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Maybe more wolf’s bane would have helped: (l-r) Kidman and Shelley in Bewitched.

The Spell Is Broken
By Laura Leon

Bewitched

Directed by Nora Ephron

We’ve probably all played the game in which you put together a dream cast to star in either a favorite book gone celluloid, or a remake of an earlier movie or television series. Not only is it fun, but it’s weirdly empowering to realize that your casting choices are, more often than not, so much better than anything Hollywood focus groups have to offer. So the fact that Nora and Delia Ephron sat around and mused about how they would remake the ’60s television hit Bewitched is not so ludicrous. Will Ferrell is a suitable Darren, the befuddled hubby who exuded zero sexuality, and Nicole Kidman, with her blandly perfect features and figure, could be amusing as a beautiful witch who longs for normalcy. And how about daffy Shirley MacLaine, herself a claimant to having lived previous lives, as the witch’s mother?

However, as has been the case with just about every movie in which Nora Ephron has been involved, the plotting stops once the roles have been cast. The movie Bewitched relies solely on its talented cast (including the effortlessly scene-stealing Michael Caine as Isabel’s roguish warlock father Nigel) to propel its machinations—machinations that sputter soon after setting up a promising conceit. Namely, actor Jack Wyatt (Ferrell) hopes to stop the downward spiral of his career by starring in a remake of the television series Bewitched, and in so doing, unwittingly casts as his onscreen wife Samantha a real-life witch and acting nobody, Isabel Bigelow. This happens just as Isabel has informed Nigel of her decision to forego her magic in order to live a “normal” life and hopefully find a Mr. Right who loves her for herself. She naively accepts Jack’s proposal to become a star, in large part because she believes he really needs her.

The blurring of real and sitcom had great promise, especially since the story takes place in, of course, Hollywood. But Ephron, having made a few conscious decisions about what problems witches might face in real life, sabotages the whole works by relying too heavily on Kidman’s breathy Marilyn Monroe-isms and, worse, forcing Ferrell to act too much like Tom Hanks at times.

While the original television series left me scratching my young head—I mean, how could I appreciate the lovely Samantha, knowing that she had married such a completely unappealing dunderhead as Darren, whether played by Dick York or Dick Sargent—I did appreciate the fact that its main character seemed fully aware of the enormity of her powers, and didn’t mind using them if pushed. Bewitched conveyed a subversive message: that Darren had better behave himself, or else Sam would wiggle her nose and who knows what would happen then. In the Ephrons’ Bewitched, however, Isabel/Samantha is just too darn innocent (if not sickeningly sweet), and her moments of anger seem out of place. Indeed, she uses her spells in much the same way that a toddler uses tantrums, to get a quick fix to a problem at hand.

The screenwriting sisters pull out all sorts of gimmicks, as if not too sure which will stick, so we’re treated to the “romantic montage,” in which Jack and Isabel cavort like Frankie and Annette. Much better, though much less frequent, are scenes in which Jack and his agent (Jason Schwartzman) try to outgun the shows’ producers. The ridiculousness of the star’s demands and all the producer talk about “high concepts” and what have you is good stuff, but soon give way to more scenes in which Isabel buries her sorrows in gallons of Cool Whip. (Oh, isn’t that cute: Even witches get the lovesick munchies.)

In awkward attempts to further blur “reality” with television, the filmmakers throw in some guest appearances of oddball characters who once graced the sitcom. Steve Carell does a dead-on Uncle Arthur (originally played by Paul Lynde), and indeed, infuses a much-needed jolt of energy into late scenes in which he advises a despondent Jack on the nature of witch love, but he’s too little, too late. Carole Shelley’s brief bit as the ditzy Aunt Clara just plain falls flat, whereas it had the potential to unite Isabel with her new gal pals in an intriguing blended sisterhood based on mutual hatred of the male dominator. Are these characters supposed to signify that Isabel really is Samantha, or are they the figurative relations of all witches, celluloid of not? These are pesky questions that pile up as Bewitched trudges on, but at some point, one just has to stop wondering who and why, and instead, ask: When will this end?

