Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ella Enchanted

Ella & Book(2004)
Directed by Tommy O'Haver
Written by Laurie Craig and Karen McChllah & Kirsten Smith and Jennifer Heath & Michele J. Wolff
Starring Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy, Cary Elwes, Joanna Lumley, Eric Idle, Minnie Driver, Lucy Punch, Jennifer Higham
IMDB Entry

After Shrek, you would think a live-action film with a similar sensibility would be something of a success, especially when its script is superior.  But Ella Enchanted somehow never caught on with audiences, despite a great cast, a witty story, and a fascinating predicament.

It is another postmodern fairy tale, but a tad more original than many others.  Ella of Frell (Anne Hathaway) is put under a spell at birth by her fairy godmother Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox):  a spell that compels her to obey any commands anyone gives her. If you tell her to hold her tongue, for instance, she will literally hold her tongue.  She, of course, keeps this a secret from everyone, including her wicked stepmother, Dame Olga (Joanne Lumley).

Ella is something of a rebel, and meets up with Prince Charming (Hugh Dancy), the teen idol of the land.  She is unimpressed with him -- her first meeting is to protest his visit -- but joins up with him in order to try to break the spell.  And the regent, Sir Edgar (Cary Elwes) has sinister plans for the prince.

Like Shrek, the story plays with fairy tales and anachronisms.  Price Charming is a mainstay in Medieval Teen.  There's an elf who wants to be lawyer.  Ella charms a group of giants by singing Queen's "Find Me Somebody to Love" (Queen seems to work well in medieval settings -- see "We Will Rock You" in A Knight's Tale). But the spell -- and the ramifications of it -- gives it all a stronger plot.

Anne Hathaway is certainly the most charming young actress in films today.  She managed to make The Princess Diarieswatchable, and her role as Ella is her at her best.  She has a quirky sense of humor and is a delight in every scene.

The rest of the cast is first-rate and it's hard to single out a performance that doesn't work perfectly. Vivica A. Fox is terrific as the vain Lucinda, who cannot see beyond the reaches of her own enormous ego.  Cary Elwes makes a great villain, as does Joanne Lumley, with special mention given to Lucy Punch and Jennifer Higham as Ella's dim but cruel stepsisters.  Alas, Minnie Driver is a disappointment, with a role that gives her nothing to do.

For some reason, the film never caught on.  Maybe it was hard to market; maybe it was too sophisticated.  For whatever reason, it flopped.  It definitely needs to be rediscovered.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Million Dollar Legs

Million Dollar Legs(1932)
Directed by Edward F. Cline
Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Henry Myers
Starring W.C. Fields, Jack Oakie, Susan Fleming, Lydia Roberti, Andy Clyde, Ben Turpin, Hugh Herbert
IMDB Entry

These articles tend to skew toward newer films. It's always more difficult to see good old films that aren't well-known to film buffs.

Similarly, older films are hard to find, and become harder as more films are released.  Classics show up everywhere, but good films that have been overlooked are difficult to seek out.

I was bemoaning the fact that I didn't have any films from the 30s -- one of Hollywood's greatest eras -- when I rememberedMillion Dollar Legs.

The film was made to make a quick buck on a national event.  The 1932 Olympics were set for Los Angeles, and the film was put together to capitalize on Olympic fever (such as it was during the Depression).  W.C. Fields is the biggest name, though the star is Jack Oakie, who would be completely forgotten today if Chaplin hadn't given him a plum part in The Great Dictator

Oakie plays Migg Tweeny, a go-getting brush salesman who finds his way into the country of Klopstockia, ruled by Fields.  Klopstockia produces nothing but world-class athletes; Fields is president because no one can beat him in arm wrestling.  The country is bankrupt, so Tweeny convinces them to enter the Olympics to clean up in the gold medal department.  The plan is thrown a monkey wrench when the President's opponents hire Mata Machree, The Woman No Man Can Resist (played by Lydia Roberi) to derail the plans.

The film is hilarious.  Written by, among others, Joseph L. Mankiewitz and Ben Hecht, it's filled with Marx-Brothers-style silliness.  Oakie is a personality much like Harold Lloyd -- breezy and sure of himself.  He romances the president's daughter (Susan Fleming, who left films to marry Harpo Marx) and works to thwart Machree's plans.

Fields was just moving over to star in sound films (it's hard to believe that he was as successful as he was in the silents; Fields without mumbled asides is only a fraction of the man). This movie tends to be ignored when his work is considered.  Mostly that's because he's not the character we're used to -- except in flashes -- and his role takes the back seat to Oakie.  It may be Fields the person, but it's not Fields the movie character. 

