“INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE” (2016) Review

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“INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE” (2016) Review

Back in the 1990s, Twentieth Century Fox Studios, producer Dean Devlin and producer-director Roland Emmerich delivered a science-fiction epic about an alien invasion during the Fourth of July holiday. Hence, the title – “INDEPENDENCE DAY”.

Years later, the studio and the two producers delivered a sequel to the 1996 blockbuster. This movie, “INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE”, featured some of the same characters and the same aliens. And . . . this movie was set during the twentieth anniversary of humanity’s previous victory against the aliens – on the Fourth of July.

In anticipation of the invading aliens’ return, the United Nations have collaborated to form the Earth Space Defense (ESD), an international military defense and research organization that has developed hybrid technology, reverse-engineered from the invaders’ fallen ships in anticipation that they would return. When the returning aliens again attack Earth with an advanced and unprecedented force, a new generation of defenders from the ESD joins forces with the surviving protagonists from the 1996 film to participate in a battle to save the world from annihilation. Humanity also discovers that their adversary might also have other enemies of their own. Among the survivors from the first film are:

* David Levinson – the MIT-educated computer expert, environmental activist and one of the heroes from the 1996 film, who has become the ESD Director in charge of the civilian sector

*Thomas J. Whitmore – the former U.S. president during the first invasion and former Gulf War pilot, who has been suffering from occasional bouts of PTS from the previous invasion

*Julius Levinson – David’s widowed father, who has written a book about his previous experiences from the previous invasion

* Dr. Brakish Okun – the comatose Area 51 scientist, who has awaken after 20 years

*Jasmine Dubrow-Hiller – widow of the late war hero Steven Hiller and a former exotic dancer, who had returned to school to study nursing and become a hospital administrator

*Dylan Dubrow-Hiller – Jasmine’s son and Steven Hiller’s stepson, who became a pilot and captain in ESD; and a fleet leader of the Legacy Squadron

*Patricia Whitmore – Whitmore’s daughter, who is not only an ESD pilot, but also aide to the current president, Elizabeth Lanford

*William Grey – retired U.S.M.C. general, Whitmore’s former head of the United States Space Command, who had succeeded the latter as U.S. President

The movie also featured new characters, but I will get to them later.

The movie begins with the world preparing to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its victory over the aliens. David Levinson and ESD colleague Dr. Catherine Marceaux travel to the Republique Nationale d’Umbutu to meet with warlord Dikembe Umbutu, who leads him to an intact alien destroyer. Aboard the ship, they discover that the alien occupants had sent a distress call to their home planet before being defeated. Furthermore, Levinson and Marceaux discover that Umbutu has been telepathically linked with the aliens ever since his personal encounter with one, years ago. They also discover that both former President Whitmore and Dr. Okun, who awakens at Area 51 after a twenty-year coma, are also among those who are telepathically linked with the aliens, due to their previous encounters.

The following day, an unknown alien ship or sphere emerges from a wormhole near Earth. Although Dr. Levinson believes it might belong to a race that might be benevolent, Earth’s Security Council orders it to be shot down. When ESD pilots Jake Morrison (Patricia Whitmore’s fiance) and Charlie Miller take Levinson, Marceaux, Umbutu, and Levinson’s accountant Floyd Rosenberg to the alien wreckage on a space tug; an alien mothership appears and destroys Earth’s planetary defenses before approaching the planet. The mothership then lands over the Atlantic Ocean and begins destroying cities on the Eastern Seaboard. The alien invaders also begin drilling a hole through the bottom of Earth to harvest the heat of the planet’s core for fuel, which will destroy its magnetic field in the process.

I once came across an article in which producer-director Roland Emmerich admitted that he did not like making sequels. While watching “INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE”, I found it easy to believe his words. The movie, pardon for saying this, seemed to lacked heart. It also seemed to lacked the magic of its 1996 predecessor and a handful of other movies directed by Emmerich. I am aware that “INDEPENDENCE DAY” had its problems. But it still had a magic and energy that was particularly lacking in this new sequel. It seemed as if Emmerich was going through the motions, while directing this film. But you know what? He was not solely to blame. I also had a problem with the film’s screenplay, written by Emmerich, Devlin and three other screenwriters.

