Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Oz, the Great and Powerful

It can be said with certain confidence that there has never been a decent companion film, palatable sequel, or  acceptable film adaptation of the historic classic The Wizard of Oz. The most watched film in history has been often imitated, never duplicated. That being the case, it was a gamble on Disney's part to attempt a prequel to the iconic film, trying to tell the story before the story that every movie-watcher knows well. If anyone could pull it off, Disney certainly could.

Oz the Great and Powerful follows the classic format of the original Oz movie, starting in black and white, and then taking the viewer into a world of vibrant color and music. In the black and white world of Kansas where everything is as it seems to be, Oscar "Oz" Diggs endeavors to rise above the standard "good man" and be a great one. Somewhere along the way however, he has become a self-centered, money-mongering con man who charms women and swindles customers, using them all as stepping stones on his path to greatness. Oz is discouraged about his traveling circus gig, his inability to do real magic, and his life of trickery and rootlessness.

Soon, a twister takes hold of Oscar's escape balloon, and whisks him away to a land of wonder, glorious color, strange animals, and real magic. When he arrives, he is immediately hailed as the savior of the land of Oz-- the wizard who will be king and restore the land of Oz to its former fearless glory. His first acquaintance is the mesmerizingly beautiful and unfortunately named Theodora. She is young, naive, and idealistic, and when he uses his charms on her, she is completely besotted. His eloquent flattery, winning personality, and showbiz charm leave her dreaming sweetly of becoming his queen when he is the king of Oz. A dance and a kiss later, Theodora believes herself in love and declares to him that they belong together and will rule the land of Oz together as king and queen. As the audience, we have seen his ways back in Kansas, and know that he has no real intentions towards Theodora, but he has no real concept of the damage he is carelessly inflicting, though it is easy enough to predict the long-term results.

Oscar has a weakness for women, that much is clear. The minute he crashes into the land of Oz he charms young Theodora, but he jumps ship quickly enough when he meets the much harder-to-get Glinda, who is a reflection of the one that got away back in Kansas. As the audience, it isn't too hard to figure how things will turn out, but it is interesting to go that road with Oscar and see what he sees and watch him grow. He, like a few of the characters he meets in Oz, is a charlatan- a faker with an agenda, and he quickly learns he isn't the only one. But as he travels through the land, he realizes that true magic is resourcefulness and ingenuity, and maybe his brand of "magic" is just what the land needs.

One of the most interesting aspects of Oscar's growth as a character is how he learns to feel his own humble worth. In the style of the original Wizard of Oz, characters from the black and white world of Kansas reappear in the land of Oz, albeit in different forms. Most striking are two female characters that appear in both worlds, and bring Oscar to a place of humility and compassion. For example, back in Kansas a young crippled girl asks him to heal her and make her walk. Naturally, he can't, reminding him of his own insufficiency, and they call him a fake. But in the land of Oz when he encounters a live china doll whose legs are broken, he restores her to walking by gluing her legs back on. She calls him the great wizard. Also back in Kansas is a sweet country girl who is clearly special to Oscar, and not just another woman he has effortlessly charmed. In Oz, she is none other than Glinda the Good, who ultimately spurs Oscar to be who everyone believes him to be. With her help, he truly does become that man.

Not that the road is easy. The ramifications of Oscar's self-centered actions are far-reaching and long-lasting; lasting even beyond the movie's timeframe. Fans of The Wizard of Oz will easily guess the character development and evolution, but it makes it no less interesting to see how each character became who they will ultimately be defined as. For example, even the Wicked Witch of the West wasn't always evil, or green for that matter. She starts out rather nice, but she has someone (her less than innocent sister) whispering in her ear that she is evil at her core, and eventually she yields to that, albeit somewhat against her will.

Artistically, Oz the Great and Powerful does an excellent job of making the land of Oz feel familiar without imitating the original too closely. This Oz has creatures and characters that for all we know, were in Dorothy's experience, we just never saw them. The filmmakers do such a smooth job of recreating Oz, that at no point did I really feel like they reinvented it or wrote in details that were inconsistent with the classic telling. There are a few foreshadowing references here, but for the most part very slight, and such that Oz the Great and Powerful barely feels like a prequel at all other than the continuity of characters.

