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Column Fri Mar 08 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful, No, Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey & Somebody Up There Likes Me

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Oz the Great and Powerful

There's nothing like an impossible task to get Sam Raimi's creative juices flowing. He gave us two great Spider-Man movies (and one not-so-great one) before superhero movies were back in fashion. And now he has made a film about the land of Oz that honors 1939's The Wizard of Oz (which he clearly worships) but doesn't simply drop visual and dialog winks to that family classic, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum. Raimi and writers Mitchell Kapner and Pulitzer Prize-winning playright David Lindsay-Abaire use the known universe of Oz as a starting out point, but then take us back to the beginnings, when a second-rate magician/con-man named Oscar Diggs (James Franco, employing equal parts playfully sleazy and charming) found himself transported to the land of Oz, where he meets familiar characters and less-than-familiar ones, giving Raimi and his team a chance to pay homage and be utterly creative.

Clearly hoping to capitalize on the success of Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland, Disney has actually got a much better film on its hands than that appalling, ugly spectacle — which doesn't automatically mean it will make as much money, but it's not my job to guess the box office. Much like the '39 classic, Oz the Great and Powerful begins with reduced screen ratio and in black & white, as we see Diggs (nicknamed Oz) seduce a young, would-be assistant (more like a plant in the audience) for his circus magic show. In this lovely prologue, we meet a young girl in a wheelchair (Joey King) who begs the magician to make her walk again, Oz's right-hand man, Frank (Zach Braff), and Oz's true love, Annie (Michelle Williams), who has just been asked by another man (last name: Gale) to get married. Oz knows he cannot commit, so he sets her free with much pain in his heart. Soon after, a familiar Kansas storm kicks up a tornado, which sends Oz in a hot-air balloon off to the land where brilliant color and a widescreen await him.

The 3-D in Oz the Great and Powerful is spectacular, and Raimi isn't afraid to toss a few sharp objects right at the audience. Even the black-and-white segment looks great in 3-D. I especially loved the tornado sequence, in which Raimi allows debris to fly well beyond the 4:3 aspect ratio and into the black bars on either side of the image. But it's the full-screen presentation where the land of Oz truly comes to life. The flora, sets, costumes and CG characters are all eye-popping in their colors and design. Oz thinks he's got it made when he is mistaken by the lovely witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) for a powerful wizard that has been foretold to come and make Oz a better, more unified place. Naturally, Oz sees a pretty lady and immediately goes into predatory mode; there's even the slightest hint that the two sleep together that first night.

Later in his adventures, Oz meets Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), as well as the good witch Glinda (Williams again). Much like the '39 film, certain actors, such as Williams, play multiple roles. For example, Braff voices Finley, a flying monkey in a valet uniform who befriends Oz. But the film's most breath-taking creation is the character of China Girl (voiced by King), an 18-inch girl made of actual china. Although she is a CG character, Raimi hired a renowned puppeteer to maneuver her on set to capture the movements he was looking for, then had his effects team use that performance as the reference for the final product. Not only is the character absolutely adorable and cute, but she becomes the source of much emotional angst as the story progresses.

What Raimi does that few directors can get right is that he has created a family-friendly movie that doesn't play like a kids' movie. His characters don't talk down to each other or the audience. And despite the fact that there are three witches in the story (including one who transforms into the legendary green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West), there's hardly a campy, overplayed moment in the entire film. The peril levels are high, and some of the scarier moments might be a little too much for young children. But if your kid loves the original The Wizard of Oz, there's no reason they couldn't handle Raimi's version.

Above all else, it's the emotional resonance that I was most impressed by. Oz the Great and Powerful has a fully loaded agenda, but above all other things, it's the story of a man in search of a conscience, someone who fill, for the first time, put others well being in front of his own. And Franco's goofy demeanor and intentionally theatrical ways make it possible to buy that his false wizard could improve his soul and become the wizard everyone needs him to be (and the one we know best).

And while Raimi and his team rely pretty heavily on special effects for most of the film, the background in some scenes reminded me of old-school matte paintings. It made me smile to see that. For so many reasons, Raimi is the right man for this job. Not only is he unafraid of the scale of this production, but also he's a kid at heart, and he uses that powerful point of view to make the movie so much better.

