Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
(Percy Bysshe Shelly, “Ozymandias,” 1818)
Review by Ken Burke No
Chilean political drama (with some fact-based comedy) about the ad campaign that helped depose dictator Pinochet in 1988; 2012 Foreign Language Oscar nominee.
Just after the Japanese surrender in 1945 General Douglas MacArthur is sent to Tokyo to oversee the reconstruction and determine if the Emperor is guilty of war crimes.
Oz the Great and Powerful
A prequel to the later story of Dorothy’s journey to Oz, focusing on the arrival of the “wizard” and the dynamics among the 3 witches. Great to look at but a flat story.
While Michael Haneke‘s Amour is for me still the deserving winner of the 2012 Foreign Language Film Oscar (based on all 2 of the 5 nominees that I’ve seen), I certainly agree that Pablo Larraín’s No, a Chilean film about the orchestrated downfall of brutal dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1988 is a worthy contender and might well have been the winner among a different group of films (with the further distinction that it’s the first Oscar finalist from this very-southern South American country). The situation is all too surreal (certain aspects of it remind me of the loveably goofy TV movie Magical Mystery Tour from the Beatles [Bernard Knowles, 1967; a thin experience, considering the post-Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band expectations of its creators] which I finally saw for the first time during a PBS pledge drive a couple of nights ago), in which a country that had been under harsh military rule since the overthrow of elected President Salvador Allende in 1973 puts the appointed President up for a popular referendum on whether he can remain in office, with competing ad campaigns promoting the simple ballot choice of “Sí” (Yes) or “No” (as Ricky Ricardo once noted, the only word that’s the same in both Spanish and English). None of this would have happened without international pressure (ironic that the U.S. contributed to that, given our now all-too-well-known-and-still-heavily-debated CIA involvement in the overthrow of Pinochet’s democratically-elected-but-too-Marxist-for-our-foreign-policy-needs predecessor) for both the vote itself and the verification allowed by global media coverage that the election would be honest (although the fear factor certainly was expected to play into the anticipated “Sí” advantage), yet the deck seemed impossibly stacked given that while both sides were to be limited to a daily 15-min. broadcast for a few weeks promoting their positions the “No” forces were forced to air their pitch from midnight to 12:15am. Fortunately for them, the campaign fell to long-self-exiled-but-returned-just-in-time adman (some might say “mad man,” but not in the devious manner of TV’s current Don Draper [John Hamm], rather just idiotic for his up-tempo approach to unseating a butcher) René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal)—a fictional composite of the actual creative forces behind the campaign that topped Pinochet, forcing him to resign. The sad thing for current audiences about all of this, though, is that the film is hard to find (probably hard to market, according to the suits at Sony Classic Pictures, where they don’t even give it a stand-alone website but bury it among other current releases [see the first suggested link far below]) and is even difficult to search for within the critics’ websites where its simple title too easily blends into something else entirely. Maybe now that the new Pope, Francis I (the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio; both the first Pope from the Jesuit order—which has a focus on social justice—and the first one from South America), is from Chile’s neighboring country of Argentina some better attention will be directed to our far-distant Latin American neighbors so that something as valuable as No will be accorded better recognition in the future. For now, though, you may have to make due with this review until No appears as a DVD release.
