March 19, 2013

Three Steps to Enjoying Oz The Great and Powerful

James Franco is Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs. That is, the Wizard of Oz.

Trippy as it would be for Dorothy to turn up, her house having landed on a lady with real nice heals, and be asked, "Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?" I think Oscar Diggs gets it even worse. Imagine waking up in a land that's named after you; yeah, this place is called Oz. I don't know what can be worse for your ego than having the world be named after you.

There's also the fact that Oscar Diggs, the tricksy magician, is expected to be able to kill the Wicked Witch who's been tormenting his land, because there's one of those nifty prophecies. Queue James Franco's face, looking like it always does: that of a smug, stoned sonofabitch. Goofy, incapable, thinks he's charming enough to blow off the Oscars like it's no big deal. The freaking Oscars. That's about all you'll get from his character, and probably from Franco's acting for the rest of his career unless someone gives him a sock in the head hard enough to get through his thick skull.

Luckily we have three beautiful witches to feast our eyes on through the entire production.

Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz play the witches of Oz, and play with Oz's heart, and are probably the biggest reason Oz the Great and Powerful has grossed $283 million worldwide, other than Happy Meal toy promotion.

Of course, you've already decided to go see the movie for Mila, so now the question becomes, will you like it?

Or better yet: How will you make sure you will like it?

Step 1: Remember Magic

Repeat the following mantra to yourself. It's Disney. It's Disney. It's Disney. Remember this is a kids flick, and therefore, Franco's sidekicks are going to be annoying, there will be inappropriately light-hearted one-liners to keep the kindergarteners from tearing up (too much), and there will be a storybook ending. The best way to remember what you're getting into would be to watch not only (Warner Brothers') The Wizard of Oz, but also a couple of Disney films. Maybe some of the less good ones, like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, cuz let's be honest, this is no Aladdin. Just remember how to laugh when you're supposed to and try to have a good time.

Step 2: Think about Oz

I wouldn't recommend marathoning The Wizard of Oz, then Oz the Great and Powerful, because this contemporary prequel just has none of that level of mastery. But of course, you need to be ready to catch those magical references. There won't be any ruby slippers, but there will be the odd reverberating line that will make you think of the classic, which is basically all Oz the Great and Powerful is good for. Okay, the story isn't terrible. But everyone going to see it is clearly just trying to recapture some of what you're supposed to get over the rainbow.

Step 3: Go to the matinée

The goofy jokes really need a laugh-track to be any fun for adults, or what I will call The Finding Neverland effect.

25 Seats for Orphans:

I couldn't get a clip of how infectious the children laughing was but I'm sure you will remember, and you will remember to go see Oz The Great and Powerful with as many rugrats in the audience as you can manage.

Alternatively, you can go to a late show and brown bag it.

BONUS: Try to forget how much you don't like James Franco's face.

The longer it's been since you've watched Freaks and Geeks or Pineapple Express, the better. Don't watch the interview of him on Colbert slouching disrespectfully in his seat because movie stars don't have to sit up straight; don't check out Rise of the Planet of the Apes (for various reasons); and whatever you do, don't watch him slowly and torturously strangle the 2011 Academy Awards, leaving Anne Hathaway dancing and giving mouth-to-mouth at the same time. Just try to forget.

Not that reading this post just helped you with that.
Okay, here's a distraction!

If you remember the 1939 classic, you can't possibly forget all of those heavy handed insinuations that the whole thing is a dream. I mean, come on, she even wakes up in her bed at the end. But the cowardly lion, the scarecrow and the tin man are all farmhands in the employ of Aunty Em, and the Wicked Witch of the West looks a lot like mean old Miss Gulch, the psycho who wants to kill her dog.

Oz The Great and Powerful has a few hints as well, but I don't think Disney managed as seamless a dream quest as Warner Bros. did. Sure, it was a different story and timeline to work with, so of course Oscar can't wake up just yet, but I only uncovered a few hints that the writers were still playing with dreams at all.

The first and most obvious is named Annie. Look familiar?

If not, good. I didn't spoil anything for you. Carry on with your movie watching.

