Film Friday: Magic worlds and tragic words

Sam Raimi’s Oz reboot hits all the right notes, while local director François Delisle’s Le météore is a boldly original and challenging vision.

Oz the Great and Powerful

I went into this Oz reboot with no small amount of skepticism. Probably the most beloved family film of all time, The Wizard of Oz seems like it should be exempt from franchise fervour, especially after the not particularly successful Return to Oz from back in 1985. And James Franco? I mean, I love the guy and all, but his immersion in conceptual vanity projects tarnishes his potential as a family-friendly blockbuster entertainer.

So I was happy to see that Oz the Great and Powerful, while not coming close to touching the universal appeal of the original Wizard, is still a well-executed and enjoyable adventure. Sam Raimi, a fan of old-school magic and thrills if there ever was one, seems like the perfect director to bring this world back to life, with just the right balance of contemporary twists and respect for the original’s vaudeville-era spirit.

As seems to be the rule these days, it’s an origin story. Oz (Franco), a low-rent carnival magician and ladies’ man, flees an angry, cuckolded strongman by jumping into a hot-air balloon just as a tornado approaches. Needless to say, the tornado touches him down in a familiar magical world full of witches, Munchkins and flying monkeys. Oz gets mixed up in what’s basically a palace coup in the Emerald City, involving various witches (Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz) competing for control of the land.

The special effects on display here are really extraordinary. The film’s whole universe is full of spectacular images and tour de force set pieces, but the character China Girl (don’t worry, it’s as in porcelain china, not a racial thing), voiced by Joey King, is particularly impressive, a cracked porcelain doll with lifelike movements and an emotionally expressive face.

The film may be too scary for really small kids, but has plenty of fun for the 8-to-12 set, while dispensing clever references to the original to satisfy older audiences. (Luckily, not too clever; Franco even manages to keep his ironic distance in check). I feel like Raimi may be tipping a wink to the adult crowd by casting sexpot Kunis and boundary-pusher Williams in these chaste roles; maybe it’s just me, but I think of Blue Valentine and Take This Waltz when I see Williams, even (especially?) when she’s in princess garb. But the kids don’t need to know that.


Le météore

Local director François Delisle brings us this stark and challenging story about a man’s prison sentence and its effects on those around him. It’s not your typical drama; the film’s imagery is largely abstract (clouds, waterfalls and roads figure heavily), and the story is told entirely in voice-over.

With no sync dialogue, Delisle casts different actors for the faces and voices of each character. Pierre, the man in prison (voiced by François Papineau, played by Delisle himself) talks about the torments of solitude, the harshness of prison life and the agony of being separated from his love Suzanne, while she (voiced by Dominique Leduc, played by Noémie Godin-Vigneau) discusses her own solitude, shame and mixed feelings, as does Pierre’s mother (Andrée Lachapelle; Jacqueline Courtemanche). The story also branches out into a subplot involving a prison guard (Stéphane Jacques; Laurent Lucas) and a young street drug dealer (Pierre-Luc Lafontaine; Dany Boudreault).

The film’s extensive use of voice-over, abstract nature imagery and deep themes made me think at one point of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. After a while, though, I realized that the films’ approaches are in fact opposite; while The Tree of Life tells its story visually and uses the voice-overs for Malick’s trademark philosophical musings, Le météore uses the images for (almost) entirely abstract purposes and tells the story with the voice-overs.

As such, the storytelling sometimes lacks subtlety, but once you get used to the extremely unique filmmaking style, it’s quite compelling. The actors’ silent performances, especially Godin-Vigneau’s, are impressive, and Delisle’s hard-hitting story is emotionally affecting. Though the cinematic style and feel-bad atmosphere require a bit of effort on the viewer’s part, it’s always good to see a local filmmaker doing such original and challenging work. ■

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