There’s something about a bad movie that just drags you in, isn’t there? It’s like a car crash; you don’t want to look but you can’t take your eyes off it. I have to admit that Mama Mia is one of my least favourite films. I genuinely believe that it has no redeeming features… well maybe with the slight exception of Julie Walters but she’d be worth watching in anything. I don’t get why people love it so much. None of the cast have chemistry together, the singing is so unpredictable, the dancing is laughable, and Phyllida Lloyd clearly has no idea how to direct anything that isn’t on a stage. Then there’s the basics like the boring and ridiculous story which is super difficult to give a shit about. In my second year of university I went camping with some of my friends and for the entire journey to the Lake District we listened to the soundtrack of this film and I was desperate to beat myself over the head with the tent mallet. Yet, every so often I get the terrible urge to watch Mama Mia even though I know I’ll have a dreadful time. It’s not quite one of those films I would describe as being “so bad it’s good” but it all adds up to the same thing. There’s something comforting and wonderful about a film that is that bad. It is entirely possible to find some sort of perverse pleasure in indulging in something you hate and something that you know is terrible. It can become something of an obsession. Something that I know more than a little bit about.
Ever since the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming this month the internet has eagerly been taking every chance it can to rank the web-slinger’s movies in order of brilliance. It’s just what we do. We can’t just appreciate things for their own merit. Oh, no. We have to make sure there is a definitive decision on which one you’re allowed to like the most. (She says hoping nobody picks up on the hypocrisy of someone who ranks things every first Wednesday of the month.) Apparently, it’s not possible to thing both the new film and the older films are all okay so we have to decide which is the best. I’ve seen so many lists in the last few days and things are getting crazy. After all, there aren’t that many live action Spider-Man films. There are, really, only 6. Which I assume is the reason that many people are desperately including Civil War on their list so it doesn’t seem so utterly pointless and pathetic. It’s not a fucking Spider-Man film; stop going out of your way to put Andrew Garfield’s film further down the list. So, before this goes into rant territory, the main topic of conversation that seems to exist now is whether the newest film is better than the film that previously topped the list: Toby Maguire’s sequel. It is widely acknowledged that his third time to put on the suit was the biggest disaster to happen to comic book movies ever but is Spider-Man 2 actually still better than Tom Holland’s first attempt? There’s only one way to find out.
Spider-Man 2 has been my favourite Spider-Man film for 13 years. That’s not really saying much because the 3 films that were released after it were all fairly questionable in their own way and, in some cases, that’s me being super generous. Spider-Man 2 managed to follow on from the groundwork laid out by Sam Raimi and Toby Maguire in their first film but actually make it a, you know, good film. It was more exciting that the first, the characters were given a chance to develop and we saw actual narrative complexity in Peter’s inability to decide who he really wanted to be. It had its flaws, certainly, but there was such a massive improvement from the origin story that it made for a really refreshing film. Even though some naysayers, mostly my really annoying colleague, who think it’s solely down to Doctor Octopus. Don’t get my wrong, he helps but there is so much to love about this film that you can forgive a lot of the incredibly cringe moments in it.
Like the ridiculous scene where an unmasked Spidey is carried, Christ-like, through the carriage of a train that he has just stopped from crashing. It’s a scene that shouldn’t really work but, in the context of this film, it becomes a powerful and emotional image. I want to hate it but, god damn it, I cry every time. Spider-Man introduced us to Peter and set him off on his journey but the sequel asks the question “what does it mean for his life?”. The first film ended with his rejecting Mary-Jane (Kirsten Dunst) to protect her from his secret life and it is a decision he has a hard time accepting here. He has loved Mary-Jane for years so he doesn’t understand why he can’t be happy in order to protect the city of New York. It’s a film in which Spider-Man spends about a quarter of the running time not being Spider-Man.
We pick up about 2 years after Peter told Mary-Jane that he didn’t love her and he’s having a rough time keeping up with his double life. He’s struggling in class, having money issues, and is clashing with Harry thanks to his supposed friendship with Spider-Man. He can’t be everything he needs to be and it all gets a lot worse when MJ tells him she’s seeing someone. Peter struggles with the reality that he can’t have a normal life when there are people to save. So he quits. Unfortunately, crazed scientist Dr Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) is going on a rampage through the city and fucking shit up with his AI mechanical tentacles. Will Peter pick up his suit again or let New York save itself?