The next has to do with Oscar Digg's failure as a magician; the fact that he's a con man who can't actually do magic. Now, normally you wouldn't hold that against a guy, but when he's on stage pretending he can levitate lady volunteers and making fireworks and explosions, he tells his audience to believe, and that's just what they do. To the point where a little girl in a wheelchair believes that he can fix her legs, and she's crying, and he's completely failing to do the adult thing in the situation, which is to either tell her the truth or come up with a really, really good lie. Yup, that's the adult thing to do. But watch closely, and you will see in true Freudian style that his subconscious will deal with the disappointment of not being able to help the little girl to walk.

And that's pretty much all I got. So please flood my comment board with your genius observations; I have need of you.

I haven't given Oz The Great and Powerful a stellar review, and that's because it's not exactly a stellar film. It could be the fault of L. Frank Baum's original story, but I felt that Oscar's great accomplishments were taken away from by the final conflict and how ridiculously that was resolved. Yay Glinda! Now why didn't you just do that in the first place? Oh wait, that's just how Glinda rolls, if you remember in The Wizard of Oz her whole "You've always had the power to go back to Kansas" thing.

But what I did find to be stellar was the entire intro. I might be alone, and Dorothy wouldn't agree with me until the end of her little dream quest, but I didn't want to leave Kansas at all. The Professor's circus had more magic for me than a digitally remastered fantasy land. I hope you'll find the same. Or maybe you will enjoy contemporary Emerald City and the yellow brick road more than I did.

March 14, 2013

Star Trek's Unaired Pilot: The Cage

It's 1964, and television Western writer Gene Roddenberry has just been rejected by NBC executives for the pilot to his new interstellar science fiction project: Star Trek. That pilot was entitled The Cage, and it was turned down on the basis that it was "too intelligent."

Damn right it was too intelligent. Not in a hard sci-fi, technological, hyper space and time travel understanding kind of way, but Star Trek was, and always has been, a show that could hack away at some of the touchiest social issues of the period for the simple reason that it's not so touchy if it takes place on another planet with a race of aliens rather than humans. Who cares if aliens live in a society of hierarchical oppression? Oh wait, that's a reflection of Western culture? Shit.

The Cage introduces the USS Enterprise and its crew: starring Mr. Spock, Captain Pike, Number One, and Yeoman Colt. If you're wondering who three out of four are, it's not because you're new to the series; the relaunched pilot, The Man Trap, reinvented the crew of the Enterprise. I only mention it because I'm about to blasphemy myself as a non-trekky when I say that Captain Pike had that perfect period acting, and character-wise, the perfect street-smarts and attitude, and here it is: I wish he had made it on to Season 1. Shatner just doesn't really do it for me. I don't get it. I guess he'll have to grow on me. I like Pike better.

So Captain Pike is tired and jaded and wants to retire from the ship, and he is given the perfect opportunity to do so when he lands on a Matrix-esque planet where he could just pull a Cypher and stay a while in a fantasy land inside his head.

"Why, oh why didn't I take the blue pill."

The purpose of his mind-trap is to get him to agree to be the partner of Vina, a human woman who was greatly disfigured in a space ship crash. As you can see, the aliens who took her in can deceive Pike's mind to make him think she is beautiful, when really she's a scarred, oldish, crone.

The other character missing when Season 1 got green-lighted is Number One, our feminist lead, second in command and the only woman allowed on the bridge. Because, according to Pike, she's "different, of course." Yeah, never say that to a woman. This is the face she'll make at you:

Oh, and the doctor (who is, I'm informed, not Dr. McCoy) reminds me of the doctor on Battlestar:

"Sometimes a man'll tell his bartender things he'll never tell his doctor."

The Cage is kind of awkward, I'll be honest. The aliens helping Vina, the Talosians (or whatever), try to manipulate Pike by capturing Number One and Yoeman Colt as well and offering either of them to be his, erm, partners, in the hopes that he will choose Vina over his female co-workers. Talk about office romance. While the show, I've heard, champions feminism, I suppose the question The Cage asks is how to deal with women entering command with concern for professionalism and sexuality. It's just so awkward because the Talosians can read the women's minds and they tell Pike that both of his co-workers have feelings for him, or would consider a sexual relationship - I mean how do you show up to the office the next day?

