Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Year 6, Day 32 - 2/1/14 - Movie #1,631

BEFORE: I'm back in the office for another Saturday - later today I'm going to the grocery store for chips, dips, pretzels, a cheese tray and perhaps some microwavable snacks.  When the cashier asks me if I'm getting ready for the big game, I'll say, "Oh, is that THIS weekend?  No, this is just a snack."

My February chains are usually devoted to romance, and there may be a bit of that in this film, but in a few days that subject will really kick in.  Either way, I'm counter-programming, since I ran out of football films a while back.  I passed on this film when on a plane to San Diego in 2012, it just didn't fit in with my chain then.  Spacey hands off to Judi Dench, who carries over from "The Shipping News" and brings it across the goal line for a field goal, or something.

THE PLOT: British retirees travel to India to take up residence in what they believe is a newly restored hotel. Less luxurious than its advertisements, the Marigold Hotel nevertheless slowly begins to charm in unexpected ways.

AFTER: Well, if I carry my thinking about my life and career forward, I've got to start dealing with the fact that in a few years I'll be 50.  And I've got no plans for my retirement, other than to hopefully be alive to enjoy it.

This worked out well, because this film carries a similar theme as "The Shipping News" - that it's never too late to change your location, change your situation, and try to start again.  Or maybe start to try again, whichever.  Oddly, the theme of repairing a piece of property carries over as well.

Surprised to find that India is to Britons what Florida is to Americans - I bet a lot of Brits are surprised by this too.  I mean, sure the weather in India might be better than London's, but that's about it.  However, we learn that each person or couple in this film has a different reason for moving to India - since the movie opened with a bit with one character having trouble with an Indian-based customer service rep, I thought that maybe she moved to India to find that telemarketing company, sneak into their call center and start bashing in some heads.  But they didn't go that way, maybe it's for the best.

There's something charming about this film, once they finally got past the jokes about what happens after white people eat Indian food.  With a top-notch yet graying cast such as this, it almost resembles an episode of "The Love Boat", minus the boat.  If you're under 30, "The Love Boat" used to be a show set on a cruise ship where a bunch of old movie stars like Charo and Ethel Merman would get the credits necessary to maintain their SAG memberships, and usually they'd come on board as singles looking for romance, or as married people who'd find romance with new partners.  I think they rebooted the show once already, but it's probably due to come around again, both to explore the new story possibilities of same-sex relationships and also help promote the floundering cruise industry.

But it's hard to portray a character who's got strong opinions on race in the right way, and I'm not sure this film took the right tack.  I found it hard to cheer for a woman who can't trust a black doctor, or treats Hindus like they're lesser people.  One point off for that, even though she showed signs of redemption late in the film.

Bill Nighy's had quite a year - in the last few months I've seen (or heard) him in "Love Actually", "Jack the Giant Slayer", "Rango", "Total Recall", "Shaun of the Dead", "Wrath of the Titans" and "Arthur Christmas".  I expect that occasionally I'll see an actor several times in a row without planning it, but he should give his agent a bonus, he's been pretty busy lately.

It seems a sequel is in the works - I'd support that.  It beats turning the thing into a BBC sitcom, I suppose.

Also starring Tom Wilkinson (last seen in "The Patriot"), Maggie Smith (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2"), Penelope Wilton (last seen in "Shaun of the Dead"), Dev Patel (last seen in "Slumdog Millionaire"), Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Tena Desae, Lillete Dubey.

RATING: 6 out of 10 cricket bats

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Shipping News

Year 6, Day 31 - 1/31/14 - Movie #1,630

BEFORE: Kevin Spacey's going to wrap up the month for me, as he carries over from "The Big Kahuna".

 THE PLOT:  An emotionally-beaten man with his young daughter moves to his ancestral home in Newfoundland to reclaim his life.

