In a piece posted today (8.15), HuffPost contributor and Columbia film professor Annette Insdorf has linked Philip Noyce‘s The Giver and Victor Fleming‘s The Wizard of Oz. Both transition from black-and-white into color. Both feature wicked witches (Meryl Streep‘s bitch elder, Margaret Hamilton‘s Wicked With of the West) with the power to appear unexpectedly. Both title characters are mysterious older guys who may (or may not be) agents of salvation. Both are about adolescent rites of passage such as defying authority. Jonas’s journey enacts the yearning articulated in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, flying “over the chimney tops” to the forbidden “Elsewhere” of The Giver, moving ever closer to what resembles a traditional home. Favorite passage: “Perhaps both films share a questioning of what ‘home’ means. Salman Rushdie perceptively proposed that The Wizard of Oz is not about ‘there’s no place like home’ but the dream of leaving, the celebration of escape. As in that ‘road movie’ of 1939, Jonas must enact the combined courage, brains and heart to abandon the placid familiar for the dangerous unknown.” Second favorite passage: “In a very American tradition, The Giver valorizes memory and passion above serenity and predictability.” You know who will really like The Giver? Rand Paul, and that’s in no way a putdown.
When the spirit is upon N.Y. Times critic Manohla Dargis, whether in positive or negative mode, it’s always a great read. So I love her disemboweling of Sam Raimi‘s Oz The Great and Powerful, and especially this graph:
“Oz the Great and Powerful is exactly the kind of extravagant misfire that professional pessimists offer as proof that ‘they’ — as in the big studios and that amorphous easy target called Hollywood — don’t make movies like they used to. One of the delightful things about the original Wizard of Oz film is that it turns a girl’s reverie, specifically her dream of escape and her own imagination, into a beautiful metaphor for movies. When Dorothy opens her front door onto a Technicolor wonderland, the moment evokes what a 1930s moviegoer might have experienced when watching a color film for the first time. Come into this magical place, the filmmakers and, by extension, Hollywood itself seemed to be telling the audience, and share in this dream — a dream called Oz that we also call the movies.
“The studios sometimes still gamble on fantasies that sweep audiences up and away, though often the biggest-budgeted releases are war movies in superhero drag or cartoons about characters whose adventures, much like that of Oz in this telling, track like therapeutic journeys (follow your dream of self-actualization) instead of transcendent excursions (just dream!). Loaded with special effects, big bangs and generic narrative beats, these movies nonetheless sometimes take you where you’ve never been before. Mostly, though, like Oz the Great and Powerful, these fantasies drag you back to the same dreary, heavily trod destination, to the same exhausted formulas, gender stereotypes, general idiocy and a mind-set that values special effects over storytelling. Yes, companies make movies for shareholders; they have for decades. But who is the audience for the numbly mistitled Oz the Great and Powerful?”
Last week I wrote that the opening credits of Oz The Great and Powerful, presented in black-and-white 3D within a 1.33 aspect ratio, are inventive and beautiful and altogether quite masterful. I also noted that the subsequent 15 minutes, also in the same format, are quite good also and in fact deliver more allure than the rest of Sam Raimi‘s film, which is in widescreen color and loaded down with more emphatic, eye-soaking CG than Raimi or the audience know what to do with.
The film runs another 110 minutes after the black-and-white section, and at great cost. A recent N.Y. Times story reported that the total Oz tab is $325 million, including marketing. I wonder how much Raimi made?
The opener is more involving than the eye-candy stuff because it’s mainly about (a) echoing the beginning of Victor Fleming‘s 1939 The Wizard of Oz, which began in black-and-white sepia-tone, and (b) is all about character set-up. The shakedown on James Franco‘s Oscar Diggs, a low-rent magician performing in a travelling carnival in 1905, is that he’s a reckless flim-flam man who feels unfulfilled (he wants to be a Harry Houdini or Thomas Edison-level achiever) and can’t recognize or express love. So we’re presuming, naturally, knowing the original backwards and forwards, that Diggs will gradually recognize and solve these issues once he air-balloons into the fairytale land of Oz and all the “whee!” stuff with the shreaking witches and flying baboons and whatnot kick in.
