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Scrooge Revisited Day 4-Susan Lucci in Ebbie (1995)

ebbieNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: George Kaczender

Writers: Paul Redford & Ed Redlich, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Susan Lucci, Wendy Crewson, Ron Lea, Molly Parker, Lorena Gale, Jennifer Clement, Nicole Parker, Susan Hogan, Kevin McNulty, Taran Noah Smith, Jeffrey DeMunn, Bill Croft, Laura Harris

Notes: Are there any words in the realm of cinema more exciting than “Lifetime Original Movie”? That’s what we have today, my friends – soap opera legend Susan Lucci as Elizabeth Scrooge in this gender-reversed TV production. Lucci’s Scrooge is the manager of a department store rather than a moneylender, but she still has her Roberta Cratchet (Wendy Crewson), niece Francine (Molly Parker) and a gaggle of ghosts. The Tiny Tim role is filled by Taran Noah Smith, at the time part of the cast of the hit comedy Home Improvement, while Jake Marley’s ghost is appropriately played by future Walking Dead star Jeffrey DeMunn. In an odd case, Susan Hogan – who played the equivalent of Mrs. Fezziwig in An American Christmas Carol, essential fills the same role here. The movie can occasionally be found on DVD under the title Miracle at Christmas: Ebbie’s Story, with hot property Smith cuddled up to Lucci on the cover, despite having little more than a cameo appearance.

Thoughts: I’ve seen a lot of different version of A Christmas Carol, but this one stands out as being, perhaps, the least exciting. The film is updated to the 90s and set in America, although despite that the writers tried to tweak lines from the original Dickens in terribly awkward ways, like the old “are there no orphanages? Are there no workhouses?” speech. For a version so far away from the original in its setting, it’s weird that they would ty to cling to the details, and that adherence to Dickens is actually this movie’s death-knell.

Like An American Christmas Carol, Ebbie’s ghosts play double-duty. This time, they’re all employees of the department store that she shafted in one way or another (disrespect, a crappy Christmas bonus, or a yuletide firing, respectively). I’m starting to think it was less an artistic choice and more a way to cut down on the number of actors they had to pay. This film is Dickens on a budget.

The made-for-TV credentials are evident from the first ghost. DeMunn’s Marley makes his appearance first by popping into the TV shows Ebbie is watching, then shows up in a glowing blue form complete with a giant 90s cellphone he stole from Zack Morris. We race through his point and get to the ghosts of Christmas Past – Jennifer Clement and Nicole Parker, who we saw earlier in the movie as perfume girls in the department store, looking like rejects from Hairspray. It doesn’t help that they actually use hairspray to zip back in time and view Ebbie’s past, where we literally hear her father tell her mother “I never wanted you.” If they want us to feel sorry for Ebbie, it comes across as too heavy-handed (especially with the clownish pair of ghosts) for the emotion to truly land. It gets even sillier when we see her very pregnant sister (Parker again) taking to her “little sister,” played by Lucci, looking a good 20 years older. Christmas Past is interminably long, sloughing through Ebbie’s destruction of her relationship with her boyfriend, the takeover of the department store with Marley, and Marley’s Christmas Eve death. Again, it’s hitting all the beats, but not doing so in any clever or creative way. If you’re not going to change up the formula at this point, you damn well need to execute it very well, and this movie just has all the tropes of a Lifetime movie with none of the charm of the better Christmas Carol adaptations.

Lucci is doing her soap opera best here, which is to say that she’s heavy on the melodrama, but light on real emotion. I can’t say it’s entirely her fault, of course – she’s doing exactly what you expect out of Susan Lucci, and doing it as well as can be expected. The rest of the film piles on the melodrama so thickly that it scarcely matters. By the time we reach the forced treacle of Tim singing “Angels We Have Heard on High,” you’re certain the film has been running for all twelve days of Christmas, even though it’s only been a little over an hour. Perhaps the most interesting (or maybe just the least boring) segment is Christmas Yet to Come, where Ebbie is forced to witness herself getting struck by a car, rather than succumbing to old age or whatever it is that usually takes out Scrooges.