AFTER: This project has taken me down some pretty weird mental paths.  Maybe you're familiar with cooking competitions, where a chef might be asked to create a dish that represents their entire cooking career on a plate, or even in one bite.  The last three nights have basically represented my career (not exactly, metaphorically) through Kevin Spacey films.  "Swimming with Sharks" could stand for my career in film, "The Big Kahuna" could represent my experiences with the advertising industry, and now it's the story of a man becoming a writer, which could stand for my own "third act", this whole movie blog thing, which is as close as I seem to get to writing.

(If I get squashed by a bus tomorrow, my eulogist has it easy - just read these last three blog posts, and there's my career...)

I'm not too familiar with the work of director Lasse Hallstrom, but this is based on a novel by the author of "Brokeback Mountain", so make of that what you will.  It doesn't exactly feel like everyone here is circling the drain or anything, but there's a certain amount of rack and ruin in everyone's lives, or making the best out of bad situations.  I can't help feel like this was all a metaphor for something, but if so, then it feels slightly out of reach.  What's the point being made, here, the fact that everything is pointless?  I'm not sure that should count.

I get that some people don't find their purpose until late in life, fine.  Barring that, this film seems to be about healing, moving on, and then trying to fit in at a new location.  When that new location happens to be Newfoundland, that's when things get weird.  They eat strange food there, they talk funny and they like to fish.  And drink.  Spacey's character knows a bit about printing newspapers, but instead gets drafted into being a reporter, covering the manifests of ships that come to town, plus car accidents.  It's finding a way to do that and capture the public's interest at the same time that's the real trick.

There are more instances of people being quirky - some of which are later explained, some of which are not.  Those that are not may leave you scratching your head.  I don't want to describe too much here, regarding dead bodies and moving houses, "ghosts" and family secrets, but there seems to be a lot of material here, I'm just not sure it all adds up to a coherent whole.

If you put a gun to my head and forced me to say what this all means (and I don't know why you would,  you seemed like such a nice person...) I'd have to point out that sometimes you end up in a relationship situation that's less than ideal, and it's important to realize that things can get better, even if that sometimes takes a bad accident or a move to Canada or learning to sail a boat.  You can go somewhere else and form a new family, and with luck the new one might be slightly less screwed up than the old one. Are we clear on this?  Can you please put the gun down now?  Thanks.

But if more movies were like this, I think I'd slowly come around to the belief that life has no meaning, other than that which we impart upon it.  That philosophy is not as negative as it might seem, in fact it serves to make the search for meaning even more crucial.

Also starring Judi Dench (last seen in "The Chronicles of Riddick"), Julianne Moore (last seen in "Game Change"), Cate Blanchett (last seen in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"), Scott Glenn (last seen in "Courage Under Fire"), Pete Postelthwaite (last seen in "The Town"), Rhys Ifans (last seen in "The Amazing Spider-Man"), Gordon Pinsent, Jason Behr, with cameos from Larry Pine, Robert Joy.

RATING: 4 out of 10 squidburgers

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Big Kahuna

Year 6, Day 30 - 1/30/14 - Movie #1,629

BEFORE: Right, the Super Bowl.  Did I really fool you into thinking I'd forgotten?  Well, it was worth a shot.  For the Denver and Seattle players and fans invading my city, I say, "Welcome." It's a nice city, but we like to call it hell.  Try to clean up after yourselves, won't you?  I hope you all freeze your nuts off on Sunday.  Linking from "Swimming With Sharks", Kevin Spacey carries over.

THE PLOT: Two veteran salesmen dissect a sales pitch to a particular client to their young protege.

AFTER: You might think of this as a modern-day "Death of a Salesman", only without the death, but this is based on a play called "Hospitality Suite".  Which itself seems to share a good deal of its DNA with "Waiting for Godot", or at least what I remember about that play.  Two characters (three, really, but come on, two main ones) sit in a hotel suite at a convention and plan for the arrival of the big client who they're going to wine and dine.  Assuming that he will come, which is far from certain.