A resolution happens at the finale, I suppose, but not in a way that felt particularly satisfying or whole or fused together in just the right way. Not for me, at least.
But you’re thinking early on that the newbie just might come together like the 1939 original, particularly after watching a black-and-white Franco get lifted up and whipped around by a huge, snarly, wild-ass tornado, which also propelled Judy Garland‘s Dorothy Gale into The Land Beyond Kansas. But then Franco lands in Oz and the color kicks in and before you know it a cute little CG hummingbird shows up and then some piranha-like fish with razor teeth and it’s like “oh, Jesus God…here we go with the cute family crap.”
The screenplay for the old Wizard of Oz — written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf with uncredited rewrites by Herman J. Mankiewicz, Arthur Freed, George Cukor, King Vidor, Richard Thorpe, Jack Mintz, Victor Fleming, John Lee Mahin, Ogden Nash, Irving Brecher, Samuel Hoffenstein, Herbert Fields, Sid Silvers, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, E.Y. Harburg and William H. Cannon — was a personal tale about 12 year-old Dorothy’s angst and imagination. The movie is basically a dream she has after being knocked out by a flying window frame. The fanciful characters are all from Dorothy’s actual life (Margaret Hamilton‘s Wicked Witch, Frank Morgan‘s Wizard, Ray Bolger‘s Scarecrow, Bert Lahr‘s Cowardly Lion, Jack Haley‘s Tinman) and the issues are all about what Dorothy and her three comrades want in a personal vein, but which they try to solve, futilely, by asking for help from others. They had the power all along but they didn’t know it. All they needed to do was reach in instead of out.
Oz The Great and Powerful, written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, is only occasionally or incidentally about Digg’s character issues. It’s more precisely and often oppressively about excuses to turn loose the CG crew so they can go to town with this or that mindblowing digital landscape or magical effect or eye-candy fireball or waterfall or what-have-you. It’s about the same old game, the same old “let’s try and whip the easily impressed into a CG lather!”
You could use your imagination and say it’s about commercial pressures (or some phantom or claw-footed gargoyle created by these pressures) standing behind poor Raimi and constantly nudging him in the ribs and going, “Sam…Sam! You’re a family man and you live in Brentwood and you’ve contributed to Republican politicians so you need to get paid the really big bucks, right? Which is why you’re making a relatively empty-headed CG-covered family-trade movie like this. And you know, or should know, that successful movies are not story- and character-driven any more, Sam…not really and not for years. They’re driven by wow effects, and so you really have to keep ’em dazzled, Sam…okay? Keep lathering on those FX, keep playing to the four year-olds.
“C’mon, Sam…we let you have your pain-in-the-ass black-and-white opening so do the right thing and make us the kind of soul-smothering, moron-level family flick that makes big money!”
Oz The Great and Powerful doesn’t really fit together or make a lot of sense. There are two witches…okay, one witch and a sister who’s under her influence (Rachel Wiesz, Mila Kunis)…who are seen as oppressors by the citizens of Oz, whose lives, they claim, are not “free,” whatever the hell that means. Believe me, these people are as free as you and me or Sam Raimi or any Anaheim Disneyland employee. They’re well-dressed and jolly and they sings songs and blah blah. And Glynda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams) is kind of half-assed in that she doesn’t seem to have much power. And the finale doesn’t involve Franco’s finding some kind of fulfillment (although he does, sort of) as much as it involves a kind of people’s revolution…you don’t want to hear this.
I know that if you’re going to include singing in a film, as in a singing or half-singing “musical,” you have to introduce it early on, certainly before the end of Act One. You sure as hell can’t can’t wait until the end of Act Two, I can tell you that.
