ON THE SILVER SCREEN: THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN (OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL)

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By Brian Lafferty

March 9, 2013 (San Diego) – When Sam Raimi is at the helm, look out!  His films bristle with energy.  Lots of it.  This trademark began with his first film, The Evil Dead.  Even though it was made on a shoestring budget, its brisk editing, overpowering scares, and elaborate make-up and gross-out special effects made it simultaneously freaky and exhausting. 

Last year I saw over 100 new releases and I can't recall any of them having as much vim and vigor as his newest film Oz the Great and Powerful.  If Oz's energy could be converted into watts, it would generate more than a week's worth of backup electricity should a blackout befall all of San Diego County.  I'm not kidding.  It's probably the first film I've seen that nearly caused sensory overdose. 

Oz (James Franco) is a hack magician employed by a traveling carnival.  When his womanizing ways catch up with him, he flees for his life in a balloon carried away by a tornado.  He lands in the magical world of Oz, where he's entangled in a power struggle between Glinda the Good Witch of the North (the enchanting Michelle Williams) and her two evil sisters Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis).

Sam Raimi infuses Oz with his trademark camp, but he also adds a heavy dose of whimsy.  The dialogue is exceedingly breezy and the actors speak it cheerfully and confidently.  The jokes aren't corny, and are funny for both children and adults.  Whenever I laughed it was either because of the timing of the actors' actions or the flow of the witty dialogue.  The funniest moment begins when Oz and his ragtag team are chased to a cliff's ledge by the Witches' flying baboons.  Their only option is to jump.  Oz reluctantly does and is encased in a bubble.  His attempts to get comfortable in and navigate the bubble inspire chuckles.  But when Glinda leads them to Munchkinland - which is protected by a giant bubble - and informs them that only the most honorable and good people will be able to pass he...well, I won't ruin the punch line. 

In extreme wide shots, the environments seen far in the distance have a superficial appearance compared to what's in the middle ground and foreground.  It's very similar to the rear projection process used in classic Hollywood films from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.  The sets are massive and sumptuous and are filmed with focal lengths at the very least medium-long.  The production design and art direction lend Oz an appropriately "artificial" look and feel, one that feels simultaneously as old as 1939 and as current as 2013. 

The truly sumptuous cinematography was done by Peter Deming, whose filmography (Evil Dead II, My Cousin Vinny, and Mulholland Drive) is as diverse in genre as his sometime partner Raimi.  He loads every single frame with exceedingly rich and bright saturated colors for daytime sequences and strong, moody, dark hues for nighttime sequences.  Saying the colors pop would be putting it much too mildly.  They erupt.

Raimi has the right stuff when working with special effects.  It doesn't matter how small or large the budget is, he usually takes care to do something meaningful with them.  Not always, but usually; Spider-Man's CGI effects don't hold up at all, but the sequel's effects were more awe-inspiring and realistic.  Drag Me to Hell had a much larger budget than The Evil Dead, but even with that money Raimi used simple, yet potent, effects to scare the audience into submission. 

Despite Oz’s grand budget (over $200 million), Raimi is efficient with the special effects.  He only uses what’s required of the scene, nothing more.  I wish I could describe them in detail.  The problem is much of them are reserved for the climactic battle in which Oz, his team, and the Munchkins storm the castle.  The effects are arresting, creative, and magical.  Most importantly, they’re executed by a director and technicians who care about their craft.  

Oz is the most sensorially stimulating film I've seen in a long time, maybe since Enter the VoidOz is not going to end up on my Best of 2013 list* unlike that film.  But it is certain to entertain both adult and kid audiences.  I'm sure of it.  The screening I went to was packed with families and little kids.  None of those kids made a single peep except to laugh.  Here’s a movie that has an accurate title in more ways than one.

*In the three years I’ve been writing, I’ve yet to do a yearly Best-Of List.  I just never got around to them.  At the end of this year, I promise I will not only have a Best of 2013 list, but I will also reveal the best movies of 2010, 2011, and 2012.

B+

Oz the Great and Powerful is now playing in wide release.

A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release.  Director:  Sam Raimi.  Screenplay:  Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum.  Original Music:  Danny Elfman.  Cinematography:  Peter Deming.  Cast:  James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Zach Braff.  Running Time:  130 minutes.  Rated PG.

Brian Lafferty welcomes letters at brian@eastcountymagazine.org.  You can also follow him on Twitter:  @BrianLaff.