In the interim, everything from religion to cocktails to being a better human is discussed, and we gain some insight into marketing, which is to our culture today a bit like what religion used to be.  (Don't believe me?  It's Super Bowl SUNDAY, duh)  Religion used to pitch a certain lifestyle to people, "Thou shalt not do this", and eventually your life, or afterlife, will be much better.  Buy this product, drink this soda, make your teeth whiter, and your life will be much better.  Just like religion, only you reap the benefits in this world and not the next.

So as we approach the one day a year where "Crap, more commercials!" becomes, "Get in here, the commercials are coming back on!" let's take a minute to celebrate marketing, something I do all year around.  One of my jobs is tangential to the advertising industry, because those agencies that have those accounts often hire animation and effects companies to make the magic happen, and the rep company I work for gets 8-10%, which can be a significant piece.  (It could be worse, I could be helping to market industrial lubricants.)

So what we do is like marketing to marketers - pitching to the people who are pitching to America, while trying not to realize how ironic that seems.  We have to be subtle, because they are a savvy and yet cowardly lot, so we take them to lunch, take them for drinks, take them to the movies, and try to get our message out between "How are your kids?" and "Have you done any skiing this year?"  For me this means maintaining a database of the movers + shakers in the industry, where I'm constantly updating their accounts, e-mail addresses, and other personal data - and these people change jobs about as often as other people change their socks, so it's a constant battle to stay current.

(ASIDE: I personally am not very good at schmoozing, which I believe is the industry term.  I tend to ask about people's personal lives only when I genuinely care, which admittedly is not often.  I feel like inquiring when I don't care is a form of lying, which I try not to do, but I suppose I can see how not inquiring about personal matters could make me seem callous and uninterested.  But at least my friends know that when I am interacting with them, I am not only listening, but also understanding.)

What this film gets right is the type of social lubrication required to land a client - nobody these days throws a Christmas party, or hosts a screening, or invites you to a stadium suite without a hidden agenda.  Maybe the process doesn't involve as many hookers and drugs as it used to in the "Mad Men" days, but the principle is the same.  It's amazing that we haven't raised a generational of cynical people (oh, wait, yes we did) who are immune to all forms of marketing.  But no, marketing merely moved onto Facebook and Twitter and SnapChat or pops up while you're trying to play Candy Crush.

For the second night in a row, I'm just too close to the subject matter to really find this topic funny.  The general rule is that you shouldn't discuss religion with clients, but yet one of the characters defies that logic and enjoys a measure of success.   But what is religion but another form of marketing?  Preaching and pitching - same thing.  I'm trying desperately to find something else to cling to in this portrait of jaded experienced salesmen and one rookie, but so far I'm unsuccessful.  Some people have compared this to "Glengarry Glen Ross", but that was about a real-estate scam, and this just seems to be about normal, everyday business.  Ho hum.

Also starring Danny DeVito (last heard in "The Lorax"), Peter Facinelli.

RATING: 4 out of 10 nametags

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Swimming With Sharks

Year 6, Day 29 - 1/29/14 - Movie #1,628

BEFORE:  Speaking of Oscars, I'm looking forward, as always, to Turner Classic Movies' "31 Days of Oscar" marathon, I just downloaded their schedule (Feb 1 - March 2?) and I think I will pick up maybe 5 or 6 films that I have not seen.  "The Defiant Ones", "Lilies of the Field", "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane", and so forth.  I'm happy to report that I was able to go through the list and cross out the films I've already seen, and that percentage was substantial. 

However, I don't quite understand how they arranged the films this year.  I realize that they're essentially showing the same films, year after year - Oscar winners and nominees - so what makes the marathon difference each year is the method of organization, and you know I'm all about that.  One year they arranged the films by the location where the films were set (I borrowed that idea from them) and another year every film shared an actor with the film before it and the film after (yep, I approve) - and best of all, the chain began AND ended with films starring Kevin Bacon. 

This year seems like a real mishmash - even with the schedule explaining these are the nominees for Best Sound, 1947 - or this is a marathon of Best Actor winners from various years - I still don't get it.  Maybe I'm missing something.  Jeez, even last year, when the films were arranged by STUDIO, it made more sense to me.