This is perhaps one of the dullest Christmas Carol adaptations I’ve seen. Lucci is so flat that you don’t feel any transformation at all, and her climactic announcement that she’ll “honor Christmas” feels entirely by rote, without any passion to it. If you’re a Lucci fanatic, you may want to watch this. For the rest of us, there are much better versions to choose from.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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Dorothy Gale Week BONUS: Zooey Deschanel in Tin Man (2007)

Tin Man 2007Director: Nick Willing

Writer: Steven Long Mitchell, Craig Van Sickle, based on the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Zooey Deschanel, Alan Cumming, Neal McDonough, Kathleen Robertson, Raoul Trujillo, Callum Keith Rennie, Richard Dreyfuss, Blu Mankuma, Anna Galvin, Ted Whittall, Rachel Pattee, Alexia Fast, Gwynyth Walsh, Kevin McNulty, Karin Konoval, Andrew Francis, Grace Wheeler.

Plot: DG (Zooey Deschanel) is a waitress in a Kansas farm town who doesn’t feel like she fits into her life. She’s been having dreams about a woman with lavender eyes (Anna Galvin) – a dream that seriously concerns her parents (Gwynyth Walsh and Kevin McNulty). Elsewhere, in another realm called the Outer Zone (O.Z. – get it?), a brutal witch named Azkadellia (Kathleen Robertson) is struggling against spies who are trying to wrest control from her. She turns to a captive lion-like creature called a “viewer,” who predicts trouble coming from “the other side.” Azkadellia tells her general to launch a travel storm, find the trouble, and destroy it. They arrive at DG’s farmhouse, coming after her. Her parents force DG onto the roof in the midst of the storm and tell her to jump to escape Azkadellia’s Longcoats. She is swept away into the storm .

She wakes up in a forest and is captured by a group of diminutive resistance fighters from the Eastern Guild who take her as a spy sent by Azkadellia. In her cage, DG meets a man named Glitch (Alan Cumming), who has had half his brain (and memories) removed by Azkadellia. Together, they escape and find Wyatt Cain (Neal McDonough), formerly one of Azkadellia’s “Tin Man” police who has been imprisoned for years for disobeying her. His family was taken from him, and his years of imprisonment have turned his heart cold, bent only on revenge. When they stop to rescue a viewer named Raw (Raoul Trujillo) from a group of predators, they all plunge off a cliff to escape. Azkadellia’s viewer shows the escape, and when she realizes DG is alive, she is outraged.

DG finds her parents amidst a town full of cyborgs. Her parents reveal they are androids, programmed to protect DG until return to the Outer Zone. Her true mother is the woman with lavender eyes. She’s instructed to find the Mystic Man of Central City, and DG and her friends flee as the Longcoats arrive. They sneak into Central City, where DG’s picture is on a wanted poster, and Wyatt leaves the group to search for Zero (Callum Keith Rennie), who took his family. The others find the Mystic Man (Richard Dreyfuss), a carnival showman who is bombed out on Azkadellia’s mind-altering vapors. As they watch his show, Zero and the Longcoats appear, looking for DG. Wyatt saves them and the Mystic Man tells DG her search for her mother must begin at the Northern Island. He makes Wyatt promise to protect DG at all costs, and covers while they escape. At the ice-covered Northern Island, they find a hidden palace, and the truth. DG’s mother was Queen of the Outer Zone, and Glitch her advisor. Raw uses his power to show them a glimpse of the past, when Azkadellia – DG’s older sister – killed her. Their mother restored her to life, giving up her magic to do so. She tells DG she is sending her away until the time is right for her to find the only thing that can stop Azkadellia – the Emerald of the Eclipse. As they watch, the adult Azkadellia arrives and demands the location of the Emerald. Raw and DG are captured, and Zero reveals to Wyatt that his family is still alive, just before shooting him and sending him plunging into the icy water outside.