First of all, this movie seemed to lack any kind of originality whatsoever. It was bad enough that it tried to copy some of the aspects of the 1996 – especially with the movie’s finale set at Area 51. I also noticed that the movie tried to copy the old “refugees caught up in the alien invasion” with a sequence that featured David Levinson’s father, Julius, traveling from Florida to Nevada with a car full of recently orphaned kids. The problem with this particular sequence is that it did not last very long, due to Mr. Levinson and his companions reaching Nevada rather quickly. Too quickly, if I must be honest.“INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE” also utilized the old “drilling to the Earth’s core” spiel from movies like 1976’S “AT EARTH’S CORE” and 2003’s “THE CORE”, a storyline that failed to generate any interest within me.

I certainly had a problem with the movie’s portrayal of the central (and fictional) African nation, the Republique Nationale d’Umbutu. I found it so stupid. According to a Wiki page, the country came into existence by a local warlord in the wake of the invasion from the previous movie. But the warlord wanted nothing to do with the outside world, despite spending several years fighting some alien survivors. This was just ridiculous. One, I cannot see the international community standing by and allowing any of the alien survivors posing as a threat, even in a newly formed and isolationist country. Two, the d’Umbutu must have been some kind of idiot to prevent other countries from helping out the alien threat against his. By the time of the second film, the warlord’s son, Dikembe Umbutu, had become the new head of state. Not long after he met with David Leivnson and Catherine Marceaux, all three left the country and the Republique National d’Umbutu was never heard from again. The whole point of featuring this setting in the first place was to serve as a background for the Dikembe Umbutu character and to indicate that the alien survivors in that country had sent a distress signal before they were killed. What was the point of this distress signal in the first place? Surely, the aliens’ defeat at the hands of the humans was enough to encourage them for a second attempt at planetary invasion? Good grief!

Another major problem I had with “INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE” was the characterizations featured in this film. The latter seemed to be reeking with clichés. One good example was the Jake Morrison character portrayed Liam Hemsworth. After portraying the complex Gale Hawthorne character in “THE HUNGER GAMES” movie franchise, poor Hemsworth found himself saddled with a very unoriginal character that seemed unworthy of his skills as an actor. Jake Morrison fit the typical “hotshot” pilot trope, straight out of movies like “TOP GUN” – a brash and talented pilot, whose aggressive and cocky manner seemed to irritate his commander. Boring. And the Dylan Dubrow-Hiller character portrayed by Jessie T. Usher, who came off as a humorless straight-arrow type who always seemed to reek with disapproval of Hemsworth’s Jake. Usher was Val Kilmer to Hemsworth’s Tom Cruise. I am not that familiar with Angelababy as an actress, but it seemed clear to me that her character, ESD pilot Lieutenant Rain Lao, is a female version of Dylan Dubrow-Hiller, whose uncle is the ESD Moon Base’s commander, portrayed by Emmerich veteran Chin Han (“2012”). And what would a “hotshot” type like Jake Morrison be without his goofy sidekick “aka Anthony Edwards”? Travis Tope filled this spot in his portrayal of Jake’s “devoted” friend, Lieutenant Charlie Miller. And just to make sure that poor Charlie was more than a sidekick, the screenwriters allowed him to become infatuated with Lieutenant Lao, who seemed to have no interest in him, whatsoever . . . until he proved his . . . manliness in the final battle against the aliens and their queen. Maika Monroe as Patricia Whitmore did not really do much in this film other than express concern for her ailing father, Thomas Whitmore and be Hemsworth’s romantic interest. Well . . . at least her character played a minor role

