This week’s home video releases range from a high-octane action film starring Dwayne Johnson to a modern-day prequel to the “Wizard of Oz.”
Oz the Great and Powerful
2½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand
For a movie that looks gorgeous, evokes memories of a cinematic classic and boasts a bundle of star power, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is oddly flat. It’s not that the film is terrible; it’s just not as good as it could or should have been.
Based on the “Oz” novels of L. Frank Baum, the story is set decades before events portrayed in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.” That makes the project a prequel of sorts, and director Sam Raimi knew audiences would compare his work to the classic preceding it. In answer, he pays loving homage to “Wizard,” tying the two films together through both characterizations and visuals.
A lot has changed in the last 75 years, and audiences would surely rebel if Raimi simply recreated the low-tech special effects from the first movie. So, he honors the earlier picture in spirit while capitalizing on modern-day filmmaking techniques. The result is a nostalgic picture that starts with tightly cropped black-and-white images that transition to widescreen, Technicolor-like splendor. This, of course, is reminiscent of the original film. The computerized visual effects in “Oz” are more cartoony than necessary, most likely so Raimi could maintain the fanciful, not-quite-lifelike tone of “Wizard.”
Unfortunately, the characters and storytelling in “Oz” don’t keep pace with the visuals. The narrative revolves around Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a sideshow magician with dreams of hitting the big time. Oscar is as much a self-centered cad as a dreamer, and he finds himself chased by a carnival strongman after coming on to the man’s wife. To escape, he jumps in a hot air balloon, which is promptly sucked into a tornado and transported to Oz.
Upon arrival, Oscar is mistaken for a wizard who was prophesized to overthrow the evil witch who is terrifying the land. Because he longs for greatness and has no sense of restraint, Oscar plays along. Franco is good in the role, and portraying Oscar as egocentric is reasonable, especially since the character is asked to reevaluate his morals during the course of the film. Alas, his transformation occurs slowly, and Oscar is less than likable through much of the picture.
The movie is further undermined by Mila Kunis’ portrayal of the witch Theodora. Like Oscar, she undergoes a transformation, but neither she nor Raimi make it particularly believable.
The cast standout is Michelle Williams who gives a beautiful portrayal of the good witch Glinda. Williams captures the essence of Billie Burke’s performance in “Wizard,” then expands on it, giving viewers a younger, tougher version of the character. Raimi also gets nice supporting performances from Rachel Weisz, Tony Cox and Zach Braff.
Ultimately, “Oz” is an uneven picture that has moments of greatness but doesn’t feel truly magical. And magic is a must for Oz.
DVD extras are limited to bloopers and a short about Walt Disney’s fascination with Baum’s Oz stories. The Blu-ray release contains these bits plus another five shorts about the making of the film.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
Rated R for strong fantasy horror violence and gore, brief sexuality/nudity and language
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D digital download and on demand
Hollywood must sense a demand for horror movies that place a supernatural spin on beloved figures because we’re in the midst of a trend. The past 12 months brought us “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and “Warm Bodies,” a zombified version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Now, writer-director Tommy Wirkola has given us “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” a black comedy supposing the title characters not only escaped a witch as children, but decided to hunt them as adults.
The premise is silly, and Wirkola doesn’t even attempt to make the movie smarter than its title. Instead, he embraces the wackiness, making the adult Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) full-on superheroes. They are immune to the spells and curses of witches, giving them a considerable advantage over average mortals. This also allows them to make a reasonable living as witch-killing mercenaries.
The latest client to hire the fairy tale duo is the mayor of a small town where children are being abducted. Not long into their investigation, Hansel and Gretel discover that the kidnappings are part of a huge plot that could forever tip the balance of power between witches and humans. This increases the stakes, but not by much. The film’s real selling points are action, special effects and gore.
During the course of the movie, many characters die, often under horrifyingly bloody circumstances. In other words, this version of “Hansel & Gretel” isn’t for children. It is difficult, however, to argue that the movie is for mature audiences because older viewers tend to value things like smarts and restraint. “Hansel & Gretel” has neither.
Wirkola attempts to balance his over-the-top gore with gags, but the jokes often fall flat. The characters aren’t very compelling either, and that’s a problem in a film built around action. After all, death-defying stunts are most inspiring when viewers care whether the players live or die.
The DVD release has no extra features. The Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D releases have theatrical and unrated cuts of the film plus several making-of shorts.
Rated PG-13 for drug content and sequences of violence
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand
Writer-director Rick Roman Waugh must detest mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes because his latest film, “Snitch,” is a blatant indictment of the practice. Despite literally driving this political message home with a semi, the movie is also a reasonably effective thriller.
“Snitch” starts by introducing viewers to Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron), a decent young man accused of drug trafficking after a “friend” sets him up. He is unable to beat the charges and winds up in prison where he is ill-equipped to deal with the ruffians surrounding him. In a desperate attempt to help, Jason’s father, John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), cuts an unusual deal with a US attorney (Susan Sarandon). She agrees to reduce Jason’s sentence if John aids in the arrest of a major drug dealer, something he is in a unique position to accomplish since his legitimate construction business is a perfect front for transporting drugs.
