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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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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.