But the younger characters were not the only ones I found troublesome. It was nice to see Jeff Goldblum and Judd Hirsch portray David and Julian Levinson, again. Unfortunately, the writers dumped Hirsch’s character with a bunch of kids led by an adolescent Joey King in some convoluted attempt to involve them in an “epic” journey. As the for the David Levinson character, he seemed to be romancing his ESD colleague, Dr. Catherine Marceaux, portrayed by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Which led me to wonder what happened to Connie Spano, the ex-wife with whom David had reunited at the end of the 1996 film. Did her character die sometime between the two movies? Or did she and David break up again? Worse, I noticed that David did not have a major role in the aliens’ defeat. Neither did Dr. Marceaux for that manner. Why was she in this movie in the first place, other than provide Jeff Goldblum with a romantic lead? That honor seemed to go to the military characters. At least Brent Spinner’s Dr. Brakish Okun had a lot more to do in this film. He was the one who made first contact with the alien sphere. But how in the hell did he survive from being attacked in the last movie? I thought he had been declared dead. Confusing. Bill Pullman, who portrayed former President Thomas Whitmore spent most of the film reacting to the Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) from his past close encounter with an alien, twenty years ago. He did have a part in the final action scene against the aliens. Actor Deobia Oparei’s Dikembe Umbutu struck me as a one-note characterization of masculinity. He could have been more interesting and worthy of Oparei’s talent, but the screenwriters sold him short. His only real purpose, it seemed, was to be around to give final approval of the Floyd Rosenberg character, after the latter managed to “prove his masculinity” by saving Umbutu’s life. Sigh. Robert Loggia made a brief cameo as Whitmore’s former Chief of Staff General Grey some time before his death in December 2015. Thank goodness this movie was not the last one for a first-rate actor like Loggia.

The worst characterizations proved to be those for Vivica A. Fox’s Jasmine Dubrow-Hiller and Sela Ward’s President Elizabeth Lanford. The screenwriters’ handling of their characters struck me as sheer travesty. In a nutshell, the screenwriters killed off both of them. I was so disgusted that I left the theater feeling that Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich had something against middle-aged women. Fox Jasmine barely had five minutes of screen time before the writers bumped her off, while son Dylan raced to the hospital to save her. Apparently, Emmerich and Devlin had decided she was not worth keeping around, due to Will Smith’s refusal to do the movie. Worse, Fox’s character was fridged for the sake of the Dylan Dubrow-Hiller character. The President Elizabeth Lanford character proved to be a major problem as well. When I first saw Sela Ward (who also appeared in Emmerich’s “THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW”) on the screen, I was interested to see how the screenwriters would explore how she would handle an alien invasion. Well, audiences did not get to see much, because the writers . . . KILLED HER OFF before the movie had reached the midway point!! Worse, she was replaced by General Joshua T. Adams of the ESD, as portrayed by William Fitchner. Apparently, Devlin and Emmerich do not believe that a woman civilian is capable of leading a nation through an alien invasion.

I will give “INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE” points for its attempts at originality. One, the humans’ defeat of the alien invaders played out differently than it did in the 1996 movie. It involved the invaders’ Queen (or leader) arriving at the Area 51 base (for reasons that had eluded me), David and Julius Levinson on a bus with the latter’s young traveling companions, both Thomas and Patricia Whitmore, and a group of ESD pilots that involved Dylan Dubrow-Hiller and Jake Morrison. I wish I could go into details on what happened, but I do not think I have the energy to do so. But it was original, if not someone cheesy. The introduction of another alien race that might be enemies of the invaders was another interesting attempt at originality. I suspect this new race was introduced to hint at the possibility of a franchise developing from this movie. Hmmmm. We will see. Although I have my doubts.

I will also give points to “INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE” for its special effects. Yes, I admit that there times when I found Markus Förderer’s photography rather unusually dark . . . more than I care to admit. But when the visuals were clear, I must admit that I found Förderer’s photography rather breathtaking. This was especially the case for the movie’s final action sequence at the Area 51 base. More importantly, his photography greatly enhanced Barry Chusid’s production designs, which did a top-notch job in reflecting how the aliens’ technology had enhanced Earth’s 21st century society; along with the work of the visual effects team led by Shaun Friedberg.

After reading this review, one would come away with the belief that I disliked “INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE”. Yes, I am pissed at how Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich handled the two major middle-aged women characters in this film. And I was far from impressed by the movie’s plot and other characterization. The movie also lacked the magic of the 1996 film. But I liked it. I did not love it. I barely tolerated it. But I liked it. Do not ask me why, because I cannot explain my reaction. Enough said.

