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Un-Enchanted Evening
by Don Larsson

I recently made the mistake of watching Ella Enchanted, a piece of forced whimsy that lacks even the pleasures of watching digital forces of nature at work in The Day After Tomorrow. As the title suggests, this is another variation on "Cinderella," but with an extra twist. It's set in a Shrek-ish fantasy world of medieval vintage but modern attitudes -- so you have, for instance, a market place that is actually a shopping mall complete with elevators and escalators, but all in wood. Young Ella (Anne Hathaway) is born into a family that includes an inept fairy aunt (Minnie Driver), but it is another fairy godmother (Vivica Fox) who makes life even more complicated by giving the baby the "gift of obedience." She has to do what anyone tells her to do, which of course complicates things when the inevitable evil stepsisters enter the picture. Prince Charming (Hugh Darcy) in this case is a pop-star heir to a throne now held by his evil uncle (Cary Elwes), who has created an apartheid system for non-humans such as elves, giants, and ogres.

Does this seem like a bit much already? It is. Even without comparing it to either of the Shrek films, this thing, directed by Get Over It auteur Tommy O'Haver, reeks from a desperate lack of artistic imagination. Hathaway is suitably perky for her role, but there's no real humor here, the political edge is simply meretricious, and even the special effects stink. The scenes with the main characters and the giants made me long for Russ Tamblyn in Tom Thumb. Worst of all, aside from Hathaway, the performances are possibly the biggest cumulative waste of talent in a single film this year. Elwes over-plays his role as evil king; Driver is simply irrelevant to the story; Parminder Nagra is reduced to a demeaning role in the name of false sympathy for her character; you should stick to Kill Bill if you want to see Fox; and Eric Idle, as the narrator, should immediately turn in his Python membership card. Speaking of Pythons, there's also a digital talking snake who is so annoying that I wanted to be able to pick him up and bash him against a stone wall until his pixels scattered over everything. When someone's idea of a good song for an action sequence is a cover version of "Walkin' on Sunshine," and when the grand finale is set to "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" from Grease, you know you're in trouble.

The novel by Gail Carson Levine, on which the film is based, is supposed to be pretty good. I won't pre-judge it by this movie, but I would like to create a new cinematic category for this picture: The Polonius Film. "A plentiful lack of wit, together with the most weak hams."

And now, as Mr. Cleese said long, long ago, for something completely different:

The End of a Mystery (La Luz Prodigiosa), a Spanish film directed by Miguel Hermoso, was featured at the annual Chicago Latino Film Festival, which I was lucky enough to attend. Written by Fernando Marías, the story concerns a young, illiterate shepherd during the Spanish Civil War who finds a Republican that has been shot in the head by the Francoists near Granada, but still alive. He nurses the man back to health and finally leaves him at a convent. Four decades later, now somewhat educated and retired, the man comes back to Granada and finds his former patient, still amnesiac and homeless. Digging deeper with the help of an avaricious con woman, the old shepherd begins to suspect that his former patient is actually someone assumed to be one of the war's most famous victims.

The old patient is played with dignity by Nino Manfredi, once a mainstay of international productions in the '60s, but I was delighted by Alfredo Landa, who plays the old shepherd with a nice blend of comedy and pathos. He's been around a long time in Spanish films, but he was a welcome discovery for me. Of the dozen or so films I've caught at the Latino Festivals over the last few years, this is probably the best one I've seen -- warm, funny and humane. The director was on hand after the screening (with an interpreter). I asked how he worked with adapting a novel. He answered that the novelist was also the screenwriter and a fan of classic American films. So when the director wanted to change something in the book, he'd just say, "Do you remember that scene in X?" and when the writer replied about what a great scene it was, the director would just say, "Well, that's what I want to do here!"

For outright strangeness, it's hard to beat Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World, based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day, but light years away from the classical precision of Merchant-Ivory. Shot on super-8 and 16 mm. stock, mostly in black-and-white, there's a haze to the images that's equivalent to the recording hiss of old radio shows.

In 1933 Winnipeg ("the depths of the Great Depression"), legless beer heiress Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini, looking and sounding more like her mother than ever) eyes the emerging post-Prohibition American market by announcing a world-wide competition to find "the saddest music in the world." She draws a klezmer band from Poland, a didgeridoo player from Australia, African dancers, and Scottish bagpipers, but the main competition comes from one family, all of whom have personal links to Her Ladyship. Dad is a World War I vet. One son has become a brash American entrepreneur, ready to bribe any takers. The other son (in a costume that has to be seen to be believed) is now a cello-playing Serb, ready to do penance for Gavrilo Princip and all of the Great War.

Maddin, a Winnipeg native, has a cult following, but he's new to me, and a very welcome addition. This is weird, transgressive, mind-bending cinema, reminiscent of silent-era German expressionism, and seasoned with Hollywood musical parody. Be prepared for endless variations on Kern and Hammerstein's "The Song is You."

©2004 Don Larsson