Friday, March 15, 2013

‘Oz’ depicts how to become great and powerful

“Oz the Great and Powerful” (2013). Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox, Tim Holmes, Toni Wynne, Abigail Spencer. Director: Sam Raimi. Screenplay: Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire. Screen Story: Mitchell Kapner. Source Material: The Oz book series, by L. Frank Baum. Web site. Trailer.

From the time we’re children and on into adulthood, we’re routinely encouraged to live up to our potential, to become the best we can be as great and powerful beings. Some of us even succeed at that, too. But, regrettably, others often find themselves lagging behind, frustrated and disappointed that they’re unable to fulfill their expectations. In most of those instances, however, those who feel held back unwittingly sabotage their own efforts by simply lacking faith in their own abilities, a dilemma playfully explored in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” the recently released prequel to the 1939 screen classic, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is biding his time, waiting for something big to happen. The small-time carnival magician, who ostentatiously bills himself as “the Great and Powerful Oz,” spends his days performing flashy but cheesy parlor tricks for gullible Midwestern audiences at the turn of the 20th Century. But, when he’s unable to live up to the bloated claims he makes of his abilities, he’s called out as a fraud. And, even though Oscar seems to possess some undeveloped natural capabilities, he lets his own doubts – and his often-dubious underlying intents – get in the way of him becoming who he truly could be. Instead, he comes across – and even sees himself – as little more than a womanizing con man.

However, Oscar’s wish for something big at last comes true when he’s threatened by the carnival’s strong man (Tim Holmes) for cavorting with his flirtatious wife (Toni Wynne). With his personal safety in jeopardy, Oscar realizes he needs to escape – and fast. He hops aboard a nearby hot air balloon to flee the irate jealous husband, a move that seemingly puts him in the clear. But, even though Oscar’s flight to freedom starts out well enough, it suddenly turns terrifying when the balloon gets sucked up into the vortex of one of those infamous Heartland tornadoes. The Great and Powerful Oz quickly finds himself in real danger.

Just as all seems lost, however, the balloon emerges from the twister and gently floats into a colorful, magical land unlike anything Oscar has ever seen. Upon landing he’s met by an enticingly beautiful woman, Theodora (Mila Kunis), who, as it turns out, is a witch (but certainly not like any sorceress Oscar has ever envisioned). Theodora explains that the new arrival has descended into the Land of Oz, a fortuitous namesake synchronicity that immediately captures Oscar’s attention. And so, true to form, the would-be wizard turns on his signature charms, seeking to woo this latest object of his affections, as well as to surreptitiously find out more about this strange new land. Almost as if on cue, Theodora falls for the newly arrived visitor, but that’s understandable, given that she’s just as intrigued by him as he is of her.

Theodora’s particularly captivated by the story of Oscar’s origins, a saga that she says fulfills a prophecy of her late father, the King of Oz. According to legend, a great wizard from the far-off land of Kansas would one day arrive in Oz to preside over the kingdom, helping Theodora and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) liberate the land from the evil ways of their other sister, Glinda the wicked witch (Michelle Williams). For his efforts, the Wizard of Oz would be rewarded with riches beyond his wildest dreams, ruling in opulence from the kingdom’s magnificent Emerald City. It’s a proposition that Oscar is willing to take on, not realizing, of course, that there are plenty of strings attached.

The biggest of those strings is Evanora’s assertion that the newly arrived Wizard must slay the sisters’ nefarious foe, a task that Oscar is not thrilled about but that he’s willing to tackle for the prospect of a big payoff. And so, with the aid of a pair of new allies, Finley the winged monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and the diminutive but determined China Girl (voiced by Joey King), Oscar sets off to confront the evil Glinda. It’s an odyssey that gives rise to new (and unexpected) enemies and imposes obstacles that require Oscar to push the limits of his ingenuity. It also challenges his beliefs (both about himself and others), but it’s an experience that enables him to grow in ways he never expected, allowing the Great and Powerful Oz to finally live up to his billing.

Living up to expectations – be they those of others or of ourselves – can be tricky business. Even if we fashion and project a particular identity of ourselves (or allow others to do so for us), we may still come up short of the mark, particularly if we doubt our abilities to measure up. We may even be capable of the things we contend, but it won’t matter a bit if we don’t believe in that possibility. That principle lies at the core of the conscious creation process and, in turn, of the realities we each manifest. It’s also at the center of Oscar’s odyssey.