I jokingly suggested they should arrange the films by rhyming.  "My Fair Lady", followed by "Star 80".  "Argo" followed by "Fargo".  "Cabaret" followed by "The Longest Day", and so on.  Look, I even followed "Ruby Sparks" with "Swimming with Sharks", just to show how easy and fun it can be! 

Linking from "Ruby Sparks", Annette Bening was in the Oscar-winning "American Beauty" with Kevin Spacey (last seen in "Outbreak")

 THE PLOT:  A young, naive Hollywood studio assistant finally turns the tables on his incredibly abusive producer boss.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Horrible Bosses" (Movie #1,332)

AFTER: Of course, the other connection to "Ruby Sparks" is that both films are about writers - only tonight's writer is working at a film production company in order to get his foot in the door.  I'm not sure why they made him a writer, because his writing ability barely had anything to do with his job or his aspirations - he seemed more like a producer, or someone who wanted to work his way up to management in Hollywood, and writing seems like a completely different track to me.

This is a subject I know a thing or two about - meaning that I am working for two production companies, in various non-writing, mostly non-creative capacities.  And I have started at the bottom (actually, three times) and worked my way up to - let's say middle-management.  But I got there by being adept at many different things - payroll, light accounting, being able to fix spelling/grammar errors in scripts, shipping, and just generally being able to get shit done. 

So, what I think rings true here is the "get your foot in the door" mentality.  Then it's volunteer, listen closely, learn, and don't screw up.  You might think Spacey's character is abusive here, but really he's occasionally handing down some good knowledge about a tough industry, just not always in the best way.  It took me, no lie, about ten years at one gig before my opinion on things was even listened to, let alone considered.  The film biz judges you by your age and experience, and I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing.

However, what the film gets wrong is suggesting that kidnapping your boss and torturing him physically in retaliation for his verbal abuse is a good idea.  Wait, is it?  No, I'm going to say that it's not.  Sure, everyone's had a fantasy or two, particularly on tough days, but this should not be considered as a valid method of career advancement.

I have to also deduct at least a point for not displaying the story in linear fashion - instead it toggles between the present (post-abduction) and the past (detailing all of the abuse that provoked said abduction).  I know why they did this, it's to move the exciting torture scenes up toward the front of the film to raise interest, and to keep the third act of the film from being all about the torture.  But as a result we see the abduction before the abuse, so we're not quite sure at first if the torture is warranted.  And then we spend most of the rest of the film playing catch-up, so really, if your story doesn't work in one linear path, there might be something wrong with the story that back + forth editing cannot fix.

I also don't really agree with what the film ultimately says about women, or the fact that in order to succeed in the film business, you have to sacrifice everything else, including a personal life.  But I guess that's one filmmaker's opinion.  Maybe I've lived a life too close to what's depicted in this film to find it hilarious.

Also starring Frank Whaley (last seen in "Born on the Fourth of July"), Michelle Forbes, Benicio Del Toro (last seen in "Licence to Kill"), with a cameo from Roy Dotrice.

RATING: 6 out of 10 Sweet 'N Low packets

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ruby Sparks

Year 6, Day 28 - 1/28/14 - Movie #1,627

BEFORE: Well, I've made it through the Golden Globes, the People's Choice Awards, the SAG Awards, Critics Choice Awards, even the Kennedy Center Honors and the Pro Bowl.  Thank God there are no major cultural or sporting events this coming weekend, because that would really screw up my schedule.

Linking from "Ted", Mark Wahlberg was also in a film called "The Big Hit" with Elliott Gould (last seen in "American History X").

