Tag Archives: mental illness in movies

Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) Dir. Sam Raimi


I’m not sure how exactly to judge a film like Oz: The Great and Powerful.  The movie is pretty much everything I expected it to be.  There were no real genuine surprises.  It’s everything that you would expect from a film that is basically meant to set itself up as a franchise for more Oz movies, making The Wizard of Oz now into a kind of Lord of the Rings Epic, only setting up everything that would be so familiar to us from what we know about Oz, and never deviating towards any new or interesting concepts.

One of my personal favorite Oz films was Disney’s Return to Oz, which came out it 1985.  It’s extraordinary.  Not only that, it’s also frightening as hell, with truly terrifying villains (The Wheelers, Mombi, The Nome King), and a dark gritty world.  Yet it’s everything I feel an Oz film should be.  Heck the original Wizard of Oz from 1939 and the Wicked Witch of The West is one of the greatest and scariest villains of anyone’s childhood.  With Oz:  The Great and Powerful, if there was anything that disappointed me more about the film, it was that complete lack of darkness that, to me, has always been the underbelly of the Oz movies.  The witches in this film are not scary.  Neither are the flying monkeys, or the green faced guards.  When the transformation occurs for The Wicked Witch of the West, for some reason they didn’t bother to change Mila Kunis’ voice.  They still kept her somewhat pretty.  In the back of my mind I kept thinking…this is supposed to be the thing of nightmares?  When Evanora makes her transformation into the Witch of the East, that was the only time I got any sense of fear because she actually looked like a terrifying witch!  It’s ironic that Raimi never explored this dark side considering he’s responsible for The Evil Dead films.  The Evanora witch at the end reminded me of one of Raimi’s creepy witch characters from those films.  But “Oz” never gives any thought to exploring the dark side of the Baum books, which to me shows the greatest misunderstanding for what theses stories are supposed to be about.

This is pretty much the essence of what comes from setting up a completely safe franchise film.  The story, not surprisingly, has absolutely nothing to say about itself.  It throws in some stuff about Oz, who starts out as a charlatan, but really wants to be a good person, making himself a combination of Houdini and Thomas Edison.  At the beginning of the film, it doesn’t make a lot of sense why he has to act the part of being a charlatan, because he’s actually a really good magician.  He does an incredible act in the Kansas carnival, and its surprising that nobody at all really takes him seriously.  With the act that he does, you’d think he would be the headliner for the whole carnival, because it’s really that good.  Franco does a decent job playing Oz, but there was something about his performance that just felt too modernized for me.  I didn’t believe he could have been somebody out of the early 1900’s.  Even though it’s clear to us he’s supposed to obnoxious and kind of a pain in the ass, I felt like didn’t get enough indications in the beginning about his sweeter side.  This is supposed to be Oz when he’s younger, but it’s hard not to compare him in some ways to Frank Morgan, who is also a bit of a trickster and charlatan as well, but he also has a sense of compassion for other people in the early Professor Marvel scenes, like when he wants to help Dorothy go back to her Auntie Em.  I didn’t understand this need for Oz to have to prove to people he was “good” or why he needed convincing in himself.  I’m not sure why the film didn’t make him out to be more of a really bad magician, which I thought was kind of the point in The Wizard of Oz.  Remember his line? :  “I’m a very good man, but just a very bad wizard.”

Oz’s quest to “find himself” is an illusion because that’s essentially what franchise filmmaking is all about…giving the impression the film is about some kind of moral or lesson the character has to learn, when the true reason for the film is making it as grandiose a spectacle as possible, giving us pretty visuals, a couple of cute sidekicks, not so scary villains who wants to take over the world, something about a prophecy, establishing a heroic group of characters, and by the end setting itself up for more films.  The thing you have to remember too about the original Wizard of Oz was that it was not a hit at the box office.  It was actually considered a failure and didn’t find success with audiences until it started appearing on television, and finally video years later and people started to see and accept what an incredible story it really was.  The original story resonates with all of us…because what that film is really about is finding your way home to yourself.  That theme is what encompasses the entire original movie, and while it has spectacular visuals just like this new Oz film, the theme holds out more than anything and The Wizard of Oz never loses sight of what it is supposed to be.  When Disney made The Return to Oz, it took the story to another level, taking Dorothy deeper into more frightening aspects of her psychology.  The destruction of Oz represents her crumbling psyche into insanity.  It’s brilliant.  Ironically, someone felt they should do a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, but whoever made that decision doesn’t understand one crucial aspect to the story:  Oz is nobody else’s world except Dorothy’s.  It’s kind of like we’re entering somebodies dream world without the actual dreamer being present.  Oz is Dorothy’s world.  Not Oz The Great and Powerful’s.  Oz represents the wonderful place inside yourself.  So what is it supposed to mean for Franco’s Oz, who comes to this place but nobody tells him he can ever go back home?  He’s trapped there, and what’s interesting is that he never struggles with the notion that he might want to leave and go back to his old life.  Even if he finds out how great his is to these new batch of people, he has no chance to go back home and prove himself to the people of Kansas.

