Review Roundup: ‘Oz the Great and Powerful,’ ‘Dead Man Down,’ ‘Emperor’

ozthegreatandpowerful

This week’s box office releases take place in lands near and far, as a cinema classic gets a prequel of sorts, a piece of history is revisited, and the filmmaker and star of one of the most notable film adaptations in recent years reunite.

The behemoth of the box office this week, of course, is Oz the Great and Powerful. Billed as a prequel of sorts to the 1939 classic The Wizard of OzOz the Great and Powerful stars James Franco as Oscar Diggs, a circus magician/scam artist transported via twister to the Land of Oz. There, he encounters three witches—Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams)—who believe he may be the long-awaited great wizard the people of Oz are expecting. As he’s drawn into Oz, Oscar has to figure out who to trust and whether or not he can be the wizard Oz needs.

For his first big follow-up to the Spider-Man trilogy, director Sam Raimi reunites with Franco for what Disney clearly hopes will be a successful continuation of familiar source material, akin to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. Franco, however, is no Johnny Depp. Franco was not Disney’s first choice for the role (Robert Downey Jr. and Depp were Disney’s first two picks before Franco landed the role), and watching the film, one wonders what might have been if either of Disney’s other choices taken on the role. At this point in his career, Franco’s taken on a certain public image that inevitably overshadows his film roles, and in the broader moments of Oz, Franco can’t make a distinct character. It feels like Franco’s playing make-believe.

Oz is also harmed by the altogether inappropriate casting of Mila Kunis as Theodora, a.k.a. (SPOILER ALERT) the Wicked Witch of the West. Kunis is decent enough in her first scenes as the innocent Theodora, but once she’s transformed into the purely evil Wicked Witch, Kunis is out of her depth. Not even taking into consideration the far superior performance by Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 film, Kunis just doesn’t have the chops to pull off the anger and evil of the character.

Where the film does well is in its visual effects. Considering the technological advancements since 1939, Oz is a vastly magical improvement in its portrayal of the Land of Oz. Even the film’s portrayal of Kansas (presented in 4:3 Academy ratio in black and white, drawing comparisons to the original film before expanding to a 2.35:1 ratio for Oz) is a wonder, with the presence of the twister being especially entertaining. Oz is worth watching for its visuals, but as a story, a stronger cast would have made this a far more enjoyable viewing.

Another director and star reunite this week, though American audiences may not be completely aware of the pair. Niels Arden Oplev, who directed the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, reunites with star Noomi Rapace for his American theatrical debut, Dead Man Down. The film stars Colin Farrell as Victor, a man attempting to take down crime kingpin Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard) covertly after Hoyt killed Victor’s family. Victor is distracted when his neighbor, Beatrice (Rapace), blackmails him into helping her seek revenge against a drunk driver who injured her in a hit and run.

At several points, Dead Man Down shows the promise of an interesting film. In the film’s quieter moments, Farrell and Rapace are allowed to give remarkable performances that show a level of darkness neither actor has truly shown in their last few films. Unfortunately, these moments are tied together with louder, action-filled segments that make the film feel like it’s lurching forward periodically. With a tighter script, Dead Man Down could have gone from being merely watchable to something better.

Finally, in limited release comes Emperor, a World War II-era drama starring Matthew Fox as Bonner Fellers, an Army official sent to Japan to assist General MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) during the American occupation of Japan. While the film has a basis in reality, the addition of a flashback-driven romantic subplot ends up dominating what has the potential to be a rather intriguing story, namely: the level of involvement held by Emperor Hirohito in World War II, particularly in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. While Fox gives a decent performance, the film would benefit greatly from more screen time from Jones. Still, Emperor is an above-average historical drama, and audiences looking for a solid entry into this genre could certainly do worse.

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