THE PLOT:   A novelist struggling with writer's block finds romance in a most unusual way: by creating a female character he thinks will love him, then willing her into existence.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Stranger Than Fiction" (Movie #387)

AFTER: Well, I mentioned how they changed the silver slippers from the book "The Wizard of Oz" to ruby slippers for the movie, because they were much more cinematic that way.  In much the same way, Hollywood loves to show writers clacking away on a typewriter, because it looks great, sounds great, and is much more dramatic.  However, it's not realistic at all.  The last writer who used a manual or electric typewriter was Jimmy Breslin, I believe, and that was back in 1979.  Who would risk losing their entire manuscript these days by placing the only copy on fragile, tearable, flammable paper?

I'll say this one last time, Hollywood screenwriters, because you don't seem to get it.  Any modern writer worth his salt would NEVER use a typewriter over a laptop or word processor.  Why?  Because ONE spelling error would require the retyping of an entire page.  And adding ONE paragraph would require the retyping of the entire manuscript for the purposes of repagination. It just doesn't make any sense - it would be like a movie character saying "Let's go get some food," and instead of heading to a restaurant or grocery, they would grab a spear to hunt a wild boar.

Yet we see it time and time again - "Adaptation", "Love Actually", and so on, and again in tonight's film.  What gives?  The next time I see this in a movie made in this century with someone using a typewriter, I'm going to fly to Hollywood, find that screenwriter, and bash his head in with a Smith-Corona.  Or maybe hang him with a typewriter ribbon, if I can find one. 

I remember using a typewriter when I was in college (86-89), but that was only because I couldn't afford a computer, plus I was not a professional writer - this character is an established successful writer, with a house and everything, so there's no excuse.  If you remember typewriters, you remember how much they sucked.  Ever try to find a new ribbon at 2 am?  Or, like me, did you just rewind it, or flip it over and try to use the other side?  Yeah, we had Wite-Out or Liquid Paper, but nobody could ever wait for that stuff to dry, so they'd go ahead and type into the sticky stuff, gumming up the keys and creating a character on the page that doesn't exist in any language.  Is it an "S" or a "D"?  Kinda both.

The only thing worse in Hollywood's depiction of writers is showing a blocked writer, staring at an empty page - because THAT'S entertaining.  Correction, the only thing worse than that is showing a writer with no ideas, who eventually writes a story about a writer with no ideas, which you're watching RIGHT NOW.  Arrgggh.

Tabling that nonsense for a moment, tonight I'm presented with a character who's a writer, and may be even more neurotic than Woody Allen (I'll get to his films next month, finally).  He wrote a successful novel when he was in high-school, and has been unable to write a follow-up for 10 years.  Since then, he's had a long-term relationship that failed, so he's wracked with self-doubt and low self-esteem on a few levels.  His therapist suggests that he write something about the woman he would like to date, and after doing this, she appears in the real world.

It's an intriguing idea, but it made me try to guess the story's end-game right from the beginning.  Is this a dream?  A prank?  Or does this guy actually possess the power to type something that will then manifest itself in the real world?  And if he can do it, how did he do it?  And if this is possible, why doesn't he write a story about world peace, or write a story about how easy it is to sell his next book idea?

Also, when he does determine that what he writes controls his girlfriend, why can't he make her act the way he wants her to?  Is this a reflection of his lack of conscience, manifesting itself as a secret desire to fail?  Or are we supposed to learn from this that we should not try to control our mates, but just let them be who they are?

Tabling the discussion over the reality of the situation, if we take it as metaphor, does it have more meaning?  Don't all single people do this, to some degree - imagine who they want in their life and then look for a way to bring it about?   First you have to visualize what/who you want in order to get what/who you want, right? 

Once again, I'm going to fall back on "The Wizard of Oz" - was it a dream or was it real?  I think this could work either way, which I think gives this story a bit of a boost.  I didn't know that the ultimate message would be about the nature of romance, but I'll let this serve as something of an introduction to my February programming, which is only a few days away, after all.

Also starring Paul Dano (last seen in "Looper"), Zoe Kazan (last seen in "It's Complicated"), Chris Messina, Annette Bening (last seen in "Open Range"), Antonio Banderas (last seen in "Once Upon a Time in Mexico"), Steve Coogan (last seen in "Our Idiot Brother"), with cameos from Aasif Mandvi, Wallace Langham (last seen in "The Social Network").