But like I said, this is a franchise film, which is not a film that’s supposed to be about something, but instead inducing as much spectacle as possible into the film to please movie fans and get them to want to come back for more.  Oz: The Great and Powerful isn’t about anything other than that.  If we were clued into the fact that we’re in Dorothy’s world without Dorothy being present, the whole concept would shatter.  Already to me it’s the reason this film can never do justice to itself because it introduces a setup to something that was never really meant to have a setup to begin with since its a part of somebody else’s imagination.  It’s a film with little to no real imagination, relying strictly on those familiar aspects of the Oz story so the audience can play a guessing game with it: “Oh…that’s supposed to be the poppy fields…that’s supposed to be the witch of the East/West/North…There’s the scarecrow!  But he’s not alive.  I wonder how they will make him alive in the next film?”  Yet these are all questions that never really needed answering to begin with.

To be honest, I didn’t hate the film, but the movie just never convinced me it needed to exist.  It didn’t really surprise me that I couldn’t find a reason for it being here.  But it almost would have made more sense if the story fell into the realm of satire, or allowed itself to just be intentionally goofy.  Sam Raimi has a great knack for comedy, but here the gags just all fall flat.  We have no investment in the characters, and the film won’t rise above its own concept and allow itself to be more silly and fun…or even scary.  It’s just completely Disneyfied and completely inoffensive.  I wasn’t bored by the movie, but after awhile I just found that it really had nothing going for it, and a concept that doesn’t make much of any sense to begin with.

REVIEW: The Caine Mutiny (1954) Dir. Edward Dymytrk

TheCaineMutinyI can finally check off The Caine Mutiny on my list of films I needed to see.  But to tell you the truth this won’t be the only time I watch this incredible, brilliant film.  For a film like this to be made in 1954, there are themes here I would have never expected of a movie made in this time period.  The title implies the event of the mutiny in the film, but the real mutiny is much deeper, which is the abandonment and destruction of one man during a crisis.  This is actually a film about a man who becomes mentally ill, and the misunderstanding and judgement placed on him as a result of his actions.  The people around him only see him for the diagnosis and not the actual man that led him up to this moment.  What’s brilliant about it is that up until the final moments of the film, we’re actually on the crews side.  Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) suffers a breakdown that puts crew in serious jeopardy during a typhoon.  But what matters is the build up to that moment as the navel crew comes to their own conclusions about what is happening to the captain, which is the primary influencing factor when the mutiny takes place and he’s relieved of command.  But when we get to Navy Lawyer Lt. Greenwald’s (Jose Ferrer) final telling off of the crew at the end, after in court he just destroyed the 14 year career of a respected navel captain, it’s clear that Queeg was really a victim of his own personal pain.  Nobody could see it except Greenwald, who was forced through circumstances to destroy this great mans reputation.

I have to say, I was misled in siding with the crew during Queeg’s building insanity, but all the while I kept thinking there was something wrong with the crews reaction to what was happening.  Our entry point into the film is through young Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) after just graduating from the Navel Academy.  He’s also a mama’s boy, a little stuck between mom and his girlfriend, and whose really the most important woman in his life.  But Willie is assigned to The Caine, which as far as battleships go is a rust bucket.  The crew is sloppy and undisciplined.  The first commander, Captain Blakely, struggles to keep the ship in order.  Willie doesn’t care for Blakely much because of all the disorder on the ship, and is relieved when Blakely is replaced by the much more strict and enforcer of discipline, Captain Queeg.  But while Queeg puts in a good effort to clean up the men and turn the ship around, his enforcing of discipline goes to far.  Queeg covers up for a training exercise gone wrong, makes the ship run away in combat, and then more disturbing things happen when he wakes up the core officers at one in the morning complaining about a quart of missing frozen strawberries from dinner, and more.  Ensign Keith and Lt. Keefer (Fred MacMurray) try convincing First Officer Maryk (Van Johnson) that the Captain is suffering from some Paranoid mental disorder and that he needs to do something to relieve him of command.  Maryk gets caught up in the confusion, and when Queeg puts the ship in danger during the typhoon, Maryk feels he has no choice but to mutiny with the crew and relieve Queeg of command.