Becoming the wizard he’s truly capable of being is Oscar’s main challenge, but failing to believe he can do so is the primary obstacle he must surmount. As any conscious creator knows, fear, doubt and contradiction are the principal factors that undercut our materialization efforts, so striving to vanquish them is paramount, and it all begins with examining and, where necessary, changing our beliefs about ourselves and our capabilities.

Such introspection can become intense, because it forces us to take a good, hard look at who we really are, based on the beliefs we hold and the intents that underlie them. Oscar, for example, has long seen himself as a two-bit philandering charlatan, and that self-image is reflected back to him through the experiences of his reality, such as the taunts of disbelievers and the rage of infuriated husbands. But his flashes of authentic wizardry reveal glimpses of someone else, namely, a master creator capable of great feats of nobility and generosity. All that’s keeping such qualities from surfacing is Oscar’s own reluctance to recognize those traits within himself. Were he to come to believe in those attributes, there’s no telling what “miracles” the Great and Powerful Oz truly might be able to work.

In attaining this goal, there are several key concepts to bear in mind. First, going within requires us to make effective use of our intuition, something that Oscar (and many of us, sadly) often overlook, even dismiss. But doing so can be a fatal mistake to keep us from living up to our potential, for our intuition reveals much of what we really believe, especially when it comes to the nature of our true character. If Oscar were able to see the goodness in his heart, he just might be able to achieve the greatness that is his destiny.

Paying attention to our intuition also teaches us that we shouldn’t always take things at face value, that the claims of others aren’t necessarily what they seem to be, that deception is just as capable of being created as truth. Oscar finds this out the hard way in his dealings with the witch sisters, that Glinda is not the hag that she’s portrayed to be and that Evanora’s seemingly sincere contentions aren’t to be trusted implicitly. Such an education can be trying for those who choose the path of blissful ignorance, but the awakening that comes from it can prove to be a real eye-opener.

Second, as conscious creators well know, the process enables us to tap into tremendous reserves of personal power, a force that requires tempered management lest it become a tool of abuse. Oscar is aware of this on some level, which is why he attracts circumstances that prevent him from mishandling his power. Others, however, aren’t as tuned in to this, as Theodora, for example, finds out for herself. Despite her outwardly refined demeanor, there lies within her a powder keg of anger lurking just beneath the surface, one with a fuse that’s all too easily lit and that’s ultimately capable of unleashing a firestorm of undisciplined power. Such lack of restraint is enough, unfortunately, to turn someone positively wicked.

Finally, conditions like those just described help to illustrate the need for employing ingenuity in our conscious creation efforts. Managing our power often requires us to think outside the box, to bring forth solutions to challenges that go beyond the obvious, especially when it comes to doing no harm. By looking at a broader range of options, we’re able to come up with novel answers to thorny questions, as Oscar finds out with the aid of his newfound allies and with the good people of Oz, especially a master tinker (Bill Cobbs), a crafty Munchkin (Tony Cox) and their ranks of followers. Such innovation engenders greatness, not only in one’s thinking but also in one’s outcomes.

One of the best-known adages in Hollywood is that filmmakers and studios should tread very carefully when remaking, or coming up with sequels to, the classics in order to avoid unfair criticisms and inevitable comparisons. And one of those classics that’s frequently accorded such sacred cow status is the 1939 version of “The Wizard of Oz,” a cinematic benchmark not to be tampered with. So, when Walt Disney Pictures and director Sam Raimi took on the task of making this “Oz” prequel, they were up against a daunting challenge, as well as a sullied legacy (Disney’s last foray into this body of work resulted in the positively disastrous “Return to Oz” (1985), a dark, scary sequel to its beloved predecessor that, despite its loyalty to Baum’s Oz books, was more horror flick than family fare).

However, I’m pleased to report that Disney and Raimi have risen to the challenge with this delightfully whimsical offering. In fact, in my opinion, they’ve knocked it out of the park, despite the nitpicky and cynical attacks that have emerged from some circles. Indeed, pay no attention to those critics behind the curtain!

“Oz the Great and Powerful” truly does justice to its timeless counterpart, reverently paying homage to the Victor Fleming classic by keeping the story and production values in context but without losing its own character in the process. Many wonderful tributes are paid to this picture’s predecessor, some of which are obvious (such as filming the opening Kansas sequence in black and white and the subsequent Oz sequence in color) and some of which are heartwarming and subtle (such as the imagery depicted in Oscar’s initial descent into Oz). At the same time, the film also doesn’t hesitate to gently poke fun at its forerunner, as seen in the movie’s lone musical sequence. But perhaps the production’s greatest attributes are its visually stunning cinematography, its brilliant special effects and its terrific use of 3-D technology, employing this technique far more effectively than many other such releases in recent years.