Part 2 of the film begins with DG waking up in her house in Kansas, her parents talking about the nightmares she’s been having. Her father is terribly interested in the dream, particularly about where the Emerald is. DG realizes it’s fake – Azkadellia used a hologram projector to recreate Kansas and reprogrammed the androids to trick DG into revealing the location of the Emerald. Raw is tossed in a dungeon with the other viewers, who say he is no longer one of them, while back at the northern palace, Glitch finds Wyatt in the snow.

DG is put in prison, where she finds the Mystic Man, his mind now clear, who encourages her to go south. Frustrated, Azkadellia kills him with the same life-draining spell she once used on DG. A strange dog helps DG escape, and she finds and rescues Raw. They encounter Glitch and Wyatt, who broke into the dungeon to find them, and the dog leads them to safety. It transforms into a man (Blu Mankuma) who was once DG’s tutor (which she mispronounced as “Toto”), and has been sent by her mother to help her reclaim her lost memories. She begins recalling times when Azkadellia actually helped her and treated her kindly, and starts to wonder if there may be redemption for her sister yet. In truth, Azkadellia sent Tutor as a spy, and he occasionally drops a glass disc to allow the witch to track them.

Wyatt finds the house where his wife and son lived, but instead of his wife, finds her gravestone. As he mourns, Glitch finds a glass disc on the ground just as one of Azkadellia’s monkey-bats attacks. Wyatt kills it and Tutor nervously suggests they move along, finally arriving at the former home of the royal family, an abandoned lakeside city called Finaqua. DG has another memory flash, remembering a time when she and Azkadellia found a cave in the woods. DG accidentally released an ancient witch (Karin Konoval) who possessed her sister – all of the trouble that has befallen the Outer Zone is DG’s fault.

In Part 3, DG finds a message from her mother who tells her to find her father, Ahamo (Ted Whittall), in the Realm of the Unwanted. After they depart, Azkadellia arrives and finds the same message. Wyatt discovers Tutor has been dropping Azkadellia’s discs, and Tutor swears he was using the discs to buy time while DG recalled her past and powers. The Realm of the Unwanted turns out to be an underground city, where the Outer Zone’s outcasts are in hiding. An attempt to locate Ahamo instead lands DG’s friends in Zero’s clutches, although Tutor escapes. DG, meanwhile, is taken by the “Seeker,” who turns out to be Ahamo himself.

Ahamo tries to teach DG to use her powers and reveals he’s from Nebraska, and first crossed to the Outer Zone years ago via a hot air balloon. Followed by Tutor, they take the balloon and find a hidden doorway. Inside is DG’s family crypt, including the first member: a woman named Dorothy Gale – DG’s namesake — who was brought over from the other side just like Ahamo. DG steps into the crypt into a greytone vision of Kansas. There, the original Dorothy (Grace Wheeler) gives her the Emerald of the Eclipse. As they leave, Azkadellia captures Ahamo and takes the emerald from DG, sealing her in a tomb.

DG’s friends are rescued by a band of resistance fighters who turn out to be led by Wyatt’s son, Jeb (Andrew Francis). Zero confesses that Azkadellia plans to use the Emerald and a machine Glitch doesn’t remember inventing to lock the two suns behind the moon and plunge the Outer Zone into darkness. Azkadellia reunites her parents, completely taken over by the Dark Witch, and tells them their family’s royal line ends today. In the tomb, DG remembers Tutor’s lessons about her magic, and uses her power to free herself. She finds her friends and the resistance plans an attack on Central City as a diversion. Raw is losing his nerve, though, and DG makes him recall the times he’s shown his courage. She has similar moments with the “brainless” Glitch and the “heartless” Wyatt, bolstering each of them in turn, but Wyatt cautions her that he won’t be there to help at the climax of their plan.

Breaking into the city, they find the missing half of Glitch’s brain and reconnect it so he will know how to shut down the machine, but they are interrupted by the Longcoats, and the Outer Zone goes dark. DG confronts the Dark Witch, trying to appeal to Azkadellia’s memories of their childhood love, and pleads for her sister to take her hand so their magic will be strong again. Azkadellia breaks free of the witch, and the sisters try to hold her off. Below, Raw defeats the Witch’s men and Glitch turns off the machine. The Dark Witch melts and the sisters, finally together again, embrace. As DG’s friends arrive, the suns come out from behind the moon, and the Outer Zone is once again filled with light.

