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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 11, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Ebert, Ella, Talking Cows, and Touching Evil

For a long time, I couldn't find Siskel & Ebert (or, after Gene Siskel's untimely death, Ebert and Roeper) anywhere on cable. For some reason, Time-Warner Cable doesn't list the show when you do an alphabetical search of their program guide.

But my wife finally located the show at seven-thirty on Saturday mornings on WXLV (cable channel 7). Since there is no chance that I will ever, ever be up at seven-thirty on a Saturday morning, and setting the timer on a VCR has usually been an exercise in failure, DVR (the cable version of TiVo) is my tool of choice for getting to see this best-of-all-movie-review-shows.

Well, it used to be the best, back in the Gene Siskel days. I can't be the only person who finds Roeper annoying. For one thing, he invariably talks over Ebert, barely allowing the older, smarter critic to get a word in. For another thing, he is a complete slave to trendy views -- has this guy ever had an original thought, or spoken of a movie in a way that might be disapproved of by his arty friends?

Sometimes, though, Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper can disagree completely about a movie -- and both be right.

For instance, Ebert raved about Ella Enchanted. He called it a terrific movie for parents to see with their kids.

Roeper hated it -- hated the musical numbers, the anachronisms, the showy, dishonest performances.

And they were both completely right.

Here's a helpful hint. If you haven't read the marvelous young adult novel by Gail Carson Levine, do not read it before seeing the film.

Because if you have read the book, you will spend the first half of the movie absolutely furious at the idiotic, formulaic destruction of the story by the screenwriters.

They have taken a witty, warm, truthful story and for no intelligible reason formulized it and camped it up so that almost nothing from the original survives -- except the fundamental premise of a girl who is magically compelled to obey any direct order.

Unfortunately, since they did keep the title and the premise, it will be virtually impossible for anyone to ever make a film that is actually based on the novel Ella Enchanted. So this "pod movie" has effectively killed and replaced the real thing as it might have existed on the screen.

Imagine if Lord of the Rings had been scripted by Mel Brooks.

Admittedly, I see this with a novelist's eyes. But why not? This film only existed because Gail Carson Levine created out of her own head a marvelous story that never existed before. And the writers (or the studio executives controlling the writers) contemptuously killed our chance to have a film version of that tale.

Of course, this did not figure into either Ebert's or Roeper's reviews, since neither had read the book.

What Roeper -- and I -- hated was the anything-for-a-laugh lameness of this movie. Somewhere along the way, somebody got the idea that this was a modern parody of fairy tales.

The writers of Lord of the Rings understood that to make fantasy work on film, you need to be especially careful to maintain the consistency and reality of the magical world. Just because Ella is full of comedy does not mean that this requirement ceases to apply.

The most embarrassing moment was after the end of the story, when, in a sort of humiliating curtain call, the entire cast sang and danced to a seventies disco number.

Well, no. Maybe the most embarrassing moment is the dance number the giants do -- I kept looking around for Ewoks.

Yet in spite of all the truly awful mistakes the writers and director made in this movie, enough decent story survives that the actors do have something to work with. While the talents of Minnie Driver, Eric Idle, and Parminder K. Nagra are utterly wasted in this movie, Anne Hathaway does her sly-actress/naive-character shtick delightfully.

Cary Elwes is an oily delight as the prince's villainous uncle; and Joanna Lumley, as the stepmother, steals every scene she's in. The stepsisters, played by Lucy Punch and Jennifer Higham, were forced by the script to be appalling caricatures, but they overacted their little hearts out, and it was infinitely more pleasant to watch them than the shudderingly bad performance of Steve Coogan who, as the elf who wants to be a lawyer, was forced to embarrass himself every moment he was on the screen.

But transcending all the falseness of the other performances is the stubborn simplicity with which Hugh Dancy, as Prince Charmont, single-handedly provides this movie with a core of earnestness. It's as if he alone read and understood the book and made some effort to keep it alive on the screen ... and his efforts were enough.

Because the movie does work as dumb fun. We enjoyed ourselves, watching it as a family, especially after we stopped wishing it had actually been based on the novel.

I think somebody involved with this project said, "You know what this movie is? It's a remake of The Princess Bride."

Well, that person was dead wrong. Neither the original material nor the resulting movie of Ella is remotely like The Princess Bride, especially because despite the sly humor, William Goldman's novel and script never lost track of the core of truth. Ella loses that core time after time. But it does find it again at the climax, when it was absolutely essential.

So yes, go see this movie, if you're in the mood for an amusing farce.

Then read the book, and see what the movie could have been, if anybody associated with it had had an ounce of integrity.

*

Another "family film," Home on the Range, is harmless enough. I didn't look at my watch; I didn't fall asleep; so it's considerably better than such mind-numbing children's flicks as Rugrats Go Wild or Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.

The script is perfunctory but adequate, and the vocal performances achieve similarly modest goals.

The problem was the animation.

When you're doing a talking-animal cartoon, you have to make one of two choices:

1. Completely ignore the fact that the characters are animals, and have them simply do what humans do, living in regular houses, driving cars, and so on -- like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck; or

2. Keep them as animals, so you can get laughs from having them do bizarre things -- like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.

This movie made the second choice -- the main characters are definitely cows, living on a farm, and all the animals are keenly aware of their place in the food chain. (One can understand the cheerfulness of the milk cows, the goat, and the egg-laying chickens, but shouldn't the pigs be at least a little depressed?)

Unfortunately, the drawing style was so extravagantly stylized and unrealistic that it was a constant irritant. It's as if they wanted to simultaneously get laughs from how funny the drawings looked and from seeing "real cows" doing such obviously impossible things.

You just can't have it both ways. The drawings were just too far from reality to allow us to have the shreds of belief in them as animals that were necessary to make the story matter to us.

Home on the Range is not a bad way to spend an amusing hour with the kids in a theater. But I can't imagine anyone over the age of eight wanting to own the video. Whose life is so empty they would need to see this movie twice?

*

Bruce Willis is one of the creative powers behind the USA Network original series Touching Evil. Just one more reason to appreciate this man's remarkably diverse contributions to American art.

Usually I'm irritated by flashy directorial touches. But in this series, it makes sense to have weird time-lapse sequences and obviously strange camera work. Because even though in some ways it's just another cop show, there's a touch of madness and magic that drive it into an entirely different realm.

Jeffrey Donovan is breathtakingly good in the leading role, as Detective Dave Creegan. A year after being shot in the head, he still suffers from brain damage -- the part that controls embarrassment was ripped away, so his behavior can sometimes be quite disturbing.

He has an exwife and two daughters he is devoted to but estranged from, and his intuition, while not infallible, does give the series an X-Files penumbra. When you add to this the intense relationships between him and his irritated but sometimes-awed partner, Detective Susan Branca, played beautifully and subtly by the luminous Vera Farmiga, you get a powerful mixture of compelling mysteries and morally complicated characters.

My only worry is that this series goes through story material at such a white-hot pace that it might burn out rather quickly and fall into the trap of becoming a soap opera or an occult weirdfest. For the time being, though, it's some of the finest television ever aired.

(Well, technically it's never been "aired," since it's on cable only. But you know what I mean.)


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