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Monday, December 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Wilmington on DVD: Oz, The Great and Powerful, Snitch

Oz, The Great and Powerful (B)
U.S.: Sam Raimi, 2013, Walt Disney Home Video

Let's imagine a new version of one of the world's certifiably well-loved movies: the 1939 MGM classic, The Wizard of Oz. Let's envision Oz, The Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi, starring James Franco as Oz, a new movie from the Disney Studio.

How to you bring this old show up to date? Well, first you throw out Dorothy, or any kind of Dorothy little-human-girl-protagonist equivalent. (Makes sense, since anyone trying to walk in Judy Garland's ruby red slippers was bound to catch critic flak. Who wants to be compared to the musical girl marvel of MGM?) Then you upgrade the Wizard of Oz character -- Professor Marvel, as played with gloriously hammy eloquence by the great Frank Morgan in 1939 -- from a supporting role to central star. To catch a younger audience, you turn Marvel into a sexy ladies' man played by James Franco.

Then you surround Oz, or Oscar, as he's been renamed here with sexy star witches. Instead of a dithering moonstruck Billie Burke type as Glinda the Good and a ferociously cackling Margaret Hamilton type as the Wicked Witch of the West, you cast super-blonde Michelle Williams as Glinda, and ultra-brunette Mila Kunis as her antagonist Theodora, a.k.a. the WWW. You turn the three into a sort of romantic triangle -- and you end up with Kunis doing Margaret Hamilton anyway.

Not content with two sexy witches, you bring in another beautiful nasty lady, called Evanora (played by Rachel Weisz), and have her stage a kind of palace coup before a cast of thousands. You give the Wizard a garrulous flying monkey named Finley as a sidekick. You dump the old parts of the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion (or perhaps their granddads), because, again, who wants to be compared to Ray Bolger, Jack Haley Jr. and Bert Lahr?

You clutter up the landscape with Munchkins and Winkies and more flying monkeys and colors vaguely reminiscent of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds turned into a video game. You don't write any new songs -- except one that flitted by so fast I barely heard it. You stage a big slam-bang climax, reminiscent of Ten Days that Shook the World, with Munchkins.

But why go any further? There's lots of good stuff in Oz -- production stuff from designer Robert Stromberg and cinematographer Peter Deming. But on a script level, do you have any real hope for this movie? You probably should have bailed out as soon as you heard that James Franco was the new Wizard of Oz. Instead of the smoothie con man patter of a Frank Morgan equivalent, or the quick-witted raps of Robert Downey Jr. (reportedly the original choice for this movie), we get the lackadaisical seductive gabs of Franco, who is at his best playing rebels (James Dean, Allen Ginsberg) or laid-back, grinning stoner types (Pineapple Express).

The film isn't bad -- it has enough good people and colorful scenes to keep it floating along on a wave of semi-entertainment. But I'd suggest that a big-bucks Wizard of Oz prequel, without a Dorothy-style heroine, and without songs or much comedy, is barking up the wrong poppy field.

The movie was directed by Sam Raimi, who sometimes seemed closer to the spirit of The Wizard of Oz in the Evil Dead movies than he does in this new Oz. (Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell pops up as Oz's gatekeeper.) It was written by Mitchell Kapner (of the Bruce Willis-Matt Perry comedy The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (of Robots, Rise of the Guardians and Rabbit Hole). With a good cast and splashy visuals, they've made a spectacular Oz movie with precious little of the fun, funniness, charm, gaiety, exuberance, wit, songs, or tongue-in-cheek wit and wonder that the original had.

Snitch (B-)
U.S.: Ric Roman Waugh, 2013, Summit Entertainment

Snitch isn't the movie you first think it's going to be: which is probably a big, rough, clichéd, somewhat silly action movie, tailor made for star Dwayne (once "The Rock") Johnson. In his day, Johnson has made some clichéd action pictures (The Scorpion King) and some silly movies (The Tooth Fairy and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island). But, in Snitch, he and the moviemakers try to do something more sensible: make a film with ideas and emotions as well as muscles and carnage.

It's not completely successful. But it's still a better movie than you'd expect -- better written, better filmed, better acted (by Johnson and the rest of an unusually strong cast). Snitch, "based on a true story" -- which is an exaggeration -- is about a relatively ordinary American guy named John Matthews (Johnson), a freight truck company owner, whose son Jason (Rafi Gavron) is arrested for drug possession and intent to distribute (of a box of ecstasy), and faces a 10-year jail sentence,

That unusually harsh punishment for a first-time offender is thanks to the minimum sentences mandated by the War on Drugs laws, and the only way Jason can get a better deal is if he helps entrap somebody else (which is exactly what happened to him in the ecstasy case). Jason, however, is no dealer; the only drug contact he has is the guy (the actual dealer) who set him up -- and the prosecutor on his case (Susan Sarandon as attorney Joanne Meighan) is pretty unsympathetic and harsh herself. She's also involved in a heavy political campaign and wants whatever good press she can get. ("The liberals think I'm a bitch," she explains. From what we see here, the liberals are right.)

And so John -- who feels guilty because he remarried, and spends far more time with his new family than with Jason and his mother (Melina Kanakaredes) -- offers to help uncover some drug dealers himself, despite the fact that he's as much a stranger to this dark world as his son. Meighan, anxious for good publicity, gives him a shot, and, with the aid of one of his workers, an ex-con named Daniel James (played by Jon Bernthal) he wangles an intro to a vicious local dealer named Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams). Matthews offers his trucks as transport, and that suggestion involves him in smuggling cocaine and leads this "ordinary guy" to Malik's boss, Juan Carlos Pintera, a.k.a. "El Topo" (Benjamin Bratt) and to a job transporting a fortune in drug money across the Mexican border.

John, we soon realize, is in way over his head, as is James, whom John hasn't informed of his police deal and informant (or snitch) status. Both John and the prosecutors -- who include Sarandon and Barry Pepper in a solid turn as the goateed vet agent Cooper -- are working in a very gray moral zone. Not because they're double-crossing the drug cartel, which is good riddance, but because the prosecutors are leading John into a situation that could almost certainly get him killed (and, at first, not telling him), and John is leading Daniel into violating his probation and endangering his family and freedom, something Daniel clearly didn't want to do -- at first. That moral question is what makes Snitch more interesting than it first appears to be.

Most movies like Snitch simply exist to have four or five big action scenes and a couple of scenes where the heroes glower and the villains chew the scenery. Snitch has action scenes -- director-writer Ric Roman Waugh was a stunt man and stunt director for years. But these scenes don't overwhelm the movie. Instead, what keeps you watching are the characters and the suspense whipped up by the sight of John and Daniel (and their families) getting into worse and worse danger. It's a peril that we're not sure either of them can handle.

The script was co-written by Justin Haythe, who also adapted Richard Yates' modern classic novel Revolutionary Road for director Sam Mendes. The dialogue is much better than usual for this kind of movie, and Johnson holds his own with an unusually strong cast.

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