Well, they didn't - neither character appears in the actual pilot, The Man Trap, an episode that I felt carried some of the themes of this story, including a female who, like Vina, can change her appearance. However, unlike the Sherlock pilots, this new pilot was completely rethought, reworked from start to finish. The story that is most like The Cage is called The Menagerie, a two-parter spanning episodes 11 and 12, and in fact, The Menagerie features much of the footage from The Cage.

Needless to say, I would have liked a series that included The Cage and some of its characters.

Star Trek had a rocky history in terms of production and reception. The original pilot was rejected and it's lucky NBC bought the series and filmed a completely new one. The series was almost cancelled after Season 1, it never did well in ratings, it was moved to the Friday night death slot in Season 2 and the shows cancellation in Season 3 was hardly unforeseen - which hopefully means the original series ended on a well-written note, with a storybook ending. I'll let you know when I get there.

March 8, 2013

Sherlock Holmes and the Unaired Pilot

Sherlock is a consulting detective who lives at 221B Baker Street in modern day London. He's a mass-texter with an addiction to nicotine patches, because "It's impossible to sustain a smoking habit in London these days", and he solves crime using what he calls The Science of Deduction on his personal website.

Translating a myth like that of detective Sherlock Holmes into modern life is a very dangerous task.

If you're going to take the most beloved of crime fiction stories and translate it to a contemporary setting, you had better do a damn good job of it. Everyone knows that you should never mess with a classic, and Sherlock Holmes has come to be a great literary figure period, not just the greatest of formula detective fiction.
Luckily, BBC's Sherlock has the production value, writing and pitch-perfect cast to keep the show from being an utter disaster. In fact, it's really quite good.

Casting Martin Freeman (as Doctor Watson) and Benedict Cumberbatch (as Holmes) was probably the first step to success. The second probably had to be the re-shooting of the entire pilot with better cinematography, a faster pace, and yet the length of a short movie.

The pilot you will encounter on Netflix is entitled A Study in Pink, a nod to the first Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet. It's 90 minutes of a good old fashioned Conan Doyle-esque mystery, except that Sherlock sends tactical texts and hacks e-mail accounts to draw out the serial murderer.
The unbroadcast pilot is worth a watch, but only if you're really curious. It's the same story. Oh, the work they must have put that cast and crew through to re-shoot the entire episode, with most of the scenes matching up with little more tweeking than costume design and a tightening up of the acting, but some being almost completely re-written. It is, however, a very good thing they re-worked the script and shot the whole thing over - this time looking much prettier.

Another change, beyond the drastic diference in length, is that the premiere, broadcast in 2010, manages to actually establish a longer term plot line by having a vague hinting toward a certain Moriarty. Of all the shows I'm examining, Sherlock might be the last I expected to resist that episodicness I was complaining about earlier.
You know how much I love a show that doesn't treat me like an idiot. In fact, sometimes Sherlock makes me feel like maybe I am an idiot - as authentic an experience of watching Sherlock Holmes solve mysteries as you can ask for. I mean, he is a genius.

If he wasn't smarter than the audience, the show wouldn't be worth watching.

The dialogue does go a little fast so you might want to have a cuppa before watching and prepare yourself to keep up. Or maybe it's just the British accent (but it seems like they talk really fast).

Created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, both writers for Doctor Who.
To some, a modern Sherlock who relies on his cell (or those of the people around him) and the internet to solve mysteries might sound hokey and not worth the watch. Paul McGuigan defends the use of modern technology in Sherlock: "In the books he would use any device possible... He will use the tools that are available to him today in order to find things out." The defence seems kind of unnecessary - I think the main problem is that we just don't really know how to deal with the new world of tablets, apps, GPS and facebook messaging on the screen yet, big or little.

If you have watched Sherlock already, what did you think of all that texting? And the way the information was displayed for us? Was it all too heavy-handed, or is it the right direction for modern storytelling?

And if this review has not convinced you yet to sit down for 90 minutes of A Study in Pink, consider the banter.

Watson: Why didn't I think of that.
Sherlock: Because you're an idiot. No no no, don't be like that. Practically everyone is.

And that most everyone the show throws at us assumes the flatmates are a couple. Good time to be alive and watching television!

