James Franco in Oz the Great & PowerfulOZ THE GREAT & POWERFUL

As numerous effect-heavy entertainments have proved over the years, few film actors, and even fewer good ones, look altogether comfortable performing in wholly pixelated landscapes opposite wholly digitized characters. Yet I'm not sure I've seen any star look less connected with his artificial environment than James Franco does in Oz the Great & Powerful, director Sam Raimi's mega-budgeted and intensely disappointing prequel to The Wizard of Oz.

Considering that Franco's credits include Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, his visible awkwardness in this new blockbuster-in-the-making can't be due to an inherent distrust of CGI. And considering that he earned deserved raves and an Oscar nomination for the veritable one-man-show that was 127 Hours, it can't be a matter of Franco needing flesh-and-blood co-stars to appear fully alive on-screen. (Besides, it's not like the actor looks much more alive here opposite Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, or Mila Kunis.) But the moment his pre-wizardly Oscar Diggs character lands, via hot-air balloon and one of those dastardly Kansas twisters, in the over-the-rainbow universe of Raimi's latest, it's as though all the color is suddenly drained from Franco's face - which is quite a feat given that the movie's prelude, like the opener to 1939's Judy Garland classic, is presented in black-and-white. Franco stares at the gaudily hued, digitally rendered production design, and interacts with a yammering flying monkey and china doll, and he might as well be co-hosting the 2011 Academy Awards again for all the conviction he lends the picture; his unmotivated readings and vaguely confused expressions imply that he'd rather be anywhere else than Oz, or Oz, and before too long, I started to feel much the same way.

Whenever it's not trying too hard, which is about 3 percent of the time, the movie does boast some charm, especially on those rare occasions when Mitchell Kapner's and David Lindsay-Abaire's screenplay makes subtle yet satisfying nods to the film's predecessor. (During that introductory segment in Kansas, I loved hearing that Oscar's sweetheart was considering marriage to a man with the surname Gale, which made me think she might eventually grow up to be Dorothy Gale's mother.) And even when Raimi's Wizard of Oz origin story is trying too hard, your general affection for the material provides certain narrative conceits with happy undercurrents of familiarity, notably when we discover the logistics behind, and rationale for, the wizard's public front as an enormous holographic head. Despite such niceties, though, and the impressiveness of many of the visuals, Oz the Great & Powerful is almost obtusely devoid of magic; as with last weekend's fairytale goof Jack the Giant Slayer, you see nothing but money on-screen, and leave the cineplex amazed that all that dough still can't buy anything in the way of true, take-your-breath-away enchantment.

Heaven knows you'll get plenty of wan slapstick, such as the embarrassing sight of Franco flailing about and screaming for help in a creek that's all of six inches deep. Modern-day kiddie flick that it is, you'll also get a hefty dose of smart-alecky wisecracking, most of it courtesy of the aforementioned flying monkey Finley (voiced, rather unbearably, by Zach Braff) and Tony Cox's aggressively surly Munchkin Knuck. (I am at least happy to report that, in this particular family-friendly endeavor, I didn't hear a single comedic fart noise in the whole of Oz's absurdly protracted 130-minute running length.) But whenever the movie threatens to be legitimately wondrous, it continually find ways to sabotage itself, be it through a blast of noisy spectacle with no meaning or the cheapening of an initially promising figure; that beautifully fragile and gorgeously animated China doll voiced by Joey King is allowed to be touching for all of one brief, lovely scene before turning into a stubborn, whiny, exhaustingly precocious pain in the neck.

And although they're portrayed by three of the most naturally luminous actresses in cinema, the film's trio of witches - despite all the gravity-defying and fireball-hurling - doesn't add much in the way of actual bewitchment. While Weisz brings a touch of flair to her underwritten Evanora, she still emerges as a mere sidekick to the laser-light show emanating from her wand, and Williams and Kunis fare even worse; the former's Glinda is dreamy-looking yet unsalvageably bland, and the latter doesn't possess the sufficient vocal range or strength required for her Theodora. (Mini-spoiler alert: It's revealed fairly early on, in something of an aside, that Theodora is the Wicked Witch of the West, and the late Margaret Hamilton can rest comfortably knowing that the seemingly ideally cast Kunis doesn't come close to rivaling her cackling, green-faced magnificence.) That Oz the Great & Powerful is no match for The Wizard of Oz can hardly be considered a surprise. But amongst the films on Sam Raimi's résumé, that this over-produced, tiresome, emotionally empty work almost makes you look back on Spider-Man 3 with fondness is a huge surprise, though not of the sort I ever want to experience again.


Dominic Cooper and Colin Farrell in Dead Man DownDEAD MAN DOWN

Given that it was being released opposite a heavily advertised behemoth that would surely demolish it at the box office, I instinctively assumed that the Colin Farrell thriller Dead Man Down had to be a real turkey - or rather, a sacrificial lamb, one whose studio could rationalize its deservedly grim fate with, "Hey, it opened against Oz the Great & Powerful ... . We're thrilled with a $1-million weekend!" (In truth, it'll likely open to about $5 million, which is hardly something to brag about.) What a pleasure, then, to discover that this retribution saga is actually awfully damned good; until your enjoyment gets waylaid by an ammunition-heavy finale that's both ludicrous and a cheat, the movie is sharply plotted, gratifyingly unpredictable, and even, in the tentative romance that develops between Farrell and Noomi Rapace, deeply moving.

A violent tale about the systematic execution of a gangland squad and a scarred woman yearning for revenge, the movie, for its first 20 minutes or so, feels deliberately alienating, as you can't fathom how its disparate, shadowy plotlines will ever successfully converge. (Even the casting is initially off-putting, with the Irish Farrell playing a Hungarian, the Swedish Rapace playing a Frenchwoman, and the British Dominic Cooper playing an American.) Yet as soon as the first of the film's shocking narrative twists is revealed - a turnaround in Farrell's and Rapace's relationship so fantastically unanticipated, and so welcome, that it caused me to laugh out loud - Dead Man Down emerges as mesmerizing fun, buoyed by an excellent J.H. Wyman script and direction by Niels Arden Oplev that superbly balances the utterly intense with the enjoyably mundane. (The grisly executions, one of them initiated by a horde of ravenous rats, sit amusingly beside discussions of rabbit's feet and Tupperware.) And with Cooper and Isabelle Huppert offering first-rate supporting turns and elegantly decadent portrayals delivered by Terrence Howard, Armand Assante, and F. Murray Abraham, the uniformly excellent Farrell and Rapace develop a quiet yet grandly emotional rapport, easily the richest one a thriller has boasted since Ryan Gosling wooed Carey Mulligan in Drive. If it hasn't left the area by the time you read this, consider throwing Dead Man Down a few of the bucks that might otherwise go to Oz. Of the two, it's the movie that actually deserves to have "great" and "powerful" in its title.

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