Roberti is funny as the femme fatale, and a bunch of old silent comics show up among the Klopstockians.  The film rates up among the best comedies ever.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Star Cops (TV)

Star Cops(1987)
Created by Chris Boucher
Starring David Calder, Erick Ray Evans, Trevor Cooper, Linda Newton, and Jonathan Adams
IMDB Entry

Science fiction on TV tends to be fanciful space opera, fighting alien menaces and traveling through space, stopping for an occasional battle. Hard SF is almost absent.  That's understandable:  it's difficult to do hard SF well.

Star Cops is one of the few hard SF shows on TV.  Naturally, it was done in the UK, where SF is generally more adult, even when it's for kids (US science fiction springs from Captain Video -- a children's adventure; UK science fiction springs from The Quatermass Experiment -- adult SF horror).  It only ran nine episodes, but each was well thought out and cleverly done.  And, they all stuck with the self-imposed restraints of making the show as realistic as possible.

The show was set in 2047 (and the near future is rarely used in TV and film SF).  David Calder starred at Nathan Spring, a career cop who takes on the job of being the chief police officer of the International Space Police Force -- the "Star Cops."  Spring thinks that computers have taken over policing, and that there's still room for good old-fashioned human police work.  So he assembles a team and starts solving crimes in space and on the moon.

This is a police procedural in space.  Spring searches for the solutions to various crimes, and they usually have a hard SF twist.  For instance, the episode "Conversations of the Dead," has Spring talking to dead men to solve their murder.  No, it isn't zombies coming to life:  the victims' ship has fired its rockets, depleting all its fuel, and has sent them off away from the planets, where it's physically impossible for a rescue ship to get there in time.  Their oxygen will inevitably run out, but for now, they are still alive.

The show did its best to stick to the realism.  When people were in space -- even on a spaceship -- they were in microgravity.  No artificial gravity:  either you used acceleration, or you floated.  The effect was a bit crude, especially given BBC budgets, but at least they were trying. 

There were no aliens and computers acted like computers, with the exception of Spring's own proto-PDA, called Box.  And Box was pretty much just a sounding board for Spring's theories.  The show avoided mindless action for thoughtful characters and plotting.

The creator, Chris Boucher, had impeccable SF credentials, working on Doctor Who (he created my favorite companion, Leela), and Blake's 7 (where he was script editor for most of the run).  He did a great job of spinning out mysteries and tales of deceit and keeping them scientifically accurate.

The show ran nine episodes (a tenth was filmed, but never aired) to poor ratings (in a terrible time slot) and so-so critical reviews.  The BBC decided to leave well enough alone and let it drop.

Too bad.  It seems to be getting some recognition now, and certainly is more in tune with the hard SF bias of many fans today.  It worked hard to be intelligent science fiction, and deserves recognition.

Sunday, December 3, 2006


Directed by Robert Enders
Written by Hugh Whitmore
Starring Glenda Jackson, Mona Washbourn, Alec McCowan, Trevor Howard
IMDB Entry

It's is absolutely no surprise that Stevie has been forgotten.  It was barely noticed when it first came out, for obvious reasons:  it's a biographical film about a poet.  And not even a poet who lived a particularly interesting life:  no struggles, no crises, just poetry.  Yet the film is a tour de force for Glenda Jackson and Mona Washbourn.

Jackson plays real-life poet Stevie Smith, sort of a well-adjusted English Emily Dickinson. Smith spent her life working as a secretary, living with her aunt, and writing sharp, intelligent poetry, often on intriguing themes.  For instance, her "Thoughts About the Person from Porlock" deals with the story of Coleridge and the writing of the poem "Kubla Khan."  Coleridge wrote the beginning of the poem, was interrupted by a visitor from Porlock, and then couldn't finish it.  Smith's poem questions the account, and that possibly Coleridge was just blaming the visitor for his own inability to complete it.

But enough poetry neep.  If you love poetry, by all means seek out Smith's work.  Back to the movie.

Jackson is wonderful in the role.  We get to see Smith's love of life and of words as she quotes from her poems.  But the real gem is Mona Washbourn as Smith's "Lion Aunt," the crusty older woman who is both friend and inspiration to her.

Trevor Howard acts as the narrator and plays most of the men in her life, though Alec McCowan is miscast as Smith's love interest.  McCowan was over 50 at the time, and plays a character in his 20s, and a young twit, to boot.  But that's a minor flaw.

The movie was based on a stage play and doesn't hide its stage roots.  It was released in the US in 1978, and garnered a couple of Golden Globe nominations.  But it didn't make it to New York for until 1981 (originally, for a single performance in a double bill!).  Nevertheless, it won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Jackson.

I can imagine that no one could figure out how to promote it.  Definitely not not high concept.

Stevie's director, Robert Enders, did nothing of note otherwise. But it doesn't matter -- it's not really a director's movie, anyway. Stevie is a true gem of a movie, and well worth discovering if you love poetry or life.