“WHITE HOUSE DOWN” (2013) Review

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“WHITE HOUSE DOWN” (2013) Review

When it first hit the movie theaters during the summer of 2013, “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” received a good deal of flak from movie critics determined to justified its failure to become a box office hit. But there were others who had offered another reason why the movie flopped in the U.S.  And that reason centered around the release of another film some three months earlier called “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”.

Like the Gerard Butler film, “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” focused upon an assault and invasion of the White House by a group of paramilitary terrorists. The movie begins with U.S. President James Sawyer proposing a controversial peace treaty between allied countries to remove military forces from the Middle East. One of the opponents of the treaty is Speaker of the House, Congressman Eli Raphelson, who is guarded by U.S. Capitol police officer John Cale. Hoping to impress his estranged daughter Emily following his divorce, John attempts to apply for a job with the U.S. Secret Service. He takes Emily to the White House for an interview with his former college schoolmate, Secret Service schoolmate, Carol Finnerty. Unfortunately for John, Carol rejects his application, claiming that his lack of respect for authority and inability to follow through with official reports makes him unqualified for the job.

Following his interview, John joins Emily on a tour of the White House, a paramilitary terrorist sets off a bomb in the rotunda of the Capitol building. Both Congressman Raphelson and Vice-President Alvin Hammond are among those who manage to safely escape. However, the Capitol bombing proves to be a distraction for a more important mission for his colleagues – namely the takeover the White House. Although the latter is officially locked down by the Secret Service following the Capitol bombing, a paramilitary group consisting of ex-servicemen and a computer hacker that managed to infiltrate the White House as janitors, proceed to take over the White House. Their leader is a disavowed ex-Delta Force member named Emil Stenz, who proved to be a hot head. Not only do the terrorists take a group of tourists – including Emily – hostage; they nearly kidnap President Sawyer with the help of Secret Service Agent Martin Walker, Head of the Presidential Detail. Walker sought revenge for the death of a son who had died in an aborted black op mission for the U.S. Army. Fortunately, John manages to rescue President Sawyer before Walker and the terrorists can use him to access the nuclear football for nefarious means. Unfortunately for John and Sawyer, they are trapped inside the White House with no way to get out.

Unlike a good number of moviegoers, I did not readily accept the opinion that “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” was a bad movie. Yes, it had its flaws. After all, it is a Roland Emmerich film. And like other Emmerich films, it possessed the usual cliches – a divorced main character, an annoyingly precocious child character, and slightly cheesy dialogue. The biggest flaw in the movie proved to be a plot point that allowed John and his daughter to get swept into the action inside the White House – a tour of the latter. Apparently, screenwriter James Vanderbilt forgot that White House tours have been a thing of the past since the September 11 attacks, twelve years ago. And I found Carol Finnerty’s presence with the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Speaker of the House something of a stretch, considering that she is not the Secret Service’s Head of the Presidential Detail, let alone head of the agency. But despite these flaws, I still enjoyed the movie.

“WHITE HOUSE DOWN” had its virtues. First of all, it benefited from a strong chemistry between leads Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, who portrayed John Cale and President James Walker. Two, Vanderbilt’s script did not make the mistake of turning the President Walker character into a highly skilled action man, like Harrison Ford in “AIR FORCE ONE”. Although he managed to avoid spending most of the film as a hostage, Foxx’s Walker made mistakes that struck me as natural for one not to used to violent action. “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” also featured some first-rate action. My favorite scenes turned out to be the initial takeover of the White House by Stenz and his men; John’s rescue of President Walker; and the chase sequence on the White House lawn, with John and President Walker inside a Presidential limousine. The biggest virtue of “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” is that the terrorists managed to infiltrate the White House with inside help – namely Secret Service Agent Walker. In the post 9/11 world, I would have found it impossible to accept a terrorist takeover of the White House without such help.