RATING:  5 out of 10 swimming pools

Monday, January 27, 2014


Year 6, Day 27 - 1/27/14 - Movie #1,626

BEFORE: You might be wondering why I'm not running out to see the 2013 Oscar-nominated films, as many of them are getting re-released in time for Academy voter consideration.  I said I wanted to catch up with current films, and it seems like this would be a perfect opportunity to do just that, right?

Well, here's the problem.  I've looked at the list of films nominated for Best Picture, and I've got nearly zero interest in them, at least right now.  OK, "Gravity" looks really cool and I'll probably see that at some point, but I don't feel a sense of urgency.  "American Hustle"?  Well, OK, that looks cool too and I've enjoyed other films from that director, so I'll see that too someday.  But the others?  Hmm, should I see the film about slavery, the one about a ship hijacking, or the one about people with AIDS?  Why don't I just shoot myself instead?  "Her" looks dumb, "The Wolf of Wall Street" got really mixed reviews, with most people saying it's too long and repetitive.  "Nebraska" and "Philomena" seem like moderately interesting character studies, but again, it doesn't feel all that important that I rush to see them - not while I've got so many films from 2012 still on my list, and more films from 2013 being added all the time.

As for the next lower level of nominations (beyond Best Picture) - I definitely want to see "Blue Jasmine", but I'll be dealing with all outstanding Woody Allen films in a month or so, so I'll get to that then.  "August: Osage County"?  Looks like a heavy-duty snorefest.  And "Lee Daniels' The Butler" commits the sin of putting the director's name in the title, so that's a pass.  Plus my Mom said she liked it, so I'm guessing I would hate it.  

Besides, I think it's pretty clear from my choices so far this year that this Oscar line-up is way too serious for me.  I tend to gravitate more toward fantasy films - maybe I spend too much time in the world of fantasy, but really, it's OK, they know me there (or at least I imagine that they do...).

Linking from "Oz the Great and Powerful", Mila Kunis carries over.

 THE PLOT: As the result of a childhood wish, John Bennett's teddy bear, Ted, came to life and has been by John's side ever since - a friendship that's tested when John's girlfriend of four years wants more from their relationship.

AFTER: It's actually not much of a leap from "Oz the Great and Powerful" to this film as one might think - the China Doll character in Oz (she's not Asian, she's made from china...) sort of relates to a talking, thinking teddy bear in a weird way.  But even though I found this film funny, there's something kind of bugging me.  (I know, what a shocker!)

I think I've got this feeling that even in the realm of fantasy, things have to work according to a set of consistent physical rules, even if those rules don't work in our world.  I think there should still be a way to be funny and outrageous and still be consistent.  Sure, the humor in "Family Guy" goes to some pretty weird places, since they have time machines and random cutaways, and people can get "cartoon hurt" one minute and be fine the next - whatever's funny and/or shocking goes, I get that. 

But it's different in a live-action/CGI film, I think.  The goal is to make us believe that a teddy bear is some form of alive, can walk and talk and think.  But beyond that, things don't add up.  We're told that as a doll, he doesn't have, umm, male parts - but he's obviously a male who wants to have sex with women (not women bears or women teddy bears, human women) so how does he do this?  And why does he have these feelings, being a bear?   The character's story does not match the character's nature.

Especially since he was brought to life by a boy's wish - if magic can bring a teddy bear to life, why can't it keep him from aging, or being hurt?  I assume here that since the bear's voice deepened over time, plus given its interest in adult pursuits like booze and drugs, it grew older as the boy did.  I suppose this makes an odd sense, but if magic exists, why are there limitations on it?

