who tells him she has received an offer of marriage from another man, Oscar tells her to marry the other guy, knowing that Annie can’t wait around for him forever, and is then immediately forced to run for his life from a fairground strongman for flirting (and possibly more) with the strongman’s wife. Climbing into a balloon, Oscar is congratulating himself on his clever escape when he sees that a tornado is about to hit. Sucked into the tornado, the balloon is swept away into the land of Oz, where Oscar meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) who identifies him as the fabled and prophecied Wizard, come to save them, and takes him to meet her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) who tells him that to prove who he is, he will have to kill the evil witch Glinda. Accompanied by a flying monkey and a timid little china girl, “Oz” sets out to do the deed and achieve the greatness he never could at home.

Firstly, it’s obviously been made with a lot of love and some care. Raimi has said that copyright disputes deprived him of the right to use anything unique to the classic film and so he was forced to go back to books. In part, he seems to have cheated a bit on this, as the shift from Kansas black and white to Oz colour is a straight pinch from the film (surely this can’t be in the original books?), as is the sound of the laugh of the Wicked Witch. Perhaps it’s only specific images he’s banned from using. And I have to say, I much prefer the colour palette used in this film to that in the original, being both more complex and more unearthly, giving me an impression of some of the classic fantasy novels I read decades ago (and written decades before that) which imagined weird and alien worlds. The only part of the film that I thought utterly extraneous was Oscar’s entrance to Oz, an overlong and overdramatic balloon descent along rivers and down waterfalls that seemed inserted solely with an eye on the Disneyland ride that will follow, and seemed out of character with the rest of the film.

Secondly, it has, on paper, a strong cast. James Franco proved in 127 Hours and Rise of the Planet of the Apes that he can carry a movie, while Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams are all ‘proper’ actresses as well as beauties. But only Kunis really shines. She has the ability to do sweet and innocent as well as dark and dangerous necessary in such a transformative character as Theodora. Franco simply lacks the charisma necessary to convince as the stage huckster that Oscar has been, and that he needs to recreate in Oz, though he is much better when not required to ‘sell’ his big act. Weisz is fine but is the least prominent of the ‘big four’ characters. Williams is the real disappointment. I really do have a lot of time for her but something just doesn’t work here. I know she can do ‘sweet’ and, as Annie, she’s fine but, as Glinda, she is simply boring and bland. I know a lot of it is in the way the character is written in the books – she’s simply too ‘nicey nicey’ – but I’d have liked to see a little more fire in her.

Then there are bits of this film that don’t really add up, if you try to reconcile it with the 1939 film. Again, this might be a problem with the source material but it still bugged me. The original film worked as a standalone because it had an ambiguity – did any of it really happen, or was it all a dream? Once this film is added, that ambiguity is lost and some moral issues arrive (such as the fate of Theodora) as well as plotholes (what was Oscar doing back in Kansas, when he should be in Oz, and what about his relationship with Glinda?). It’s probably better to consider each in isolation and not try to reconcile them.

Lastly, I have to give a thanks to the character of Oscar. In the original film, the overlong and uninspired welcoming song of the Munchkins almost made me lose the will to live. Here, they had only just begun to sing and dance when he cut them off brusquely. For that I must be eternally grateful.

Not a really great film, but a fun one which passed an evening very pleasantly.

(Slight edit: one thing I forgot to mention was the 3D. Done very well, particularly in the extended opening credits, which played up to 3D’s tendency to resemble old-fashioned ‘Viewmaster’ stereoscopy, with the appearance of layers of 2D rather than true depth of field, to create a beautiful animation, worth seeing in itself)


Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)

Thelma and Louise
“Goddamit Thelma!” This is one of those films that is utterly iconic, everyone knows, and yet I had never seen. An icon of feminism and a real ‘game changer’, apparently. But what is it actually like? Well, not really a ‘massive’ movie at all.

Susan Sarandon’s Arkansas waitress Louise is packing for a weekend away and calls her friend Thelma (Geena Davis) to check she’s going to be ready, and that Thelma’s husband, controlling, domineering and simply unpleasant Darryl (Christopher McDonald) will let her go. We see Thelma try to ask Darryl but be intimidated out of doing so, even though it’s pretty obvious that Darryl plans on enjoying his weekend any way he sees fit. Nevertheless, Thelma leaves with Louise and they drive away in a borrowed Thunderbird convertible. On the way, despite that it will make them late, Thelma persuades Louise to stop off at a bar to have a couple of drinks and have some fun – neither girl has had much of a good time, Thelma downtrodden and meek, Louise feeling neglected by boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen). Thelma flirts innocently with a local and is almost raped by sleazy Harlan (Timothy Carhart), only saved by Louise’s intervention, but events begin to get out of control when Louise shoots the would-be rapist and decides she has to flee to Mexico. Thelma has been seen flirting and no-one will believe she was innocent.

