Film Review: The Wiz (1978)

Release Date: October 24th, 1978
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Joel Schumacher
Based on: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, The Wiz by William F. Brown
Music by: Charlie Smalls, various
Cast: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, Mabel King, Thelma Carpenter, Theresa Merritt, Stanley Greene, Roberta Flack (uncredited), Quincy Jones (uncredited), Luther Vandross (uncredited)

Motown Productions, Universal Pictures, 134 Minutes

Review:

“Success, fame, and fortune, they’re all illusions. All there is that is real is the friendship that two can share.” – Scarecrow, “That’s beautiful! Who said that?” – Dorothy, “[modestly] I did.” – Scarecrow

It’s been ages since I’ve seen this but I enjoyed it back in the day. Mainly, because I always thought the sets, style and overall visual look of it was pretty awesome. Although, it was also loaded with people I like such as Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Mabel King and more.

It wasn’t until more recently that I discovered that this was directed by Sidney Lumet with a script by Joel Scumacher. Also, Quincy Jones was very involved in the production. Having a newfound understanding of the talent involved in this made me want to revisit it with fairly fresh eyes and ears.

I’m really glad that I did, as it still captivated me and pulled me into its magical world.

Now the film has its share of flaws but it’s one of those movies that’s so fun and sweet that you don’t really care about the imperfections.

While Diana Ross was too old to play Dorothy, I still think she’s pretty great in this once you suspend disbelief. Originally, the film was supposed to star the young lead actress from the stage musical but Ross really pulled some strings to get this part. Honestly, I don’t blame her and movies are a cutthroat business.

Anyway, Ross is still Ross and she has immense talent, which shines through in her performance. Also, her scenes with Michael Jackson are so genuine and affectionate that it transcends the picture. The two were great friends before this film went into production and I think that personal connection really boosted their performances.

Nipsey Russell is tremendous as the Tin Man, as is Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion.

I have to say, though, the absolute highlight of the film for me is the grand performance by Mabel King, this film’s version of the wicked witch, as she makes her factory workers slave away. Man, this scene is just amazing to watch from the size of the set, it’s design, the amount of performers in the sequence and King’s perfect performance.

Two other really solid sequences are the one where Dorothy meets the Munchkins, which was filmed at the somewhat dilapidated New York State Pavilion at Flushing Meadows. It was a site built for the 1964 World’s Fair but it created such an interesting looking location for Dorothy’s arrival in Oz.

The other was the Emerald City sequence, which was filmed at the foot of the World Trade Center. It’s a beautiful and opulent scene with great music and considering the world we live in now after 9/11, the scene just has much more meaning now. It makes you really appreciate the beauty and immensity of those two iconic structures.

Overall, this is a lively and jubilant picture. I typically don’t like musicals but this is one of the few that I do enjoy.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Return to Oz (1985)

Also known as: Oz, The Adventures of the Devil In the Sky (working titles)
Release Date: June 21st, 1985
Directed by: Walter Murch
Written by: Gill Dennis, Walter Murch
Based on: Oz books by L. Frank Baum
Music by: David Shire
Cast: Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, Piper Laurie, Deep Roy

BMI (No. 9) Ltd., Oz Productions Ltd., Silver Screen Partners II, Walt Disney Pictures, Buena Vista Distribution, 113 Minutes, 110 Minutes (“uncut”), 109 Minutes (cut)

Review:

“I have always valued my lifelessness.” – Tik-Tok

I saw this in the theater when it came out. I’m not sure how this was a kid’s movie because it scared the shit out of me. Granted, it scared the shit out of me in that really cool way that made me re-watch the film again and again once I copied it onto my own VHS after renting it. Yes, I was a bootlegger creating my own entertainment library at six years-old.

Anyway, usually things that I found scary as a kid aren’t scary in adulthood. However, the two key creepy scenes in this film still hold up and are actually still effectively creepy. In a time when kids are much bigger pussies than my generation, this movie would wreck six year-olds’ brains.

The two scenes I’m talking about are the introduction of the evil Wheelers and the hall of severed heads, especially when their headless host awakes and the heads all come to life in their glass display cases.

In fact, that latter scene is pretty over the top and kind of a mindfuck even though I know it’s coming and honestly, that’s incredibly rare for a movie rated PG.

Moving beyond those two moments, the film itself is still pretty damn dark. I mean, any film that starts with a child being locked up in an asylum and about to receive electroshock therapy is quite unsettling.

Unfortunately, despite a few moments with some imagination and potential, the picture as a whole is kind of drab and definitely fifteen or so minutes too long.

The whole third act is really drawn out.

Once Dorothy and her friends get to the Nome King’s mountain, things screech to a halt. It’s not that this portion of the film is uninteresting, it’s just dragged out to an ungodly length and moves at a snail’s pace.

I still really enjoy the flick as a whole and it’s worth a watch for fans of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories. However, it lacks energy in most places and getting from one sequence to the next can be like waiting for an elderly turtle to pull his dangling balls across a pool of molasses.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other Oz films, as well as ’80s family fantasy movies.

Film Review: Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

Release Date: February 14th, 2013 (El Capitan Theare premiere)
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Written by: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire
Based on: Oz books by L. Frank Baum
Music by: Danny Elfman
Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox

Walt Disney, Roth Films, Curtis-Donen Productions, 130 Minutes

Review:

Being a fan of Walt Disney in general and a fan of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, I figured I would check this film out. I wasn’t keen on Disney’s live-action Alice In Wonderland, a few years prior, but considering that this had a pretty decent cast and a different director, I gave it a shot. Besides, Walt Disney made magic with 1985’s Return to Oz, which is still one of the best, if not the best, interpretations of Baum’s work. Also, that film still has a level of creepiness to it that makes it just as unsettling as an adult, as it was when I first saw it as a child.

As far as this film goes, I’m really on the fence. There were scenes and sequences in the movie that were incredibly well done and parts where the writing was superb. Then it would quickly go the other way and give you situations that were beyond ridiculous, even for a CGI fairytale, as well as a huge level of confusion over the characters motivations and evolution throughout the film.

Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz were pretty good in their roles. James Franco was decent but really grew into the role and took charge in the final act of the film. Zach Braff was great as Oz’s assistant in the prologue to the film and as the voice of Finley the flying monkey, a character that one could almost consider beloved had he had more screen time and had he been developed a bit more.

The biggest negative of this film was Mila Kunis. I found this surprising, as I usually like her in most things. However, her transformation to the Wicked Witch of the West was poorly done and her acting in the role went from completely uninteresting and vanilla to so over the top that she became cringe worthy every time she came on the screen.

A special shout out goes to Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox and Bruce Campbell. All three did great in their minimal roles. In Campbell’s case, it was really just a cameo.

The special effects weren’t great and the green screen work in many scenes was pretty deplorable. The evil flying monkeys looked odd and the world of Oz was too fantastical. Yes, it’s a fairytale but the world felt like a crude coloring book done by an angry three year-old who only had four crayons. It was like looking at some bad child art hanging up in a Pizza Hut.

The final battle, if you could call it that, was the highlight of the film and it really showcased the creative ability of director Sam Raimi. He and the writers found a great way to solve the problem of a mere mortal taking on two powerful wicked witches. The final act of the film was the best and it left me feeling some level of appreciation for what I spent two hours of my time watching.

All that being said, I would rather play the Temple Run game based off of this film than ever watch this movie again. In fact, that game is really what motivated me to finally watch this film a few years after its release.

Rating: 5/10