Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Oz The Great and Powerful

Dinner and a Movie

The Great and Powerful Sarabeth

By Steve Herte

Oz The Great and Powerful (Walt Disney Pictures, 2013) Director: Sam Raimi. Cast: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, and Joey King. Color and 3D, 130 minutes.

The background story to the musical version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum is told rather fancifully in this new movie. Oz (which is incredibly short for an unusually long name), played by Franco, is a hack carnival magician in Kansas and a womanizer who dreams of greatness, but in no way of settling down with Annie (Williams) – or for that matter any woman. His flirty ways get him in trouble with the carnival strong man and he’s forced to escape in his hot-air balloon. Nobody but the audience notices the threatening skies and he’s sucked into a tornado and whisked to the Land of Oz (which isn’t named for him any more than he was named for it). Up to now, the movie is done in black and white on a narrow screen a la The Wizard of Oz. Now the screen widens to its full size as color envelopes the scene and he enters the magical land.

Disney’s prop department, stage set crew, artists and CG people unleash a riotously colorful landscape with brilliant flowers, surreal rock formations and flitting, flying things that leave and return to the screen in 3D. Upon landing, Oz is met by the beautiful Theodora (Kunis). To his surprise she is a good witch. The “wicked witch’s” winged baboons (not monkeys, these have fangs) soon beset them and he uses a dove up his sleeve to save her. She tells him of the prophesy of a wizard who drops from the sky to deliver Oz from the wicked witch, believes he’s the one and falls under his charms. They head toward the Emerald City and meet Finley (voiced by Braff, who also plays Frank, Oz’s only friend in Kansas) a winged monkey “in a bell-hop’s uniform” who is tangled in some vines and being stalked by a lion (guess which one). Oz performs some quick magic and the “Cowardly” lion turns tail and flees (it’s a real lion, not someone in a lion suit).

At the Emerald City we meet Evanora (Weisz), Theodora’s equally beautiful sister (and who were the only two sisters in the first movie?) who is not so good and doesn’t believe for a second that “the wizard” has arrived. She shows him the royal treasury and uses his greed to set him on a quest to kill the “wicked witch” by destroying her wand. Oz and Finley pass through a town made of China on the way that was devastated by the winged baboons and meet the only survivor, a little blonde girl also made of China (voiced by King, who appeared earlier as a girl in a wheelchair in Kansas begging the “magician” to make her walk again). Oz uses “magic in a bottle” (glue) to repair her legs and she can walk once more.

Long story short, the three go to the Dark Forest, find out that the “wicked” witch is really Glinda, the good witch of the South (also played by Williams) and that she’s trying to take back the kingdom from Evanora and her sister. Evanora has meanwhile turned her sister against Oz by convincing her that he flirted with her as well and had no intention of being her lover. Theodora bites a poison-green apple and poof! she’s the green Wicked Witch of the West we all know and love. That makes Evanora the Wicked Witch of the East. Nobody has dropped a house on her yet.

Oz the Great and Powerful will unfortunately not be the classic that The Wizard of Oz is now. The writing is pedestrian with only a few clever jibes. The acting is wishy-washy except for Finley and the China Girl (both computer graphics) and a couple of wonderful scenes with Theodora. Franco is just the wrong man to play Oz. The casting director should have found a way to convince Robert Downey Jr. to change his mind. Raimi’s direction is spotty. We don’t know if the characters are supposed to be serious or corny. Technically, it’s a wonderful movie. Potentially, it could be a great one. My recommendation would be to not read the book first, enjoy the scenery, music and special effects, and put all the inaccuracies down to the fact that Dorothy’s adventure was only a dream. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Sarabeth’s Tribeca
339 Greenwich Street (at Jay), New York City 

It’s been a really long time since I dined at Sarabeth Levine’s first restaurant on the Upper West Side. Since then she’s expanded her reign to seven locations, with one in Tokyo. Having no recall what I ate in my first experience I put care to the wind and thought American comfort food. The photo in opentable.com does not do the restaurant justice. It’s an airy, well-lit, high ceilinged space with windows on two walls, the bar on the third and a beautiful mural on the fourth, where I sat. The primary color is white with occasional splashes of pink. Tan leather chairs and banquettes flank the bare-topped wood tables set with cloth napkins, silverware and electronic votive candles.

I expected the atmosphere to be almost sterile, but it turned out to be quite friendly, and my waitress Angelina put an exclamation point on the adverb. She handed me the specials list, the menu and the drink list from which I chose the Skyfall (after the James Bond movie) – a refreshing mixture of Mandarin vodka – very nice. After that I reverted to my standard martini made exactly to my specifications. The usual glass of water arrived with the breadbasket (the home-made breadsticks were devoured immediately) and a bottle of olive oil.

The menu is a large two-sided single laminated card featuring a wide variety of dishes arranged into Appetizers, Sandwiches and Big Salads on the left, and Entrées and Stone Oven Pizza and Pasta on the right with Sides at the bottom. Angelina and I had several lovely conversations and she assured me that three courses would not be too much. I started with the Apple Butternut Squash Soup – a delightful hot sweet puree of squash with walnuts and small apple cubes garnished with a delicate apple slice and maple flavor.

The wine list is categorized by price, whites on the left and reds on the right, and in no time I found a 2008 Chablis by Louis Michel vineyards, France. Even though it was a screw-top bottle, the flavor was crisp and light and it put a wonderful accent to my meal.

The second course was Brandy Steamed Mussels in a Basil Tomato Sauce. Served out of the shell, these Prince Edward Island (I knew them when I saw them) mussels were tender and delicious and the sauce was not overly tomato or overly basil. They were topped with delicate wispy fried onion rings. Good thing the bread dish was there to get every drop of that sauce.

The main course, Shrimp and Lobster Frittata was a good-sized disk of shrimp and lobster pieces held together by egg, potatoes and leeks and sided with a frisé salad. The two crustaceans were perfectly cooked and tender and it only took some fresh pepper to make the dish marvelous. The real star of the meal however, was the side dish, White Chocolate Parsnip Purée. This amazingly fluffy, sweet mousse could have been served hot over fresh blueberries and strawberries and been mistaken for the best Zabaglione I’ve ever had.

But then, there was dessert. I couldn’t resist the Root Beer Float with excellent root beer soda and homemade vanilla ice cream, served with a home-made chocolate chip cookie. It wasn’t the best one I’ve ever had, but it was far from the worst. I was happy. Sarabeth’s was a nice surprise in both décor and food quality. And after Angelina’s description of the lamb chops I believe I will have to pay them a second visit when Lent is over.

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