So, as I try to conjure up Rod Sterling introducing an episode of The Twilight Zone, “Imagine, if you will, a country under military junta rule where the authoritarian President and Army Commander-in-Chief authorizes a plebiscite to sanction or reject his position as head of the government” (OK, I know Rod could have said it better than that, but I’ve got concepts to establish here, so just flow with it already). Certainly such an unexpected state of affairs, even if presented for your fictional consideration, would have been unlikely before at least the mid-20th century, but with the coming of Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” through worldwide satellite video coverage of Chile’s (and everyone else’s) internal affairs, along with a worldwide understanding that there was widespread domestic dissatisfaction with the regime and international concern about the instability of the country, there was sudden scrutiny of this election process as required by the new 1980 Chilean Constitution, which had been pushed through by the junta but required a national vote of support for their candidate—still Pinochet of course—in 1988. (You’d need to do a little research to get all of that straight because, while you’re given a quick overview at the beginning of the film about later 20th century Chilean history by means of an intentionally-crude flipping of large tablet pages as if in a low-tech meeting, it’s hard to fully grasp how such an iron-fisted-government would allow its citizens the option of ousting it in a public forum, but just knowing that this is all at least based in fact does allow a viewer to flow right into the situation, even if Latin American history wasn’t your college major … or minor … or something your high school history teacher never even mentioned because his real job was as a coach and you spent every day talking about baseball [true story but no names so as to protect the lawsuit-adverse film critic in our midst].) Pinochet and his cronies never imagined that there’d be any real problem with the continuance of their locked-in power, despite the illusion of a free election, but they hadn’t counted on another aspect of McLuhan’s media prophecies, that the medium is the message, which simply means that it’s not really the content of the TV promotions from the opposition in support of the “No” vote that matters (although the inclusion of newsreel footage of atrocities done against the innocent citizens of Chile does give quick substance to the anti-Pinochet forces) but rather how the audience becomes one with the viewing experience, being made to feel as active participants in the flow of the broadcasts rather than as passive viewers watching a short propaganda film or reading a pamphlet of predigested diatribes: basic differences that McLuhan recognized between the “hot” media of print, cinema, and radio vs. the “cool” media of such delivery systems as TV and cartoons (if you want to probe into McLuhan further, one of the great philosophers and analysts of the widest understandings of media usage, you might start with http://www.marshallmcluhan.com/).
Fortunately for the “No” forces they had a McLuhanite in their midst (although this Canadian media scholar is never noted in this film, despite his relevance to its content) in the person of Saavedra who approaches the sociopolitical timing of a proper change of national attitude—“The time has come!”—toward a beverage (the pitch he’s produced for Free, a cola, when we first meet him at the film’s opening) with the same passion that he brings to the “No” campaign to depose Pinochet, steering his leftist superiors away from their overtly political ads which he feels are boring, not audience-friendly for the needed demographics of the scared elders and apathetic youth crucial to ballot-box victory. Larraín shoots this film (or more precisely, his cinematographer Sergio Armstrong does) with Sony U-matic ¾” video cameras appropriate to 1988 so that we get a documentary feel, the format is the old 4x3 analog video box that feels historical on a contemporary movie screen, and the image quality is sharply reduced (“dully” reduced is more appropriate to how it looks) by comparison to what we now expect of a cinematic experience in public or home theatres, so that we not only feel that we’re back in the time being depicted we can also see the actual TV ads used from then by both sides with no sense of continuity break when these old images flow naturally into the story (we also have other 1980s touches such as young man Saavedra riding the streets of Santiago on a skateboard reminiscent of Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly character from the wildly popular first installment of Back to the Future [Robert Zemeckis, 1985] and just the whole sense of pop culture clothing and media images from the time, such as hand exercisers, small TV sets, etc.). Added to that is a lot of quick cutting from scene to scene so the TV commercials easily feel like an organic aspect of the whole experience as we watch the contrasting worldviews being played out in the presentations of “Sí” (which goes something to the effect, without saying it precisely, that while not everyone can succeed in a competitive society anyone might triumph with the right fate and opportunities so that “Everyone bets on being that [lucky] anyone”) and “No” (“Happiness” should be available to everyone, as symbolized by the rainbow icon of the campaign and a good number of nonsensical but upbeat images intended to make the public feel good about feeling good, an anticipated condition following the overthrow of a dictator). OK, ready for a cutaway to a little of my regular diversionary-but-still-somehow-hopefully-related music intrusions? If so, you can choose from Leslie Gore’s 1963 “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQmBXEZEYtg or the more postmodern happiness of R.E.M.’s 1991 “Shiny Happy People” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCQ0vDAbF7s. Enjoy for a bit, then back to the review.
