Movie review: “Oz the Great and Powerful”


Partner and I saw “Oz the Great and Powerful,” with James Franco and Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis, this past weekend. We knew the reviews hadn’t been great, but we knew also that it had done terrific box office the past few weeks, and that a number of my friends had seen it.



Um. Well . . .



I am, as you’d expect, a huge Ozphile. I love the 1939 movie (what gay man doesn’t?), and “Wicked” (both book and musical), and I own all fourteen of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, and I have seen “The Wiz” and a couple of the other knockoff versions. It’s a rich mythology, and lots of people have had fun playing in the wonderland that Baum created.



But this new movie is a mess, frankly. It has some great bits: the opening credits are wonderful – an animated sequence of magic tricks – and there are some beautiful scenes along the way: gorgeous super-realistic color, flowers that are gems and musical instruments. But it tries to recapture the amiable magic of the 1939 movie, and it fails. There are all kinds of winking reminiscences of the old movie: a lion, and some scarecrows, and a reference to “having no heart,” and singing/dancing Munchkins.


As in the 1939 movie, we open in Kansas, in a sepia-toned black-and-white. The Wizard (Mr. Franco) is a sideshow conjuror and a womanizer. He gets in a hot-air balloon to escape from the circus strongman, who’s just found out that his girlfriend has been seeing the Wizard on the side.



Cue the tornado!



The Land of Oz, naturally, is super-Technicolor. We meet witches, and flying monkeys, and talking birds. The movie was filmed in 2D/3D, so there are lots of soaring / flying / coasting scenes; when the Wizard first gets to Oz, he rides down a waterfall in a way that reminded me exactly of the Splash Mountain ride at Disney World. (If there’s not an “Oz” ride in Disney World within ten years – provided this movie is a hit – I’ll eat my magical hat.)



You’d think, with all that background material, that the screenwriters would have had enough to work with.



But they ended up with a thin movie full of thin characters.



You know what? Save yourself the heartache. Go to Netflix and see “Wild at Heart” instead. It’s a very sly retelling of the Oz story, and it’s much better than “Oz the Great and Powerful”:





Chaotic television


I was watching one of the twelve thousand episodes of “Law & Order” the other day.  It was very restful.  I knew exactly what time it was – twenty-four minutes after the hour – when Lenny Briscoe and his partner (I forget which one) came charging into the conference room to arrest the arrogant lawyer / perp.  It’s always twenty-four minutes after the hour when that happens.  How about the motion to suppress? Around thirty-nine minutes after the hour.   Anguished meeting between the cops and the DA, concerning the tainted evidence?  Maybe forty-four minutes after the hour.



We human beings do like our routine.



But sometimes we like a little chaotic activity too.



Twin Peaks,” created by David Lynch back in the early 1990s, was sublimely chaotic.  We had no idea what was going on, and it was wonderful.  Was it supernatural?  A crime ring?  Someone’s dream? A Gothic melodrama?  A mixture of all four?  (Unfortunately, by the second season, it was quite apparent that the writers themselves had no idea what was going on.  It became tedious.)



Around that same time David Lynch also created “On The Air,” about a TV network in 1957 airing a live variety show.  Things go impossibly chaotically wrong, but (perversely) the show is a huge hit.  (“On The Air” lasted three episodes in the USA.  I bought a Japanese video with all seven filmed episodes on it, and I die laughing whenever I watch it.)



There is also an Irish TV program called “Father Ted.”  It began as a sharply satirical show about three good-for-nothing Catholic priests – a handsome middle-aged layabout con man, a young simpleton, and an elderly terror – who are banished to Craggy Island, off the west coast of Ireland, where they can do little harm.  Over the three years of the series, the show evolved into complete lunacy.  Bishops get kicked in the arse.  Mrs. Doyle’s mole keeps moving from one side of her face to the other.  Brilliantly chaotic!



And, just a few years ago, a youngster named Thu Tran created a bizarre little show called “Food Party” on IFC.  It was puppets and dark humor and food all tossed together.  You may be able to find it still; she made two seasons of it, and it was one of the funniest / richest things on TV, and it was completely chaotic.



Chaos is refreshing: it’s a jolt of electricity straight to the cerebral cortex.  It shocks you into thinking.  To quote Donald Barthelme: chaos is nourishing.




It’s also exhausting.  I can only take a little at a time. 




Which is why formula TV shows like “Law and Order” have their place in the lineup too.



Now excuse me, Gertrude.  I have to put some soup into my envelope.


David Lynch’s “Dune”


Yesterday morning Apollonia greeted me with: “Ah!  Third-level Guild Navigator!  Have you just folded space from Ix?”



I smiled serenely.  “Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam!” I said.  “Did you bring your little box of pain?”



And then we both cackled demonically.



Now, if you know what the above gibberish means, I give you a gold star.  You are probably laughing too.



For the rest of you:



There’s this movie called “Dune,” based on the classic science-fiction novel of the same name by Frank Herbert.  The movie came out in 1984, and it starred about a hundred people.  It’s set in outer space in the far future.  It was directed by David Lynch (of “Twin Peaks” and “Blue Velvet”).  It is one of the most (you should pardon the expression) unearthly movies ever made.  I first saw it projected on a bedsheet behind the Marine Corps House in Tunis in 1985, under the North African stars, and it made a walloping impression on me, and not a day passes that I don’t think of some odd image or line of dialogue from it.



So what’s so great about it?



        Its dialogue.  Spacey, elliptical, almost coded.  It’s as if you’re overhearing a conversation in something that’s almost but not quite English. 

        Its costumes.  They’re a melange (sorry!) of everything from Victorian ballroom attire to Bedouin robes to something resembling 1960s Carnaby Street style, not to mention all kinds of desert-planet sportswear.

        Its non-reliance on special effects.  The special effects here aren’t much more elaborate than the ones you see in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” made almost twenty years before.  All of the strangeness comes from the sets, and the dialogue, and the costumes, and the acting.  Brad Dourif gives instructions to a group of killers, making odd swooping hand-gestures as he speaks: are the gestures meaningful?  People float through the air, laughing manically: is this normal?  Anyway, you can be absolutely certain that you’re not watching “Gold Diggers of 1933.”



Apollonia tells me that she has seen a much longer cut on BBC America.  This makes sense: the movie as released, long as it was, was choppy and confusing (which, strangely, adds to its charm.)  (I just read online that David Lynch hates the longer cut and has disowned it.  Naturally.)



So what is it about this movie that makes it so fascinating? 



It is a pure ballet of surreal images and ideas, graceful and very sure of itself



It is alternately violent and serene, and sometimes even funny.



It has extended scenes in which people ride giant worms.



And it features Sting in a Speedo with wings (see above photo).



How can you not rush right out and see it?



And, kids: tell ‘em the Kwisatz Haderach sent you.



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