Due to reasons she won’t divulge (though we can guess, and Thelma eventually does) Louise won’t drive directly through Texas and doesn’t have enough money, so arranges for Jimmy to send some money to Oklahoma, picking up drifter cowboy, J.D. (Brad Pitt, in an early role) along the way, aware that the FBI are in pursuit, accompanied by sympathetic cop Hal (Harvey Keitel), and time is running out.

There are lots of nice touches and, for Thelma particulaly, good character development. Early on, she seems almost like a hyperactive child, innocent and lost but becomes a more active agent in her own fate as the action progresses. Conversely, Louise begins as a controlled agent whose life begins to unravel, as past memories are forced to emerge and future choices narrow. There are interesting and sympathetic male characters – mainly Hal and Jimmy – though Darryl and Harlan act as effective villains, along with a really slimy trucker repeatedly encountered.

This is, when all is said and done, a road movie with two female leads. Any groundbreaking it has done is that the leads are women, written as women and portrayed as women, rather than being written and acted as men where the actors playing them happen to be women, if you understand me. It’s a good film, a very good film but just that, a fun film, well scripted and delivered. It is more important for simply existing than for any utterly compelling ‘message’ delivered.

“Thelma, goddamit!”

Stoker (Chan-wook Park, 2013)

The opening censor’s remarks referred to “Scenes of strong sex, strong violence and sexual violence” and I wondered quite what kind of film I’d let myself in for.

As it was, the violence was more to the fore than the sex and, though it made me wince a couple of times, the scenes were not excessively graphic – more in the line of Hitchcockian discomfort than slasher-like, though not for the very faint-hearted. It was certainly less ‘in your face’ than Lady Vengeance, which I watched last year, to which it bears little stylistic resemblance despite an army of Korean and other asian technicians Park has brought in to make this film; after the opening sequences, the extremely stylised camerawork swiftly settles down to a more conventional usage.

The title hints at Dracula’s Bram and there is certainly a strong gothic sensibility running through the story, depite most of the action taking place on sunny days, with the links between sex and violence here pretty explicit, and also in oblique references – scenes of Mia Wasikowska’s lead, India, calmly letting spiders run up her leg put me in mind of Renfield, eating spiders in the asylum. India is a strange character, cold and distant with a phobia about personal touching and a stillness about her that is menacing in itself.

The film opens with some disorientating ultra-stylised scenes of India in a field, with her voiceover talking about herself in slightly cryptic terms – which become clearer later in the film. The action then shifts to her 18th birthday, as she seeks out the present that her father always leaves her but, in the box instead of the shoes that she has received every previous year, there is a mysterious key. Shortly, she hears that her father, Richard Stoker, a successful architect has died in a car fire. At the funeral, in the distance, India sees a mysterious man, observing them. At the wake, this man is introduced to her by her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) as her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). Charlie is friendly and charismatic but also slightly sinister and India takes against him, though Evelyn seems utterly charmed. India confronts her mother as to why she had never even been told about Charlie’s existance and Evelyn reveals that, as Charlie has been travelling the world, she herself knows barely anything about him.

Charlie makes himself useful and ingratiates himself further, becoming an integral part of the household, especially after the housekeeper disappears, and Evelyn, and even India, seem to be almost hypnotised by him. There are hints that he might be more than he seems – he certainly seems to know more about India than he should – and there are hints of something almost supernatural about him.

Wasikowska’s performance is excellent, blank and detached and yet always compellingly watchable. Goode, too, is strong though I am less enamoured of Kidman, who just looks a little bland and characterless; her character might be a finishing school-trained trophy wife, but she doesn’t bring quite enough ‘inner life’ to the character for me to much care about her.

The ending, though it largely goes where I think it should, is also a slight letdown, being slightly anticlimactic; it just lacks the menace I think it should, perhaps because I don’t care enough about the Evelyn character for her particular plight to matter to me.

Creepy and chilling, good but not great.

Festen (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998)

Well, I put “Thomas Vinterberg” in the title, giving him credit, but just look at number 10, below.

1. Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic.
3. The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.
4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable (if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
6. The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).
8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
10. The director must not be credited.

This is the Dogme 95 manifesto, as listed on Wikipedia.

Set on the day, and following night, of the 60th birthday celebration (the title means “party”) for a patriarchal owner of a hotel, Helge (Henning Moritzen) welcoming back his remaining children after the funeral of one of his daughters , Festen appears to obey the rules as far as I can see. In places, this is a little distracting, as some of the low-light footage looks very grainy, to a degree that looks like puritanism at the expense of the perceived ‘reality’ of the experience, surely not the intention of this film, but overall delivers a compact and compelling drama.

We join the film’s main protagonist, now Paris-based restaurateur Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) walking along an open and empty road through sunny fields, making his way from the station when he is overtaken by a car. In the car is his younger brother, Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) with his family. Unceremoniously kicking out his wife and three children in order to give Christian a lift back to the house and leaving his family to walk, we swiftly see that Michael is a nasty, thuggish brute, a view that is by no means improved on further viewing, even if we get given some reasons to sympathise with him. The youngest of the family, Michael has lived most of his life away from the family home from the time he was sent to boarding school, and is also in the shadow of the more successful Christian, and out of favour for misbehaving badly the previous year.

Also on the way is their elder sister Helene (Paprika Steen), a bit of a mess in her own way, who rushes her taxi dangerously to get home in time to carry out her duties of welcoming the other guests – this is a very large, formal affair – and is horrified to discover she has been given the room of the dead sister, Linda, though she immediately sees signs that Linda has left a message…

There are twists and turns, with some extra characters introduced and some detail added to the backstory but everything stays in the realms of the plausible – even the appearance of Linda as a ghost is done in such a manner as to be equally interpretable as a dream – and all the action comes out of the behaviour of the characters, who are fleshed out and recognisable people by good script and acting, rather than by cinematic tropes and cliches. Dealing with some serious issues of abuse and responsibility, this could have been either worthy or sensationalist but ends up being neither, managing to craft a watchable, gripping, and frequently very funny drama from beginning to end, with a couple of absolutely mesmerising scenes of revelation that were simply stunning.

If Dogme 95 achieved nothing else, it was worth it for Festen, one of the best films I’ve yet seen.

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)

I seem to have seen a lot of ‘fact based’ films recently, and here is another.

Studying history at school, we had to do a project based on our own research. As the Iranian revolution had just happened and the siege of the US embassy was underway, I kept cuttings from the daily papers right through the siege, including the terrible humiliation of the fake executions and the horrible misfire of the attempted helicopter rescue mission.

But I remained completely unaware of this aspect of the story until this film came out.

The film is bookended by explanatory sections, the opening one describing the background to the Islamic revolution utilising Jack Kirby style cartoons (in the closing credits, Kirby is thanked, his role in the actual events acknowledged even though not depicted in the film itself), and the closing section using side-by-side comparison of actual persons and scenes next to their fictional depictions.

This all sets everything for the action-proper to start, which is the storming of the US embassy and our six US embassy staff making their escape onto the Tehran streets from a side-door and them slipping away from the melee.

Back in the US, and CIA ‘exfiltration’ expert Tony Mendez is called to a meeting where a plan is to be announced on how to get the six staff out of Iran. They are hiding out in the Canadian embassy, having been turned away by the UK and New Zealand embassies, and need to be spirited away as quickly as possible, before the Islamic fanatics of the Revolutionary Guard find them and kill them as spies. Mendez is told he is just there as an observer, so the State Department can say they’ve run the idea past the CIA but when he hears what they have planned, Mendez cannot prevent himself from pointing out the utter inadequacy of their plan – it simply won’t work.

Challenged on whether he has a better plan, Mendez is forced to admit he has not but later, talking with his son who is watching a TV screening of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Mendez remembers that Oscar-winning make-up artist, John Chambers (played with vim by John Goodman, who has great scenes with Alan Arkin) who worked on the ‘Ape films’ was on the CIA payroll, and an idea starts to take shape, of making a fake (Canadian) sci-fi film, this being the post-Star Wars era with lots of nods to the cheap knock-offs then common, travelling to Iran and passing of the embassy staff as film crew scouting for locations and then walking them through airport security onto a plane and out of the country.

I really enjoyed this film; it moves between pathos, tension and comedy deftly and integrated all the parts really well, with the point of view of the embassy staff, of the fake-film bosses and other more minor players also well presented. It was also really convincing – and that’s where my reservations lie with it. Because it tells very convincing untruths.