“There’s neither a subversive nor even a gleeful bone in this film’s body,” wrote Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy, “which means there can be no fun in the evil or in villains being vanquished. Similarly missing is any zest to the storytelling. Quite the opposite of the great earlier film, the Oz here is a dull place to be. Given the choice, you might even consider going back to Kansas.”
It’s strange that Oz The Great and Powerful has a 63% Rotten Tomatoes rating among the general population. This obviously indicates trouble, but a film as bad and unfulfilling as this one deserves a negative rating in the 30s or 20s even. I don’t get why so many people who should know better have given it a pass. The top critic rating is 29%.
Repeating from last week: “Handsome naturalistic black-and-white 3D hasn’t been seen since…what?…The Creature From The Black Lagoon? (Tim Burton‘s Frankenweenie was animated.) “This is amazing…delightful,” I was saying to myself. “I haven’t watched anything like this ever on a big screen…the first time in my life!”
A couple of hours ago Coming Soon critic-reporter Ed Douglas graciously agreed to do a brief Oscar Poker chat about Oz The Great and Powerful, which opens on Friday. Ed is more of a fan than I am, and has actually called Sam Raimi‘s film “as entertaining” as Victor Fleming‘s The Wizard of Oz (1939). My review will post sometime tomorrow. We mostly compared the two films. I decided that the ’39 version is more personally motivated and character-flavored while the Raimi is more conventonally genre-ish and CG-driven and even socio-political.
I spent some time earlier today at Warner Home Video’s Wizard of Oz Blu-ray junket. I’ve already discussed it twice — on 9.18 and 9.19 — and said (a) it’s the sharpest, best looking, most luscious Oz yet even though (b) the grain structure is too vivid. I’ll soon be shooting a big Wizard of Oz aerial balloon in Central Park, and then it’s off to the Coen Brothers A Serious Man at the Ziegfeld plus an after-party.
I shot this two inches away from a huge Wizard Of Oz frame blowup inside a 2nd floor Essex House suite where the Oz Blu-ray junket took place from 11 am to 1 pm.
The appearance of Munchkins donuts instead of the usual scrambled eggs, french toast and fresh fruit indicated a budgetary cautiousnesss.
Singer-actress Lorna Luft, daughter of Judy Garland, who will perform this evening at a special Wizard of Oz Tavern on the Green event.
Live Munchkins, all in their late ’80s or early ’90s.
This morning I heard from and then spoke to restoration guru Robert Harris (The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, Spartacus) about my 9.18 reaction to the forthcoming Wizard of Oz Blu-ray — i.e, “much sharper and more vivid, bursting with color, splendorific,” etc. Harris admires the disc as much as I do and probably more so. He’s fine with the grain. But he didn’t disagree with my observation about it being “somewhat grainier,” and conceded that the film now looks different than the one that 1939 audiences saw.
The new Wizard is an example of “a basic Blu-ray trade-off,” I wrote. “The grain that is in the negative is brought out in a way that catches your eye like never before. It’s not a problem, but there’s no ignoring it. I’m not putting the grainy aspect down, per se. I fully respect the decision of Warner Home Video technicians not to clean or digitally tweak or Patton-ize the original 1939 elements — but I am saying that Dorothy Gale, Auntie Em, Uncle Henry and the three farm hands are now covered in billions of micro-mosquitoes that I hadn’t been as aware of in years past.”
Harris wrote that “viewers in 1939, 1954 and beyond never saw the grain in Technicolor films because the process did not reproduce it. Between the optics of the era, the optical printing process toward the creation of printing matrices, the metal dye imbibition system, the mordant in use at the time, as well as imperfect registration, which was covered by the overall softness…Technicolor films had a wonderful, almost grain-free, velvety look, which is nothing like the new Blu-ray.
“There are many ways to skin a cat. The new Wizard of Oz Blu-ray, which faithfully reproduces the grain structure of the original negatives (with the exception of the opening reel, which is from a dupe source), is one of them.