The Old Girls of Cornwall

Ladies in Lavender

Directed by Charles Dance

The drawing card for this winsome drama is the combination of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, two grand thespians each with one support-hose-shod foot firmly in pop culture. In the regrettably titled Ladies in Lavender, tastefully directed by actor Charles Dance (who adapted it from the William J. Locke short story), Smith and Dench play sisters, and do so with all the delicacy of feeling one would expect. A widow and a spinster, the sisters live in a cottage on the coast of Cornwall in the 1930s. Their genteel existence is shaken up when they rescue a mysterious stranger who washes up on the beach unconscious, presumably from a shipwreck.

When Andrea (Daniel Brühl) comes to, the sisters discover that he can’t speak English, and might, in fact, be German, though he says he’s Polish. The village is gently set abuzz by the presence of a foreigner in uncertain times, but only Janet (Smith), who picked up some German and Polish as a nurse during the Great War, can talk to him. The “sisters of mercy” dote on him during his long convalescence, and he livens up their drab routine with his affection and sublime violin playing. Ursula (Dench) develops a dreamy crush on the young man, who mistakes it for maternal concern. The snake in the sisters’ garden arrives in the form of Olga (bewitching Natascha McElhone), a Russian on holiday who is attracted to Andrea’s musicianship. Olga’s uninterest in her suitor, Dr. Mead (David Warner), does not bode well for his young rival.

The intrigue is mostly ephemeral. What the bittersweet Ladies is really about is nostalgia for lost youth (Ursula’s chances at romance were probably eradicated by World War I) and for a lost England: The picturesque setting revels in the rugged seashore, the fishermen hauling their catch to a beachfront market, the feisty old gaffers at the local pub, and the haymaking operations in the surrounding countryside. The possibility of another war, as overheard on newscasts over the radio, is contemplated with barely acknowledged dread by the sisters.

Treacley slo-mo flourishes aside, the film is admirably directed, scored, and photographed. But though Dance’s understated style creates some subtly stirring moments, it’s overly refined, allowing too much of the story’s substance (such as Andrea’s recent past) to slip away offscreen. Even so, the film’s nuance and acting count for a lot, especially considering there’s a third powerhouse old biddy in the cast: Miriam Margolyes. Best known as the imperious dowager in The Age of Innocence, Margolyes is even more memorable as the sisters’ gruff housekeeper.

—Ann Morrow

Dead, Not Brain-Dead

Land of the Dead

Directed by George A. Romero

Two decades after Day of the Dead, George A. Romero finally secured financing for another zombie flick. This is good news indeed, as the filmmaker’s intelligent style of horror, a calculated combination of social commentary and extreme gore, has been missed. (Well, at least by fans of zombie movies.)

In Land of the Dead, the flesh-eating zombies start to reason and use their memories. This has troubled some who have seen the picture—but it should not. In the Romero zombie universe, everyone who dies becomes a zombie unless their brain is destroyed. This suggests that the brain, while low-functioning, likely has some capacity for productive use.

This leads the film down some curious philosophical paths, and allows for some trenchant commentary. The childlike zombies start to seem sympathetic. The humans, who are shown torturing and abusing the living dead in ways that suggest, alternately, a circus freak show and Abu Ghraib, are less sympathetic this time around. They have congregated in a seemingly secure city, but there’s no honor or solidarity among them. Romero hammers home the point that wherever given the chance, humans will behave abominably—thus, perhaps, deserving their fate as snacks for the undead.

It’s also worth noting what a well-made film Land of the Dead is. It was harder to appreciate the nuances of Romero’s classical narrative skills when his pictures were made for $15 and a bucket of red glop. That’s not a slap at Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead—both are superb—but even with a comparatively small $15 million budget, what he is able to accomplish here is significant.

—Shawn Stone


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