On the surface all of the decisions of the crew make sense, and we sympathize with them for the majority of the movie.  When I was watching everything happening, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something else going on.  At first I thought Queeg might have been putting an act on the crew, playing the part of a ruthless tyrant to help turn around a ship that was considered a joke to the rest of the navy.  But as the film went on, I could see this wasn’t an act at all and that there was something going on with him.  I was actually deceived by the plot as well, because quite honestly I never expected a film from 1954 to actually take mental illness in a human being seriously.  During the court room scene, the prosecutor (played by the marvelous E.G. Marshall) makes a point in his defense that Queeg did in fact turn a broken ship and crew around and bring it up to military standard.  The whole point of the prosecutions case is that the crew failed to see Queeg as a man.  The crew gave him a mental illness diagnosis when they had no experience with psychiatry at all, except what they picked out of a book.  When Maryk is on trial for leading the mutiny and is put on the stand, the prosecutor hammered him  with questions like, “Do you know what a schizophrenic is? A manic/depressive?  A paranoid delusional?”, all of which the answer was no.  When you watch the prosecutor go after Maryk, it seems at first that he’s being too hard on him when we as an audience were actually there and sympathized with Maryk when he struggled trying to make the right choice, and was pressured into his decision to lead the mutiny.  But no one on the crew really allowed themselves to get to know the captain, or attempt to be friends with him when he was being such a taskmaster.

TheCaineMutiny2Humphrey Bogart’s performance as Queeg is phenomenal.  For someone who appears to be an antagonistic character, I sympathized with him deeply.  There was a moment where after his bad call in the training mission, he makes an attempt to apologize to his officers. He can’t get himself to actually say it, but in his own way tries to get them to understand him and tell them the pressure he’s under (and not just pressure from command).  In his eyes you can see how bad Queeg feels about what happened.  What you also see is the distance and the deep loneliness he feels.  This is a man who has suffered something harsh in his life.  Something happened to him which the film never explains.  We never know anything about his backstory until the courtroom scene, and we only hear about his accommodations and the respect the Navy held for him in his 14 years of service at the very end.  This is also the reason we see the story from the perspective of the younger officer, who doesn’t have the experience in life or the knowledge to know what it means to be an esteemed Navel officer.  The first officer should have actually known better, as well as Lt. Keefer.  But both he and Maryk make the mistake of listening to Keefer, and it’s Keefer’s own arrogance and self righteousness that blinds the two officers from what they can’t see about Queeg’s behavior.  Their own personal intuition is blocked by the self righteousness of one man.  Lt. Keith even admitted in court that he liked Captain Queeg at first when he met him, because he enforced much needed discipline on the ship.  But he was convinced by Keefer to turn against Queeg.

When Maryk is on trial for his actions and Lt. Greenwald (Ferrer) decides to defend him, he realizes during the trial what the crew really had done.  Knowing Queeg’s incredible reputation, he is forced by the system to destroy this great mans career.  During the crews celebration of the victory of the trial, Greenwald comes in and shuts them all down, telling them what they had just done.  The ending of the film makes a powerful and brilliant statement.  It’s not only a statement about judging a person because of mental illness, but it also tells us what happens when we fail to follow our own intuition because of fear and misunderstanding.  When we feel we can’t make our own decisions, we allow other people to make them for us, which can lead to disastrous consequences.  In this case, it was Ensign Keith and First Officer Maryk who stopped listening to themselves, and started listening to Keefer instead, which influenced their decision to relieve Queeg.  And then in the courtroom when Keefer is on the stand, he turns against his crewmen, lying to save his own skin.  It’s not until the penultimate moment at the party after the trial, the crew realizes what they did and they finally see Keefer for who he really is.

For some of you reading this review, you might be wondering exactly what kind of film The Caine Mutiny is.  From the title alone, you would expect its a serious drama.  Things do get serious in the story, but if you’d really like to know…the film is actually very funny.  The beginning scenes introducing Ensign Willie Keith are hilarious and wonderful.  Many of the crew members are a colorful bunch of characters, and they are a lot of fun.  There’s a great scene in the beginning when Keefer is giving Keith and another ensign a tour of the rust bucket ship they’re assigned to, and Keefer says: “Well that’s the tour.  Any Questions?” Ensign:”Just one.  When do we surrender?”
It’s hilarious moments such as this that invite us into the world of the film and its crew.  We like them all right away.  It also helps that screenwriter Stanley Roberts had both the Abbot and Costello comedy, Who Done It?  as well as Death of a Salesman to his resume, showing how he could create the perfect balance of humor and drama, especially when the film needs to get serious.

“The Caine Mutiny” is a terrific film as well as an important one, which is just as relevant today as it was almost 60 years ago.