After watching the film, I was discussing it with a friend, who pointed out that the British press were outraged at the ‘slurs’ against the Brits, so I started looking up fact-checks. I should note that I don’t agree that this film is some kind of deliberate hatchet job. Affleck is no professional Anglo-phobe like Mel Gibson, and the comment about the Brits and Kiwis turning the americans away is, I think, a way of ratcheting up the tension and making the favour done by the Canadians seem even more of a good deed than it actually was. However, it does seem a bit petty and unnecessary, and a bit ‘cheap’. It seems the real reason the British Embassy was off limits was because that too was under siege. Surely, this would have sufficed for dramatic tension and, like the supposed ‘turning away’, could have been mentioned in a single line in dialogue? As it is, Brits are Hollywood villains yet again, which is a little frustrating.

Likewise the role of the Canadians, while they are depicted as good guys in the film, is underplayed, so the film can give more of the credit to the US. Now, I get that this is a feelgood movie and that this was a good-news story in a bad-news historical episode, but I still like my history accurate unless there is a really good reason for it not being so. I don’t mind that details about Mendez, about the Hollywood team and about the construction of the plan and its execution have been ‘streamlined’ and made into a clearer narrative; this is what fictional depictions of historical event must do. But when credit and blame is being reassigned for the sole basis of making a more gung-ho version of history, then I do have serious problems with it.

My last gripe with the film was the ending of it, which was far too dramatic. Affleck pushes far too hard, for my taste, to get a nailbiting finale, which ends up all too Where Eagles Dare and shatters the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. This attempt for a thrilling finish ruins for me, ironically, all the tension that has been built up because I found myself disengaging from the action and sitting back, thinking ‘now I’m sure this didn’t really happen’. In a work of pure fiction, I wouldn’t worry about details like this but Affleck has made such a big deal of the reality of what he’s depicting that it does here.

So a really good, fun and informative film but it really could have been, and should have been (regardless of Oscars), so much more.

Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)

Jackie Brown
So, having been thoroughly disappointed by Django Unchained, despite it having some terrific scenes and several excellent performances, I didn’t have much intention of watching any more Tarantino for a while, this film being the only one I had any interest at all in, since it has the reputation of being among Tarantino’s and, for some the very, best. When the DVD turned up on my desk one morning, kindly lent me by a colleague, I had mixed feelings. I mean, I wanted to watch the film but this soon would I be able to give it a fair viewing or would my disillusionment with Tarantino spill over into this film? As it turned out, I thoroughly enjoyed this, even more than Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction but it doesn’t make me any more inclined to go and see new Tarantino – I still feel that he needs someone to reign in his more infantile tendencies.

Ok, to the plot. Pam Grier plays the eponymous heroine, an air stewardess on a no-mark Mexican airline, having lost any chance of working on reputable US airlines due to being implicated in her ex-husband’s drug running operation. She is still smuggling, now bringing in cash for arms-smuggler Ordell (Samuel L Jackson) from Mexico. The action starts when Jackie is arrested by cop Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) and FBI agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton). Unfortunately for Jackie, among the cash she’s carrying, there is also a small package of drugs. Dargus and Nicolette offer Jackie a deal – give them enough evidence to catch Ordell and she can go free.

Ordell, by this time, has already demonstrated his ruthlessness, in arranging bail, through bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) for one of his other accomplices simply to get him away from the authorities and kill him before he can talk; when he bails Jackie, again through Max, it is clear that Ordell intends to make sure Jackie can’t talk either. But Jackie is clever, striking up a friendship with Max, and plans to play off Ordell and the cops to ensure she stays both free and alive – and with enough money to set up a new life.

This movie is full of great performances – with people like Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda in supporting roles, you can expect strength in depth – and the dialogue is snappy and fun. But where this film really delivers (unlike Django) is the plot, which is taut and lean; taken from an Elmore Leonard book, there is no flabby self-indulgance here and the violence, doled out carefully in short, sharp scenes, has much more impact when it does arrive than the fake-blood-soaked silliness of later films.

If I wanted to pick fault, I could; we are asked to take the side of a drug and gun smuggler (and is she a simple victim or a clever operator? – the film wants to have it both ways) against the police who are trying to catch a worse smuggler – the ethics are pretty dodgy here – but there is enough style that he pretty much gets away with this.

Great fun.