Tuesday, 19 March 2013

'Oz: The Great and Powerful', 'Bullhead' and 'The Spirit of 45': review round-up

'Oz: The Great and Powerful' - Dir. Sam Raimi (PG)

Anything that's sold as being "from the people who brought you Alice in Wonderland" should be viewed with suspicion if not outright derision, and so it looked like Sam Raimi's prequel to 'The Wizard of Oz' - which sees James Franco as the egotistical, huckster wizard - would be one to avoid. And yet, all told, it's a pretty solid and likable little blockbuster, with enjoyable characters, some decent gags and an interesting cast of characters. Raimi's horror routes are plainly visible too, as he makes his villains - most notably the flying baboons - genuinely scary and manages to pack in a few jumpy moments, whilst his handling of the opening hot air balloon crash (which takes Oz from black and white Kansas to technicolor Oz via a tornado, in keeping with tradition) is like something straight out of 'The Evil Dead'. In fact his style is consistently visible from his fluid camera movements to distinctive use of montage.

In keeping with the 'Spider-Man' director's unabashed love of schlock (he was the producer of 'Xena: Warrior Princess' and creator of the 'Darkman' series, after all) the 3D here is gimmicky and in-your-face, but that's actually sort of fun and refreshing after the recent trend of emphasizing depth. It's tacky and, like  everything else in the film, doesn't take itself too seriously - even as it is rightly respectful of its heritage. The actors acquit themselves well across the board too, with Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams all relishing their roles as OTT witches and even the comedy sidekick characters, such as Zach Braff's motion-captured flying monkey Finley, coming over as charming when they could have been irritating.

Whilst a lot of the effects, notably the character of China Girl, are decent, some of the CGI backgrounds are a bit ropey, particularly as Franco first encounters the flora and fauna of Oz. It's also fair to say the film's message (if you can go as far as calling it that) is mildly troubling - suggesting that people at large are a dumb herd who need to be lied to by their leaders in order to be happy. Yet overall this is at its worst a bit bland and at its best an entertaining diversion. I wasn't bored - which itself is a rarity for a two-hour film of this kind - and it's certainly far better than Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland', even if it's obvious both films have a production designer in common. So take that for what it's worth!

'Bullhead' - Dir. Michael R. Roskam (15)

Matthias Schoenaerts, of 'Rust and Bone' acclaim, stars in this troubling and deeply moving Belgian thriller about meat and hormones. Ostensibly the meat in question is beef and the hormones are the various illegal testosterone supplements used to bulk it up - a dodgy practice Schoenaerts' Jacky specialises in, working with dangerous criminal gangs. But it goes further with Jacky himself a testosterone-filled piece of meat, driven (by horrific childhood trauma) to take the same illegal substances, turning him into a sweaty, aggressive and sex-obsessed bull. Then it goes further still, with lingering shots of Jacky perusing a local red light district - starring coldly at women cavorting in garish window displays - suggesting another layer to the "people as meat" metaphor. There's a similar moment in a care home, as Jacky squares up to a mentally disturbed patient - one of many sequences dominated by Jacky's immense physique and a brooding sense of threat.

In this way 'Bullhead' really seems to be an examination of what makes us functioning human beings - as opposed to animalistic bags of hormones, rutting and smashing in each other's skulls. One nasty and violent change to Jacky's anatomy turns him from one into the other, questioning how much control we have over our bodies and our behaviour. At what point does chemistry and biology take over? Yet, on top of this, it functions equally well as an exciting and intense crime film, slickly put together and impressively acted. In a rare feat, it's as entertaining as it is challenging: psychologically interesting and quietly, unassumingly, philosophical. It's equal parts tense and tragic, with a brutal ending that came like a punch to the guts.

'The Spirit of 45' - Dir. Ken Loach (U)

It can be difficult reviewing politically-minded documentaries without falling into the trap of reviewing (or even merely describing) the subject rather than the filmmaking. Ken Loach's 'The Spirit of 45' is one where that difficulty comes to the fore because, as a film, it's all stock footage and talking heads: edited together very well in service of a point which it presents compellingly, but really its success or failure rests on how you feel about its subject. To my mind, it's a solid documentary that should be shown in schools, as much because of its power and poignancy as a social document, as because of its right-on political message (it rightly venerates and idealises the NHS, and acts as a rallying cry to save it from future privitisation).

Its grasp of history is, perhaps knowingly, simplistic: the so-called "Winter of Discontent" is brushed over and Loach paints the picture of a Utopian socialist republic, suddenly dismantled by Thatcher in the 80s. And whilst I have complete sympathy for, and a certain amount of agreement with, that view it isn't telling the entire story. Though that's not necessarily a bad thing and it doesn't really get in the way of Loach's point. This is a nakedly nostalgic piece about the hopes of a generation and the preservation of an ideal - not a rigorous investigation of British economical policy from 1945-present. And on those terms it is a triumph.

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