Despite the initial rejection from the Pinochet oppositional forces, who want the previous 15 years of repressive misery to be directly addressed in passionate speeches, Saavedra’s approach begins to catch on with the public, allowing him to mix a very singable “No” jingle with quick cuts of direct testimony from the wives and relatives of the “disappeared” government opponents. Ultimately, the “Happiness Is Coming” approach, with increasingly humorous ads that remind me in mild ways of the daring social challenges of the Black-run ad agency in Robert Downey Sr.’s (yes, Iron Man’s filmmaker father) bitterly-satirical 1969 Putney Swope (which you can start getting some attitude-appropriate insights about at http://badassdigest.com/2011/11/04/film-crit-hulk-smash-putney-swope-is-the-greatest-fck-you-movie-of-all-time/ if you like), triumphs with a surprising 56% victory for the “No,” vote on Oct. 5, 1988, leading to Pinochet’s departure after a truly democratic election in 1990. Certainly there were plenty of political activists who were also emphatically involved in this cultural paradigm shift for the Chilean people but the “No” TV segments were marvelously helpful in the liberation process, depicted with properly balanced amounts of drama and comedy in No. Even if you’re not a left-winger you certainly wouldn’t find anything to celebrate in Pinochet’s politics (or if you do, I can’t imagine how you stumbled onto this film review site, but the exit door is right over there, thank you) so the surprising victory is a nice ending point for celebration and a sense of faith in finding a connection with a public’s human values, even if they have to be reached with crass—but effective—advertising tactics. If all of this leaves you hopeful that a proper dose of media mania might be useful in bringing about at least some social change, how about another of my nostalgia diversions back to the once-and-future idealistic realm of the 1960s with http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2LKMogdjm8 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw8vFFanKyE (a roughly 11 min. version in two linked videos of The Beatles’ “Revolution 1” from the 1968 White Album, combining audio recording with footage of the studio sessions and other imagery into a greatly expanded version of what made it to the record/CD at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IYloD3tyEQ, here presented as a live performance by the Fab Four; the extended version [which was take 20 of the song] begins to wander off into the direction of the complex mix on the album known as “Revolution 9,” which you can meander through [re-mastered in stereo, a bit more appropriate for this “tune”], all 8:24 min. of it [but with no supporting imagery, probably just as well in this case, given its randomness] at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fs_LHpiYUF0). Certainly the actual non-violent liberation in Chile is of more substance than the essentially apolitical statement of these millionaire British “revolutionaries,” but they all work in the same direction as the fictionalized adman Saavedra, using the power of popular media imagery to sway an audience toward social change without the need to call for violent overthrow of a corrupt government. If only advertising and pop heroes could be this effective all the time in shifting worldviews and awakening consciousness to the overthrow of soul-crushing dictators, elected or otherwise, then we’d really have something to celebrate.
