We review this week’s new releases, including Oz The Great and Powerful and Broken
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (USA/PG/130 mins)
Directed by Sam Raimi. Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams
THE PLOT: Inspired by L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and set before the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, Oz the Great and Powerful tells the story of the Wizard (James Franco), how he came to Oz and how be became the powerful and beloved wizard of Oz.
L. Frank Baum’s books about the land of Oz and its inhabitants have inspired and delighted audiences for over 100 years, but until now we have never seen how the Wizard made it to Oz. Disney bought the rights to thirteen of Baum’s books and this is the first outing of the franchise since 1985’s Return to Oz.
As Oscar Diggs / The Wizard of Oz, James Franco captures the mood and idea of the character well. When we see the Wizard in the 1939 film he is working with a travelling carnival, and this is the idea that is extended in this new film. Franco is just as over the top, charming and tricksy as one would expect from a sideshow magician, but he is not long in Oz when he realises that there is more to life than gold and wealth. Franco is wide smiled and wide eyed enough to carry the role off and make the character believable.
Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis play the three witches, Glinda, Evanora and Theodora, and each brings a special something to their role. Michelle Williams is all sweetness and light, as we might expect, but she is also warm and believable. Rachel Weisz has perhaps the best role, as Theodora plays both sides as the same time, and seems to have a wonderful time camping it up, and Mila Kunis looks great and has a wonderful story arc, but to say any more would ruin the entire twist of the film. Zach Braff is sweet and rather funny as Finley the Flying Monkey and Frank, and Joey King is charming as the voice of the China Girl, a character who brings out the best and worst in Oz.
THE VERDICT: Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire hark back to the classic film with their screenplay, which plays with the same devices as the original; actors recur as different characters within and without Oz and, while the adventure part of the tale may be rather thin, it is still fun and engaging.
Director Sam Raimi balances the action and the sentiment throughout the film, and makes Oz a character that audiences can relate to. He also makes him selfish and a bit of a ham, but that’s part of the charm. The film suffers slightly with visual comparisons to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, once Oz gets to… well, Oz, but this is soon shaken off as the film comes into it’s own. The visuals are stunning, bright and the black and white, academy opening sequence is a great contrast to the bold and bright 3D IMAX. That said, the IMAX-ness of it all can lead to sensory overload at times but the film pastiches and pays homage to the Technicolor look of the Wizard of Oz, and the set ups for the original film are all present. The trouble is that Oz The Great and Powerful feels and looks so much like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, that for the first half hour so it, it is hard to make the distinction between the two films, especially with Danny Elfman’s score thundering away in the background. When Oz comes into it’s own, however, it does so with aplomb.
In all, Oz The Great and Powerful is a fun adventure movie. It is as dark and scary as the source material, but it is also a redemption story told in glorious Technicolor, or at least Technicolor homage. Sam Raimi has taken the world of Oz and made it his own with fun characters and a charming story. Problems arise with pacing and comparisons to recent Disney offerings, but overall, the film is strong.
Review by Brogen Hayes
Directed by Rufus Norris. Starring Cillian Murphy, Tim Roth, Eloise Laurence, Zana Marjanovic, Bill Milner, Rory Kinnear, Robert Emms, Rory Girvan, Dennis Lawson, Clare Burt.
THE PLOT: It’s an estate cul de sac, somewhere on the outskirts of London, and Skunk (Laurence, a young unknown making her impressive screen debut) witnesses a bloody beating right across the road. The victim is simpleton Rick (Emms), the attacker the gypsy-esque Bob Oswald (Kinnear), single father to three rough little girls. The eldest girl has falsely accused Rick of having had his way with her, and there’s soon a growing sense of danger in the air. The only one just about keeping his head is lawyer Archie (Roth), another single father, relying on nanny Kasia (Marjanovic) to help bring up Skunk and her brother Jed (Milner). Love is in the air, not only for Kasia (thanks to Murphy’s good-guy schoolteacher) but also Skunk, her coming-of-age is pushed that little bit further when she has her first kiss with budding geezer Wayne (Girvan)…
THE VERDICT: The great Cillian Murphy and Tim Roth may have their names on the poster, but real star of Broken is Eloise Laurence, on screen for just about every minute here, and compelling throughout. It helps that her character is akin to Gregory’s little sister, and Bill Forsyth has decided to follow her story for a movie too.
