Oz: The Great and Powerful
There is a bucket load of superlative special effects being handled by a master of illusion in Oz the Great and Powerful, a prequel (as if one was needed), to The Wizard of Oz. Directed by Sam Raimi (Evil Dead and Spider-man), Oz tells the story of Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a small time musician with dubious ethics who gets whisked away into a magical land where he is faced with some moral choices, as well as early iterations of Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West (Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis respectively). Critics have been widely divided on whether Franco is either perfect for his role, or hopelessly miscast. The film is so full of oblique cinematic references and overburdened with visual cues that it’s like an overstuffed hamper of slightly suspect goodies.
There has been a great build up to Stoker, a film by South Korean director Park Chan-wook, working with Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, and Matthew Goode to create one of those low-key frighteners that target both mind and body with their mix of insidious unease and horrific violence. This kind of genre work often divides critics along the lines of those who “get it” and those who don’t. Roger Ebert is a fan, describing Stoker as “chilling and stylish and aggressively creepy,” but Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal feels that Park has made a film in which “spontaneity has been banished by rigid stylization, and the net effect is as lifeless as a severed head that turns up in a basement freezer.” For all that, Park is working with fine materials: A strong cast is aided by a tight script by Wentworth Miller and cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon that summons up visions of David Lynch.
Well-meaning films about the tragically absurd situations that international political tensions can place ordinary people often manage to find a silver lining somewhere, however small and tattered, to give audiences a sense that all the suffering is not in vain. Inch’Allah, a Canadian production written and directed by Anais Barbeau-Lavalette, follows Chloe, a young Canadian doctor who divides her time between Ramallah, where she works with the Red Crescent, and Jerusalem, where she lives next door to her friend Ava, a young Israeli soldier. Barbeau-Lavalette has a clear eye for the daily horrors of the conflict, and looking fearlessly into the abyss and sees … an abyss. No light at the end of the tunnel provides enlivening flickers of hope, but Barbeau-Lavalette and the excellent cast give her dark vision clarity and emotional intensity.
Detective Hunter Zhang (神探亨特張)
Also released under the title Beijing Blues, this gritty cop drama that takes a look at the dirty underbelly of China’s capital city, and does not spare its punches. The film picked up Best Film, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing at the 2012 Golden Horse Awards, and director Gao Qunshu (高群書) has shown great originality in his casting and mix of various genres. The film features many well known personalities, mostly non-professional actors who have made a name for themselves in cyberspace, led by Zhang Lixian (張立憲), a former journalist turned micro-blogger and publisher, who takes the role of the unsmiling plainclothes cop Zhang Huiling, who is constantly on the prowl, fighting crime on the street. There are thrilling city chases and elements of straight up comedy, over-the-top melodrama and documentary coverage of one of the world’s most fascinating cities.
In the House (Dans la maison)
No one manages social ambiguity like Francois Ozon (remember Swimming Pool) and In the House sees the director treating an intriguing concept with more than his usual skill. The film is an adaptation of Juan Mayorga’s play The Boy in the Last Row, centered on the bizarre friendship between a jaded high-school literature teacher, Germain (Fabrice Luchini), and one of his precocious students, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), who comes to his attention after writing about his stay with the middle-class family of a classmate, Rapha (Bastien Ughetto). Claude’s talent in bringing Rapha’s family to life on the page reignites Germain’s passion for literature, but it also unleashes all sorts of unexpected consequences. Umhauer’s performance as Claude is nothing short of brilliant, holding together a film that teeters on the brink of falling apart, but manages to stay the course brilliantly.