On a closing note, the biggest theme of Oz, the Great and Powerful is that goodness is greatness. Being a good man might seem too small for an ambitious person like Oscar, but by the time the credits roll, Oscar has chosen to become a good man, and in so doing, becomes a great man. Goodness is greatness, and goodness is power. When Oscar learns this and accepts being good, he becomes The Great and Powerful. As a movie Oz the Great and Powerful hit as a one-time popcorn flick for me. It was fun, and only remotely thought-provoking because I occasionally choose to look for such things in strange places. Great movie? Not really, but good enough. Not quite enough to make it to the DVD shelf, but then again... The Wizard of Oz doesn't grace my shelf either! 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Welcome Back Mr. Bond

I've never been a fan of James Bond really, but Casino Royale changed that for me. Ever since Daniel Craig put on the tux, 007 has been more interesting, more compelling, and just better in general. While the follow-up to Casino Royale was horribly disappointing, Bond's return in Skyfall comes back with such a bang, it may well be one of the best Bond movies ever.

One of the most compelling aspects of Skyfall was the side of James Bond that has to this point never been seen before. In the past, Bond may occasionally meet with a nefarious villain or world-scale conflict, but he remains suave, debonair, and usually cocky to the end. Not so now. 007 has suffered a hit, and it's a major one. For the first time ever, Bond doesn't seem invincible-- he seems human. Bond has been shaken and stirred by four life-changing words; "take the bloody shot."

"Agent down."

Bond spends the next few months pretending to be dead and allowing everyone to believe that he is. What is so interesting is how this emotionally affects him. When he returns, he doesn't shoot straight and he can't pass his psychological or physical exam, but he has a dangerous look in his eye. Something in him truly has died, and something else has awakened. While we don't learn much about Bond's past, we learn enough to understand just a little, why he became James Bond. While Skyfall has its elements of global ramifications pending Bond's success or failure, Skyfall is on most levels, personal.

M, always masterfully portrayed by Dame Judi Dench, is often forced to make difficult judgement calls that sacrifice a few for the good of many. It was such a judgement call that left James Bond for dead, but he isn't the first to suffer from one of M's judgement calls. And a less loyal victim has returned to make M, and many MI6 agents around the world, suffer for her choices. Global ramifications: agents around the world are being exposed and executed. Personal vendetta: it was M's judgement call that turned a loyal agent into a sadistic lunatic who doesn't care how many lives it takes, he will have his revenge on M.

The mastermind villain here is Silva, diabolically played by Javier Bardem (a man who has a knack for playing psychopathic evildoers with preposterous hair-- see No Country for Old Men). Of all the characters that have been introduced into the new Bond franchise, from M to Q to Miss Moneypenny, Silva can be adequately praised as being a villain for the Bond ages. What I mean is, Bond villains have ranged from being criminal masterminds over global plots, to the downright comic bookish ones. Really, the most consistent characters throughout the many adaptations of Bond have been the women, but that's another issue altogether. The point is, the character of Silva feels very much like he could have been the star of a comic book movie adaptation (think the Joker) with his maniacal and titanic plots, but he's also frighteningly believable. Once the pet of M16, Silva was sacrificed for the greater good, and he has never forgotten it. Not that this makes him sympathetic by any means, merely realistic. His purpose isn't to take over the world, or to watch it burn, he wants M to watch her agents burn. His purpose is personal, vengeful, and believable.

Skyfall presents a realistic-enough scenario with believable ramifications, which is part of what makes it unique and strong to itself. What I mean is this: let's say that somehow a list of internationally assigned agents was leaked and put on YouTube. Is there really any doubt that the consequences would be any different than those portrayed onscreen? Unlikely. While at first glance the temptation is to write off the executed agents as casualties of war who knew the risks, the true implications are far deeper. In the Bond world at least, M16 is one of the greatest opponents of evil in the world, therefore the loss of agents across the globe not only means tragic loss of life, it undercuts MI6's ability to keep the forces of evil at bay.

Another aspect of Skyfall  that made the movie unique to itself, is how the story implies the cost of being an agent for good. While previous Bond film Goldeneye had some similarities to the base plot of Skyfall  in its portrayal of the emotional and psychological implications of being a surviving "casualty", Skyfall  really takes it to a new level. First, even James Bond himself is not untouchable; he is every bit as expendable as any other agent, and every bit as vulnerable. Not even 007 can hear the words "take the bloody shot", feel the bullet rip through his body, and not be affected. At no point does Skyfall try to indicate that Bond's reluctance to be trusting again is a sign of weakness, or that a better agent might have done differently. M might pass herself off as being cold and uncaring, but her regrets are evident.

Some critics have complained that Skyfall lacked a thick enough plot to be worthy of 007. Others have hailed it as one of the finest Bond movies yet. I would fall on the latter side of this argument. While it's true that Skyfall's main plot vehicle does not seem globally relevant, the implications are larger than they are presented as. And furthermore the personal revenge agenda adds an element of tension the absence of which would have rendered the entire film boring.Personal preferences on content aside (because I just have no stomach for Bond's womanizing ways), in terms of depth I rank Skyfall among the highest of the 007 movies.