Unfortunately for all concerned, in Peter Webber’s Emperor there’s nothing available concerning nonviolence, advertising wizardry, or pop stars to bring about the demise of the next power-wielder under scrutiny this week, the ultimate Asian dictator of the mid-20th century, Emperor Hirohito, not only the supreme leader but also understood as a god by his people in Japan at the end of WW II. Only the most destructive violence could bring about the end of the war in the Pacific where not only were American atomic bombs used to mercilessly decimate Hiroshima and Nagasaki but convention strafing also reduced Tokyo (and other Japanese cities, I’m sure) to a miserable pile of rubble, leaving a proud population still loyal to their Emperor but on the verge of unrelenting domestic chaos if he should be found guilty of war crimes and hanged, as many in the U.S. military were advocating. Into this quagmire of Occupation decisions comes Supreme Commander of Allied Powers General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones), charged not only with the long-term task of rebuilding the defeated country into a thriving ally but also the short-time (10 days) demand of determining if the Emperor had personal responsibility for the war effort or simply allowed his military machine to make the fateful decisions on their own. However, despite the setup that focuses on MacArthur and the connected publicity that features Jones (here’s a case where screen time should equal to a supporting role, as with his portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens in Steven Spielberg’s unfairly under-awarded Lincoln, yet Jones gets top billing in a movie where his occasional presence is impressive but ultimately secondary), the real story is focused on the fact-finder in the Emperor’s case, Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), who spent some time in Japan just before the war started and left an intended lover there because he was no longer welcome in the country and she could not leave her extended family (her parents were already deceased). Much of the film is told in flashback of their days in college in 1932 when she’s a foreign-exchange student, he’s more interested in the cultural than the military aspects of his blossoming Army career, and his interests in both Japan and her bring him to seek her out in her homeland when she’s forced to suddenly return. It makes for an interesting enough story overall and one, like No, which is based in fact, but if you attend this movie expecting to learn much about the postwar American occupation of Japan, the transformation of that ancient Asian country into an economic rather than a military powerhouse in quasi-harmony with Western politics and trade, or even MacArthur himself, you need to read some books or seek another cinematic venue because Emperor thrives on nostalgia for lost love (more appropriate to Nicholas Sparks novels turned into sappy movies such as Message in a Bottle [Luis Mandoki, 1999], The Notebook [Nick Cassavetes, 2004], and Safe Haven [Lasse Hallström, 2013]) and weak attempts to build drama on known outcomes (Hirohito dropped his god claim but continued quietly as Emperor until his death in 1989), leaving us with little to learn or really care much about in the end.
If you’re satisfied with just the intercultural romance aspects of Emperor then there some nice chemistry between Fellers and his sweet paramour, Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), and some soothing cinematic scenes as they play out their love in various pastoral settings, but you could get a better dose of that, at a more clingy, steamy level, in the aforementioned Sparks-based movies. In fact Emperor features the aspect of tragic love lost—to death, dementia, whatever—in those Sparksian tales by showing how Gen. Fellers spends all of his free time (not much when he’s got only a few days to determine if the Emperor should be put to death or not, with the possibility that the destabilizing riots following an execution will also bring in the Russians, eager for Japanese territory and willing to now confront their former American allies) trying to locate Aya, until he realizes that despite his attempts to steer bombing raids away from the town where he knew she’d be working as a teacher devastation was rained on this location anyway, claiming her life. Given the Emperor-based aspect of Emperor, this terrible revelation isn’t the climatic event here as it would be in the Sparks catalogue, so we’re just forced to watch Fellers drown his sorrows in beer, get beat up by local thugs not yet willing to forgive and forget the devastation we rained down on their country (Not that these brutal butchers were any kind of innocent lambs either, but as one of the former elite of the Emperor’s inner-circle notes to Fellers, they invaded China, the Philippines, and other parts of Asia but in doing so they weren’t claiming native Asian countries but instead were overthrowing societies colonized by Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the U.S.A., so who’s really to blame for what here?), and finally rise above his own brooding decision to hold the Emperor responsible for war crimes only to reconsider, finally convincing MacArthur that there is no evidence to show the Emperor as personally accountable for the atrocities committed by his armies, in fact he is the one who finally decided to accept the offer of surrender to spare his country continued assault by the then-unconquerable Americans. Of course this is the result that MacArthur wanted all along to stave off civil unrest and better position himself for a run at the U.S. Presidency, all the while using Fellers’ recommendation as his excuse to placate the American home front clamoring for Hirohito’s execution (especially after having already lost their shot at a public death for Hitler a few months earlier, forcing us to wait until 2009 for Tarantino to finally deliver that long dreamed-of result with Inglourious Basterds). So, all in all, this movie is mostly about Fellers, his unrequited love, and his final noble decision to fairly call the shots (and call off the dogs—how many more cheap phrases can I squeeze into this sentence?) on the reclusive Emperor, setting up the real climax where MacArthur insists that they meet face-to-face before rendering his decision just within President FDR’s 10-day deadline.