Despite the occasionally cheesy dialogue that marred “WHITE HOUSE DOWN”, I was relieved to see that the cast managed to rise above such flaws. As I stated earlier, the movie did benefit from a strong chemistry between Tatum and Foxx. And both actors gave first-rate performances that blend good, solid comedy with well-acted drama. I also found the development of their on-screen relationship very satisfying. And Foxx managed to utter one of my favorite lines in the entire film. Maggie Gyllenhaal gave a strong performance as the no-nonsense Carol Finnerty. I could also say the same about Lance Reddick, who portrayed the equally no-nonsense Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman General Caufield. I do not recall ever seeing Jason Clarke in a villainous role before, but I must admit that he gave a scary performance as leader of the terrorist, Emil Stanz. Jimmi Simpson, on the other hand, was quite funny as computer hacker Skip Tyler. And Richard Jenkins struck me as very effective in his performance as Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson, who found himself with more authority than he was used to. There were a few performances that did rub me the wrong way. I think Zoey King, who portrayed Emily Cale, is a talented actress, but I feel that not even she was able to rise above the precocious dialogue and scenes that Vanderbilt dumped on her. Nicholas Wright’s performance as White House tour guide Donnie did not strike me as funny . . . only annoying. Kevin Rankin’s portrayal of the uber-aggressive terrorist Carl Killick seemed both hammy and wince-inducing to me.

When I saw “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” at the movie theater, the audience broke into an applause when the film ended. Minutes later, I found myself in one of the theater’s restrooms and overheard a woman claimed that although she liked the movie, she noticed that it bore a strong resemblance to “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”. And she was right. Both movies were about terrorists taking over the White House in order to gain control of the President and his defense codes. Both movies featured female Secret Service personnel trying to help the hero. Both movies featured the Vice-President getting killed and the Speaker of the House becoming the new Head of State. And both featured American elite forces making a failed attempt to save the White House from terrorists. I liked “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”, but I feel that it was marred by one major flaw – the North Korean terrorists lacked any real inside help and was able to acquire top-secret military technology on their own. This led the Gerard Butler movie resembling some one-note anti-Communist propaganda film. “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” managed to avoid this major trap by allowing the terrorists – who were American-born – receive some serious inside help from within the U.S. government. And this is why I rate “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” over “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”.

“WHITE HOUSE DOWN” had its flaws. But it also possessed a decent story, first-rate action and some solid acting by a cast led by Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx; thanks to director Roland Emmerich. And although its virtues outweighed its flaw, I suspect that in the end, “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” became a victim of bad timing. Pity. I feel it deserved a better fate.

“JERICHO” RETROSPECT: (1.01) “Pilot – The First Seventeen Hours”

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“JERICHO” RETROSPECT: (1.01) “Pilot: The First Seventeen Hours”

It took me quite a while to get over CBS’ cancellation of the 2006-2008 post-apocalypse series, “JERICHO”. Quite a while. But when I recently watched the series’ first episode, “Pilot: The Seventeen Hours”, my anger returned. Somewhat. After all, five years had past since the series’ cancellation. And I know it will never come back. 

Oh well. I still have my DVD collection of all the episodes. Watching “Pilot: The Seventeen Hours” brought back good memories for me. The episode not introduced most or all of the players that would have a major role in the series’ saga. The episode and the story begins with the return of Jake Green to his hometown of Jericho, Kansas. Estranged from his family for five years, he only returns to to pay respect to his recently deceased grandfather and to claim the money left to him by the latter. Due to his estrangement with his father, Mayor Johnston Green and the latter’s refusal to hand over the money, Jake decides to leave town again. While driving away from Jericho, he witnesses the mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb in the far distance before colliding with an oncoming car.

That mushroom cloud, also witnessed by Deputy Jimmy Taylor’s son and a few others. Mayor Green surmises that the bomb must have hit Denver, Colorado. However, his wife Gail learns from a local named Dale Turner that the latter’s mother was killed in Atlanta, Georgia – the location of second nuclear attack. Realizing that a school bus full of children and their teacher, Heather Lisinski, is missing; Mayor Green orders the sheriff and his deputies to find it. However, an injured Jake ends up finding the bus. He saves the life of a young girl and manages to drive the bus back to Jericho with an injured leg. Unfortunately for the sheriff and one deputy, they are killed by a group of convicts that managed to escape from a prison bus following the nuclear attack.