As the film charges forward, John immerses himself in the world of underground drug cartels, and finds himself in increasingly dangerous situations. Waugh is self indulgent in his approach to the material, and the dialogue occasionally bogs in preachy rhetoric. Once one moves beyond these annoyances, however, “Snitch” works as a simple and enjoyable action thriller.
As usual, Johnson plays his stock character – a tough guy with a heart of gold. It would be nice to see Johnson push his boundaries, but he’s good at this part, and “Snitch” isn’t refined enough to require great acting.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include a 50-minute making-of documentary and an audio commentary with Waugh and editor Jonathan Chibnall.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“House of Cards” – The Complete First Season: This 13-episode drama changed the face of television by becoming the first series distributed solely through Netflix’s streaming video service. Finally, it’s available to folks who don’t have Netflix… as well as fans who really want to own it on DVD or Blu-ray. Adapted from the like-titled BBC miniseries, “House of Cards” focuses on a congressman (Kevin Spacey) who seeks revenge after the U.S. President (Michael Gill) betrays him. Robin Wright, Kate Mara and Cory Stoll also star. David Fincher is an executive producer, and he directed the first two episodes.
“The Newsroom” – The Complete First Season: First 10 episodes of the Golden Globe-nominated, HBO drama about the behind-the-scenes happenings at a fictional cable news network. Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer and John Gallagher Jr. star. Created by Aaron Sorkin.
“Major Crimes” – The Complete First Season: This spinoff of the TNT drama “The Closer” picks up where the old series left off. With Deputy Police Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) having left the Major Crimes division of the Los Angeles Police Department, the remaining detectives must adjust to the leadership of a former adversary, Captain Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell).
“Wild Strawberries”: The Criterion Collection delivers a freshly restored transfer of writer-director Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 drama about an aging professor coming to terms with the inadequacies of his life. Victor Sjöström stars. The movie was nominated for a best original screenplay Oscar, and it won the best foreign film award at the 1960 Golden Globes.
“Perry Mason” –Final Season, Volume 1: This popular courtroom drama ran from 1957 to 1966, and Paramount is releasing the final 30 episodes in two volumes. This release features 15 episodes in which attorney Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) tackles seemingly hopeless cases with the help of detective Paul Drake (William Hopper) and secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale).
“Rizzoli & Isles” – The Complete Third Season: Fifteen latest episodes of the TNT crime drama about the crime-fighting efforts of a Boston detective (Angie Harmon) and her medical examiner friend (Sasha Alexander). Based on characters created by novelist Tess Gerritsen.
“Burn Notice” – Season Six: USA Network just debuted the seventh and final season of this drama about a spy (Jeffrey Donovan) who was blacklisted by the CIA. The 18 episodes presented here can bring new fans up to speed or pad the video collection of long-time followers.
Beverly Lewis’ “The Confession”: This Hallmark Channel TV movie is a sequel Beverly Lewis’ “The Shunning,” and it is based on the second novel in Lewis’ “The Heritage of Lancaster County” book series. The plot centers on an Amish woman (Katie Leclerc) who goes on a journey of self-discovery and finds herself embroiled in a mystery. Directed by Michael Landon Jr.
“Ring of Fire”: Home video release of the ReelzChannel miniseries about activists fighting to stop a string of volcanic eruptions capable of destroying life on Earth. Michael Vartan, Terry O’Quinn and Lauren Lee Smith star.
“Betty & Coretta”: Lifetime original movie about the friendship between Coretta Scott King (Angela Bassett) and Dr. Betty Shabazz (Mary J. Blige), the widows of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X.
“Ninja III – The Domination”: Home video debut of the 1984 exploitation film about an aerobics instructor (Lucinda Dickey) possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja. Shô Kosugi, Jordan Bennett and James Hong also star. Directed by Sam Firstenberg.
– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work visit http://www.ForrestHartman.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
5 responses to “Video Verdict: ‘Oz the Great and Powerful,’ ‘Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,’ ‘Snitch’”
“because older viewers tend to value things like smarts and restraint”…LOL. Sometimes that doesn’t seem quite true. Especially given summer releases.
Movies like Hansel and Gretel make me think of Alonso Duralde who said recently ‘hug your local critic’. Glad you see such duds so I don’t have to (although secretly the bad reviews are some of my favorite to read).
As for Oz, why? Was there really a need to make that movie? I guess I don’t get it because I think Wizard of Oz is just about perfect and I LOVE the music (I have 11 copies of Over the Rainbow on my ipod, so you could say I like it). Its like creating a prequel for Casablanca. No need! I hear they are making a bio on Judy Garland starring Anne Hathaway. Shudder…
I wouldn’t mind a new batch of Oz films if they were nicely executed. There were numerous books, after all. But this one isn’t what I’d be hoping for. 🙂
I suppose you are right. Good writing can make anything great, but its hard when its paying homage to a particular favorite (as you mention even in the filming it tips it’s hat at the earlier film). The standard is already quite high. At least it was much better than the terrifying Return to Oz I saw as a little girl. I literally had nightmares for weeks about the hall of heads and the witch who collected them…Yikes.
Yes. It’s a hard line to walk.
In one sense, it’s tough to ignore the original film because everyone knows it and it’s wonderful. On the other hand, when you pay homage to it and aren’t as good, everyone makes comparisons.
To succeed, I think they need a perfect script and way better casting with the wicked witch.
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