True Story

Brilliant opening shot: A teddy bear falls slowly, landing softly next to a little girl who is, inexplicably, curled up in a suitcase. It is quickly revealed why.

Meanwhile, Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill), a New York Times reporter, goes to Africa for a story that makes the cover of the Times Sunday magazine. The story is written while Finkel plays poker with colleagues in the newsroom. He wins the hand but it turns out his story is not quite accurate. He is fired.

Finkel goes to his cabin in Montana with his lady Jill (Felicity Jones) and pitches freelance writing pieces. A call comes from a reporter in Oregon (Ethan Suplee), informing Finkel that accused murderer Christian Longo (James Franco) claimed he (Longo) was Finkel when he was arrested in Mexico.

When Finkel goes to Oregon to visit Longo, the fun begins. In a series of jailhouse one-to-ones, Franco and Hill each show off their acting talents. Finkel is flattered when Longo mentions how much he likes Finkel’s writing. Longo sends Finkel a lengthy handwritten letter and Finkel offers to use its content to co-write a book, once the case is cleared.

Jill has doubts about the whole scenario, but Finkel is totally seduced by Longo’s apparent intelligence and his cool demeanor (despite being charged with four murders).

After this enticing setup, the film bogs down. But… here comes another memorable sequence: Director Rupert Goold juxtaposes Jill’s piano playing with Finkel’s writing on his laptop. Keyboard on keyboard action. Nice.

True Story has a bit of suspense: What is the true story? Did Longo kill his family? What will happen at trial? Will Finkel and Longo co-author a book? Will Finkel be redeemed after his journalistic faux pas?

But the payoff is weak. Oh, there’s resolution, but it doesn’t quite deliver what the first few chapters of the film indicated might lay ahead.

Nonetheless, Franco and Hill are a delight to watch. Someone told me when she heard those two were in a movie together, she presumed it was a comedy. Nope. True Story is serious stuff. It takes a shot, but ultimately misses out on greatness.

Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful is a stroke of genius. The movie and its entry into the entertainment marketplace are beautifully conceived.

Congrats to director Sam Raimi for assembling a movie that pays respectful homage to the 74-year-old classic The Wizard of Oz, without infringing on its copyright. Oz the Great and Powerful is pure escapism for young and old alike.

Congrats to Disney for producing a film that will generate sequels, theme park rides, video games and much more. Disney stock, trading near all-time highs recently, may soar to greater heights in the wake of Oz’s release.

Wicked has sparked new interest in the Oz saga during its 8 year run on Broadway (and via road companies in the US and abroad). But a Wicked movie won’t come until 2014 at the earliest. So Oz the Great and Powerful gets to reap all the Oz love for now.

From its seemingly low-tech black and white opening credits to its similar color closing credits, Oz the Great and Powerful brings one delightful element after another to the screen. Many scenes, characters and costumes seem fresh and new, filled with color and creativity.

But, on closer inspection, we note the similarities to The Wizard of Oz. The movie begins in black-and-white and transitions to color after a tornado. Characters from the “real life” part of the movie appear in the fantasy part, though in different guises. There are witches (good and bad), munchkins, even flying monkeys. (You’ll love flying monkey Finley, voiced by Zach Braff.)

James Franco, it turns out, was a terrific choice to play Oz. The character refuses to take himself too seriously until circumstances demand that he shoulder some responsibility. Franco is obviously having fun with the role.

The witches are portrayed with wholesome sexiness—nothing sleazy, but certainly some eye candy for the guys. Mila Kunis shows up in black leather pants, wearing an outrageous red hat with an enormous brim. Her sister witch is Rachel Weisz whose claw-like black and white manicure gives a clue to her disposition. Michelle Williams looks positively angelic in white.

The film’s climax reprises yet another bit that we’ve enjoyed since 1939 in that other Oz movie. It may seem that I’m regarding OTGAP almost as a remake when I mention that the two main things that are missing from the original The Wizard of Oz are Dorothy and classic songs. (Speaking of derivative, a couple of the witchy catfights may make you think of Harry Potter versus Valdemort faceoffs.)

Despite its just-a-bit-too-long runtime of 2:10, Oz the Great and Powerful maintains a good pace and loses its energy only a time or two. Don’t wait for the DVD or Netflix. This is a film to see in the theater, in 3-D, on the biggest screen you can find. Don’t miss it!