The film's final confrontation between the "underclass" of Oz and the wicked witches (there are two) is a bit too much, although I'll admit that the reveal of the Wizard in a more familiar, projected manner is fantastic and, again, Raimi opts to make it look somewhat antiquated in its construction. The film is a testament to hand-crafted ingenuity (even with all the CG). And this being a Sam Raimi film, look for at least a couple of familiar faces (some buried under loads of Greg Nicotero- and Howard Berger-crafted makeup) thrown into the mix. I have a strong feeling that seeing Oz the Great and Powerful more than once will reveal some great little gems in the corners of the screen.

Raimi has always been a master at making the nostalgic feel new, and I don't think he's accomplished that more than in this film. He's crafted an tale that is epic in scale, yet relies heavily on intimate moments to gain emotional power. Oz the Great and Powerful isn't always propelling its characters or plot forward. It takes the time to look around and see the wonder of this place; and you should to. I can't imagine you leaving this film without elevated joy levels in your bloodstream.

No

The latest film from director Pablo Larrain (Post Mortem) is either the greatest film about the power advertising campaigns can have on national events (the nation in question being Chile, circa 1988) or it's a movie about how people will believe anything they see on television — even the ads. Or maybe it's about both. One of the five Oscar-nominated Best Foreign Language Film contenders, No is the true-life story of Chile's dictator Augusto Pinochet's campaign to have his rule extended an additional eight years, with the simplest vote in history. The nation was charged with voting Yes or No to his continued rule.

The always electric Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, an up-and-coming ad exec who, against the wishes of his conservative boss, is hired to run the No ad campaign on behalf of those opposed to Pinochet's rule. Before long Saavedra and his team are helping to shore up the candidate's policies and public image while systematically tearing down the present government at great personal risk to themselves. It's a fascinating story of a team of people with almost no money slowly building up a head of political steam to set the people of Chile free and possibly topple a dictatorship using modern advertising practices, peppered with a bit of misinformation.

The film uses a great deal of actual news footage of those involved in the campaign and their actual ads, as well as marches and demonstrations. So as not to be constantly jumping back and forth between video and film, Larrain opted to make the whole movie look like it was shot on video, resulting in an extraordinary immediacy to the proceedings. Some of what the ad team comes up with is hilarious and ridiculous, but there's no denying that their tactics worked (sorry to spoil; read a newspaper). And there's definitely a sense that even those who ran this effort were shocked at the results of the No campaign. The film has a great, low-level sense of tension in nearly every frame, and it's far more exciting and engaging than you probably believe a film about a political campaign could be. No opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey

I remember maybe three or four years ago, flipping through music video channels and stumbling upon a recent Journey concert shot in Manilla. The singer, who I'd never seen or heard before, sounded so much like one-time Journey front man Steve Perry that I couldn't stop watching just to see if he could keep up that level of singing. He did. I knew nothing about singer Arnel Pineda at the time, but it became apparent that the Filipino singer was performing this particular concert in front of a hometown crowd, so I did a little digging and discovered an extraordinary story, one that is chronicled in the documentary Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey from director Ramona S. Diaz, who made a doc about Imelda Marcos not long ago.

The film captures Pineda at a time when the shock still hasn't worn off. He spent the entire first year with the band thinking he was auditioning, although the band considered him their new full-time singer, after founding member and lead guitarist Neal Schon found Pineda on YouTube singing note-perfect Journey covers, as well as equally flawless renditions of songs by other rock bands, ranging from Led Zeppelin to Boston to The Police. For Pineda, just singing with one of his favorite bands only a few times would have been enough to fulfill that dream, but to be a contributing member of the band was almost more than he could handle mentally. We see the pressures of life on the road and the impact that had on Pineda's voice and psyche.

But Don't Stop Believin' isn't just about Pineda; it's about the band's history as well (almost equally). The film chronicles Perry's departure, a brief reunion, a tour that never happened, a new singer before Pineda who had to leave the band when his voice simply couldn't hold up; and how Journey is back to being as popular and in demand now as it was when Perry was the singer. Schon and keyboardist Jonathan Cain are fascinating to listen to as they put the band's history under a microscope and admit their failures as well as successes. It's also fascinating to listen to Pineda and the other band members discuss Perry's unique vocal stylings and how nearly impossible they are for one singer to duplicate or approximate.

