Sci Fi's 'Tin Man' Plods On the Yellow Brick Road

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

Perhaps on some goofily unapproachable level, "Tin Man" makes all the sense in the world, but who wants to go through the agony of trying to figure it out? If it were a swift, slick two-hour movie, it might be worth it, but this hopeless opus from the Sci Fi Channel runs six hours over three consecutive nights, starting tomorrow.

Really, that's just rude.

For a while, viewers can entertain themselves by matching up the funky characters in the miniseries with their counterparts in the original L. Frank Baum book, which of course is familiar to most people as a warm and fabulous MGM movie. Dorothy Gale of Kansas is now a flinty hot babe called DG who wears a blue-and-white gingham dress for only one or two brief scenes and feels more comfortable on a motorcycle than on a bike.

The Tin Man of the title is a roguish adventurer who dresses like Indiana Jones; Glinda the good witch is, in an apparent homage to Elizabeth Taylor, now called Queen Lavender Eyes; and the Wicked Witch is now a sorceress named Azkadellia who looks as though she stepped out of a Las Vegas stage show saluting "Star Wars." Just about every Ozian has been transposed into some other similar but not identical creature.

Toto, too? Toto, too.

Oz itself has become "The O.Z.," or Outer Zone (no relation to Fox's "The O.C.," the now-defunct Orange County-set soap), and the Emerald City is Central City, a semi-sordid cesspool. The winged chimps, which have scared the bejeebers out of many a fascinated kid, have become even scarier: They're Mobats, freaky combinations of monkeys and bats, and it is remarked of the filthy things by one character, "I've seen them gnaw people in half in, like, 30 seconds." Don't worry, though; there's no graphic gnawing in the film.

DG isn't so much swept up by a cyclone near the film's beginning as she is tossed off a roof into it -- one of many changes that helps the film qualify as what Sci Fi calls "a deliciously twisted take" on the original. Its deliciousness is limited, actually, to a few moderately significant details, prominent among them a superb, rousing and romantic musical score by Simon Boswell. Given the constraints of time and money under which basic-cable productions usually operate, Boswell has worked a wonder.

And the special effects, very important to a project such as this, are fitfully spectacular, although the producers have opted for a junky, clunky look rather than something sleekly futuristic. There's a hangout for roughnecks that's highly reminiscent of the "Star Wars" bar, and Central City itself seems to qualify as a "wretched hive of scum and villainy," yet another "Star Wars" allusion.

In a Hitchcockian mood, meanwhile, the script is equipped with a Maguffin -- some obscure object of desire that's being pursued by the major characters. In this case, it's "the Emerald of the Eclipse," a big, shiny stone of bilious green.

If the filmmakers had themselves a heap of fun putting this mishmosh together, that doesn't come through in the finished work. The pacing is largely funereal, with characters such as that meanie-Queenie not having much to do but stand around posing. In the crucial role of DG, however, Zooey Deschanel (daughter of gifted director and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel) is saucy and captivating and has seductively expressive eyes.

Richard Dreyfuss is subdued but charismatic as Mystic Man, the film's substitute for the Wizard. As Azkadellia and Queen Lavender Eyes, Kathleen Robertson and Anna Galvin have to fight their way to the camera from under layers of makeup and costuming, but they do a pretty good job of it. Raw, the cowardly lion, is played by Raoul Trujillo, who won't remind anyone anywhere of Bert Lahr's immortal portrayal of the same character.

"No matter where we find ourselves, home is where the heart is," DG is told early in the film, a sentiment that sounded familiar even in 1939 when the MGM version was released. Alan Cumming, the elfin actor who charmingly plays Glitch, this film's version of the Scarecrow (a zipper runs down the middle of his head), has the dubious honor of exclaiming: "Oh, come on, Tin Man -- have a heart!"

It spoils nothing to reveal that before the movie's over, DG will hail little Glitch as "the smartest guy I know" and tearfully tell Raw, "You have taught me that courage is not about being fearless -- it's about standing up in spite of your fear." And so on, such peeps of sentimentality only serving to emphasize the film's uneven mix of the sardonic and the heartfelt. "Tin Man" unfortunately seems as bereft of an efficiently functioning ticker as is the titular character himself.

'Pictures of Hollis Woods'

There aren't enough synonyms for "radiant" available when trying to describe the three utterly splendid actresses who brighten up "Pictures of Hollis Woods," a two-hour family drama airing tomorrow night on CBS. The 231st entry in the "Hallmark Hall of Fame," this sensitive and disarming drama is enough to give a G rating a good name. A really, really good name.

Soft-spoken and tender-hearted, the film about a troubled adolescent -- troubled in an unusual rather than cliched way -- gives Alfre Woodard, Sissy Spacek and relative newcomer Jodelle Ferland golden opportunities, and each makes the most of them without histrionics or self-consciousness. There's no "Look ma, I'm acting," but instead a natural credibility to the characters and the painful situations in which they find themselves.

Inventively, the film follows two parallel timelines at once. Hollis Woods is a person, not a place, and as the film opens, the 12-year-old (looking older) orphan is being taken by social worker Edna Reilly (Woodard) to the idyllic seaside home of Josie Cahill (Spacek), latest in a long line of would-be foster parents. As the shy Hollis and the scatterbrained Josie get to know each other, we are taken back four months in time to the house of Steven and Izzy Regan, Hollis's previous home.

As the two stories progress, it becomes clear why Hollis is no longer with the Regans, even though they and their son couldn't have tried harder to make Hollis feel at home. Meanwhile, in the present, Hollis realizes that her new adoptive mother isn't merely scatterbrained.

At first there are little signs -- confusing the doorbell with a ringing phone, putting dishes into the trash basket rather than the dishwasher. But more and more familiar people and places become alien, and it's clear Josie is sinking further into the dark disarray of Alzheimer's.

The two tracks cross in a smart and satisfying way, and if there are any implausibilities in the plot, the skills of the three performers render them moot. Woodard is the epitome of quiet understanding, and Spacek is the subtlest kind of heartbreaker.

Finally there is Ferland, who proves herself an adept and haunting presence in the tradition of the greatest young actors. Hers is a performance that seems both instinctively humane and shrewdly skillful, and watching it, one can't help imagining the many memorable characters and performances yet to come. Hollis Woods will probably have plenty of company but remain unforgettable nevertheless.

Tin Man (six hours) debuts tomorrow night at 9 on Sci Fi; the miniseries continues Monday and Tuesday night at 9. Pictures of Hollis Woods (two hours) airs tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 9.

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