Thus, Jones as MacArthur reclaims the spotlight at the end of this historical morsel, with his continued determination to “show [the Japanese] some good old-fashioned American swagger” in his conference with Hirohito and his need to work together with this still-beloved cultural icon to bring about the rebuilding of the completely conquered country. These final scenes are typical Jones bluster, in which he’s domineering but gracious, probably much like the real MacArthur (whose presence continues to surround me as I drive many days each week along the MacArthur freeway to reach my office at Mills College, Oakland CA, with its location at 5000 MacArthur Blvd.). I’ve never explored his biography much, but I’ve always remembered a story that my father used to tell about him because they were both in the Philippines during the years of WW II combat, only MacArthur was leading the troops and Lt. Eddie Burke was a forward scout for his Army infantry company taking back those islands from Japanese invaders one yard at a time. At some point my grandmother sent Dad a newspaper clipping with a photo of MacArthur striding onto a beach in the Philippines, thereby keeping his famous promise of “I shall return” when he was forced to abandon the territory earlier under enemy assault. My grandmother was so proud of this triumphant American hero that she just had to share the news with Dad, his magnificent supreme commanding officer. However, Dad, who was daily dodging machine gun bullets in the jungles beyond those now-liberated beaches wrote back to ask that if MacArthur was the first one onto the beach—as the photo implied—then who took the picture, a Japanese photographer? Let’s just say that as an ordinary guy (who earned a Silver Star for gallantry in action and a Purple Heart for being wounded in the field) partly responsible for clearing those beaches that MacArthur strode so proudly across, my father was not highly impressed with the manufactured heroic soldier images that his commander was so fond of, an attitude of arrogance and pomposity that Jones seems to capture well with his few scenes in Emperor, especially the final one where he and Hirohito come to cautiously-arranged terms with each other, so that the conquered is not made to feel inferior to the conqueror, despite the reality of the situation (however much it may have been dramatized, but it all comes from historical foundation, as evidenced by the formal photo of the two, shot in this scene and seen in actuality during the movie’s credits). All in all, it seems to me that Emperor would have been a better one-hour story on the History channel rather than an expensive feature-length film but it might be interesting as an historical curiosity.
It presents some useful understanding of the tensions and recriminations that overlay the conquest of a once-mighty empire, but there’s too much romantic flashback distraction (which may have been intended to help the movie appeal to a female audience as some speculate, although there were few of them at the screening I attended which was mostly populated with older men [but not so old as to have served in WW II, with most survivors of that combat not too likely to be amblin’ into a movie theatre to see themselves celebrated at an afternoon matinee by the latest tribute to the Greatest Generation, begun in recent years with Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998)]). To wrap this up before it goes on as unnecessarily long as Emperor, I’ll leave you with a song, not from the WW II era but from the adolescent years of a postwar Baby Boomer such as myself that speaks to the successful rehabilitation of demolished Japan and its enforced accommodation of Western culture with a pop hit from 1963, the once-you’ve-heard-it-it’s-impossible-to-stop-humming-it U.S. chart-topper “Sukiyaki” (original Japanese title, “Ue o muite arukō” [“I look up when I walk"] by Kyu Sakamoto at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJ91ikAhJ5Q) paired with images of contemporary Japan from just a few years ago which continue to show the influence of that long-ago American imposed presence.
