(Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language.)
I had a blast watching “Oz the Great and Powerful,” director Sam Raimi’s prequel to, or reimagining of (whatever you want to call it), L. Frank Baum’s beloved stories. That’s saying a lot, considering I was never a big fan of the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz” as a kid. (Sacrilege, I know. I need to revisit the film since I haven’t seen it in 20 years or more.)
However, the love Raimi (who helmed the first three “Spider-Man” entries) has for the source material is both palpable and contagious. Every scene is packed with clever references, both obvious and hidden, playing on viewers’ nostalgia and strengthening this new installment. I’m actually a little jealous of the kids whose first experience in a theater will involve this movie.
James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a shady magician who makes his living in a run-down circus. He travels across the Midwest, ripping off customers and breaking young women’s hearts. That changes when a twister transports him from Kansas to the magical Land of Oz.
Almost immediately, he runs into the beautiful witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who informs him that he fulfills the prophecy regarding Oz’s new ruler. This entitles him to adoration and riches galore, which fuels his egotistical nature. Of course, it’s not that simple. To claim the throne, Oscar has to defeat the Wicked Witch who has brought fear and destruction to the land.
But who is the real evil — Evanora (Rachel Weisz) or Glinda (Michelle Williams)? To save Oz, he must figure out which side is the right one. Luckily, he’s got a couple of friends to help him out, including a flying monkey named Finley (Zach Braff) and a beautiful-yet-fragile China doll (Joey King).
Sadly, the screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire is a bit thin. Considering the somewhat simple plot, the movie is about 20-30 minutes too long. Fortunately, the performances keep things entertaining. Franco successfully conveys Oscar’s transformation from sleazebag to hero, making the journey simultaneously frustrating and funny.
Kunis’ displays a wide range of emotions as her character evolves from wide-eyed innocent to heartbroken cynic. Weisz shows off a devilish mean streak and the striking Williams exhibits an innate goodness that left me floored. I wish she would appear in mainstream films more frequently so bigger audiences could discover her talent.
Raimi also strengthens the lightweight story with some astounding visuals. I rarely recommend paying the extra money for 3D, but it’s a must here. The director understands that the format is essentially a gimmick anyway, so he treats it as such. Spears, flying baboons and hummingbirds leap from the screen, and viewers are treated to an exciting trip down a raging river and a lovely snowfall.
I don’t see “Oz the Great and Powerful” becoming as significant to pop culture as the Judy Garland version, but it’s certainly the most entertaining movie currently in theaters. As such, it’s probably going to make obscene amounts of money.
“21 & Over”
(Rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, some graphic nudity, drugs and drinking.)
On the surface, nothing about “21 & Over” suggests it’s an entertaining movie. The basic premise describes a drunken comedy viewers have seen a million times before, and every scene plays out almost exactly as expected. So why did I leave the theater with a big smile on my face? Simple — the fun is in watching a talented cast execute the material in a way that makes them seem endearing rather than despicable.
Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin) are best friends beginning to drift apart as college takes them down separate paths. They manage to get together again, maybe for the last time, to celebrate the 21st birthday of Jeff Chang (Justin Chon), the other member of their trio. The problem is they show up unannounced the night before a crucial medical school interview arranged by Jeff’s intimidating father (Francois Chau).
The pals promise to have him back home after a single drink, but that plan immediately goes out the window. One beer turns into a drunken bar-hopping adventure that leaves Jeff practically comatose while Miller and Casey attempt to get him back home and ready for his big interview.
If “21 & Over” sounds familiar to “The Hangover,” there’s a reason. Screenwriters and first-time directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore co-wrote the first entry in the comedy franchise that made superstars out of Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis. They simply apply the same “appalling-yet-affable bros out to solve a mystery” formula to a younger set of characters. The flick could’ve easily served as a “Hangover” prequel just by changing the decade and a few names.
Yes, it sounds incredibly lazy. But the filmmakers pull it off thanks to a script with a surprising amount of heart, as well as some solid actors. Teller (terrific in 2011’s “Footloose” remake) and Astin (fresh off a winning supporting role in “Pitch Perfect”) are an engaging comedic duo, playing up the crazy guy/straight man dynamic in clever ways.
Chang proves adept at physical gags, which is nice considering he doesn’t get to talk much. Sarah Wright, playing a potential love interest for Casey, is funny as well; she matches the guys’ raunchiness joke-for-joke.
“21 & Over” won’t make any Best of 2013 lists, but it’s a funny, enjoyable time at the theater as long as you’re a fan of the genre. Just be aware of what you’re getting into before you buy a ticket.