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No Garlands for Disney ‘Oz’; Mob Story; Hirihito: Movies

Mila Kunis and James Franco in
Mila Kunis and James Franco in "Oz the Great and Powerful." Kunis plays a good witch gone bad in Sam Raimi's prelude to "The Wizard of Oz." Source: Disney Enterprises via Bloomberg

March 9 (Bloomberg) -- Disney’s extravagantly flashy “Oz the Great and Powerful” all but snuffs out the horsefeather magic and carnival heart that provides what little enchantment the film conjures.

Courage it’s got in spades. In borrowing both too many details and not enough feeling from “The Wizard of Oz,” director Sam Raimi and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire pick a fight they simply can’t win.

This origin tale of how the man behind the curtain got there is as overblown in design as it is wan in emotion. There are moments -- come and gone swiftly as a twister --that suggest a dizzying affection for the 1939 MGM classic that inspired this overlong winkfest.

Yet those references (carefully vetted, reportedly, to avoid lawsuits) backfire as often as they transport.

The familiar architecture is here: a black and white prologue establishing “real” world counterparts to the fantastical, full-color creatures we’ll meet later; a gorgeously spooky storm kicking up the Kansas dust; a tornado that delivers the hero somewhere over a multicolored heavenly arc that, one assumes, lawyers prevented the great and powerful Disney from mentioning.

Danny Elfman

That hero, played with a fully post-modern grin by James Franco, is Oscar (nickname “Oz”) Diggs, a love ’em and leave ’em carnival huckster.

In 1905 Kansas, Oscar hops a hot-air balloon to escape the wrath of a cuckolded strongman. (With Danny Elfman’s score, the rickety, surreal carnival scenes could pass for a Tim Burton dreamscape, and promise a moody allure the rest of the film fails to deliver).

The tornado drops him in a Day-Glo landscape of gem-colored flowers, psychedelic butterflies and fearsome, winged digitized baboons that test this film’s suitability for youngest moviegoers.

Instead of a Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, “Oz” delivers two cloying substitutes: a saucer-eyed flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and China Girl (Joey King), a porcelain doll less fragile than she appears.

But an “Oz” is only as good as its witches -- and here’s where we see the limitations of this film’s elaborate digital puffery.

The three beautiful witches -- one good, one bad, one on the fence -- are lushly costumed in color-coded outfits and capable of more FX sorcery than Margaret Hamilton ever could have imagined.

Yet all the photogenic efforts of Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis won’t displace that green crone in anyone’s nightmares.

As for Franco, his hip, air-quote approach is well-suited to the role. After all, he’s portraying one of the all-time great flim-flam artists.

“Oz the Great and Powerful,” from Walt Disney Studios, is playing across the U.S. Rating: **1/2 (Evans)

Mob Thriller

Revenge never felt less sweet.

“Dead Man Down,” Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s somber New York mob thriller, stars Colin Farrell as Victor, a low-level thug plotting elaborate revenge on the drug-dealing kingpin who destroyed his life.

Caught up in the violent scheme is his once-beautiful neighbor Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), determined to seek a little retribution of her own against the drunk driver who left her face scarred.

The co-plots twist, turn and intertwine, leaving coincidences, loose threads and automatic gunfire in the wake.

Until the convolutions get the better of him, Oplev (who directed Rapace in the original “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) brings a steady hand to the tale’s seductive gloom. All the more disappointing, then, when things go all “Django” in a shoot-em-up finale.

“Dead Man Down,” from FilmDistrict, is playing across the U.S. Rating: ** (Evans)

War Crimes

In 1945, American officials had to decide whether to prosecute Emperor Hirohito of Japan for war crimes. “Emperor” is about the hasty investigation that preceded their decision.

Matthew Fox plays Gen. Bonner Fellers, the officer whom Gen. Douglas MacArthur put in charge. As the movie depicts him, he doesn’t meet the standards of discretion that such a sensitive task requires.

He peeks through a door like a nosy maid as MacArthur conducts a sensitive one-on-one meeting. He burns up hours looking for a long-lost Japanese girlfriend (Eriko Hatsune) even though he has just days to get the facts.

One drunken evening he picks a fight in a noodle bar and stumbles home bleeding.

Though Stuart Dryburgh’s camera work has a pleasing darkness -- the postwar Japan he shows us is mostly smoking rubble -- the director, Peter Webber, inches things along at Xanax speed, alternating between piety toward Japanese tradition (so noble!) and brainlessness about human behavior.

Fox gets most of the screen time but has the misfortune to be acting opposite Tommy Lee Jones as the preening and crafty MacArthur. Jones’s line readings are like Sinatra’s phrasing: always surprising yet always apt.

Were he in every scene, this might have been a better movie.

“Emperor,” from Roadside Attractions, is playing across the U.S. Rating: ** (Seligman)


What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and New York weekend.

To contact the writers on the story: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com and Craig Seligman at cseligman@mindspring.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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