It’s a question that has been burning away inside all of us for nearly 75 years — how did the Wizard (who wasn’t really a wizard at all but a carnival showman with a knack for gadgets) get to Oz in the first place? You neither, huh? Ah well, this least essential question has now been answered by Spider-Man (and Evil Dead) director Sam Raimi and his team of pixel-wielding minions. As a prequel to the beloved 1939 film starring Judy Garland and a dog called Toto, Oz the Great and Powerful is not without risk. Other attempts to recreate L. Frank Baum’s magical world have been either commercial or artistic failures — The Wiz, for example, or Return to Oz.
Casting the human smirk, James Franco, as the carnival magician transported to the land of the yellow brick road by a hot air balloon (via tornado) is also a risk but it eventually pays off, even though Franco’s boyish features are starting to look a bit ragged. Escaping various romantic and financial pressures back home in black and white Kansas, Franco’s Oz finds himself blown off course to a technicolor(ish) fantastical land where a prophecy suggests he will protect the peace-loving citizens from wicked witches but also gain control of the palace fortune. Guess which one appeals more.
I was expecting to come out of Operation 8 fired up but instead I emerged depressed and dispirited. I knew that New Zealand’s default political setting was benign complacency but I hadn’t realised that the full force of a — frankly — barely competent police state was being brought to bear on the few of us who were actually agitating and protesting for a more progressive society.
Operation 8 is Errol Wright and Abi King-Jones’ unashamedly partisan telling of the 2007 “Urewera 18 17” scandal in which disparate protest groups across New Zealand (with the focus on Tuhoe’s independence movement) were violently raided, imprisoned and — now about to be — given a trial without a jury. It’s a shocking litany of state arrogance and ineptitude, all the more depressing for commencing under a Labour Government.
In 2003 the paper-thin romantic comedy How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days paired Matthew McConaughey with Kate Hudson and made over 100 million dollars. The rules of Hollywood economics, plus the overwhelming dictates of focus groups and researchers, meant they would have to be reunited. So, as soon as Hudson’s baby-body was fit to be seen in a tiny bikini, they were off to the Bahamas to make Fool’s Gold, a buried treasure adventure set among the rich and beautiful.
McConaughey plays “Finn” Finnegan, a treasure hunter, and Hudson his soon-to-be ex-wife. She’s divorcing him because she’s a tight-ass and wants to finish her PhD. He is hopelessly in debt to hip-hop superstar Bigg Bunny who has been funding his search for lost Spanish gold. When he discovers a dinner plate sized clue he suckers Hudson and super yacht owner Donald Sutherland into joining the search, despite the violent attentions of Mr Bunny and competition from dodgy accented Ray Winstone.
Matthew McConaughey isn’t the laziest of our male Hollywood stars (Nic Cage takes that prize) but he has coasted for an enormous amount of time on what some might see as charm alone. Fool’s Gold doesn’t change that approach and your enjoyment will depend entirely on how much you appreciate McConaughey’s charisma as there isn’t much else to enjoy. Despite the Caribbean setting all the black characters are either villains or buffoons or both, Bigg Bunny (Kevin Hart) alone manages to supply two objectionable stereotypes at once. I hope that isn’t the result of a Hollywood focus group.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story tells a heart-rending, and repairing, story of tragedy and redemption in the music business. Inspired by classy bio-pics like Walk the Line and Ray (and even La Vie En Rose, probably), Walk Hard stars perennial sidekick John C. Reilly as the eponymous Dewey, dumber than a sack of hammers but with a heart of lead, as he overcomes the tragic death of his brother in a machete accident (“the wrong kid died”, says his stone-faced father at every opportunity), the loss of his sense of smell and addiction to every substance on the planet short of cinnamon.
Films like Walk Hard are always hit and miss affairs and this one runs about 50–50. The targets are pretty soft, however, and I’d hoped that a writing team that includes Judd (Knocked Up) Apatow might have aimed a little higher. The best things in the film are the songs, well sung by the talented Reilly: my favourite is the 60s pro-midget protest song “Let Me Hold You, Little Man”.
It’s very hard to focus on a film when you spend most of it shaking your head in disbelief. Air Guitar Nation is a documentary following the first two American contenders in the well-established World Air Guitar Championship in Finland. The Yanks may have invented Rock but they have come second to the Air Guitar party, struggling with the more high-level concepts (“You can’t hold a gun, if you’ve got an air guitar in your hand”) and the serious intent of the Northern Europeans. But they do have old-fashioned showmanship on their side. Diverting.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 13 February, 2008.