Despite dubious plotting, Disney's 'Oz' a mostly entertaining trip
How did the Witch of the West get so wicked? If you know Gregory Maguire's novel, “Wicked,” or the stage musical, you know one version of the story of the magical land of Oz before Dorothy touched down in her flying house. And now that the Disney corporation is buying up the rights to every fantasy property ever conceived (from the Pixar animation studio to the Star Wars universe), it's offering its own take on the material in the lavish Oz the Great and Powerful, which imagines the witches and the wizard of Oz in their heedless youth.
East German doctors strive for freedom, conscience in thoughtful 'Barbara'
Grand heroic dramas are often made about the quest for freedom in a time and place of political repression. At first glance, it looks like the German film, Barbara, is going to be one of them. Set in the last decade under Communist rule in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the story concerns a sophisticated female doctor from Berlin banished to a backwoods country hospital for political reasons. But as it plays out, this quiet, personal, deftly nuanced little drama turns into something far more affecting than the expected political thriller.
Siberian fortitude highlights fascinating Russian doc, 'Happy People'
If you've seen Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, then you know what German filmmaker Werner Herzog thinks about the terrible, unforgiving grandeur of Nature. So it's interesting that he's chosen to sponsor Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, a Russian-made documentary about hardy villagers eking out an existence as their families have done for generations on the edge of the (mostly) frozen Siberian wilderness (called the "taiga"). The original version was a four-hour documentary for Russian TV by filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov; Herzog has edited the footage down to a fleet 90 minutes and added his own inimitable voice-over narration to bring the film to a wider audience.
Expect drama at the 2013 Academy Awards
Some years, predicting the Academy Awards winners is a sure thing; there's a clear front-runner like The Artist last year, or The King's Speech the year before that. But 2013 is not one of those years. Expect drama, when the stately odds-on favorite a month ago squares off against a plucky little upstart that's been raking in the pre-Oscar accolades; when an actress in a quirky comedy has a chance to edge out the female lead in a serious drama; in a directors' free-for-all where the winner of the Directors Guild of America award—usually the instant Oscar front-runner—wasn't even nominated by the Academy.
Mood-altering pills power nifty thriller 'Side Effects'
Obfuscation is the name of the game in Steven Soderbergh's intricate new thriller Side Effects. The kind of tense drama for which the words "taut" and "twisty" are usually strung together in a sentence, this dark tale of sex, lies, and pharmaceutical skullduggery is a masterpiece of misdirection, artfully calibrated so that the viewer—like the film's overly medicated characters—often has no idea what may or may not be going on. In retrospect, even the preview trailer (which has been playing around town for weeks) fools around with our expectations, so that the film itself is still full of nifty surprises.