“Leaving the original grain structure in was a technical decision. WHV technicians have delivered an excellent piece of work, but the Oz Blu-ray has a pronounced grain that wasn’t there when audiences first saw the film. The image is now very sharp, albeit with the original grain structure. But trying to eliminate the grain can lead to a very tenuous situation at best, as each shot must be worked over to make certain that problems do not arise.”
We then spoke on the phone and Harris re-explained:
“There are many ways to reduce grain,” he said. “Either you throw the film out of focus, which is what most people do, and then you sharpen it slightly and raise the contrast. Or you send it to Lowry Digital, which is the only shop in town which has the ability to reduce grain without losing resolution.
“The people who made The Wizard of Oz 70 years ago knew what would show up and what wouldn’t,” he pointed out. “The final result was a beautiful, velvety, slightly soft-focus print with good contrast to it, and it looked gorgeous on screen.
“But if you take the original negattve and then show it to the public [as WHV has with its new Blu-ray], you’re going to see the original grain structure that the original audiences never saw. But if you remove it…if you remove the grain and you hold the resolution then you’re going to see the wigs and make-up, sets, costume details all the other problems.
“The other way – the Lowry way — is to remove the grain, increase the resolution and then put back in a slight level of grain to make it look like film. But one has to acknowledge that whomever is leading the project is going to have to carefully examine every shot in the film to make very certain that they aren’t opening the proverbial Pandora’s box, and creating problems that were never there before.
“Warner Home Video did nothing wrong. They did a great job within their criteria, and I don’t have a problem with it. God knows if you lessen any grain on an older film in any primitve way, you’re really asking for trouble. Like Fox got into trouble with the overly scrubbed-down Blu-rays of Patton and The Longest Day.
“And if you take all the grain out, as the Lowry people can, it’s like you’re watching the actors through a very clean window. But with older films, like Michael Curtiz‘s Robin Hood, removing too much grain can make some of the armor looks like painted cardboard, and then you’re seeing things that were never meant to be seen.”
Harris suggested at the end of our conversation that I might want to slightly turn down the sharpness level on my 42-inch plasma. I said I might. But then I thought about this later on and reminded myself that I adore the sharpness level, and that pretty much every Blu-ray I’ve watched on it looks fantastic so why should I futz around with it just so The Wizard of Oz looks less grainy?
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray restoration of The Wizard of Oz will be out less than a month from now, debuting Tuesday, 9.29. The restored classic will also have a one-day showing on screens nationwide on 9.23, and a special 11 am screening at Manhattan’s Alice Tully Hall (a program presented by the New York Film Festival) on Saturday, 9.26.
But no one has yet spoken about the key qualitative aspect regarding this upgrade of America’s most beloved family film. In a phrase, the question every videophile across the nation will be asking as he/she opens up the Blu-ray package (or as they attend the Oz theatrical screenings) will be “what about the damn wires?”
Presumably the Blu-ray upgrade will look measurably sharper and more distinct than any video version seen before. But does this mean the wires that hold up Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow (to assist in the illusion that he’s hanging from a wooden post among the cornstalks) will look even more vivid than they did in the last Wizard of Oz upgrade, which came out in 2005? Ditto the wires that hold up those flying monkeys serving Margaret Hamilton‘s Wicked Witch of the West?
Nobody spotted the wires when The Wizard of Oz opened in 1939. They couldn’t have with the coarseness of film stock and 1939-era projection technology and the process of three-strip Technicolor alignment being what it was. And nobody ever spotted the wires on any of those TV showings in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, or on VHS or laser discs or even on early DVDs. But they were easily detectable on WHV’s 2005 Special Edition, and one can only guess how much clearer they’ll be on the new Blu-ray. Unless wiser heads have prevailed, of course.
One way to deal with the wires would be for the Wizard of Oz images to be slightly softened so as to bury them in a kind of simulated 1939 haze. But the smarter way — hello? — would be for the wires to be digitally erased. I would ask Warner Home Video’s George Feltenstein for a comment, but my experience is that WHV publicity always blows me off on questions like this. Today is Sunday — I’ll try them tomorrow morning.