Thoughts: Once upon a time, kids, there was a lovely little place called the Sci-Fi Channel, a realm where you could reliably turn for tales of science fiction and fantasy of all stripes. That is, until a cruel television executive came in, changed the name to a Scandinavian word for Herpes, and started loading it up with professional wrestling and ghost hunter shows. But before that happened, in 2007, they produced a new version of The Wizard of Oz called Tin Man.

This is the strangest vision of Oz we’ve seen yet, a bizarre mixture of science fiction and fantasy you rarely see these days. Most writers try to keep the two totally separate – something is either sci-fi or fantasy, as if there’s no room for both (a notion I personally consider ludicrous). There’s plenty of stuff in here that feels like science fiction – the hologram device, Wyatt’s particularly inventive torture chamber, the robots and cyborgs all seem to belong in that realm. They even use cars and guns that are basically retro versions of the things we have in the real world. Most of the things we see, though, are purely magic – DG’s handprint, the “travelling storm” the Longcoats use to traverse dimensions, or the power of the viewers have no attempt at a scientific explanation, nor do they require one. At the end, it’s the combination of the magic Emerald and Glitch’s technological Sun Seeker machine that the Dark Witch’s entire plan hinges on. The two elements blend very well together, and while it’s true that may be because there’s no real effort to explain the science behind the machine, there’s at least an implication that there’s science in there somewhere.

One thing I really like about this version of the story is how many of the changes are simply additive in nature. It was originally broadcast as a three-part miniseries, with part one ending with DG and Azkadellia’s confrontation at the Northern Island. By then, we’d already covered most of the important plot points from The Wizard of Oz – Dorothy is taken to Oz in a storm, meets her three friends, encounters the Wizard and confronts the witch. Even then, the writers managed to fill part one with rich backstory for all four of the heroes. Parts two and three, while still holding on to the skeleton of Baum’s story, go on to introduce lots of new elements that give the story more of an epic quality than it usually has. Even the wildest interpretations of Oz rarely attempt to expand the plot in any significant way. It was an interesting gamble for writers Miller and Van Sickle to take, and it’s one that paid off for the most part.

With the addition, though, is a healthy respect for the original. The revelation of Dorothy Gale as DG’s “greatest” grandmother, and the first “slipper” between the O.Z. and the other side, links this back neatly to Baum’s work. While it seems too far-fetched to think that the original Dorothy’s story is exactly the one that Baum wrote (there are simply too many differences between the Outer Zone and the real Oz for that to be the case) it does leave the door open for earlier stories, prequels about Dorothy and the rest of the O.Z. Royal Family, or about how the Dark Witch was imprisoned in the first place that could potentially tap into that book or the other Oz books even more than this film did. Sadly, as it’s been six years since this miniseries was made and no such movement in that direction is evident, that probably isn’t in the cards. Still, it’s nice to dream.

Even this version, though, couldn’t resist a few nods to the MGM movie. DG’s waitress uniform is the classic blue checked dress, and at the beginning of part 2 she makes a joke about dreaming “in Technicolor.” One flashback even has young Azkadellia cautioning DG to be on the lookout for “lions and tigers and…” then a bear appears. Cue DG’s line: “Oh my.” They’re funny bits, admittedly, but they kind of take the viewer out of the moment of the story. It’s not too bad in a mostly lighthearted interpretation of Oz, but with the darker attitude this miniseries reached for, it’s somewhat distracting.

In certain hipsterish circles, it’s become very fashionable to hate Zooey Deschanel. I really don’t care – I’m a fan of hers in general and I like her in this miniseries. She does have a very understated approach to the character, rarely showing extreme emotion until she’s really pushed far, and that’s an approach that seems to fit very well with this mystic/steampunk vision of Oz.