I also think that if magic DID exist in the world, and a magic teddy bear was walking around, that would still probably freak people out on a day-to-day basis.  This film equates Ted with child actors such as Corey Feldman and Frankie Muniz, meaning that after a while, no matter how cute, a famous person would eventually reach a saturation point and then be ignored by the public.  But I don't think a toy that came to life would be overlooked by everyone in the room, no matter what the time-frame.  That seems to be something of a dodge to explain why everyone around Ted isn't either screaming or questioning reality at all times.

I know, I'm probably overthinking things again - I shouldn't expect any more out of this film than the shock value of seeing a teddy bear do drugs, drink booze, and make sexy time.  But I kinda do - in one way they went too far, but in another way they didn't go far enough.  By that I mean that if you replaced the teddy bear with a human who was always tempting his friend to act irresponsibly, the story would be almost exactly the same.  I think they should have done even more to distinguish the character as a stuffed animal, and given him more things related to that to do.  Just my 2 cents.

Also starring Mark Wahlberg (last seen in "The Fighter"), the voice of Seth MacFarlane, Joel McHale (last heard in "Open Season 2"), Giovanni Ribisi (last seen in "Cold Mountain"), Patrick Warburton (last heard in "Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil"), Matt Walsh, with cameos from Sam Jones, Norah Jones, Ryan Reynolds (last seen in "Dick"), Tom Skerritt, Ralph Garman, Alex Borstein and the voice of Patrick Stewart (last heard in "Ice Age: Continental Drift").

RATING:  5 out of 10 white trash names

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Oz the Great and Powerful

Year 6, Day 26 - 1/26/14 - Movie #1,625

BEFORE: In 2012, I engineered something of a Virtual World Tour, where I arranged my final films for the year based on where they were set (admittedly, I stole the idea from TCM's "30 Days of Oscar" programming) - beginning with "They Call Me Mister Tibbs!", set in San Francisco, and then journeying across the U.S, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, then up through South and Central America to end with "The Lady from Shanghai", also set in San Francisco.  63 films that I guarantee no one else has ever watched in that order - because why would they?

This week I've been on something of a similar tour of fictional lands, from Gantua (land of the giants), to Middle Earth, Cimmeria, and now the granddaddy of fictional places, Oz.  And linking from "Conan the Destroyer", Mako was also in "Under the Rainbow" (fittingly, a film about the making of "The Wizard of Oz") with Tony Cox, who appears in tonight's film.  I think that may be the weirdest bit of actor linkage I've found.

 THE PLOT:  A small-time magician is swept away to an enchanted land and is forced into a power struggle between three witches.

AFTER: This is where I really reap the benefits of putting similar films together and maintaining a daily schedule - I get to discover the commonalities of various genres, in this case fantasy quests.  This is the fourth or fifth film in the last week to feature a "treasure room", for example.  But more than that, this week's films have more or less been about regular people (or hobbits) going on quests, overcoming great obstacles and self-doubt in order to face peril and accomplish great deeds.  (The Conan films did this, but to a lesser extent, because they're mostly about stabbing enemies.)

Tonight, Oscar Diggs, a cut-rate carnival performer who dreams of being Houdini and/or Edison, is whisked away by a tornado (stop me if you've heard this one before) to a fantastical land with a complex heirarchal government system.  (that's what you get when your economy is poppy-based, just look at Afghanistan...)  He's thrust into a land he never imagined, doesn't know what's expected of him, and he has to determine which witch is which.

(ASIDE: This was perhaps the worst kept secret in Hollywood last year, except maybe for the villain in "Star Trek Into Darkness" - when people learned this might tell the backstory of the Wicked Witch, I think most people just scanned the IMDB cast list and said, "Well, duh, obviously.")

And on that level, the film succeeds.  The "wizard" goes on a quest, assembles his team, defeats teh evil power, and saves the day.  I could just leave it there, but you know I won't.

