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.
We’re born alone and we die alone and in between nothing goes according to plan and the people around us are mostly unreliable and occasionally malevolent. Meanwhile, God either doesn’t exist or is indifferent to our suffering. Either way, A Serious Man, the new film by the prodigiously gifted Coen Brothers, is a very serious film. It is also a very funny one.
In a mid-west University town in the late 60s, Physics Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has a happy family, a great career and a beautiful house in a nice neighbourhood. Actually, he has none of those things. His wife (Sari Lennick) has fallen for smooth-talking Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and needs a Get (a formal Jewish divorce), his daughter wants a nose job, his son is preparing for his bar mitzvah by smoking dope and listening to rock music and his unsuccessful brother (the great Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch and draining his cyst in the bathroom. At the same time, the tenure committee at the University is receiving anonymous complaints and his white-bread, red-neck neighbours are mowing their lawns in a particularly threatening way.
Let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way first: watching The Farrelly Brothers’ ugly remake of Neil Simon’s The Heartbreak Kid was a trial beyond all human endurance. After about 20 minutes I was begging for release (which came shortly afterwards as blissful unconsciousness overtook me). Sadly, no studio executive will ever get fired for green-lighting a racy Ben Stiller romantic comedy so no matter how bad this one is it won’t be the last one we are forced to endure.