This was a film that didn’t just want to see action sequences and big baddies putting people in danger. It wanted to focus on characters and the lives of people who put themselves in danger for others. Peter is constantly trying to juggle his desire to help people and his loyalty towards his best friend, Harry (James Franco) and love for Mary-Jane. Unlike the first film’s attempt to create depth and emotion in the horribly handled death of Uncle Ben, this film succeeds in giving Toby Maguire something to dig into and creates some real tension and drama. Incidentally, it also does a pretty good job in those other things thanks to Doctor Octopus, still one of the best villains in superhero movie history.
But is Spider-Man 2 better than Homecoming? I don’t know. Both are elevated above their status thanks to great performances by their leading villain and both have undeveloped and annoying side characters. I’m sorry but neither Ned or Liz got enough time to develop and the fuss made about Zendaya was ridiculous in comparison to her 15 minutes of screen time. Then we have Harry the most annoying BFF in history and Mary Jane who is only saved from being the blandest love interest in a superhero film thanks to Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. Both films have their flaws. Toby Maguire still isn’t great and is clearly overshadowed by Tom Holland. However, I think Homecoming suffers in terms of narrative but only because it’s setting up the franchise. It might not be an origin movie as such but it is this incarnations first film. It has a lot of boxes to tick and it slows things down. Spider-Man 2 has a great story. If I honestly had to pick I’d say the 2004 film just about gets it but, I admit, it’s probably damn close.
There have been a great number of attempts to make money from L. Frank Baum’s series of novels set in the magical world of Oz. Dating back to well before the insanely popular 1939 film starring Judy Garland. Although none of the films released before or after Victor Fleming’s family favourite have ever captured our imagination in quite the same way. The Wizard of Oz is one of those sacred classic films that has a firm place in many people’s hearts and the idea of trying to top it would bring fear into the heart of most filmmakers. If there’s one thing you should never do, it’s fuck about with MGM’s Oz spectacular. Although, in more recent years audiences have been embracing Gregory Maguire’s book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and its subsequent hit Broadway musical. With narratives looking back at the land of Oz before it was discovered by Dorothy and her little dog too, they gave Disney more than enough excuse to delve into the untold history of another key figure. So it is that we find ourselves here in 2013 pulling back the curtain a little further and shedding more life onto the mysterious wizard himself.
Sam Raimi’s new film introduces us to the pitiful carnival conjurer Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs who is reduced to entertaining country bumpkins throughout Kansas despite dreaming of the level of fame achieved by true magic men Harry Houdini and Thomas Eddison. This young Oz is a lothario who cons his way into women’s beds and creates cheap tricks to keep the masses amused. However, he fails to live up to the greatness of his heroes. His downtrodden assistant (Zach Braff) is the closest thing he has to a friend but must put up with Diggs’ egotistical taunts. Then we have the heartbreaking but key moment when a young disabled girl (Joey King) begs the Wiz for help and all he can do is run off stage with his tail between his legs. The Oz we see here is a pitiful and pathetic shell of a man who you have no doubt will go on a Disney-styled journey to find his true ‘greatness’.
James Franco plays the title role and, as the entire film falls under the shadow of its predecessor, the actor finds himself having to compete with the original choice for the great pretender. Robert Downey Jr. would have been such a fantastic choice for the charismatic Diggs that the actor who finally took the role on was always going to feel like a bit of a rubbish back-up choice. Franco does an OK job but he never seems to connect with his role. The narrative only works if the audience accept that Diggs is more than just a womanising scoundrel looking for easy ways to make a quick buck. Franco doesn’t bring much humanity to the role as he mostly seems a little bewildered by his digital surroundings. He is an actor who has proved himself many times before but here he just seems out of his depth.