Kathleen Robertson as Azkadellia is a little less impressive. While she’s certainly got the looks for this sort of beautiful fairy tale evil queen, she lacks a certain intensity. She’s the bad guy of the piece, the one everyone in the Outer Zone is terrified of, but it’s hard to get a feeling of menace from her. She’s more of a Mean Girl than a real Wicked Witch. It’s a little more justified when you realize, at the end of Part 2, that she’s being possessed, but if that’s the intention it’s telegraphed too early.

The transformation in Dorothy’s friends works pretty well here. Although none of them are, strictly speaking, analogous to their classic counterparts, each of them has qualities that are suitable. Alan Cumming’s Glitch, for example, isn’t a scarecrow, but the large zipper atop his head (where his brain was removed) gives him a touch of the patchwork feel that the character requires. He’s also got the sort of long-limbed, lanky motion that you’d expect from a scarecrow. Raoul Trujillo, Raw, looks most like his classic counterpart. The viewers are covered in long, golden fur, with a tail and facial features that evoke the Bert Lahr Cowardly Lion in some ways. In terms of development, though, he’s probably the least developed of the three of them and doesn’t really have enough to do except for occasionally using his powers to reveal a little backstory. Richard Dreyfuss’s Mystic Man only appears in two scenes, in one of which he’s almost completely stoned. While his performance is perfectly good, like Raw, it seems like much more could have been done with him. It’s curious that they took the most interesting thing about the Wizard – his origin as an American swept to Oz via balloon – and instead transferred that role to DG’s father. The character of the Wizard is essentially split between the two of them. Dreyfuss’s character has the recognition and gives DG her quest, Ted Whittall’s Ahamo is the false mystic, the “humbug” as it were, and gives DG guidance when it really matters.

Neal McDonough as Wyatt, the titular “Tin Man,” gets the most emotional meat here. He’s got the best backstory and the deepest well of feeling to draw from, and he does a superb job tapping that mine while still trying to put forth that cold shell he insists on showing the world. The point of the original Wizard of Oz is that Dorothy’s three friends each already had exactly what they most desired, they just needed to find it within themselves. That’s not really true of Glitch (what he wants is something that has literally been taken from him) and we don’t see enough of Raw to get that impression, but Wyatt personifies this trope. I’m still not quite sure why he gets the naming rights to the whole miniseries, mind you – he’s a very important character but not really the protagonist – but he at least gives the most impressive performance out of the principals. (And with a group that includes Alan Cumming, that’s saying a lot.)

I’m a tad disappointed in the ending. There’s a little too much of the “love conquers all, hold hands and sing Kumbaya” thing going on for my taste. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for the power of love and all that, but it always feels like a little bit of a cheat when used as literally as it is here. Fortunately we get a little more than that to contribute to the Dark Witch’s downfall – DG’s love may have helped free her sister, but the Witch still would have one if Raw, Glitch and Wyatt had failed at their task of actually turning off the machine.

As far as the actual production goes, Sci-Fi Channel productions (or “SyFy” as they call themselves now) are strange. Their original movies are famously, fabulously terrible, but they really put very high quality into their miniseries and original TV shows. This is no exception. The set design, costumes and makeup are all film-quality here, with absolutely nothing to complain about. The complaints come in whenever they start trying to use computer effects, most noticeably the creatures that attack them when they free Raw. The CGI is done on a TV budget, which even 20 years after it became commonplace, still isn’t really enough to make things look convincing. If they had done puppets or guys in suits, it may have still looked kind of cheesy, but probably would have been more convincing. The reason the Wheelers in Return to Oz were so damn scary is because they were played by real people wearing real weird suits they had to learn to use to roller-skate on all fours. It just wouldn’t have been as frightening if little Fairuza Balk had been running from a computer effect, just as it isn’t scary when little Zooey Deschanel does it here.

It’s not the greatest film version of Oz, but it’s by no means a bad one. It’s entertaining and unusual, and most importantly, it’s unique. It gives us something no other version of Oz has, and that’s the toughest part of the job.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!