Franco delivers a capable performance as the title character, successfully portraying a confused soul trying to figure out whether he’s a scamp or a hero. But the real stars of this show are the trio of sisters, particularly Kunis, whose dastardly portrayal of a woman scorned would make even Margaret Hamilton proud.

Perhaps the only problem with the film is some of its writing. The dialogue is weak at times, and the storyline occasionally comes across like an Oz travelogue (especially in the first half). And, of course, the overall plot is inherently, yet understandably, predictable. However, the path the film follows in reaching its destination takes many delicious twists and turns along the way, which helps to make up for these shortcomings. In addition to its many allusions to its 1939 forebear, the film contains many references to other books in the Oz series that were not included in its predecessor. There are also a number of intriguing parallels to Shakespeare’s King Lear, adding further spice to an already interesting narrative.

Literary and cinematic purists may be disappointed by “Oz,” but those who get wrapped up in the material’s minutiae are missing the point (and the fun!) of what’s going on here. The film delves into profoundly inspiring subjects, but it does so in a thoroughly enjoyable and lighthearted way, an approach that’s engaging from start to finish. Those looking for a great time at the movies should be sure to see it.

As a good friend of mine is fond of saying, “Some people feel the rain, while others merely get wet.” From my standpoint, I prefer to feel the rain that “Oz” so lovingly showers upon viewers. And that truly beats getting soaked.

Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 8, 2013

‘Sound of My Voice’ asks "What do we believe?"

"Sound of My Voice" (2011 production, 2012 release). Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius, Brit Marling, Davenia McFadden, Kandice Stroh, Richard Wharton, Christy Meyers, Alvin Lam, Constance Wu, Avery Pohl. Director: Zal Batmanglij. Screenplay: Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling. Web site. Trailer.

What we believe makes up who we are. Much of the time we take that for granted, too, never giving our beliefs a second thought. But every so often we undergo profound experiences that prompt us to examine our beliefs and how they form the basis of our reality, a notion explored in the intense independent production, "Sound of My Voice," now available on DVD.

Intrepid documentary filmmakers Peter Aitken (Christopher Denham) and Lorna Michaelson (Nicole Vicius) are so eager to make a movie about cults that they’re willing to secretly infiltrate one to conduct research. Besides the investigative journalism value, Peter has a personal stake in making the film: Having been orphaned at age 13 when his mother, a longtime follower of a new age movement that eschewed the merits of modern medicine, died of cancer, Peter now seeks retribution for the "brainwashing" inflicted upon her by documenting and exposing the alleged fraud and false hope he believes such charlatan-esque organizations peddle to gullible followers. It’s a crusade to which he’s fervently committed – and one that’s eminently more fulfilling than the day job he holds as a substitute teacher at a private elementary girls’ school.

After successfully surviving a period of recruitment and scrutiny, Peter and Lorna are indoctrinated into the inner circle of a secret fellowship led by an enigmatic guru named Maggie (Brit Marling). The charismatic, soft-spoken leader offers up her singular pearls of wisdom to a small group of disciples in informal gatherings in the basement of an undisclosed residential location somewhere near Los Angeles. And what’s the basis underlying Maggie’s philosophy/theology? She claims to be a time traveler from the year 2054, having come back to the past to share information about what lies ahead with a select handful of followers, people whom she claims to know and care about in her own future life.

Peter initially sees Maggie’s claims as the pinnacle of lunacy, becoming quietly angered whenever he thinks about how she’s preying on a band of weak-willed, vulnerable followers, not unlike what happened to his mother years before. However, the more involved he becomes with Maggie and her minions, the more he loses his focus – and himself – in the mindset of the group. He’s particularly captivated by Maggie’s insights about him personally, revelations that involve information she couldn’t possibly know about him without some kind of foreknowledge – the kind that would come about only from intimate personal interaction. And, since Peter has never met Maggie before, the only way she could possibly have come into possession of such facts would be from interaction that hasn’t yet happened but that could conceivably happen at some other time – like the future.