But if you really want long ago, then let’s journey back to the beginnings of the 20th century, 1905 to be exact, to see Disney’s latest attempt to seal up every aspect of pop-culture fantasy fiction by claiming prequel territorial rights to at least some aspects of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939 [with un-credited directorial help from producer Mervyn LeRoy, as verified to me by his granddaughter, Carolyn LeRoy, when she was one of my students at Mills almost 20 years ago])—hell, they’ll probably buy up MGM from its current owners some day anyway (along with Ted Turner’s collection of their former holdings) so that they can have Mickey Mouse sit on Leo the Lion’s head when he roars at the very beginning of a James Bond movie (at times I get the sense that in about 50 years or less Disney will own all of North America and Japan while Fox will absorb Europe and Australia, leaving South America and Africa to the more-overtly-for-profit Catholic Church and the rest of Asia to the fully-incorporated CHINA™). Anyway, in Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful we learn how the wizard flew from Kansas to the land of the Emerald City and its strange environs long before Dorothy landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, although this latest episode certainly borrows visual concepts from its famous predecessor including the black-and-white-to-color transformation as we switch locales from the land of corn to the land of magic (sure, there's magic in Kansas too ... at least at the rib joints), but this version takes that conceit a little further by also starting in the 1.33:1 ratio (the same format used for No) that was standard back in 1939, then stretching out to impressive 2.35:1 wide-screen ratio when the hot-air balloon clears the grey clouds to arrive in a multihued wonderland (no, I’m not mixing up my Disney fantasies, but this movie does contain a “poisoned apple” bit that I’ll discuss a bit more later).
This prequel yarn immediately sets up some continuity questions for those who really care about such, even though Oz the Great and Powerful tries very hard to link itself to the classic movie, even though in the Judy Garland story set a few decades later Dorothy’s fantastic journey is explained at the end as being just a dream. (That sadly, in my opinion, causes her to decide that “There’s no place like home,” even when home is the sepia-and-white Depression-era Midwest, which even the Joads were smart enough to get away from—damn it, Toto [who was Mervyn’s son’s (Warner LeRoy, later owner of Tavern on the Green and the Russian Tea Room in NYC) dog, according to Carolyn], you should have kept on running to Oklahoma and jumped in that truck bound for California—although my insightful wife, Nina, says that the real message in The Wizard of Oz is that your home is wherever you come into your own self-understanding, as when Dorothy’s companions learn that they always had the brain, heart, and courage that they sought from the Wizard; good guru, stuff, I admit, but I also keep thinking of that joke about “So you’ve got magic shoes that’ll take you anywhere you want to go … and you choose Kansas?!”) Even the wizard Dorothy meets there, like everyone else, is simply a fantastical version of someone she knows back in Kansas, yet the wizard who’s at the center of this new movie, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), nicknamed Oz, seems to clearly be in another world from the one we know, populated with witches and all sorts of strange creatures; furthermore, he arrived there long enough ago to have been Dorothy’s father—which is no speculation on my part because his opening-sequence love, Annie (Michelle Williams), at the traveling carnival where he does his magic tricks, leaves him to marry a Mr. John Gale, and what do you remember Dorothy the wind-rider’s last name to be? Right! So maybe Dorothy wasn’t dreaming after all (and certainly Oz was no dream in the many other L. Frank Baum books that continued the actual existence of this faraway land, which Disney dismally explored once before in Return to Oz [Walter Murch, 1985), something best forgotten in all of this chatter about narrative continuity). Finally, we have the situation of the witches’ names, beyond the eternally-stable Glinda. In Baum’s original book of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) there are 4 witches, 2 good ones in the North and South, 2 bad ones in the East and West, but Glinda is the only one named (and she’s not who meets Dorothy when the house falls on the Wicked Witch of the East; instead, it’s the Good Witch of the North, who then disappears from the story after providing the Kansas visitors with a quick Oz orientation). Glinda doesn’t come into it until after the Wicked Witch of the West has been melted by Dorothy (and there’s no mention of the East and West villains being sisters) because the Wizard then has to admit he’s a fake so he sends her southward to Glinda where the magic of the shoes (silver in the book, looked better as ruby on screen) is finally revealed.
