Saturday 18 November 2017

Wonderful wizard casts a spell

MOVIES: Michelle and co stay true to the spirit of the 1939 classic, writes George Byrne

OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL fantasy. Starring James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff (voice), Joey King (voice), Bruce Campbell, Abigail Stringer. Directed by Sam Raimi Cert pg

Awash as we are these days with reboots, remakes and 'reimaginings', it still takes a brave man to tackle one of the most beloved movies of all time. Victor Fleming's 1939 adaptation of L Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz remains a classic, a musical drama full of magic and imagination, with the teenage Judy Garland giving one of her best performances as Dorothy, the young girl brought from Depression-era Kansas to the Technicolor land of Oz in order to embark upon a great quest.

Here, director Sam Raimi, wisely, doesn't try to go over the same ground but pieces together his story from several other L Frank Baum books (there were over a dozen in the Oz series) to deliver a prequel which convinces on its own terms and slots in neatly with the story we've known and loved for decades.

In a beautifully cinematic opening, we're in sepia-tinted monochrome and old Academy ratio (the screen ratio used for The Artist) in Kansas as carnival magician and conman Oscar Diggs, aka the Great and Powerful Oz (James Franco), is about to be revealed as a fraud and a cad, belittling his assistant and spurning the pleas of his former girlfriend (Michelle Williams) to settle down and find the good in himself.

One angry mob and a spectacularly realised tornado later and Diggs finds himself in the land of Oz, as Raimi opens out the screen and surges the viewers' eyes with a quite lovely recreation of Forties-style Technicolor. Almost immediately, Diggs meets the naive princess Theodora (Mila Kunis) who's convinced that he's the great wizard of prophecy come to save the people from a wicked witch, acquires a flying monkey, Finlay (voiced by Zach Braff), as an assistant and is convinced by Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) to travel through the Dark Forest to confront the terror stalking the land.

As is always the way with great stories, explanations and people aren't what they initially seem and by the time Diggs/Oz teams up with Glinda the Good (a positively luminous Michelle Williams) he realises what he's let himself in for and must put his skills and tricks to good use. Franco can be an infuriating actor at times, but his smirk of a smile suits the character's shady nature, while Weisz and Kunis get to have great fun in their respective roles and Williams dominates the screen like a Hollywood goddess of old.

The movie looks absolutely gorgeous – and nothing like the trailers, which make it look like an Alice in Wonderland knock-off – and Raimi knows how to keep a story going, balancing humorous banter between Oz and Finlay with a touching encounter with a broken China Girl (voiced by Joey King) and adding a touch of menace with broomstick-riding witches and terrifying flying baboons.

During the final 40 minutes or so, as the battle rages for control of the Emerald City, I didn't jot down a single note, a reasonable sign that this is a fine companion-piece to a cinema classic.


SIDE EFFECTS thriller. Starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Cert 15A

If, as he's announced, this is indeed Steven Soderbergh's (latest) final movie then he's certainly going out with a film that befits his mercurial talents.

Opening with a scene of a wrecked and bloodstained room we flash back three months to a prison, where jailed inside trader Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) is visited by his fiancee Emily (Rooney Mara).

Although he's soon released, she develops mental problems, tries to kill herself by driving her car into a wall and is put on a course of medication by hospital psychiatrist Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). Her condition doesn't improve, so Banks, after consulting with her former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones), tries a new line of pills, recommended by a major distributor.

By this stage you're probably guessing that Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z Burns (Contagion/The Informant) are lining up for a major pop at the collusion between the American medical profession and Big Pharma and, in a way, they are until 40 minutes or so in, the film takes a major swerve and turns into the kind of late Eighties thriller you'd expect to find Michael Douglas wandering about in, wearing a bad jumper and a bemused expression.

Law is perfectly good as a man finding himself out of his depth for no good reason and Mara, fresh from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has her killer stare down pat in a movie which, while being a bit of a stretch plotwise, is never less than thoroughly entertaining. HHHHI

ROBOT & FRANK drama. Starring Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, Peter Sarsgaard (voice), Jeremy Strong. Directed by Jake Schreier. Cert 12A

Quite how Frank Langella wasn't Oscar-nominated for his perfectly judged and touching central performance in this offbeat, low-key movie is a mystery, as he gives a masterclass in majesty and restraint, with more than a hint of mischief thrown in.

Set in the near future, Frank plays, well, Frank, a divorced old man whose son (James Marsden) delivers a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, channelling the spirit of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey) in order to help his father with domestic chores.

It soon becomes clear that not only is Frank gradually succumbing to dementia but he's also a former cat burglar, who wrecked his marriage and estranged his children because of his crimes.

Initially reluctant to have an automaton about the place, he gradually warms to the device and enlists its help in trying to woo a local librarian (Susan Sarandon).

Robot & Frank has some lovely comic touches, but at its heart there's a deeply sad yet never mawkish story, beautifully played by all concerned but dominated by Langella.

The Academy should be ashamed of themselves. HHHHI

PARKER thriller. Starring Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Michael Chiklis, Bobby Cannavale, Wendell Pierce. Directed by Taylor Hackford. Cert 16

Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark's criminal anti-hero Parker has been played down the years by Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall and Mel Gibson, but this is the first time that the name Parker has been used and, in fairness, Jason Statham's grizzled features and growled delivery are a decent fit for the role.

Following a well-staged heist at the Ohio State Fair, Parker is double-crossed and left for dead by his accomplices (shades of the same plot from Point Blank/Payback there) which leads to revenge, Florida and copious shots of Jennifer Lopez's behind.

Not the worst way to pass a couple of hours, if we're being honest. HHHII


Jude Law stars in the family drama Broken (15A) which proved a big hit with audiences at the recent JDIFF, while Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen star as mother and son in The Guilt Trip (15A), a road-trip comedy which distributors Paramount didn't screen for the Irish media. I wonder why?

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