THIS WEEK’S MOVIE RELEASES:
“Oz the Great and Powerful”: Director Sam Raimi and the folks at Disney obviously struggled long and hard to create a worthy prequel to the masterful 1939 “Wizard of Oz,” and based on the eye-popping visuals (deigned with the 3D process in mind), the CGI and VFX specialists kept up their end of the bargain. But the rest of the crew, including an A-list group of thespians (James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams, all acting here as if they didn’t want to be in the production), writers Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner (who took a clever idea, the backstory to the wizard of Oz himself, and populated it with mediocre dialogue), Raimi (“The Evil Dead,” “Spider-Man”), who had difficulty here with a ponderous script) and composer Danny Elfman, whose scores for fantasy films are starting to all sound alike), weren’t up to the task. Aside from a fairly spectacular special effects ending, this family film is mildly entertaining — the only saving grace being the development of the links between this outing and the transcendent 1939 masterpiece. The story line: Oscar (nicknamed Oz) Diggs (Franco), a small-time circus magician with dubious ethics, escapes in a hot air balloon from an angry crowd at a carnival in dusty Kansas in 1905, landing in the magical Land of Oz, where he’s heralded as the long-awaited Wizard. There he meets three witches: Theodora (Kunis), Evanora (Weisz) and Glinda (Williams), who are not convinced he is the great wizard everyone’s been expecting, and the threesome draw him into the epic problems facing the land and its inhabitants. DVD bonus features include bloopers and a featurette, “Walt Disney and the Road to Oz.” The Blu-ray edition adds “The Magic of Oz the Great and Powerful” immersive Second Screen experience with linking behind-the-scene featurettes, “My Journey in Oz by James Franco,” an interview with composer Danny Elfman, and a couple more making-of documentaries.
Want another remake of a favorite kids tale? “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” is another in the growing line of adult makeovers of fairy tales, here with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton starring as the titular heroes who, after defeating a witch as kids, grow up to become bounty hunters, traveling the world to rid towns and villages of their broom-flying crones. But after dispatching a host of monsters, and creating a reputation for themselves, they meet their match in Muriel (Famke Janssen), a rare, shapeshifting witch whose power tests the sibling’s strengths and resolve — and dredges up secrets from their sketchy past. Renner, whose career has had more ups and downs than a witch’s nose, and Bond Girl Arterton, are wasted here, having little more to do than fight witches in front of green screens and look pretty; Janssen holds up much of the film with her nastiness. There’s nothing special here — it’s a pleasing, loud, special-effects-laden adventure that you’ll forget as soon as the DVD stops. Bonus features include three behind-the-scenes featurettes.
In the action-thriller “Snitch,” Dwayne Johnson plays against character and eschews flexing his muscles for exercising his brain power. Here he stars as a successful businessman with a trucking firm who learns his estranged son faces 10 tough years in a Federal prison for drug possession. To get him out, he volunteers to become an undercover informant and infiltrate a ruthless cartel, using his truck to smuggle dope and money across the border into Mexico. But the big guy gets in over his head, and when the cartel comes after him, he has to resort to some outrageous plans to get himself and his family off the hook. The initial pacing is slow for this type of film — mainly to flesh out Johnson’s character and his motivation — but once things get going it becomes enjoyable. Inspired by true events, the film is a nice change of pace for The Rock. And Susan Sarandon continues her skein of playing supporting characters with dubious motives. Extras include commentary, deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.