Although, he has no problem in winning over the ladies and it is one of his past conquests that causes him to embark on his life changing journey. The irate husband of his one-time lover, also the circus’ strong-man, is out for revenge meaning Oscar is forced to leave his true love (Michelle Williams) and escape in a handily placed balloon. After being caught up in a terrifying tornado he is transported into an exciting new world where he meets young Witch Theodora (Mila Kunis). She mistakenly believes Diggs is the great saviour of her people and sets about dreaming of their future as King and Queen of Oz. Kunis does a pretty good job with the young witch in these scenes and plays her as a teenager caught up in the early stages of lust. She is emotional, melodramatic and has a bit of a temper. However, she quickly descends into a one dimensional scorned woman when she discovers that Oscar has pulled the wool over her eyes. It seemed lazy to just explain the witch’s actions because of her jealousy and broken heart. There was a great deal of potential lost to another movie cliche.
Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is less impressed with the supposed chosen one and demands he proves himself by saving her people and destroying the Wicked Witch. Weisz is by far the best performer of the lot here but that really isn’t a compliment. She is an amazingly talented actress (seriously, watching her in Deep Blue Sea changed my life a little bit. Phenomenal.) but she is given so little to work with. It’s all about the window dressing with the witches. Dress them up in the finery but give them no real depth. For her part, Weisz lets go and has fun with it but it is really on towards the end of the film that there is anything for her to do.
Although, she has a great deal more to do than Michelle Williams in her second role of the film. In keeping with original film, several of the actors have roles in both the real world and Oz. We see Braff returning as Oz’s winged monkey butler and King returning as a China girl who is discovered shattered after an evil minion attack. Williams is back as the third witch Glinda. As Glinda the Good, Williams has little else to do than sweep through her scenes surrounded by a heavenly light and smiling at all the little people under her protection. She is a reminder of the old school Disney princess who had the tricky task of being beautiful but pretty useless in real life situations. After she has used her bubble and mist power for all she can she has very little left. Whatever you think about Raimi revisiting the land that spoke to so many people’s childhood imaginations, you have to criticise him for his criminal waste of good talent. These three women are some of the biggest names in Hollywood right now and they are used a little more than real life mannequins for the impressive costumes. Yes the characters don’t have any depth to them but at least they look pretty.
Raimi is known for bringing an occasionally over-the-top enthusiasm to his films and his Oz prequel is essentially an in-your-face tribute to Fleming’s own adaptation. The narrative is littered with little in-jokes and references to the books and the 1939 film. We have lions, scarecrows, the China village, flying monkeys and singing Munchkins. On top of this, Raimi has gone to great lengths to recreate the look and feel of the classic with the help of several computer wizards (or at least as far as he can go without being on shaky legal ground). In keeping with tradition the film begins in black and white in 4.3 aspect ratio before bursting into a shiny and colourful computerised landscape. I can’t deny that it is an effort that has paid off. The land of Oz is detailed and exciting. Visually speaking there is a lot to keep the audience happy and, despite not seeing it in 3D, I can imagine it works fairly well (not that I’ll ever be a fan of it in general). It is a real spectacle that, unfortunately, does not hide the fact that there is very little else going on.
Oz the Great and Powerful, much like the wizard himself, is all style and no real substance. The CGI backdrop is pretty impressive and recreates the world Fleming first created in 1939 but with a bit more of a Disney theme park attraction feel to it. There isn’t really anything else there to keep you engrossed in the massively cliched moral message. We all know that Oscar will eventually find redemption and win the girl of his dreams so the whole charade of a con-man only interested in gold and fame feels as false as the facade he puts on when he arrives in Oz. We find a cast of talented actors and actresses floundering against their invisible background and doing the best they can with a plot that cared more about the references to its predecessor than it did with creating a decent story.
Had he not existed in the fictional Kansas of the early 20th century, Oscar Diggs would have fit in extremely well with modern day Hollywood. Oz the Great and Powerful would be Diggs’ finest illusion: throw tons of money and technology at an energetic director to create a big, brash prequel to one of the world’s most loved children’s film and wait for the money to come flooding in. As for the story? Who cares about that when you’ve got some of the most recognisable and talented performers onboard to convince people this is a film with some substance.