March 6, 2013

Wheel of Time: The Series Everyone Wanted to End

Ever read a book that you just did not want to end? Of course you have. Ever read 11,916 pages of a series that began two decades ago, that had its most vehement fans calling for the end to come since around 1992? We've been calling for Tarmon Gaidon for years now, and it’s finally here, and there’s never been anything like it. A Memory of Light, like books 8 through 13 of the series, debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers list, which means that millions of readers made it through all 14 books, and millions of readers were ready to turn that final page.

The series dragged on. Robert Jordan, the late storyteller, was criticized for the long-windedness of one of his less skilled Gleeman. When he passed, his notes were left to Brandon Sanderson, and it soon became clear that the story could not be told in the single final tome RJ was envisioning. It had to keep going. It had to be even longer. A Memory of Light was split into three volumes: The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and the finale, A Memory of Light.

March 4, 2013

Pilot: Doctor Who

It didn't age that well, it's goofy, the premise was nothing unique for its time, and the acting was... well... British.

Now that I have your attention, and quite possibly your eternal hatred, let's get to what's good about the Dr. Who Pilot. I liked it. I like Doctor Who, but come on - the series begins with an almost five minute montage. Now, it's a montage of a really good looking British blonde that manages to establish that she, Rose, works in retail and has an adorable boy-toy, but it's still a montage. Oh, and it also introduces the score, which has really quite grown on me after many hours of having it stuck in my head. The saving grace of this pilot is definitely the two stars. Rose is a lot smarter than you'd expect, and the Doctor is immediately the kind of wise-ass you really hate to love.

I wouldn't even quite say that it's the writing that makes the Doctor and Rose likeable - at least as far as the pilot goes. The script boils down to Big Bang Theory-esque humor and a sci-fi plot that isn't really the reason you're watching. If you ask me, it's all in the delivery. I don't know where Christopher Eccleston came from but he knows how to throw out a nerdy one-liner with the perfect mix of self-depreciation and enthusiasm. Gets me every time.

In fact, with lines like "The assembled hordes of Genghis Khan couldn't get through that door, and believe me, they've tried!" it's a wonder Doctor Who made it from screenplay to piot and beyond. It's certainly over the top and it certainly makes you like it in spite of youself. Somehow that Doctor is just irresistible.

As for what the pilot is about, well, it's your typical alien invasion story. Okay, not quite typical because the aliens turn all of the plastics in Britain against humanity in an attempt to drive us to extinction at the hands of mannequins and, well, monstrous garbage bins. The mystery of this frist episode isn't so much what the invading alien race is, but what humanity's saviour – the Doctor – is. Because he doesn't seem to be human. He admits to being alien himself.

The Doctor is a Time Lord, an alien who uses a phonebooth-looking thing called a Tardis to travel through time saving humanity again and again from extinction, invasion, and our own stupidity. It's said of him that "He has one constant companion. Death." Well, that companion will become Rose, which is a much lighter turn for the series.

The pilot for Doctor Who doesn't in any way establish an arching plot. It doesn't give you even a slight hint as to where the story will be going. In this case, that's a good thing. So far, Doctor Who is episodic, but every episode is so entirely different that it is in no way necessary for the creators to tell us what to expect. The Tardis opens up the possibilities for stories to be told anywhere in the universe, at any time in history. Scenarios unfold in the past, present, and future, in places all over the world and planets all over the galaxy. The one thing the Doctor Who pilot fails at doing is telling us that. You might find yourself surprised at the range of locales the Doctor and Rose wind up in.

Indeed, it will take an episode or two before it becomes clear that the Doctor and Rose have very few limitations. The only recurrent element is that pretty much everywhere they go, humanity is about to face extinction, and the Doctor saves us from our fate. Or at least, he has so far.

It may not have aged fantastically, it may be a little cheesy, but I'll tell you what it has got: the tension to make you think the world will end in the very pilot. And again the next episode. And the next.

By the way, The boy-toy doesn't end up being nearly as hilarious and awesome as I'd hoped, but he does become the butt of some good jokes. "Are you drinking tea? No, no, no, that's no good. You're in shock; you need something stronger. Come on, we're going down to the pub, you and me, my treat." "Is there a match on?" "No, no, no, I was just thinking about you, baby." "There's a match on."

Good times.