In Oz the Great and Powerful Glinda indeed is the Good Witch of the South but we never meet anyone from the North, the East-West Oz-disrupters are now clearly sisters, and we finally get names: Theodora (Mila Kunis, far right in this photo in case you don't recognize her very different appearance from Black Swan [Darren Aronofsky, 2010], my best film of that year, another in a long string that frequently has no relationship to Oscar's Best Pictures), who starts as sweet and in love with the soon-to-be Wizard but will eventually turn very bad and stake out the West as her domain with further adventures to come when Dorothy and Toto finally arrive years later, and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who’s already moved to the Dark Side, having killed Glinda’s father, the former ruler of Oz, and set up the story of a Wicked Witch prowling the countryside but with the implication that it’s Glinda, giving into a patricidal streak, rather than the devious Evanora herself. But even she’s not as evil or grotesque as what becomes of her formerly angelic sister after Evanora crafts another extended lie about the new Wizard’s affections toward both sisters and then makes it clear that his attentions have turned instead to Glinda (devious on her part, but Mr. Wizard’s not terribly trustworthy himself at this point in his journey). Once Theodora is ready to take a bite of a really bad apple (well, remember, it is Disney producing this movie so maybe Snow White wandered onto the set and dropped it off) she turns mean, green, and dangerous, soon outfitting herself in full Margaret Hamilton attire and commandeering a broomstick with a flair that would bring envy to the Harry Potter quidditch crowd. With these two malicious baddies on the warpath it’s all that our over-his-head Mr. Oz can do to avoid being killed, but after realizing that his previously dubious behavior and desire to luxuriate in the Wizard’s overflowing gold vault isn’t worthy of the trust placed in him by the good—if a bit strange—citizens of the Emerald City and other parts of his new territory, he finally roars into action himself, using some Magic Lantern-type projection tricks (inspired by the foundational cinema of the only true wizard he’s ever known, Thomas Alva Edison) and pyrotechnics that astound everyone around, including the witches, which allows him the protection of continuing to play his new role without having to always depend on Glinda’s magic to save him from the wicked sisters. But about that continuity business again … if you hope to see how this might all fold in with a much more famous Wizard of Oz prequel, that of the literary and Broadway smash, Wicked (with its often-forgotten subtitle, The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West from the original 1995 Gregory Maguire novel or the full version of the play, Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman), you’ll find that it’s more like those old parallel universes in the DC Comics superhero stories with dopplegänger Supermen, Batmen, Green Lanterns, etc. because in that pre-Dorothy version (which does ultimately incorporate her arrival and familiar actions) the witch sisters are used-to-be-fairly-decent-until-she-got-a-taste of-lording-it-over-the-Munchkins Nessarose (the East one, somewhat equivalent to nasty Evanora in our current film) and green-from-birth-and-nobody’s-sweetheart Elphaba who early on becomes an opponent of the Wizard (although it finally turns out he’s actually her long-lost father) and establishes a reign of terror built on a combination of misunderstandings, heartbreak, and rejection revenge so there’s no way to reconcile these two versions of pre-Dorothy Oz, you just have to decide which one works better for you as they both are intended to make you wish that you could somehow morph their individual stories into a double-feature with the Judy Garland classic as the more triumphant aspect of it all.