Think a particularly good episode of Brookside, directed by Michael Haneke. Or Brumo Dumont.
Review by Paul Byrne
SIDE EFFECTS (USA/15A/106 mins)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Jude Law
THE PLOT: When Emily Taylor’s (Rooney Mara) husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from a lengthy jail spell for insider trading, she suddenly finds herself unable to cope with the change in her life. After inflicting violence on herself, she is recommended to Dr Banks (Jude Law), a shrink who tries to medicate her through her troubles.
Rooney Mara proves that her outstanding performance in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was no fluke; she is wounded, fragile, manipulative and cruel in the film. While it is great to see her smile, the audience is almost always aware that there is something bubbling under the surface. The same goes for Catherine Zeta-Jones as Dr. Siebert, but while Mara’s other side is conveyed through her eyes and the slightest of gestures, Zeta Jones relies on body language and her voice and Jude Law continues his streak for picking the right roles as Dr. Banks, the man whose life and sanity begin to unravel after he brings Emily into his life.
THE VERDICT: The feeling that suffuses Side Effects is that there is something not quite right here. Scott Z. Burns’s script combines with Soderbergh’s direction to create an atmospheric film that subtly twists and turns, but allows the audience to be ever so slightly ahead of the curve. The ending may sail into sight before the characters grasp where things are headed, but that allows the audience to enjoy their reaction, rather than lose the experience to surprise.
Side Effects feels like a dark version of Ocean’s Eleven, with a little Hitchcock thrown in for good measure; close ups of apartment windows definitely evoke thoughts of Rear Window and Psycho, and the twisted story certainly feels like an homage to the director. The problems with the film arise when the story changes from a potential psychological thriller into a medical whodunit with traces of a heist film thrown in for good measure. This does not detract from the film entirely, but the sudden change of pace may jar audiences slightly.
Side Effects feels like Ocean’s Eleven’s older sibling, and a companion piece to Contagion, of sorts. Mara is on top form as the haunted, manipulative Emily, and Law has rarely been better as his character swings from compassion to rage with a quick stop off at passive aggression. Soderbergh’s last film may not be a game changer, but it is certainly a return to form and a reminder that when the director was good, he was truly great. All of a sudden, it will be a shame to see him go.
Review by Brogen Hayes
Directed by Taylor Hackford. Starring Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Michael Chiklis, Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins Jr., Emma Booth, Carlos Carrasco, Bobby Cannavale.
THE PLOT: Their latest heist – at the Ohio State Fair – goes swimmingly, but career criminal Parker (Statham, taking a leap beyond Steven Segal here and shooting for Chuck Norris) quickly finds there’s little honour amongst thieves when he turns down the offer of another job from crew boss Melander (Chiklis). Left for dead, Parker starts to plot his revenge, the path to Melander far from easy. As the body count mounts, the cat and mouse both end up in Palm Beach, Florida, where Parker hooks up with real-estate agent Leslie Rodgers (Lopez), the latter soon realising that there is some major money to be made, were she to switch careers…
THE VERDICT: It’s far from enticing, seeing Lopez on the poster here, making you realise just how far she’s fallen from 1998’s Soderbergh comeback Out Of Sight. But this isn’t really Lopez’s movie, it’s not even Jason Statham’s movie. This is all about the character of Parker, the subject of 24 novels by the late Donald E. Westlake (who wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Stark), the underworld antihero hitting our screens before in the likes of Point Blank, The Outfit and Payback. For the first time, the novels’ protagonist is granted his given name here, Hackford’s movie taking its inspiration and plot outline from Flashfire, the 19th of the Parker novels. The seasoned director plays it straight, and somewhat safe, delivering in the end a neat slice of pulp filmmaking that falls just short of cool.