Obviously the Blu-ray upgrade will be fighting itself if WHV technicians decide to soften the image. This would negate the improved clarity and improved three-strip alignment and the extra-sharp focus that could and should be a dividend of the new Blu-ray version, and is what people will certainly be looking for when they buy it.
You can see the wires in the above photo (taken off my old 36″ West Hollywood TV) but if you have any kind of recently-manufactured big-ass flat screen, they look much more vivid than indicated here
Let’s hope and pray that WHV went with digital erasure on Oz. It’s been used by other video distributors in the remastering of older films with wire issues (including Mary Poppins and North by Northwest), and is clearly the only enlightened way to go. [Update: HE reader Drew McWeeny informs below that “the restoration work on Oz this time is nothing short of revelatory. There are about four places in the film where they removed wires, but otherwise their efforts were focused on making sure that this is the single best version of a three-strip Technicolor film that I’ve ever laid eyes on.”]
Digital wire removal infamously wasn’t used for the 2005 Paramount Home Video upgrade of the 1953 War of the Worlds.
Byron Haskin‘s sci-fi classic provides one of the lushest color-baths in Hollywood history and has always looked sumptuous. But the 2005 DVD pretty much ruined the suspension-of-disbelief element because of the way-too-visible cords holding up the Martian spaceships. You can see them plain as day during scenes of the initial assault against the military…a thicket of blue-tinted wires holding up each one.
Their presence makes it absurd when Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) explains to General Mann (Les Tremayne) how the Martians keep their bright green ships aloft by using “some form of electro magnetic force” and “balancing the two poles” and so on. The illusion is shot.
The obvious solution was for Paramount Home Video to digitally erase the wires, but they didn’t ask for it (i.e., didn’t want to pay for it) and the pooch was screwed. It would have made perfect symmetrical sense to have done so. Just as digital technology had made this 1953 film look sharper than ever before, it followed that digital technology was needed to recreate the original illusion. The wires weren’t that visible 56 years ago, and they weren’t as visible in Paramount Home Video’s 1999 DVD. Obviously the 2005 War of the Worlds DVD was the provider of “detrimental revisionism” — it showed an image that wasn’t meant to be seen.
Four years ago I spoke about this issue with John Lowry, the head of Lowry Digital who’s done some great clean-up and/or digital restoration work on loads of classic films. He was the one hired by Paramount Home Video to clean up War of the Worlds .
“Our job is always to serve the wishes of the client…we do what the client says …and we didn’t have orders to clean up the wires,” he said. “Plus we were working on a very tight budget.”
Lowry faced a similar issue when he was doing the digital remastering of Alfred Hitchcock‘s North by Northwest. “We were working on the scene when the crop duster plane crashes into the gas truck,” he recalls, “and there were 25 or 30 frames of that particular shot in which you could see three wires holding up the rather large model of the airplane.
“And I said to myself, my God, too obvious…it spoils the illusion. And I asked myself, what would Hitchcock do? I knew what he would do. Take the wires out of there. So I did, and the Warner Bros. people approved.
“But ever since then we’ve been very attuned to original artistic intent. And with today’s technology, anything that interferes with the story-telling process or which degrades that process, is dead wrong. We got rid of the wires on the Mary Poppins DVD, for the Disney people. We asked and they said ‘get rid of them’ but they had the money to do it.
“When we were working on the snake-pit scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark you could see all kinds of reflections in the glass separating Ford from the snakes, and there was a very conscious decision made by Spielberg to take the reflections out.”
The North by Northwest plane crash scene
It took me two full days to recover from some of the ghastly fashion choices I saw during last Saturday’s SAG awards telecast. I was literally groaning, shuddering in my seat, in some instances convulsing with disgust.