Ironically, such incidents cause Peter to question his own skepticism. As he’s increasingly drawn into the workings of the group, he finds himself ever more willing to comply with the questionable tasks asked of him by Maggie and her lieutenants. At the same time, Lorna grows concerned that Peter is losing perspective, especially when she witnesses some of the dubious activities that Maggie’s closest advisors, like Joanne (Kandice Stroh) and Klaus (Richard Wharton), engage in. More red flags get raised when Lorna learns that Maggie is the target of a Department of Justice investigation led by special agent Carol Briggs (Davenia McFadden). But, given the uncanny disclosures that continue to stream forth as part of Maggie’s cryptic pronouncements, doubt persists about the real truth of what’s going on. Is Maggie who she claims to be? Or is she a flagrant and potentially dangerous fraud? Or is "the truth" even more incredible than either of these possibilities? In the end, it would seem, it all comes down to what one believes.

But, then, when it comes to assessing the reality we experience, it always comes down to the beliefs we employ in manifesting our existence through the conscious creation process, and that point is driven home subtly yet repeatedly in this film. For the followers of her group, Maggie becomes exactly whoever each of them needs her to be. In doing so, she assumes a chameleon-like persona reminiscent of the unassuming gardener Chance (Peter Sellers) in the whimsically delightful comedy, "Being There" (1979). For those who need Maggie to be a prescient time traveler, she’s a prescient time traveler; for those who need her to be a new age con artist, she’s a new age con artist; and for those whose personal uncertainty calls for her to be an inscrutable enigma who ambiguously seems to embody qualities alluding to both of these characters, she once again complies accordingly. In each instance, though, the beliefs of those perceiving her govern which permutation appears in each of their respective individual realities, for better or worse and regardless of whether seemingly contradictory qualities are involved.

To some, this may sound like a notion devoid of credibility. But, if we assume that our individual beliefs shape all of the other elements of the reality we each experience, why should it be any different for the beliefs we associate with the people who populate our realities? In fact, we already do this, often unwittingly and even if we don’t readily associate the "creation" aspect with it. Why, for example, would one person perceive another individual as a paragon of virtue while another perceives that "same" individual as an unmitigated jerk? In both instances, the characterizations are defined by the beliefs of those doing the perceiving/manifesting. So it is also with Maggie.

In this film, however, the characters’ beliefs have implications far more significant than just what version of Maggie crosses their paths. They delve into much deeper subjects, such as the concept of time travel and whether it’s possible. That, in turn, raises other profound questions, such as would Maggie’s appearance in her past alter the course of the timeline going forward? Could her presence in contemporary Los Angeles potentially have a temporal "butterfly effect" for the events leading up to the time from which she claims to have come? Would such alterations affect her alone or all involved? Again, it all turns on one’s beliefs, for they dictate what manifestations arise.

This, of course, raises questions related to the notion of choice and how what we choose determines what we ultimately experience. It also underscores the importance of personal responsibility, for each of us is accountable for what we choose to believe and what we each materialize as a result of those choices. Exercising care and caution would be a wise course in this pursuit, for embracing the "wrong" choices can potentially carry consequences that fly in the face of hoped-for expectations. Indeed, whether our choices involve matters as seemingly innocuous as what to have for breakfast or as seemingly life-changing as whether to join a cult, in each case we should all strive to choose wisely.

"Sound of My Voice" is a thoughtful meditation on the foregoing considerations, going far beyond the surface attributes of its narrative. Much of the picture’s action takes place in the aforementioned basement, shot close-up, creating an intimate, almost claustrophobic feel that closes in on the characters (and, by extension, the viewers), effectively emphasizing the intensity of an experience that impels serious examination of oneself and one’s beliefs. The crisp writing and fine performances serve to bring all of this to life, making for a viewing experience one soon won’t forget.

While "Sound of My Voice" didn’t exactly set the box office on fire when it was released in early 2012, it nevertheless made an impression with independent film fans. In fact, the picture was deservingly honored with two nominations in the recent Independent Spirit Awards competition, earning nods for Marling as best supporting actress and the film as best first feature. If this picture is any indication of the capabilities of director Zal Batmanglij, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Beliefs are powerful forces that can frame our existence or shake us to our very core, as the characters in this film find out for themselves in many different ways. What we do with those beliefs, and how we respond to the materializations that they birth, impact what we experience, both now and in the future that lies ahead of us. "Sound of My Voice" draws these ideas sharply into focus, giving us pause to think about who we are, where we are and, perhaps most importantly, where we’re going. We’d be wise to give serious thought to such notions; after all, our future depends on it.

Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.