Review by Paul Byrne
ROBOT & FRANK (USA/15A/98 mins)
Directed by Jake Schreier. Starring Frank Langella, Liv Tyler, James Marsden, Susan Sarandon, Peter Sarsaard
THE PLOT: In the not too distant future, Frank (Frank Langella) is given a robot by his son Hunter (James Marsden) to help around the house. The trouble is Frank is a retired jewel thief, and it is not long before he sees the benefit of having a robot on his side, which leads to past crimes coming back to haunt him.
Robot & Frank is an odd, but endearing mix. Screenwriter Christopher D. Ford has blended together the classic crime caper with an examination of aging, and the refusal to submit to old age.
As always, Frank Langella is a joy to watch on screen. He plays both stubborn and sweet throughout the film, and manages this with subtlety and nuance. Frank is both obstinate and lonely, but refuses to admit that he may need the help that his son is offering. Langella’s relationship with Robot – superbly voiced by Peter Saarsgard – is a delight; both are child and mentor with one another and their banter is calculated but witty.
Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler and James Marsden provide back up, but this story is really about the relationship between man and machine.
THE VERDICT: The story is almost a cautionary tale for all of us; this is the way society is headed – robot butlers, the end of printed books and odd videophones á la Back to the Future – and it will not be long before each of us has to catch up or be left behind. That said, the future that director Jake Schreier is a surprisingly warm and familiar one. Robot cooks beautiful meals for Frank, and encourages him to take up gardening or walks through the woods near his home. A far cry from the glistening plastic versions of the future we have been shown in so many movies.
Where the film falls down, however, is the simple but thin story. The heist planned is low profile but high value, which means that we miss out on an extended robbery scene that would have given Frank and his robot something to fight for. As well as this, it feels as though the film runs out of steam early on, and flounders for much of the third act. When the finale does hit, however, it is a short sharp emotional punch that belies the light and dismissive banter between Frank and his friend, Robot.
Robot and Frank is a sweet, surprisingly emotional but slightly light film. There are moments of greatness, but the film suffers from both an overlong running time or a lack of ideas. Langella and Saargsard are wonderful together and the film packs an emotional punch, even if it does come slightly late in the game.
Review by Brogen Hayes
FIRE WITH FIRE (USA/15A/97mins)
Directed by David Barrett. Starring Josh Duhamel, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis
THE PLOT: When firefighter Jeremy (Josh Duhamel) witnesses a violent crime, he is put into the witness protection programme to hide him from white power crime boss David Hagan (Vincent D’Onofrio). While hiding out in New Orleans, Jeremy falls for Talia (Rosario Dawson) one of the police officers working his case, and when Hagan’s gang threatens her, Jeremy takes the law into his own hands.
Fire With Fire is a baffling movie, not only are there plotholes all over the place, but it is such a standard light thriller that it is a wonder it attracted such a strong cast. That said, everyone in the film uses flip phones – not a smart phone to be seen – so it seems that this film has been sitting on the shelf for a long time.
It seems fair to say that none of the characters are properly fleshed out; at the start of the film, Josh Duhamel as Jeremy is a ladies man and not ready to settle down, but since the film needed to give him something to fight for other than himself, as soon as he meets Rosario Dawson, this all changes. Duhamel does what he can with an undefined character and, despite terrible scripting and obvious plot tropes, the audience may just find themselves rooting for him.
Rosario Dawson plays little more than a damsel in distress, and a reason for Jeremy to fight back, Bruce Willis has the old predictable plot line; cop whose partner is killed swears revenge. Vinnie Jones is little more than a loud-mouthed thug and 50 Cent shows up in there as well.
THE VERDICT: The film went straight to DVD in the US and it is easy to see why; Tom O’Connor’s screenplay uses every storytelling cliché in the book, sends a character to hide in a major city and does not allow the story of the characters to be developed other than superficially. Director David Barrett made his name as a stunt co-ordinator on such cinematic gems as Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest, before turning his hand to directing for TV. Fire with Fire is Barrett’s cinematic debut, and it seems the difference in run time between a TV episode and a feature film has restricted, rather than freeing the director, in terms of character development and pacing.
Fire With Fire is a standard, by the numbers thriller. While the film has a great cast and some great opportunities, it takes advantage of neither, instead falling foul of cinematic clichés.
Review by Brogen Hayes