Disney meets L. Frank Baum, and the results are more spectacular than special.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” is a visually arresting prequel to the classic “The Wizard of Oz,” exploring how the Wizard got to be the Wizard. Turns out he was a traveling carnival magician (played by James Franco) who ends up catching a tornado to the colorful land of Oz —where he tries to double-talk his way past an evil witch (Rachel Weisz), a good witch (Michelle Williams) and one who could go either way (Mila Kunis). Director Sam Raimi brings the flash and spectacle to this rendition of Oz, but there’s not much charm on display. The casting is also uneven, with Weisz and Williams running rings around Franco and Kunis.
The other mainstream movie this week is the thriller “Dead Man Down,” a darkly atmospheric revenge drama with some gaping plot problems. Colin Farrell stars as Victor, a mid-level hood for a crime lord (Terrence Howard) who’s being bedeviled with cryptic messages plotting retribution for something. Victor meets Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a woman who tries to blackmail Victor into helping her exact revenge on the drunk driver who crashed into her, disfiguring her face. Director Niels Arden Oplev (who helmed Rapace through the Swedish version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) employs Farrell and Rapace well, and creates a sinister vibe that almost compensates for the craziness in J.H. Wyman’s script.
The most chilling movie this week is actually a documentary: “West of Memphis,” a stirring look at the case of the West Memphis 3 — three teens wrongly convicted of murdering three little boys in an Arkansas town. Director Amy Berg dissects how police errors, a zealous prosecutor and an inept forensics expert came together in a miscarriage of justice, and how dogged activism by the imprisoned men’s friends and family (along with some notable celebrities) got the case reopened.
Another documentary this week is less involving. “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey” tells of Arnel Pineda, a Manila rock singer who was working clubs when his voice was heard by the members of Journey — just as they were looking for a replacement lead singer. Pineda’s story is fascinating, but director Ramona S. Diaz messes up the delivery with poor organization. The result is a valentine to the band, interesting only to Journey’s diehard fans.
Lastly, “Emperor” is a dishwater-dull historical drama, centering on the efforts of a U.S. general (Matthew Fox) to find evidence to exonerate the Japanese emperor Hirohito of war crimes at the end of World War II. Tommy Lee Jones pops up as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, but his saltiness can’t spice up Fox’s performance or director Peter Webber’s stuck-in-neutral pacing.