“Pilot: The First Seventeen Hours” struck me as a pretty good episode. It did not allow “JERICHO” to begin on a sensational note like many science-fiction/fantasy television series I have seen in the past decade. And perhaps that is a good thing. Most recent serial television shows that begin on a high note have great difficulty in maintaining such a high level of quality. I am not stating that the pilot episode for “JERICHO” was terrible. Not by a long shot. But I would not view it as among the series’ best episodes. Did “Pilot: The First Seventeen Hours” have any flaws? Well, some of the crowd scenes featuring the good citizens of Jericho struck me as overwrought and cliched. This is the episode that tried to introduce the idea of Jake Green and Heather Lisinski as a potential couple. While some fans bought the . . . uh, “chemistry” between the two. It did not work for me and the pair has always struck me more as siblings. The episode also introduced Lennie James as the mysterious Robert Hawkins. While the screenwriters did a good job in establishing Hawkins’ mysterious nature, I was not that impressed by the British-born James’ American accent.

Despite these flaws, I still enjoyed “Pilot: The First Seventeen Hours”. Not only did the episode did a solid job in introducing the series’ overall narrative, it also provided plenty of good action and mystery. Director Jon Turteltaub did a good job in handling such action scenes like the car accident that prevented Jake’s departure from Kansas and the escaped convicts’ murder of Jericho’s sheriff. And although I had some trouble with one or two crowd scenes – especially the one in which the town citizens nearly panicked over getting their hands on available supplies. But there were some dramatic scenes that I enjoyed; including Jake’s quarrel with his father and brother Eric, Jake saving the life of the young schoolgirl, Robert’s attempt to offer his help to the sheriff and the fire chief, Dale Turner’s revelation of a second nuclear explosion in Atlanta, and Jake’s uneasy reunion with his ex-girlfriend Emily Sullivan. Despite the resolution of the missing school bus plot line, “Pilot: The First Seventeen Hours” made sure that audiences knew that “JERICHO” would be a serial drama by leaving the following plot lines hanging:

*The escaped convicts
*Emily Sullivan’s nighttime road trip to the pick up her fiancé from a nearby airport
*The emergence of businessman Gray Anderson as a future political opponent for Johnston Green
*The reason behind Robert Hawkins’ appearance in Jericho


Of these four plot lines, only one will be resolved by the following episode.

The performances in this episode seemed pretty rock solid. My only complaints are directed at the extras and minor characters who portrayed the citizens of Jericho. The main reason I found some of the crowd scenes overwrought was that I found the performances portraying the citizens over-the-top. I realize they were supposed to be portraying the citizens in a state of panic. I simply did not find their performances satisfying. However, Skeet Ulrich expertly set the tone as the show’s leading man. Lennie James injected that mysterious tone in his character right off the bat, even if I found his American accent a little shaky. Michael Gaston did a good job as Gray Anderson and I found Sprague Grayden’s portrayal of Heather Lisinski rather charming. But there were three performances that really impressed me. One came from Gerald McRaney, who gave a commanding, yet sardonic performance as mayor Jericho, Johnston Green. Another came from Pamela Reed, who seemed to be the heart and soul of this episode as the mayor’s wife, Gail Green. And the last impressive performance came from Erik Knudsen, who did an excellent job in setting up the complexities of the adolescent Dale Turner, one of the show’s most complex characters. 

Although not as impressive as other pilots I have seen from recent science-fiction/fantasy television shows. As I had earlier stated, “Pilot: The First Seventeen Hours” is not terrible, nor mediocre. But it is not great. However, this is not a problem for me. I have never demanded that the pilot of a science-fiction/fantasy series blow me away. All I demand that it does a good job in setting up the series’ premise. And I believe that this pilot episode for “JERICHO” certainly accomplished this.

“OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” (2013) Review

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“OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” (2013) Review

I have a confession to make. I have always liked “THE WIZARD OF OZ”, the 1939 adaptation of Frank L. Baum’s 1901 novel, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. I used to watch it on a yearly basis as a child. But if I must be brutally frank, I have never developed a deep love for the movie. So when I learned that the Disney Studios had developed a prequel movie to the 1939 film, I did not exactly jump up and down with joy. 

