Oz – The Great and Powerful * * *
Cert PG, 130 mins
Made in 1939 for the staggering sum of $3.7 million, The Wizard Of Oz failed to cast a spell over audiences on its initial release.
More than 70 years later, Victor Fleming’s fantastical yarn is one of the most beloved family films in the cinematic pantheon.
Now director Sam Raimi has the unenviable task of helming this lavish prequel, which chronicles the arrival of the wizard in Oz.
In an affectionate nod to the 1939 film, Oz The Great And Powerful opens in black and white and only flushes the screen with vibrant colour once the story moves to the magical realm of flying monkeys and munchkins.
Circus magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is booed off stage in 1905 Kansas and finds himself in hot water with the resident strongman.
Bidding a hasty farewell to his sweetheart Annie (Michelle Williams), Oscar escapes in a hot air balloon.
The canopy is sucked into a tornado and Oscar crashlands in a wondrous realm, where ancient prophecy decrees that a wizard will fall from the sky and reign benevolently over Oz.
Beautiful witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) accompanies Oscar to the Emerald City, where her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and the other denizens live in fear of the wicked witch Glinda (Michelle Williams).
Oz The Great And Powerful is a visual treat, especially in eye-popping 3D, and it’s evident that most of the $200 million budget has been lavished on digital effects.
Some of the visual trickery isn’t as slick as it should be and it comes at the expense of plot and characterisation.
The script boasts a few snappy one-liners but it’s perilously flimsy and the 130-minute running time is unwieldy.
Warmth and charm have almost been sucked dry from this incarnation of Oz and performances are muted, especially Franco, who bumbles through his scenes as if he is making up dialogue on the spot.
Margaret Hamilton was far more terrifying as the green-hued Wicked Witch back in 1939 than anything Raimi conjures from his cast here. DS
Robot and Frank * * *
Cert 12A, 89 mins
Robotics and dementia combine with new media and old tricks in this ambitious, near-future take on shifting patterns of social behaviour and human expectations.
Debut director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher Ford have delivered a highly-polished film of our times.
Back in 1999, Robin Williams was miscast as an android trying to develop emotions in Bicentennial Man, whose 132-minute running time felt more like two centuries.
The running time here is sensibly kept to less than 90 minutes.
Frank Langella plays former cat burglar Frank and the 75-year-old actor holds the entire film together with his screen integrity.
With Frank beginning to lose his marbles, son Hunter (James Marsden) takes home a state-of-the-art robot butler to keep his dad out of a care home.
Frank thinks he doesn’t need any help, but warms to Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) when he realises his lack of moral code means he could be a valuable ally when it comes to picking locks.
As per the current Richard Gere movie Arbitrage, Susan Sarandon’s part is again underwritten as a local librarian, Jennifer.
Some will find the underlying ‘new media’ context of this film disturbing, before the end credits include footage of how robots are being trained to do every day tasks.
You’ve been warned. GY
The Guilt Trip * *
Cert 12A, 95 mins
After impressing us with her acting performances in films like The Way We Were, Yentl and The Prince of Tides, Barbara Streisand’s recent movie appearances have not been so notable.
She’s only been in two films in the last decade – Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers.
Now she wastes her talent with another shallow comedy, which she executive produced with her co-star Seth Rogen.
She is Joyce Brewster, ‘mommy’ to Rogen’s Andy, a scientist who has invented a non-toxic cleaner and is taking a road trip across America to pitch it to companies.
Widow Joyce has looked after Andy on her own since he was eight and still rings him 10 times a day and buys his underwear.
Her quirkiness is signalled by the fact she collects frogs and eats M&Ms in bed.
She decides to confide a story about her first love, which prompts Andy to track the man down to San Francisco, then ask Joyce to come with him on his trip.
You can imagine what ensues on their hilarious adventures.
The ‘jokes’ about how small their hire car is fall flat as it’s a perfectly decent size in the UK, just not a gas-guzzling US giant.