Where this film fails lies in what it says about men + women - with so few human characters, what a film says about a man is what is says about ALL men.  So by extension, all men are manipulative dreamers who can't commit.  Also by extension, women are catty and manipulative and hold grudges - did anyone take a look at these characters and consider that kids are going to be watching it, and so maybe we they shouldn't put out such a bad takeaway message? The 1939 film told us "There's no place like home."  What's the message here - "Try to keep it in your pants"?  More relevant for today's youth, perhaps, but it just doesn't have the same zing to it.

Next I come to magicians and politicians - who are both portrayed as liars (OK, I'm with you so far...) and a magician who essentially becomes a politican is a double-liar.  I'm fine with the character being who he is, but the film seems to promote a "Fake it 'Til you Make" it mentality.  I guess we've all been there, since none of us are born knowing how to do the jobs we'll later have, but again, it's an odd message to put out in a kids' fantasy film.  There's a fine line between pretending and lying, after all.

(ASIDE: Those who are inclined to pick up on the political nature of this story could easily use it to make whatever point they want.  A man with no real skills comes to town, and ends up running the whole country?  I could easily connect the dots to George W. Bush, but I suppose other interpretations are possible.  Make of this what you will.  But the future books in the Oz series detail how the Wizard's government got corrupted.  Time for some traffic problems in Munchkinland, and perhaps an unjustified war with Narnia.)

Now, as to the backstory, doesn't this conflict with the plot seen in "Wicked"?  (I haven't seen that play, but I'm going to look up the plot now...yep, it sure does)  If you've got two different backstories for a character, it makes it seem like no one's in charge of the franchise.  I know, they pull this crap in comic books all the time, changing Superman's origin every few years just to keep it current, but I don't have to like it.

I think what we've got here is another severe case of "prequelitis" - we all know where "The Wizard of Oz" begins, so this film has to end in a certain way, one which sets up the 1939 film.  But when you try to piece it together, the timeline just doesn't work - if you go back 20 years and bring Oscar Diggs to Oz, then he has to remain there, so he'll be there when Dorothy arrives.  But Dorothy visited that psychic, Professor Marvel, in Kansas before the tornado - and he looked exactly like the Wizard.  Assuming that was the same guy, how could he be in two places at once?  There are other inconsistencies as well, but the main one I won't mention for fear of giving away a plot point.

Of course, the brilliance of the original film was it's duality - was Dorothy's trip to Oz a dream, or was it real?  Some people view it one way, some the other, but it works either way.  This one, not so much.  They had to pick a horse here and say this guy got whisked over the rainbow to a real place - but who knows, maybe he was just in a coma or something and never woke up.

I'ts also worth nothing that this is the first portrayal of Oz that's post "Star Wars" - I couldn't help but think that the way the way Evanora shot green lightning greatly resembled Emperor Palpatine's Sith lightning, and that the climactic battle was a shout-out to Yoda vs. Palpatine in the grand council chamber.  Bad witches = Sith and good witches = Jedi?

I did like the Wizard's use of early motion-picture technology - the tech of movies is forever intertwined with the story of Oz as we know it, after all.  In the original book, Dorothy's slippers are silver, but since red plays better in a Technicolor film, the 1939 film changed them to ruby slippers.  Same with the Emerald City - in the book all the citizens wore glasses with green lenses, so it merely appeared green to them (there's another political point there, no doubt).  But who doesn't want to see a giant glittering green city on film?  The irony is therefore lost for the sake of spectacle. 

Kudos for employing real little-person actors (even if that means my wife can't watch the film).  They need to work in that difficult period between St. Patrick's Day and the Christmas season, and lord knows those "Hobbit" films are no help, hiring regular-sized people to play dwarfs.

Also starring James Franco (last seen in "Never Been Kissed"), Michelle Williams (last seen in "Dick"), Rachel Weisz (last seen in "The Lovely Bones"), Mila Kunis (last seen in "Black Swan"), Zach Braff (last heard in "Chicken Little"), Bill Cobbs, Joey King, with cameos from Bruce Campbell (last seen in "The Ladykillers"), Ted Raimi, Martin Klebba (last seen in "Project X").

RATING:  6 out of 10 flying bubbles