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No magic tricks from James Franco

Have you ever seen a movie that you really enjoyed but were told to keep telling your friends about it until after a couple of weeks? Being in the business of writing about movies, this writer oftentimes receives embargo instructions on the movies I have seen or TV series I saw being taped to avoid spoiling any details to the public before the movie is ready to be released.

Two weeks ago, this writer was among the very few to catch Disney’s magical and enchanting new movie Oz The Great and Powerful during the junket held at the palatial The Langham Huntington Hotel and Spa in Pasadena with very specific reminder to keep my mouth shut (no tweets or Facebook comments even) until at least seven days before the movie’s simultaneous global opening.

Well, the embargo is now lifted and I can freely exclaim how I loved the movie! It’s a magical (oh, I already said that!) and wonderful film that takes the viewer back to the fabled land of Oz before Dorothy and her ruby slippers set foot on the yellow brick road. The moment the movie gives the audience a glimpse of Oz, the stunning and vibrant color and the amazing photography immediately grab the viewer and treat everyone to an unexpected experience that may only possibly compare to being on that runaway hot air balloon itself discovering the Emerald City for the very first time.

Sam Raimi, the director behind the successful Spider-Man trilogy and the horror maestro (he prefers being called an “Apprentice of Suspense”) behind the Evil Dead series (which has been remade and will be released later this year) and is credited as the contemporary pioneer of the zombie craze in Hollywood, has crafted an incredibly entertaining film that could just become the first blockbuster film of 2013 — the biggest perhaps until the summer tentpole films start arriving in theaters.

Mila as tormented young witch Theodora; James as Oscar Diggs, a magician destined to become the Wizard of Oz; Michelle as Glinda the good witch; and Rachel as the evil witch Evanora.

And Disney is sparing no expense in informing the world how proud they are of this production. This writer was greeted with a giant replica of the blue hot air balloon in the movie when it was delivered to my place of work the day before Valentine’s! So, while my co-workers had giant bouquet of flowers on their desks on Feb. 14, I had my own eye-catching display from Oz — and I was popular for one day! And if you were into the whole Oz mythology, you would have just died upon seeing how the footway in the vast garden of The Langham was transformed into the famous yellow brick road that leads to two villas exhibiting various movie memorabilia including the costumes worn by the three witches and one-of-a-kind collectible merchandise based on the film.

The whole junket experience was made much better with the presence of the director and the stellar cast who were so excited to share their experiences working on the movie — of course, the stars had a yellow-brick-road-patterned carpet to walk on during the film’s lavish world premiere at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood five days before our interview.

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Oz The Great and Powerful boasts of an impressive array of stars that include Oscar nominee James Franco as the titular Oscar Diggs, a magician destined to become the Wizard of Oz; Oscar winner Rachel Weisz as the evil witch Evanora; Mila Kunis as Theodora, the tormented young witch who falls in love with Oz; and Oscar nominee Michelle Williams as Glinda, the Good Witch.

James, who said he had no magic tricks for us the day we had the interview and who has been many things aside from being an actor — he teaches a course in UCLA, he is a painter who has just exhibited his expressionistic work in Europe and he also directs movies, among many other endeavors — expressed his enthusiasm working on the movie and shared his joy on creating a cinematic prequel to the L. Frank Baum classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in collaboration with Sam.

“He’s one of my favorite directors. He’s a very good friend,” James said of Sam. “I’ve known him for over 10 years so to be able to work on a project and a role like this that harkens back to the characters that he had in his earlier movies, the Evil Dead series, where he had this kind of comedic cad at the center who is interacting with fantastical forces or creatures and, in some ways, isn’t quite equipped to deal with them and so the result is a lot of comedic situations and that’s very fun to play.”

James and Sam previously worked together in the Spider-Man trilogy. 

The 34-year-old actor was not the first choice to play the title character, however. In an interview with late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, the actor, who is famous for his dry, deadpan humor, joked that he was glad Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp both declined the role because of their other commitments.

But whether or not he was the first choice for the role, James owned the part and this writer couldn’t imagine any other actor inhabiting the character of the Wizard. Perhaps James’ own experiences directing his own movies helped him create a truly magical character.

“I have been directing my movies for a while now and what it has taught me is what a director really needs and wants, especially from his performers,” he said. “I think when I was a younger actor, I was a little too self-consumed that I was more focused on my own performance than I was on the overall picture.

“Now, I go on a film and I think not what I am gonna get out of (the movie) but what I can contribute and I have really come to understand movies as a director’s medium so when I am hired as an actor, I want to help the director achieve his or her vision. That means I probably won’t sign on to a movie unless I believe in the director’s vision but, once I do, I’m there to serve the larger project rather than myself.”

James cited as one of the reasons why he wanted to do the movie was the opportunity to create an origin story to the wizard who was mostly hidden behind the velvet curtain in the 1939 classic starring Judy Garland.

“Even though it was called The Wizard of Oz, you know very little about the wizard. You only see him at the end. It is a great kind of entryway back into that world and see how that mysterious character came to the land — became the wizard that we see in the other movie.”

This origin story, indeed, is a worthy prequel to the classic!

Before we ended the interview, the highly-educated James revealed that it was his fondness for Baum’s books that also enticed him to the project.

“The Oz books were very important to me when I was younger. I read all the Baum books when I was about 11 or 12 and that helped form my early imaginative world. From there, I went on to other fairy tales. I love Alice in Wonderland. I love the Tolkien books. Those were the days before Harry Potter, those were my Harry Potters.”

Oz The Great and Powerful opens today in Philippine theaters.

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