What I found most interesting is the way the band worked with Pineda and incorporated him into the group. Cain acts as Pineda's vocal coach, working him through scales and other vocal exercises to get him used to singing as intensely as he must for a full concert. I loved seeing footage of Pineda's first performance with Journey (in Chile, I believe), during which he ran all over the stage, nearly making himself so winded that he couldn't sing the songs. The band's tour manager told him that Journey wasn't about running all over the place on stage; Pineda ignored that bit of wisdom and remains quite active during shows.

Don't Stop Believin' isn't meant to mirror an episode of "Behind the Music," although it does get into Pineda's history with substance abuse back when he was a struggling artist. What it actually does is show how Pineda being brought into Journey suddenly made the band an international act, selling out venues larger than they had ever played before, thanks in large part to an entirely new global audience. As one Filipino-American fan puts it, "When you brought Arnel into the band, you didn't know you were adopting a nation, did you?" It's hard not to be inspired by Pineda's story as well as his energy and enthusiasm for his work, which has clearly re-inspired his band mates. Don't Stop Believin' isn't about whether Journey is relevant or whether you think they're any good. It's about those rare moments in history when the dream becomes the reality, and how people cope with getting what they wish for. The film opens today in Chicago exclusively at the AMC River East 21 theaters.

To read my exclusive interview with Journey singer Arnel Pineda, subject of the documentary Don't Stop Believin', go to Ain't It Cool News.

Somebody Up There Likes Me

Normally films that are quirky just for quirkiness sake annoying the piss out of me. Thankfully, that brand of film doesn't really exist in large doses any longer (if it ever really did). But at last year's SXSW Film Festival I caught a truly quirky film that had me alternating between smiling and laughing in no small doses. From director Bob Byington (Harmony & Me) comes Somebody Up There Likes Me, the life story of Max (Keith Poulson of The Color Wheel), a steak house waiter who becomes a successful owner of a franchise of Pizza and Ice Cream stores, along with his fellow waiter Sal (Nick Offerman of "Parks and Recreation," who also produced the film). The film actually covers about 35 years of their lives, although most of the characters look like they age about 10 years during the course of the movie.

When the film opens, Max stumbles upon his ex-wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) sleeping with another man. He's attempted to stay friends with her, but clearly that isn't going well. Somehow the incident compels him to ask out Lyla (Jess Weixler from Teeth), who also works in the restaurant and whose police officer father (Marshall Bell) can't stand Max. Max and Lyla eventually get married and have a weird son, who is one of the only characters in the film whose ago seems to change appropriately (in each time jump, the kid is played by a different actor); the other way time is marked is by Offerman's facial hair, which alternates from full beard to mustache to goatee with shades of gray as time passes. Max is distracted by his son's pretty nanny, Clarissa (Stephanie Hunt), while Lyla seems drawn to Sal. You can probably guess where those plot points are headed.

But what sets Somebody Up There Likes Me apart from the pack is its dry wit, likable cast and stark visual style. Offerman is especially funny in ways that are both different and similar to what he does on "Parks and Rec." It certainly shows a range in Offerman's acting that hasn't been seen in a while, and the man is genuinely funny. The film loses a bit of its focus and drive in its final act, but since it has a running time of about 75 minutes, it's not like you'll have to suffer through any part of whatever you might find lacking.

The film is wavers between organically bizarre to a feeling of forced weirdness, but most of it is pretty humorous and entertaining. Add on a nice score from Vampire Weekend's Chris Baio and some pleasant animated interludes from Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly animator Bob Sabiston, and Somebody Up There Likes Me is a pleasant enough way to spend a short time in the movie theater. There are far better movies out there, to be sure, but sometimes a simple, entertaining distraction gets the job done. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

As an added bonus, one of the film's stars, Nick Offerman, will do Q&As after four screenings of Somebody Up There Likes Me at the Music Box on Friday, March 8 at 7:30 and 9:45pm and Saturday, March 9 at 7:30 and 9:45pm.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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