This, I told myself, is why 96% of the U.S.population (i.e., those who are straight hot-dog eaters and/or don’t work in the entertainment industry, and who don’t live in slavish obedience to the “suggestions” (i.e., commands) of eccentric fashion designers)…this is why average Americans loathe and despise effete male industry entertainers. Some at the SAG ceremony looked like permanent residents of Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. Actresses can do whatever but dude-wise people want real men, which is to say non-eccentric, stylish but sensible, tone down the fucking feathers and affectations, etc.
But before sampling the worst, here’s one of the evening’s best-looking outfits, worn by Taylor Zakhar Perez, who plays the gay son of the U.S.President in Red, White and Royal Blue (Amazon Prime).
And now the awful-awfuls…
Robert Downey Jr.s’ gray horrorsuit…bizarre jacket slits, flesh-colored shirt without tie, baggy-ass pants and heavy, shiny-brown clodhopper shoes with light-brown soles. General Mireau, the man behind the forthcoming firing-squad execution of three babygirls, would like to include Downey’s fashion adviser in the line of fire.
One of the most self-satirizing fashion calamities of the night was worn by Queer Eye‘s Tan France, known for his silver-white pompadour hair. The instant I saw his 18-inch wide chopstick bowtie during the pre-show red carpet sequence, I muttered to myself “you fucking pretentious asshole.”
Abbott Elementary‘s Chris Perfetti…the curly red hair and giant-sized ears blended with the suit’s light malted brown color, the black cumberband and the peaked black lapels…totally sickening, and those godawful, reprehensible baggy pants…yeesh.
Comedian Alok Vaid-Menon…yeah!!
Rustin‘s Colman Domingo in a light pink and black tux…an outfit that needlessly underlined his sexual identity and in so doing compromised his cred as an actor of a certain chameleon mystique.
The light powder-blue Martian pants worn by Abbott Elementary‘s Tyler James Williams…imagine some guy in Montpellier, Vermont, or Guerneville, California, or even in Austin, Texas wearing pants like this to some formal-ass event.
HE to Happy Larry: Your observations are “inspiring” in a certain light. Life will sometimes surprise. Unsung or less-than-stellar talents sometimes luck into unexpected rewards. And as truly grotesque as The Whale was and is in certain respects, Brendan Fraser‘s fat-suit performance was as respectable and even touching as this sort of thing gets. (Especially the white-light death scene.)
But Everything Everywhere All At Once will forever be regarded as an irksome (do I hear infuriating?) curio…a film that even the director’s own mother didn’t get and couldn’t understand the adulation for.
Did you honestly come out of that film full of “holy moley eureka” enthusiasm for Ke Huy Quan‘s performance? He was more or less fine (said his lines with urgency and proficiency, hit his marks) but he won because of (a) the comeback narrative + (b) the Asian identity pride thing + (c) because he brought big emotion to his Golden Globes acceptance speech.
Jamie Lee Curtis‘s IRS bitch performance was broad and coarse and rather absurd, like a character out of The Wizard of Oz….I felt intensely irritated by her acting (and her clownish makeup) start to finish.
Michelle Yeoh‘s athleticism and commitment to the dismayed, stressed-out character she played was also fine but again, her Oscar was about (a) Asian representation and (b) breaking the glass ceiling =plus (c) Cate Blanchett already has two Oscars.
Do you honestly think that EEAAO will be watched and re-watched by future film enthusiasts? That it will be cited by future film historians as a ground-breaker or seminal influencer? There’s a community of film Catholics who are sadly burdened with a sense of taste, and among this fraternity EEAAO is not just disliked but deeply loathed. In my humble judgment it is one of the absolute worst films to ever take the Best Picture Oscar….hands down, no question. The Movie Godz have taken note and are actually fuming as we speak.
- All Hail Tom White, Taciturn Hero of “Killers of the Flower Moon”
Roughly two months ago a very early draft of Eric Roth‘s screenplay for Killers of the Flower Moon (dated 2.20.17,...More »