I was surprised to learn that the Disney Studios’ history with Frank Baum’s fantasy world of Oz proved to be a long one. Walt Disney had wanted to create an animated film based on the 1901 story, but he and his brother Roy Disney discovered that Samuel Goldwyn had first purchased the film rights before selling it to Louis B. Mayer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Disney managed to purchase the rights of Baum’s remaining Oz novels in 1954. And in 1985, the studio produced and released the sequel movie, “RETURN TO OZ”. However, the film proved to be a box office bomb. And the movie rights to all of Baum’s novels ended up in public domain. Twenty-seven or 28 years later, Disney tried their hand at another Oz movie. The result is the prequel to Baum’s 1901 novel and MGM’s 1939 film – “OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL”. Set twenty years before the novel and the film, “OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” begins in 1906 Kansas with barnstorm and small time magician Oscar Diggs working in a traveling circus. Oscar is also something of a scam artist and ladies’ man who has no qualms with seducing the young wife of the circus’ strongman. Oscar is also in love with a young local woman, who has been encouraged by him to marry a respectable farmer. When the strongman learns of Oscar’s flirtations, the latter escapes the circus in a hot air balloon. But he is sucked into a tornado and finds himself in the “Land of Oz”.

Once in this new land, Oscar meets the first of three witches who will turn his life upside down – Theodora. She believes he is the prophesied savior who will overthrow the Wicked Witch that killed the King of Oz. While she escorts him to Emerald City to meet her sister Evanora, Theodora is seduced by Oscar, leading her to fall in love with him. The pair also meets a flying monkey named Finley, who pledges a life debt to Oscar when the latter saves him from a lion . . . at Theodora’s instigation. Upon their arrival in Emerald City, Oscar is charged by Evanora to prove that he is Oz’s prophesied savior by traveling to the Dark Forest where the Wicked Witch resides and kill the latter by destroying her wand. During Oscar and Findley’s journey to the Dark Forest, they meet China Girl, a young, living china doll whose home and family had been destroyed by the Wicked Witch. When the trio reaches the Dark Forest, they discover that the “Wicked Witch” is actually Glinda the Good Witch of the North. She tells them that Evanora is the true Wicked Witch. And when Evanora sees this with her crystal ball, she manipulates Theodora against Oscar by showing him together with Glinda, claiming he is trying to court all three witches. Evanora offers the heartbroken Theodora a magic apple, which she promises will remove the younger witch’s heartache. Theodora eats the apple and transforms into the heartless, green-skinned future Wicked Witch of the West. Oscar, Glinda, Findley, China Girl and many others soon find themselves in a war against Evanora and Theodora for control of Oz.

“OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” earned mixed reviews upon its release, despite becoming a box office hit. Many complained that it failed to live up to the “magic” of the 1939 movie. I do not know how to respond to this complaint. After all, everyone has a right to his or her own opinion. Were there any aspects of “OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” that I disliked? Well . . . I do have one major complaint and it has to do with the relationship between Oscar and Theodora. What I disliked was Oscar’s failure to apologize to Theodora for exploiting her feelings toward him when they first met. Instead of admitting that he had been wrong to seduce her in the first place, he merely offered her the chance to live in the Emerald City in peace if she would allow goodness back into her heart. And nothing else. Instead of an apology, Oscar offered her a sanctimonious offer of redemption. What an asshole. In other words, Mitchell Kapner’s screenplay refused to allow Oscar to consider that his careless seduction of Theodora gave Evanora the opportunity to transform her into an evil and heartless witch.

Despite this unpleasant exercise of relationships gone wrong, I actually enjoyed “OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL”. In fact, my feelings of the movie seemed to be the same as the 1939 film – I enjoyed it very much, but I did not love it. It was fun, entertaining in its own way. And I could see that the movie greatly benefited from Kapner’s well-paced screenplay and director Sam Rami’s twisted sense of humor. This especially seemed to be the case in Oscar’s relationship with the long-suffering Findley and one of Emerald City’s citizens, the tart-tongued herald and fanfare player, Knuck. Rami and Kapner also did a clever job of allowing the plot to mirror certain aspects of 1939’s “THE WIZARD OF OZ”. The Kansas sequences at the beginning of both movies were filmed in black-and-white, both protagonists (Dorothy Gale and Oscar Diggs) arrived in Oz via a tornado. Both acquire sidekicks during their journeys through Oz. In Oscar’s case, both Findley and China Girl become his companions on the road. After meeting Glinda, he also acquire the friendship of Knuck (sort of) and the Emerald City’s Master Tinker. And both movies end with Oscar providing gifts to most of the protagonists.

