Oz, The Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, 2013)
What have we done to deserve this? Disney, which owns the rights to most popular fairy tales and all of Marvel Comics and Star Wars and probably the Meditations of Confucius, has picked up a nasty habit of turning Victorian-era properties into unwatchable crap. First came “Alice in Wonderland,” which updated the story by making the heroine an adult who’s frustrated with her life and responsibilities at home, and goes on an adventure ending in a CGI-heavy clash between two fantasy armies. Now comes this, which crafts a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” (which had plenty of pre-written sequels ready to go, in book) by… making the hero an adult who’s frustrated with his life and responsibilities at home, and goes on an adventure ending in a CGI-heavy clash between two fantasy armies.
The description is too kind. This is the rare “quest” movie that has no momentum, or even really interesting scenery. After a shot of the strange fauna and flora of Oz, we plunge into a world that looks like the 1939 movie, only shinier. Instead of “Alice”‘s sprightly, perfect queen played by Anne Hathaway, we get a sprightly, perfect good witch played by Michelle Williams — you know, the other actress in “Brokeback Mountain.” (And the white queen, with her unexplained daintiness that she dropped when people looked away, at least had a gimmick.)
James Franco seems bored as Oz, and why wouldn’t he be? The plot consists of him setting up the “The Wizard of Oz” by having a one-night stand with a clingy Mila Kunis, who turns into the Wicked Witch out of horny revenge. And Zach Braff plays a wacky sidekick! I left that part til the end, to spare you.
Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh, 2013)
The third collaboration between Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns is surprisingly formulaic. In “The Informant!” they pulled and stretched the cliches of the crime movie to create a black comedy, identifiable as such because they cast comedians in every minor role. “Contagion” was the best disaster film in a decade, a scientifically-accurate-ish portrait of a plague that ISN’T stopped in the nick of time by wise scientists.
“Side Effects” is… basically a “Scooby Doo” episode. Jude Law plays a sleazy-seeming psychiatrist who prescribes an experimental anti-depressant for the sad wife (Rooney Mara) of a disgraced (but still pretty rich) stockbroker (Channing Tatum(. One night, after he tells her he has a bead on a job in Houston, she murders him in what appears to be a trance. SPOILER: Turns out she had started a lesbian affair with her shrink (Catherine Zeta-Jones — yes, her and Rooney Mara, and it’s good) and faked the depression and the trance in a complicated scheme. The problem, beyond the throwback misogyny of the plot, is that the unraveling of said scheme makes zero sense. Mara just admits it after Law keeps bugging her and dangling threats over her head. Maybe Mara thinks she’s outsmarted him? But no, there’s no scenario in which she isn’t better off taking her cushy psychiatric hospital sentence and shutting the fuck up.
Mama (Andrés Muschietti, 2013)
A surprisingly Asia-influenced, surprisingly decent ghost story about two cute tykes abandoned by their parents and raised by a jealous, selectively murderous monster. Jessica Chastain slums pretty well as a reluctant adoptive mother (she’s rather be playing in her rock and roll band, as you can tell by the tattoos on her arm) who goes full on Ripley-get-away-from-her-you-bitch as the horror creeps in.
Stoker (Chan-wook Park, 2013)
A twist-free psychological drama about a wealthy family (Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska) adjusting to the death of its patriarch with the help of a long-forgotten uncle (Matthew Goode), who you know is the villain from the minute he walks onscreen. There’s one very good erotic piano-playing scene, and… gosh, that’s about it.
Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, 2013)
A cute, credulity-challenging love story about a zombie who falls in love with a live girl, becomes human, and SPOILER helps bring the rest of zombie-dom back to the land of the living through the power of love. This is the credulity-killer — how, exactly, would these bodies be in shape to re-join humanity after even a day of gas-bloat and rigor mortis?
Oh, damn it, I’m thinking too hard. It’s science fiction, and pretty smart about how it inverts cliches, though there’s no real drama or twists. The filmmakers over-rely on the old “I left this damsel alone for a second — now she’s gone, and in trouble!” trope. Then they over-rely on it some more. But the cast is winsome (Nicholas Hoult has grown up into a fun actor) and the ending is effective pap.
Jack the Giant-Slayer (Bryan Singer, 2013)
Nicholas Hoult is also in this. It’s a better fantasy rethink than “Oz,” but almost anything would be.
It’s a Disaster (Todd Berger, 2013)
You’ll either like this plot description or you’ll run far, far away. So: Four yuppie LA couples, the sort of thirtysomethings you see deciding between mid-priced wines at Whole Foods, meet up for brunch. The meal is destined to be awkward, because the hosts are picking the right moment to announce their impending divorce. Then it gets truly awkward: Terrorists have set up a dirty bomb downtown, and it’s extremely likely that these people who kinda-sorta tolerate each other will all die together, in a few hours.
Trust me, it’s funny. David Cross plays the slightly older, safe-seeming boyfriend on his third date with Julia Stiles, the girl who keeps picking insane beaus. The rest of the cast are mostly comics, though not people who’d leap out at you on a marquee, and they’ve mastered the bitchy, self-obsessed miens of childless upper-middle-class climbers. Only twice do they interact with the world outside the brunch, and both scenes are hilarious — one ends with them effectively murdering two friends for constantly showing up late, even on the day when that habit meant they’d die a slow death in the sun.