It also has the audacity to include the brilliant Miriam Margolyes in a scene and not give her any lines. And to try to convince us that 70-year-old Streisand is menopausal.
There are OK performances but the cast are better than this. Very occasionally it’s vaguely amusing, but it’s mostly just annoying or cringeworthy. RL
No * * *
Cert 15, 115 mins
General Augustus Pinochet took power in Chile in a military coup in 1973. After 15 years of dictatorship, he faced increasing international pressure to legitimise his regime.
This true story is set during the 1988 referendum, when Chileans were asked to vote yes or no to keeping him in power.
Each side is given 15 minutes of advertising time a night to put forward their message. The No camp seeks help from advertising executive Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), more used to selling soft drinks than political ideas.
But he uses his usual techniques on the campaign, injecting it with creativity and humour. He thinks it should be ‘nicer’ than solely hard-hitting messages about all the people who had been killed and tortured during Pinochet’s oppressive rule, so he comes up with a catchy jingle and the slogan ‘Chile, happiness is coming’.
The period details, like their suspicion of new-fangled microwaves, are amusing.
More annoyingly distracting are the swift changes of location, sometimes mid-conversation, and the amateurish, shaky camera work.
Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it’s a worthy and a quite interesting slice of modern international history you might want to seek out at Birmingham’s Mac. RL
Stoker * * * *
Cert 18, 99 mins
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowka) is devastated when her father dies in a mysterious accident on her 18th birthday.
Her mother Evelyn (Nicola Kidman) doesn’t seem too grief-stricken, though, and she cheers up considerably when handsome, charismatic Charles (Matthew Goode) arrives.
He is her late husband’s brother, but why has India not been told she has an uncle? She’s suspicious of Charles – he has a creepy smile and whistles, so is clearly a wrong ‘un. But then perpetually-scowling, old-fashioned India is pretty weird, too.
This thriller, from Korean director Chan-wook Park who made Old Boy, is slow to get going, with long looks and tension-filled silences, but it draws you in and becomes very compelling.
It’s beautifully filmed, with sound playing an important role to add to the disturbing atmosphere.
The script is, surprisingly, from Wentworth Miller, the actor who starred in Prison Break. The cast deliver his words well and it all adds up to an original and clever movie. RL
Side Effects * * * *
Cert 15, 106 mins
If director Steven Soderbergh is true to his word, this is his final feature film before quitting to devote his time to painting.
It’s always good to go out on a high, and that’s just what the man behind such hits as Eric Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven and Contagion has done.
Side Effects is a compelling, clever story which has as its basis the way we take prescribed drugs without really knowing what effects they will have on us.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is a young, beautiful New Yorker whose rich and privileged life was suddenly taken from her, when her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) was sent to prison for insider trading.
It’s perhaps no wonder she sank into depression. Four years later, Martin is released, which you’d think would make Emily happy – but instead she tries to kill herself by driving into a wall.
She escapes with minor injuries and is seen in the hospital by psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).
Emily talks of her “hopelessness” but convinces him she’s well enough to go home, as long as she continues to see Dr Banks in therapy sessions.
Banks contacts Emily’s former psychiatrist, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta Jones), who suggests she could be a candidate for a new anti-depressant drug called Ablixa.
It appears to have a miraculous effect, turning Emily into a normal, cheerful human being again. But then there are side effects, like sleep walking.
And Emily is apparently sleep walking when she commits a terrible, violent crime, of which she says she has no memory.
Banks is now in a difficult position – if he helps her and blames the medication, what will that do to his career? And is Emily just a “victim of circumstance and biology” as he believes?
The script is from Scott Z. Burns, who worked with Soderbergh on The Informant! and Contagion and who has come up with an ingenious and twisting tale.
Side Effects may be rather far-fetched and contains perhaps a twist too far, but it’s gripping and well made, with good performances all round but especially from Mara. It’s certainly entertaining if you are willing to suspend your disbelief a little. RL