At the same time, both Rami and Kapner were wise enough to remember that “OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” is the product of early 21st century Hollywood, and not the film industry of the late 1930s. As I had stated earlier, the humor featured in the film struck me as slightly perverse at times – which I loved. And Oscar Diggs’ moral compass proved to be a lot more ambiguous than the innocent Dorothy Gale. Mind you, I disliked his handling of Theodora. But one has to remember that his character has always been something of schemer and opportunist – even in the 1939 film. Speaking of ambiguity, I was surprised to find a few hints of it in China Girl’s character – especially in her enthusiasm to seek and kill the Wicked Witch. In regard to the film’s villains, they seemed to be a different kettle of fish in compare to the Wicked Witch of the West in “THE WIZARD OF OZ”. Although Evanora proved to be evil in a one-dimensional manner, she seemed to be more subtle and manipulative in carrying out her deeds. And Theodora proved to be a real surprise. Her evil seemed to be born from a broken heart thanks to Oscar and her sister’s manipulations, making her the most sympathetic character . . . at least for me. Many reviewers – especially male reviewers – seemed confused over Theodora’s transformation from the naive young witch to the green-skinned, heartless evildoer. It almost seemed as if they did not want to acknowledge the part that Oscar played in her transformation into evil. And I find that rather sad and a little disturbing.

Speaking of the characters, they would not have worked without the first-rate cast that portrayed them. James Franco did an excellent job in conveying Oscar Diggs’ journey from the cheap and womanizing showman to the responsible civic leader that helped free the Emerald City from the evil Evanora’s grasp. Michelle Williams gave a luminous performance as Glinda the Good Witch. Although her character did not strike me as particularly complex, she managed to inject some much needed mystery into the character, making her more interesting than the 1939 counterpart. And Rachel Weisz seemed to be having a ball as the sly and manipulative Evanora. The movie also featured some solid performances from the likes of Bill Cobbs as Master Tinker, Tony Cox as the sardonic Knuck, Abigail Spencer as Oscar’s naive, yet very married Kansas assistant May; and a humorous appearance by Rami veteran Bruce Campbell as an Emerald City guard. But there were three performances that really impressed me. One came from Zach Braff, who added an expert touch of the long-suffering in his outstanding voice performance as winged monkey Findley. Another first-rate voice performance came Joey King in her portrayal of China Doll, who expertly conveyed both the character’s vulnerability and exuberant aggressiveness. And finally there was Mila Kunis, who did a stupendous job in her portrayal of Theodora, the naive young witch who became the murderous Wicked Witch of the West. I was more than impressed by Kunis, for I believe she had the difficult job of making her character’s transformation believable.

“OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” is a beautiful movie to look at. Production designer Robert Stromberg did a solid job in bringing the land of Oz to life. Thanks to him and cinematographer Peter Deming, audiences were able to enjoy the movie’s rich and colorful look that brought back happy memories of the Technicolor featured in the 1939 movie. My only complaint are the few moments when it seemed I was looking at matte paintings instead of CGI during Oscar’s first moments in Oz. I was especially impressed by the scene that featured Theodora’s first appearance as the Wicked Witch of the West. Thanks to Rami’s direction, Deming’s photography, the make-up department’s work and the special effects team, I was more than taken aback by this frightening moment.

In the end, I really enjoyed “OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL”. I did not love it. Then again, I do not love the 1939 movie. But I do believe that this new movie more than made up for the failure of 1985’s “RETURN TO OZ”. Thanks to screenwriter Mitchell Kapner, a talented cast led by James Franco and some first-rate and slightly twisted direction by Sam Rami, “OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” proved to be a surprisingly entertaining film.