So, Wicked aside, what do we have with Mr. Franco and company? Well, it’s an interesting premise, where the visuals are frequently stunning and make reasonable use of the 3-D option (nothing in the league of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, but few depth-illusion movies can hope to compare to the images that were instrumental in his recent Best Director Oscar win) but with a parallel sense of intentional background flatness that invokes both the kind of 2-D imagery that the Disney studio is so famous for and an allusion to the MGM classic that clearly was shot in a studio, unlike this version which likely was mostly created with green-screen CGI effects (with all of the brightly-colored landscapes and inhabitants of Oz—compared to the “wizard’s” monochrome clothing that helps keep him visually linked to Kansas—it’s a bit reminiscent of the concept if not the specific visuals from the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” segment from Yellow Submarine [George Dunning, 1968], so “Let me take you down, ‘cause I’m going to” the world beyond Strawberry Fields at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9_zm5c07XU—although Paul and Ringo better be careful before Disney buys them too). However, despite all the running and flying around by most everyone concerned, the story just feels empty, as if its entire reason for existence is to conjure up references to a much better cinematic experience—despite its age—or to try to beat a movie version of Wicked to the punch because the worldwide success of that play is bound to result in a cinematic version, probably much sooner than later (especially now that this one has shown the financial windfall that might await another dose of Ozziness, with this version pushing $80 million domestically in just 1 week of release and almost that much in foreign markets as well, holding down the top spot in dozens of countries around the globe—but with an estimated budget of $215 million it’s still got a way to go to justify itself). There are some decent moral messages in Oz the Great and Powerful, about how Mr. Oz (clumsy way to refer to him, but I need some variety from “the Wizard” and I’m trying to minimize confusion between him and his wondrous landing-pad beyond the clouds) can fascinate a farming audience with his slight-of-hand but must confront his limitations and purpose of existence when he can do nothing to help a little girl at his Midwest magic show regain the use of her legs or when he realizes that his seeming good fortune in Oz is also a sham because the residents there truly take him for a prophecy-fulfilling wizard and desperately need leadership in their world again after the demise of Glinda’s beloved father. Part of his path toward rising above the seduction of the gold and shifting his hormonal attention to whichever witch is nearby comes with his befriending of the tiny-but-mobile, ceramic-but-alive China Girl (Joey King, who also played the little disabled girl back in Kansas, in a twist on Dorothy’s situation in that other movie, just like Williams also in a dual role here), where he does give her movement again by repairing her broken legs, but he has to overcome his fears and mercenary inclinations before he can really be the leader that the people of Oz need against the increasing horror of the powerful witches. Ultimately he rises to the challenge, works with Glinda to restore a sense of equilibrium (even if it is based on complex illusions), and becomes accustomed to the place as all ends well for now (until the witches start manifesting their evil again but then Dorothy will come flying in herself and make it all more interesting that he could ever have hoped for). As Oz the Great and Powerful wraps up we definitely get no sense that this is a dream world, it’s now his new home for the betterment of all … but, yet, it just all seems so overblown, as if this is more of an attempt to rejuvenate the turnstiles that spun so well for Harry Potter, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies (although the latest one of those seems a bit overblown and stretched out as well), and even Disney’s live-action, CGI-enhanced 2010 Alice in Wonderland with Tim Burton successfully at the helm.
With Oz the Great and Powerful there are a lot of such familiar trappings (including a brief encounter with a cowardly lion, a flying monkey on the side of good this time, and an army of flying baboons that seem even more fierce than what Dorothy had to deal with) but it just creates more nostalgia for dusting off the real Wizardly DVD for a more successful trip to where happy little bluebirds fly (and I know that you know that I’ve got an obligation to help take you there so fasten your seatbelts for a smooth ride in Kansas with Judy before the storm rushes her away at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSZxmZmBfnU, or if that’s a bit too saccharine for your sophisticated urban tastes then how about another type of “over the rainbow” experience with Neil Young’s “Down by the River” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jxs0ybnsEQ? Either way, have a good trip, and I’ll be back to the regular neighborhood with you next week).
If you say “Yes!” to more about No here are some suggested links;
http://www.sonyclassics.com/index.php (not so easy to get an official website for this one; the U.S. distributor is Sony Pictures Classics so go here and click on No under Now Playing—at least for as long as that bit of showcasing lasts)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgI2ZQVyrBo (despite being an Oscar nominee, there’s not a lot out there about No, so in addition to the official trailer offered just above I’ve drifted in my usual wayward fashion to another variation on “No!” that’s in the spirit of what you get in our seriocomic Chilean movie under consideration this week)
If you want to grace Emperor with your presence further here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Vyhu5IPXrI (short interview with Tommy Lee Jones on playing Gen. Douglas MacArthur)
If you’re ready to fly off with Oz the Great and Powerful here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TGQewuMGB4&playnext=1&list=PL32AE0BFC34926F4D&feature=results_main (9 of the current Oz clips if you want to really indulge yourselves)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.