James Franco proved himself the King of Hollywood this past weekend. Despite mixed reviews for his performance in the title role of Oz the Great and Powerful, he helped power the film to an international blockbuster debut. The 34-year old, Oscar-nominated actor/filmmaker also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 7th, further cementing — literally — his industry immortality.
I found Franco’s performance one of the better, more genuine things about Disney’s given-to-excess adaptation of the classic L. Frank Baum books and, more directly, prequel to 1939’s beloved movie musical The Wizard of Oz. His Oscar Diggs, known to his associates (since he doesn’t have any friends) as “Oz,” starts out as a sideshow magician in 1905 Kansas prior to being whisked away by a tornado to that vibrantly Technicolor world “somewhere over the rainbow.” Once there, he is proclaimed the fulfillment of a prophecy that a man bearing the same name as the land of Oz would descend from the sky and ascend the long-vacant throne. Diggs is initially reluctant to be proclaimed wizard but becomes much more amenable once he is shown the massive treasure that awaits whoever proves worthy of the realm.
First, though, he must defeat the Wicked Witch who, with her army of marauding flying baboons, has been terrorizing the countryside. Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams play the film’s trio of enchantresses. Williams makes a wonderful Glinda and Weisz is fine as her shadier counterpart, but Kunis struck me as lacking when she has to kick into full sorceress mode (her obvious prosthetic make-up doesn’t help either). Then again, she is competing against Margaret Hamilton’s turn in the original movie. This new Oz only serves to reinforce the indelibility of Hamilton and so many other elements of the MGM classic.
Director Sam Raimi makes more than a few nods to The Wizard of Oz, most of them welcome, including the opening transition from full-frame black and white to widescreen color and cameo appearances by the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. As visually spectacular as much of the new film is, however, some visual effects sequences go on far too long. The chief offenders are Diggs’ white-river rafting/waterfall plunging experience when his balloon first touches down in Oz and several characters’ bubble-borne journey to Munchkinland. Such excesses may look great in 3D (in which I did not view the film) but are seemingly endless and probably add five non-essential minutes to the film’s running time. Parents of young children should also be cautioned about a scene where the bad witches publicly torture Glinda; I don’t remember that from the original Baum tales! Still, Oz the Great and Powerful is on the whole engaging and entertaining.
Back to Franco. He is more understated than the initially-cast Robert Downey, Jr. likely would have been in the role but Franco’s natural sincerity rings true, especially at those moments when Diggs wrestles with his insincere tendencies. While Franco is good with his female co-stars, his best scenes tend to be with non-human creations: a lovely little girl made of porcelain (dubbed “China Girl”) and a less-vicious, bellhop-dressed winged monkey who serves as his valet. Franco also wisely avoids jokiness throughout, something Downey, Jr. — good as he might have been — probably wouldn’t have been able to resist.
For full James Franco real-ness though, gay and other, adventurous viewers must check out Interior.Leather Bar., one of his several other current projects. (He is in Spring Breakers, opening this Friday, and produced the porn documentary Kink, which is currently making festival rounds.) Franco co-directed the movie with gay filmmaker Travis Mathews, and both appear in it.
Interior. Leather Bar. serves as a fascinating rumination on the current state of GLBT acceptance in society via a graphic re-creation of missing footage from 1980’s controversial Cruising. William Friedkin’s suspense film starred Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover in New York City’s leather community to hunt down a murderer. Even before its release, the film was criticized for allegedly stereotyping members of the community. It was heavily edited as a result, with a rumored 40 minutes of more sexually-explicit content left on the cutting room floor. Cruising still bombed upon its release and has been little remembered apart from its infamy, until now.
The latest in Franco’s ongoing, apparently deepening interest in gay topics (witness his previous turns in Milk, Howl and The Broken Tower, the latter of which he also directed), Interior. Leather Bar. intersperses sex scenes, interviews with cast members prior to the filming of the sex scenes, and private conversations between Franco, Mathews and/or Val Lauren, their Pacino doppelganger. Lauren is quite good if, as a straight man who claims to have had no homosexual experiences, he is understandably uncomfortable with the man-on-man action going on around him. Franco is himself uncomfortably but amusingly wide-eyed at one point while apparently watching an off-camera fisting scene.
The men’s discomfort, though, sparks insightful dialogue about the representation of GLBT life and issues on film. At one point, Lauren bluntly asks Franco how he can be making such a movie while in production on the much-ballyhooed, family-friendly Oz prequel. Franco responds inspirationally, speaking about his unhappiness at being raised in a country and culture that taught him to consider gay sex and gay people as unnatural or lesser-than. He also states or at least implies that if his exploration of such topics limits his options in Hollywood, then so be it.
I didn’t need another reason to admire Franco, even after his admittedly disappointing Oscar-hosting gig in 2011, but his recent output including Interior. Leather Bar. has made me a true Franco-phile.
Oz the Great and Powerful: B-
Interior. Leather Bar.: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.