Ozonesheet2screamsThe stars of Oz the Great and Powerful aren’t James Franco, Mila Kunis, or any of the other actors. They’re the digital effects people. The actors might as well be sock puppets, they’re so overshadowed by the digital scenery. Does it impress? At times, yes, but mostly  the movie throws a wall of color at you that swamps story, writing, acting, directing, and almost everything else. Less is more, movie-people.

I’m a James Franco fan, but he’s best as a mumbling, hunch-shouldered beat, not as a wholesome Disneyesque character (or an Oscar host). I mean, the broader he smiles, the more it looks as though he’s going to eat you. James, who’s making your career choices? If you’re not careful, you’ll end up like Nicholas Cage, the Vincent Price of our times.

Like most Hollywood movies these days, all the hard work here seems to have gone into the digital effects, not the casting, writing, acting, or directing. I mean, there are passages of dialogue so plain, I almost fell asleep, I, the guy who never sleeps at movies. Shouldn’t the writing be as exceptional as the special effects?

The best actor is Mila Kunis, whose character is written and played with a tasty ambiguity, adding an interesting reason for her character change. But otherwise the actors seem to play their parts with a wink and a nod, as if they don’t want us to think they actually take this stuff seriously. The result is something like middle-of-the-road fan fiction. We recognize the characters and the story but something seems to be missing (soul, art, nuance, etc).

Yes, those scary flying monkeys are back, though the digital monkeys are much less disturbing than the 1939 monkeys, who seemed to be no more than actual people in monkey suits, suspended on wires, and yet somehow they seemed all the more frightening despite–or because of–that. The Munchkins are back, too, but mostly as background. I’m disappointed there isn’t more music. Oz has always seemed to me to be a land of music, its residents breaking into song at the drop of a hat. The Munchkins start to sing at one point, but stop so quickly it seems as if the moviemakers are wagging a finger at us, telling us they’re not that kind of movie. They should be so lucky.

The story itself ties in nicely with the 1939 perennial that haunts our dreams, explaining how a Kansas huckster ends up as the leader of this mythical land. And the final battle is clever. Maybe the most interesting and disturbing visual is the China girl, a porcelain doll who’s been shattered by the witches’ soldiers and glued back together by the Wizard. She tinks with each step, and she’s covered with a fine mesh of hairline cracks. Creepy. Good creepy.

It’s a movie whose themes and dialogue are too pointed, its main theme being the need to choose between fame and virtue, between greatness and goodness. Oz, Oscar, goes from a blustering con man to a man who embraces his limitations, his mere humanness, and the need to put others before himself. It’s a hard-won lesson, but because Franco never seems to believe his own bluster–or to be very good at it–we never really believe he needed the transformation. The role should have gone to a Steve Carell or an Owen Wilson or a Will Ferrell, actors who can make it seem as though they believe in their own bluster. Franco is just too inward an actor to pull off a conniving con man. His face itself conveys thoughtfulness and self-doubt, not brash self-confidence.

I’m guessing here but I think people who like this movie may like it because of its connection to the great Judy Garland movie, not because in and of itself it’s any good.

In a tribute to the original, this movie starts out in black-and-white and in 4:3 aspect as we see Oz’s life in the carnival BT (Before Tornado). Then color seeps into the image and the image itself broadens into widescreen. Yet despite all the millions that must have gone into the Oz sequences, the sideshow world of the opening is the most inspired and engaging part of the movie. Oops! Another two hundred mil down the drain!


Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Facing My Monkey-Fear

Rise_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes_OnesheetFlying monkeys be damned. I’ve seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes and lived to tell the tale.

The original Planet of the Apes was a what-if story that gave us a world in which apes were the dominant species and humans were dirty savages. Except for the hunting scene with which the movie begins and the iconic last image, much of the movie plays like an extended joke performed by rubber masks (i.e., Charlton Heston). 1968, the year of its release, was the year of the movie ape, the year Kubrick’s 2001 was also released, with its state-of-the-art apes. Nothing lovable about those bone-throwing prehistoric thugs. Planet of the Apes was a not-very-subtle commentary on slavery and the tendency to oppress anyone who doesn’t look like us.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a more ambitious movie. Yes, it still gets in its licks at those who insist on seeing all other forms of life as substandard to our own. (The apes are referred to as “company property.”) But as an origin story, Rise is really about how all this came to be.

James Franco is the star, but Andy Serkis is the standout. I see why so much news coverage has been given to Serkis, the actor who brought Gollum to life and who now does the same thing to Caesar, the leader of the apes. Frankly, Caesar is the only character with an arc, the only character who develops over the course of the movie. It’s impossible to tell how much of Caesar is Serkis and how much is CGI, which is a testament to the movie’s technological achievement. But even without the CGI, Serkis’s performance would have made the movie work. He goes from cute infant to curious adolescent to embittered revolutionary. It’s all in the eyes.

Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer’s, a disease afflicting his father, played by the inimitable John Lithgow. Rodman spends Act 1 trying to get permission to use his serum on human subjects, and then Act II trying to undo the damage the serum has done. But the character is really only the catalyst that sets Caesar in motion. It’s Caesar’s story—and Serkis’s performance—that carries the movie from beginning to middle to end.

I’ve got to say that the movie has the longest first act in the history of movie-making. What we want to see is what happens when Caesar and his cronies escape (which is what the trailers emphasize). What we get first is a catalogue of sins against Caesar and his kind for what feels like a solid hour. The effect is that, by the time Caesar makes his escape, we’re all for him. We’re walking on our knuckles, pounding our chests, grunting, throwing spears at the neighbors (some people have no sense of humor!). And it’s all because of Serkis’s performance—the sidelong glance of the insurrectionist.

It’s fun to see the apes overrun San Francisco. I say “fun” because Caesar makes a point of preventing a couple of apes from killing humans, though people do die. Apes, too. I guess you can’t make a revolution omelet without breaking a few eggs. The final confrontation, on the Golden Gate, shows Caesar to be as capable a military strategist as his namesake.

The movie is a CGI showpiece, which tires you out fairly quickly (though nowhere near as quickly as the CGI free-for-all in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which is lame movie but an effective demo reel for its special effects team).

Besides the apes themselves, the most powerful image in the movie is a shot of a suburban street where the leaves are falling. The camera tilts up to show the silhouettes of hundreds of apes racing across the tops of the trees. The moment surprises in a naturalistic way that no amount of exploding helicopters and bursting plate-glass windows can match.

Rise is really a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth installment of the original franchise, which also shows how the apes rose up against their tormentors (that would be you and me). But in essence, the movie is a remake of Island of Lost Souls, the 1932 Erle C. Kenton movie based on The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. There, too, tortured and mistreated creatures rise up and overthrow their oppressors. Kenton does more with light than Rise does with a phalanx of computers. Watch both and let me know what you think. And it would be interesting to see Rise along with Project Nim, the award-winning documentary about a true-life Caesar.

Heck, look at me—recommending ape movies! I’ve been so rehabilitated from my ape-fear that I went out and bought a howler monkey. I’m calling him Caesar. He . . . ;lk/.z;lkd &&P:;’ . . . lsn’t that cute! He wants to type, too! He . . . $!;’3lkjkk3doi3[09i13 . . . he’s trying to . . . 1098;jkd!!!po9udajd$ . . . my God, he’s got me by the . . . $1p3947udn;lkj311!x;;lkjd8i[pio . . .

. . . hyoumans r weak. tyme 2 ryse . . .