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MAGIC MOMENTS?
Sam Raimi has always seemed capable of merging his dark horror sensibilities with something more mainstream and so I had high hopes for Oz The Great and Powerful. An intriguing trailer and a decent cast that includes James Franco, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz meant that expectations were high. Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a magician of questionable ability who finds himself swept away to the land of Oz, where the grateful inhabitants greet him as their saviour and he has to decide whether he has it in him to be the man they believe he is capable of being. Diggs meets three witches, Glinda (Michelle Williams), Evanora (Weisz) and Theodora (Kunis) but all is not what it seems. One of the witches is responsible for the land’s troubles and he must discover who it is if he is to save Oz. Franco is good here, as he brings a certain amount of range to his performance and Williams lends Glinda a naive charm but Oz The Great and Powerful just doesn’t quite gel. When you are trying to revisit a subject that is so loved and revered by audiences worldwide, then you are already at a disadvantage before you start. Raimi was a good choice for this as he has shown his ability to shoehorn adult themes into children’s vehicles but the tone here is strangely uneven. The script comes across as hackneyed and overly familiar and it’s not quite dark enough to satisfy adult audiences but perhaps a little too knowing and arch to really connect with children. It’s a real shame as it’s not a total disaster (the introduction of the China Girl (Joey King) is nicely handled and the origin of the Wicked Witch is quite clever) but it does fall between the stools. Dramatically it is not as well made a film as 1985’s Return To Oz and it certainly falls far short of the 1939 Wizard of Oz. So disappointing rather than terrible, Oz The Great and Powerful is worth checking out with a number of major reservations…

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FESTIVAL IN THE BIG SMOKE
The last month has been crazy so this is the first chance I’ve had to put a post up about the London Film Festival, which ended at the end of October. Because I was freelancing and then away, I didn’t go to many films this year. The LFF, unlike Cannes and Toronto, is not a film market and one of its main purposes is to showcase film for the cinemagoing public. It has also created buzz for a number of significant British films the last few years: Slumdog Millionaire and An Education were helped by their showings at the LFF. It is a fantastic festival and I look forward to attending it each year.
The first film I caught was The King’s Speech, a drama starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham-Carter and directed by Tom Hooper. Now Firth, while a likeable actor, usually just bumbles through his roles but here as the future King George VI, afflicted with a terrible stammer, he is playing against type. Geoffrey Rush plays antipodean exile Lionel Logue, who is brought in by George’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, to try to help him overcome this problem. Bonham-Carter as Elizabeth is actually quite good, acting as a decent foil for Firth. TV veteran director Hooper (Cold Feet, Elizabeth I) brings an assured touch here, humanising the Royals and with a perfect eye for period detail, thanks to Eve Stewart’s sumptuous production design, lifts The King’s Speech above more than just the usual Royal-focused film with an eye to attracting American audiences. Rush is superb as the man who becomes George’s friend, determined to help him out despite the protestations of the Archbishop of Canterbury and King George himself. Guy Pearce, who plays Edward VIII, the monarch who resigned and went to live with Mrs Wallis Simpson, makes his role go a decent way and his arrogance is a nice counterpoint to George’s warmth. There is talk of Oscar nods for The King’s Speech and it would certainly be warranted…
Next up is Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder. This is a film that has attracted much speculation and divided audiences who have seen it. Portman plays Nina, a classical dancer who is offered the role of the prima ballerina in a new production of Swan Lake after their principal dancer Beth Macintyre (Ryder) leaves. Vincent Cassel is svengali Thomas Leroy, the head of the ballet company, who isn’t convinced that Nina is capable of playing both the White Swan and the more evil counterpart, the Black Swan, in Swan Lake. So Nina becomes obsessed with trying to pin down the other role, with her life seemingly falling to pieces around her. Black Swan looks incredible, dark and menacing, but the problem here is that Portman’s Nina is an obnoxious, narcissistic and unsympathetic character, so when the film ends on a low note, because the audience can’t empathise with her, it leaves you feeling quite cold. None of the other characters are particularly likeable either with Cassel a bit of a shit who had a fling with Beth before the company got rid of her and only Lilly (Kunis), who befriends Nina, comes across as remotely human. So Black Swan works as a technical exercise and there’s no denying Aronofsky’s prowess as a director but it’s clinical and rather portentous in places with a protagonist that you never really get to care about.…
Finally there’s 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle with James Franco, Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn. Boyle is an incredible director, able to turn his hand to everything from hedonistic drama (Trainspotting) to post-apocalyptic zombie horror (28 Days Later). He is a very stylish director who knows how to entertain his audience. 127 Hours recounts the true-life story of Aron Ralston (James Franco) an American adrenalin junkie who decides one weekend to take a biking, hiking and climbing trip out to the middle of nowhere in Utah but comes unstuck when he gets trapped in a canyon when a rock falls and pins his arm. It’s interesting that 2010 has seen the release of this as well as Buried but the two films are approached in a very different way. Only Danny Boyle could make a film about a man trapped in a canyon for several days and still make it entertaining. 127 Hours looks fantastic with the Utah scenery captured incredibly on camera, thanks to the cinematography of Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle (the latter he worked with on Slumdog Millionaire). James Franco, on who this film stands or falls, is also pretty convincing as he transforms from a man only interested in making himself happy to someone a little more aware of his friends and family. Boyle could have made a crowdpleasing followup to Slumdog after the worldwide success of that film but it is to his eternal credit that he picked what comes across as a very personal project. The world of modern cinema would be a poorer place with Boyle making films in it and 127 Hours is an engaging, tense and ultimately uplifting movie…
I was lucky enough to go to the press conference for 127 Hours so here’s a few shots from that…