So, I saw Oz, the Great and Powerful. In 3D. I started off really enjoying myself during the opening black and white academy ratio scenes, and even some way into the colourful widescreen CGI vistas of the Land of Oz. But as the film started to become about battle preparations, my interest wandered, eventually to be replaced by embarrassment for poor Mila Kunis. Surprisingly, the film recovered from all the meandering to engage my interest for the climax. Overall however, I did leave the theatre pretty unimpressed, apart from an urge to watch The Wizard of Oz again.
Which I did last night. When Margaret Hamilton's wicked witch of the west is taken down by a splash of water, any pretense that Raimi's Oz might have to conceivably being emotionally connected to the events of the 1939 film has long since melted away. Hamilton has no doubt of her wickedness, or its capacity to bring her wicked delight, no room to believe that she was once little Mila Kunis with a broken heart. In contrast to the elaborate set-ups and payoffs which most often depict magical weapons or talismans to destroy evil - think of all those daggers passed from doomed character to doomed character in the Omen series, or countless forged or reforged swords, blades, or magical jewellery in most fantasy films - the method of her demise is introduced to the plot mere seconds before being employed, with an immediacy perhaps matched only by the 1922 Nosferatu turning into a puff of smoke at dawn. What follows is one of cinema's primal death scenes: in an uninterrupted shot, Hamilton's bright green mask and waving hands vanish into her collapsing gown, the surrounding guards lowering their spears to afford the camera a better view. "What a world", words of wonder and dread, "here I go". Surely for generations of western audiences, this is the first significant screen death most younger viewers encounter, a template for countless Dracula disintegrations to follow, Hamilton securing a place alongside Lugosi and Karloff in the pantheon of immortal screen monsters. We watch her melt away into nothingness without any illusion destroying cuts to other shots, a screen death for the ages.
No, Oz cannot possibly be compared to the brilliance of the 1939 film, but it must be remembered that the film makers had some strange restrictions to face. Whoever owns the 1939 film (I think it's Warner Bros. through their ownership of MGM) would not allow the use of visuals, elements, and styles that were unique to the Judy Garland film - so no ruby slippers, singing "Over the rainbow" and so on. The film makers were free to adapt the works of L. Frank Baum but not to use anything which had been invented by the film makers of the 1939 film.
That the end result should be culturally bankrupt is no surprise, and the audiences are the losers with a film that wants to trade on nostalgia while being free of copyright violations, with legal teams having approval over elements such as the precise shade of green Kunis' wicked witch could be, as well as the silhouette of her makeup. The film makers are stuck between a desire to homage the old film and a legal requirement to not directly copy it. So the opening scenes are black and white rather than the sepia tint of 1939.
But the new film is made by Disney, and they replace the nostalgic recollections they cannot use with their own. So the Emerald City at a distance resembles a glittering green Disney castle and the transformation of Mila Kunis into the closest the makeup and costume people could legally come to Margaret Hamilton is pilfered from Snow White, with its transformative apple. When James Franco's womanising Oz comes across a town of china teapots, it cannot help evoke the teacup ride at Disney. It starts to seem like the film is set in a theme park of itself. Raimi works 3D well and does produce some lovely imagery, but it's like there was another Oz film that could have been made which might have been much better.
A similar ghost of a film that didn't get made haunts Hitchcock. In this case, the film that didn't get made is a lively adaptation of "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho" by Stephen Rebello. As in Oz, we get some strange conflating of different images from pop cultural memories, most notably when Hitchcock's treatment of Janet Leigh in the shooting of the shower scene is re-invsioned to invoke the ordeal he put Tippi Hedren through on the set of The Birds. The creation of the film is once again hampered by copyright holders refusing to allow usage of material - in this case, the makers of Hitchcock were unable to directly recreate any footage from the film their film is supposed to be about the making of. So Psycho is represented by some offscreen snippets of Bernard Herrmann's score and a brief dialogue scene between some minor characters - again, offscreen, we watch an audience watching the film. So Scarlett Johansonn's spot on turn as Janet Leigh ends up being kind of wasted.
Similarly thrown away is Toni Collette, portraying Hitchcock's assistant Peggy Robertson. According to the book, Robertson had a sharp eye for material which would appeal to Hitchcock, and knew to ignore the studio notes advising against adapting Robert Bloch's novel "Psycho" for the screen. In the film, she is a secretary ready to pass on the material until Hitchcock leans over her and grabs the manuscript off her desk. Paul Schackman is well cast as Bernard Herrmann, but his single scene fails to make the most of Herrmann's infamous temperment. Hitchcock's editor George Tomasini is nowhere to be seen, the editing room represented by a flurry of un-named assistants with Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) bent over viewers, poring over footage.
So instead of a detailed account of how Psycho came to be written by Robert Bloch, acquired and filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, and released to transform the cinema/audience relationship, we get a biopic, which has - as a biopic must - a marriage on rocky ground, and explores - as a biopic must - the dark side of a creative genius. So we do not get treated to Anthony Hopkins showing us the gleeful sexual imp in Hitchcock, instead he plays a man tormented by the ghost of Ed Gein, which is about as barely explained as the plot of Psycho.
Of course, Hopkins and Mirren are terrific, and the film is beautifully made, with an especially exquisite homage to the music of Herrmann in Hitchcock in Danny Elfman's score, much better than his work for Sam Raimi in Oz. But unfortunately for me I know the source material for this movie very well, and this film kept hitting false notes.
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