Though he only made five films before his untimely death at 33, Bruce Lee is an iconic figure in world cinema, single-handedly bringing Gung Fu and Karate into the mainstream of action films. He’s still considered to be the greatest martial arts practitioner on and off the big screen, and his films still resonate to this day. Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940 but was raised in Kowloon. He returned to the states in 1958, studied drama, philosophy and martial arts, then segued to acting by landing a role in the 1966-67 TV series “The Green Hornet,” playing the Green Hornet’s martial-arts sidekick Kato (when the show aired in Hong Kong, it was unofficially referred to as “The Kato Show”). After co-starring in a string of “B” pictures, he returned to Hong Kong, where he starred in Lo Wei’s “The Big Boss” (1971) and “Fist of Fury” (1972). The films were such enormous success that he went on to write, direct and star in “Way of the Dragon (1972) (which introduced Chuck Norris and featured an incredible fight scene in the Colosseum in Rome). In 1973, Warner Bros. tapped Lee to star in “Enter the Dragon,” a martial arts extravaganza that co-starred John Saxon and Jim Kelly and culminated in a spectacular “cast-of-100s” fight on the island of Han. Lee died after filming but before the release of the film, which went on to world-wide success at the boxoffice (grossing approximately $25 million domestically — the equivalent of almost $180 million in today’s boxoffice) and set the stage for generations of kung-fu artists and films (“The Game of Death,” which was incomplete when Lee died, was released in 1978). On the 40th anniversary of the film, Warner Home Video is releasing “Enter The Dragon 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition Giftset” on Blu-ray that’s loaded with goodies that includes two discs, collectible art cards, a lenticular card and an embroidered patch. Bonus features include three new featurettes: “No Way As Way” (on the legacy of Bruce Lee), “The Return to Han’s Island” and “Wing Chun: The Art That Introduced Kung Fu to Bruce Lee”; an interview gallery featuring Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Caldwell; vintage pieces “Backyard Workout With Bruce Lee,” “Curse of the Dragon,” “Location: Hong Kong With Enter the Dragon,” “Blood and Steel: The Making of Enter the Dragon,” “Personal Profile Bruce Lee: In His Own Words”; five trailers, seven TV spots. All for $49.99.
“Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder”
(2010) Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the leading light of the Beat literary movement in the 1950s and 1960s, co-founding the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1953 and, two years later, setting up the publishing arm of the store, which published his poetry as well as the works of Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Marie Ponsot, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, William Carlos Williams and Gregory Corso. In 1956, Ginsberg’s earth-shaking “Howl” was published by City Lights Publishers; subsequently, the book was seized by the S.F. police and Ferlinghetti was were arrested on obscenity charges. His trial was a cause celebre for freedom of speech (and writing) and, in 1957, a judge found “Howl” not obscene and acquitted Ferlinghetti. The landmark case established a key legal precedent for the publication of other controversial literary works with redeeming social importance. Six decades later, Ferlinghetti and City Lights are still going strong. This incisive and entertaining portrait of Ferlinghetti explores his vital role as catalyst for numerous literary careers and for the Beat movement itself. Includes interviews and footage of Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Snyder, Dennis Hopper, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, Dave Eggers, Anne Waldman, Obie Award winner Michael McClure, PEN Open Book Award winner Amiri Baraka, Bob Dylan and others. On DVD, $24.95 from First Run Features.
The folks at The Criterion Collection have released the Blu-ray debut of Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” (1957), a treasure from the golden age of art-house cinema and one of the films that catapulted Bergman to international acclaim. Traveling to accept an honorary degree, Professor Isak Borg — masterfully played by veteran director Victor Sjostrom — is forced to face his past, come to terms with his faults, and make peace with the inevitability of his approaching death. Through flashbacks and fantasies, dreams and nightmares, “Wild Strawberries” dramatizes one man’s voyage of self-discovery. In a new high-definition digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
ON THE INDIE FRONT:
As much as we wanted to like “Wrong” (2013), the fourth feature from cinematic surrealist Quentin Dupieux, the director of cult-hit “Rubber,” we just couldn’t get into the film: the acting and directing just misses the mark — it neither clicks into place nor is surrealist enough to get us past the slow-moving scenario (unlike the more recent surrealist tomes such as “Holy Motors,” “Enter the Void” and “Upstream Color”). Though it looks good on paper — Dolph Springer awakens one morning to find he has lost the sole love of his life — his dog, Paul. Desperate to reunite with his best friend and to set things right, Dolph embarks on a journey that spirals into the realm of the absurd, where he meets up with a promiscuous pizza delivery girl, a mentally unstable, jogging-addicted neighbor, an opportunistic French-Mexican gardener, an eccentric pet detective and an enigmatic pony-tailed guru — and it does have some individual moments of brilliance, the whole endeavor ends up a boring, self-indulgent exercise. On DVD and Blu-ray from Drafthouse Films.