Oz the Great and Powerful: based on characters created by L. Frank Baum, written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire; directed by Sam Raimi; starring James Franco (Oz), Mila Kunis (Theodora), Rachel Weisz (Evanora), Michelle Williams (Annie/Glinda), Zach Braff (Frank/Finley), and Joey King (Girl in Wheelchair/China Girl) (2013): With Seth Rogen or even Jack Black as the titular con-man-magician-turned-Wizard-of-Oz, this film would have been much more entertaining for all its stretches of limp dialogue and simplistic sermonizing. Instead, we get James Franco as an earnest vacuum. His lack of affect (and effect) makes Keanu Reeves look like George C. Scott.

There are a lot of lovely visual effects. And once the film actually makes it to the Land of Oz, things do get moving, though a molasses-slow epilogue ruins some of that. Boy, though, Franco is a terrible leading man for this sort of movie. Why, Sam Raimi, why? Bruce Campbell, who has a minor speaking role, would actually make a funny Wizard. And as Raimi restages the climax of Army of Darkness (aka Evil Dead 3), which starred Bruce Campbell, for the climax of this picture, it would make things even funnier. But Franco can’t even act in the middle of a battle-preparation montage.

And oh, the psychology. We learn the paper-thin motivations of the Wicked Witches, of Glinda the Good, of the Wizard of Oz. Truly this is a dark time for blockbusters now that everyone has to have a personal motivation for everything they do.

Applied to real life, imagine that every janitor was a janitor because dirt killed his father, every auto worker an auto worker because a car saved his life. It’s all 21st-century Hollywood screenwriting crap, and the sooner we escape the terrible gravity well of simplistic personal motivation, the better. No wonder video games outgross blockbusters. Still, nice visual effects. Lightly recommended.

Evil Dead: based on the original film written by Sam Raimi, written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues; directed by Fede Alvarez; starring Jane Levy (Mia), Shiloh Fernandez (David), Lou Taylor Pucci (Eric), Jessica Lucas (Olivia) and Elizabeth Blackmore (Natalie) (2013): Made with the participation of original (The) Evil Dead writer/director Sam Raimi, this Evil Dead makes some smart changes to the low-budget 1980’s horror film that launched the careers of Raimi, his brother Ted, and star Bruce Campbell.

The first is to come up with a weirdly plausible new reason for the inevitable trip to a cabin in the woods: four of the five characters are staging an Intervention/Drug DeTox for the fifth, Mia, who appears to have a heroin problem. The second is to alter the tone to one of more seriousness, or at least more angst, for the first two-thirds of the film. The Evil Dead is far less loopy than sequels Evil Dead 2 or Army of Darkness, but next to this Evil Dead, it looks like a Warner Brothers cartoon.

Are there problems? Of course. The addition of a dog to the cast of probably doomed characters goes nowhere, possibly because the filmmakers shied away from graphic violence involving a dog as either victim or perpetrator. The characters are a little shrill at points, though this may be intentional — certainly, the issues of the various characters are intentional, as is at least one resolution to those issues. The angst tends to overwhelm any attempts at witty or blackly comic dialogue, though. Diablo Cody (Juno) was apparently brought on as a script doctor to add such wit, but it isn’t all that apparent what her contributions are.

Gore and violence come in increasingly rapid, escalating waves as the film progresses. Nail guns (an homage to Raimi’s Darkman?) and electric meat cutters do some terrible stuff. Several characters take levels of physical punishment that would have made Bruce Campbell’s Ash proud. If you’re going to be a character in an Evil Dead movie, you’ve got to be able to take a beating and keep on punching back. The film bounces ideas from all three previous installments around, sometimes in newly effective ways, though I wish they’d worked the overwrought tape recording of the archaeologist into something other than the closing credits. I love that guy.

Through it all, the Book of the Dead remains indestructible and weirdly attractive to otherwise intelligent characters in search of bathroom reading. Even barbed-wire wrapping and annotated warnings from some previous reader of the tome can’t stop the high-school teacher from reading an incantation out loud. Stupid teachers! The filmmakers finally jettison most of the serious dramatic tone for the final twenty minutes, cutting loose in a manner more consistent with the series as a whole. Frankly, it’s a relief. And the identity of the survivor or survivors comes as something of a surprise. Recommended.

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