Thursday, March 14, 2013

Reviewing Hollywood, not Oz

Remember those hyperbolic critigasms I talked about last Friday?

Yeah, I'm feeling like employing a few of them myself this morning.

Simply put, I kind of loved Oz the Great and Powerful. Of course I'm not going to say it's better than The Wizard of Oz, but it's of sufficient quality that I will tolerate it when today's young folks, who haven't seen the original, inevitably declare that they like this one better once they go back and discover it. (Some of that is the unbridgeable gap of technology. To some young people, The Wizard of Oz is always going to look "old," and we just have to accept that that's how they're wired.)

So now that I want to critijizz all over the place -- sorry, that was gross -- I'm struggling with why others don't.

The movie has a Metascore of only 45, which is down four points from the last time I checked. Even the critic who liked it the most (Kim Newman of Empire) scored it only 80 out of 100. If I were to produce a Metascore expressing my feelings about Oz, I'd probably go with a 91 or a 92.

In the pressure cooker that is the film criticism industry -- that's a joke, but stick with me -- there's a lot of concern about how your peers will view your judgments. At least I imagine there to be -- I don't talk to many other professional critics. (Yes, I'm still one, even though I haven't been working since the end of 2011. You don't stop being something just because you aren't doing it right now.)

My love of Oz is the kind of thing that would make me look like a rube at best, or a studio kiss-ass at worst. How could I just sit there and eat this contraption up?

And so I've come to a decision: Some of the critics who sunk this movie's Metascore are reviewing Hollywood, not Oz the Great and Powerful.

It's almost impossible these days not to be suspicious of a studio's motivations for making a certain movie. In fact, there's no reason to be something as vague as suspicious. It's easy enough just to know that the studios are in it for the potential profits, because making movies is a business, and if you don't make movies people want to see, you'll go out of that business.

The problem among critics (myself included) is that we tend to treat this motivation as an insurmountable obstacle. If there's even the slightest suggestion that a movie is being made just because of its familiarity with audiences and the ability to make a successful line of toys, we prejudge that movie harshly. It's got to climb a long way back up just to convince us that it's not utterly soulless.

Oz the Great and Powerful seemed to be a prime case of this. The original movie was nearly 75 years ago, and there hasn't been a theatrical release in this series (the sequel Return to Oz) since the 1980s. It would have been easy to assume this one was safely buried, never to need resurrecting. And once the resurrection was announced and the first glittering digital images of the movie were seen, it was equally easy to assume it was going to be a bunch of pyrotechnics with no heart.

And it certainly could have been. But Sam Raimi and his team of screenwriters gave this movie that little extra oomph that took it beyond the minimum that would have been required of it. Not only is the writing smart and the cast chosen fortuitously, but the digital effects are as good as you would expect, combining the signature elements of The Wizard of Oz with enough new stuff to dazzle you without giving you Star Wars Prequel Syndrome.

What's especially smart is the way the film interfaces with its own technical advancement. On numerous occasions does this movie indicate its awareness of the essential slight of hand, the essential prestidigitation (to employ a favorite word that the movie also uses at one point), of special effects. The future wizard (James Franco) is a magician at a traveling circus stopped in Kansas, and he's pretty handy with a number of on-the-spot optical illusions. The story comes to ask a lot more from him than that, but it's really just illusions on a grander and grander scale -- which is what the computer effects in this movie are as well. In fact, there are even some moments where this movie functions a bit like Hugo, demonstrating its love of the art of moviemaking and the illusions that are part and parcel to it.

Some other things I will briefly mention that I loved about the movie:

1) Franco. He's got a sly grin or an awkward look for every moment in the story, and he's hilarious.

2) Michelle Williams. Simply luminous. I got lost in her eyes on numerous occasions, but it's not just because I'm a heterosexual male -- she's just a hypnotic presence here.

3) The opening credits. A fabulous and original, diorama-style creation.

4) The sidekicks. A winged monkey in a bellboy's outfit and a little girl made of china. Both were original types, and the china girl had some real pathos to go along with her general adorableness.

5) The wicked witches. Yes, there are two. Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis each bring their own brand of nasty.

So why have most of the critics been grumpy about this movie?

My guess is that they could not unburden themselves of the notion that this movie was a soulless Hollywood enterprise, not made with the apparent purity of its forbear. But I've got news for you: MGM wanted to make money on The Wizard of Oz as much as Disney wants to make money on Oz the Great and Powerful, and they used the best prestidigitation available at the time to do so.

And don't forget this: The Wizard of Oz was actually the fourth film version of L. Frank Baum's novel. That's right, the fourth.

Look, I'm not going to let one movie reverse all my own well-documented cynicism about Hollywood. It's certainly justified more often than it isn't.

I just think it can blind us to the quality of movies that can still try to make tons of money, while at the same time being really good.

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