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“Oz The Great And Powerful” review: The yellow-brick road revisited

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About halfway through “Oz the Great and Powerful,” there’s a scene in which James Franco, playing the smooth-talking circus magician Oz, grins at the good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) for an uncomfortably long amount of time. He squints as his smile slowly widens, and the camera stays locked on his face well past the moment when you expect it to cut away. As Franco continues to grin, the tone of the scene shifts from a sweet, funny moment to the awkwardness of a joke that’s overstayed its welcome.

The scene is a nice metaphor for “Oz the Great and Powerful,” which manages to be a fun and entertaining adventure despite a habit of going one step too far on too many occasions and over-reaching a bit.

Directed by Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”), “Oz the Great and Powerful” casts Franco as the titular title character of “The Wizard of Oz” in a prequel that explores how the former sideshow huckster found himself in the magical world of flying monkeys, dancing munchkins, and powerful witches of good and wicked varieties. After a tornado deposits him and his hot-air balloon in a stream filled with nasty faeries and oversized, brightly colored flowers, the “great and powerful” Oz (whose full name is revealed to be Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs) finds himself caught up in a feud between three witches angling for control of the Emerald City: Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams). Saddled with a case of mistaken identity that pegs him as the wizard whose arrival was foretold in prophecy, Oz must use all of the illusions and trickery at his disposal to defeat the wicked witches, save the land, and earn the throne of Emerald City.

From the very beginning, Raimi reels his audience in with a beautifully, digitally rendered opening that takes full advantage of the 3D format and the presence of yet another great Danny Elfman score. And though Disney was somewhat limited in how much it could tie the new film to the 1939 classic produced by Warner Bros., “Oz the Great and Powerful” manages to feel like the spiritual prequel it was intended to be thanks to little elements like the decision to present the opening in black-and-white and a 4:3 aspect ratio and switch to bright, vivid color and a 16:9 ratio when Oz lands in, well… Oz.

In most cases, Raimi makes good use of the 3D environment, allowing it add another level of detail to falling snow or wisps of smoke instead of the usual excuses to have a character reach out of the screen or “it’s coming right at us” gimmicks. However, in his efforts to make the land of Oz as bright and detailed as possible, scenes with a lot of motion tend to create that headache-inducing blur that quickly turns 3D from a positive to a negative. The end result is something akin to Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which had a similar problem with hyper-detailed, brightly colored backgrounds becoming a messy smudge whenever there’s any 3D action.

Blurring problems aside, much of the set design in “Oz” – and Raimi’s integration of live actors with some of the weird, wonderful environments they fly, run, or ride through – takes full advantage of modern-day technology’s ability to bring L. Frank Baum’s world to life on the screen. While older audiences will likely be turned off by the crisp, polished presentation of everything from the munchkins’ outfits to the crayon spectrum of flowers and leaves that make every background pop, younger audiences have come to expect a ridiculously high level of detail and bold, bright color in what they see on the big screen, and in that “Oz” delivers.

Much of the cast also delivers in their roles, but it’s worth keeping in mind that “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a Disney project aimed at young audiences, and the cast’s performance falls right in line with what one expects from the studio and its target demographic for the movie. Over-acting is the norm, but everyone seems to be enjoying their roles – especially Kunis and Franco, who chew up every scene they’re in and do an admirable job of yanking your attention away from the extravagant sets.

Unfortunately, the living, breathing actors’ interaction with their computer-generated counterparts are less impressive. When Franco and Williams are called upon to pick up, carry, or otherwise physically act with one of the digitally created characters – such as a miniature girl made of porcelain voiced by Joey King – their movements and the position of their hands often appear ever-so-slightly off, and make it a little too obvious that the characters were added in post-production. It’s a minor issue, but it stands out due to the level of precision and attention to detail seen throughout the rest of the film.

Visual and technical issues aside, “Oz” delivers on much of what Raimi and Disney clearly set out to do with the film. While it’s impossible to capture that nostalgic appeal of the beloved 1939 movie for older audiences in this modern era, Raimi does a nice job of positioning “Oz the Great and Powerful” as a bridge to Baum’s world for younger audiences, hinting at what came before and teasing future adventures lying just ahead on the yellow-brick road.

“Oz the Great and Powerful” hits theaters Friday, March 8. The film is directed by Sam Raimi and stars James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, and Rachel Weisz.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
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Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
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Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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