FAIRYTALE: A TRUE STORY (1997) – A story sprinkled with fairy dust

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There’s a very telling moment in FairyTale: A True Story where a young girl asks Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist, if he has ever told anyone how he does his tricks. “Never,” Houdini replies, “and I never will.” Then with a wink in his voice, Houdini adds, “Of course, most people don’t really want to know how you’ve done them anyway.”

It is at that level that the “true story” of FairyTale is approached. The movie is based on the lives of British cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, who created an escape for war-torn England by taking photos which, they claimed, showed real fairies. Needless to say, the movie doesn’t quite tell the true story. It has since been shown that the photographs were faked. And yet, do we really want to know how, or even if, they faked the photos?

As if to drive this point home, the movie opens with Elsie attending a performance of Peter Pan. Since this is the same motif that began Steven Spielberg’s Hook, we know we’re not in a for a searing docudrama. Still, Elsie’s family could use a few fairies. Elsie’s brother has died of pneumonia, and Frances’ father has sent her to live with Elsie while he fights in World War I.

Frances turns out to be a liberating force. When, at her first day in Elsie’s school, she is questioned at length about her previous home of Africa, she ends the class’ quizzing with, “Are there any more stupid questions?” Later she confiscates a camera from Elsie’s dad, and she and Elsie take the infamous photos, which come to the attention of no less than Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as Doyle’s pal Houdini.

The fairies themselves take somewhat of a backseat in the story. Apart from a few terrific shots of the fairies in flight, they don’t have much in the way of personality. But after a while, you begin to realize that’s beside the point. The question is, why are there always naysayers who want the real world to intrude upon the innocent fun of childhood?

Apart from the charming Peter O’Toole and Harvey Keitel as Doyle and Houdini, there are no big-name stars in the cast, but there are also no bum performances. As the cousins, Florence Hoath and Elizabeth Earl are the best sort of natural child performers, completely unadorned by Hollywood affectations. And Phoebe Nicholls is endearing as Elsie’s mother, whose faith in life is restored by the whimsical photos.

Admittedly, the movie does take a while to get to its (beautifully realized) climax, and some younger audience members might get restless before the end. Personally, I was so grateful for a family movie which didn’t talk down to me, I began to believe that FairyTale might indeed be a gift from the little blighters.

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ROCKY BALBOA (2006) – Welcome back, Rocky

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I swallow deeply as I write that Rocky Balboa is the Rocky sequel Sylvester Stallone should have made 25 years previously. It truly has everything the original had — wit, heart, and a genuinely engrossing climactic fight.

The first Rocky was a fine, touching movie about a likable Everyman who got a long-wished-for shot at being a champ. Though Stallone had been doing minor movie roles for years, Rocky opened people’s eyes to him, and his own rags-to-riches story paralleled that of his creation. But each successive sequel seemed a bit more removed from reality. (The only one I haven’t seen is Rocky V, which even Stallone now disowns.)

Now, both Stallone and Balboa have come full circle, and the new movie is actually about something in which the audience can have a stake. The premise is that Rocky and heavyweight champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver) have their stats fed into a computer and are put into a simulated match. The computer’s results show that Rocky would still come out a winner.

Naturally, the real, trash-talking Dixon doesn’t buy it, and he reluctantly agrees to an exhibition match with Balboa. At this point, you’re probably rolling your eyes and guessing that Dixon doesn’t have — wait for it — the eye of the tiger, and you’d be right. But for a change, the movie is showing us that rather than telling us. As with Rocky I, the movie shows that everyone involved in the match really needs it — old, resigned Rocky, his resentful son, and his bitter brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young, back to being a likable doofus instead of an embarrassing caricature).

(The only emotional tug that seems forced on us is the long-past death of Rocky’s beloved wife Adrian. This is the movie’s one instance where Stallone rather too obviously stacked the deck.)

After 30 years, the first Rocky‘s blatantly tearjerking formula is shown to still have some real power. RB even shamelessly re-does the original’s training montage, and it and most of the other heart-tugging moments had the audience cheering. And for the first time in a long time, the cheers were earned.

Stallone was 60 years old when he made this movie, and like an aging boxer, he must have felt he wanted Rocky to go out with some dignity. Happily he, and the audience, all got what we wanted.

GUN CRAZY (1950) – Annie Laurie Starr, get your gun

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

I enjoy hearing stories about how people met their spouses. It gives me a little insight into both the couple and the person who’s telling the story.

In Gun Crazy, Bart Tare (John Dall) meets his future wife, Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), while he’s shooting at her head at a carnival.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The movie begins with flashbacks of the young Bart, showing how interested he is in guns. He doesn’t want to kill anyone or anything with them. At the risk of sounding Freudian, in Bart’s view, a gun seems to be a piece of security in life — which Bart could certainly use, having been raised only by his sister.

Bart pays a price to society for his gun obsession and is then set free. On his first day of freedom, Bart and his old friends go to town to attend a carnival, where Bart sees Laurie performing as a sharpshooter. Sparks (and bullets) fly quickly between the two.

Through the usual film-noir machinations, Laurie is eventually as free and beholden to no one as Bart is. So she decides to make Bart beholden to her. She figures that, with their joint expertise with guns, they can get whatever they want in life. At first, Bart hesitates at getting that down-and-dirty, but when Laurie threatens to leave him, Bart caves.

From there, an ever-spiralling series of circumstances make it doubtful that Bart and Laurie will make it to their first wedding anniversary.

Even by noir standards, this is one of the most pervasive weird movies I’ve ever seen — and one of the most riveting. Its most fascinating aspect is how the movie’s POV nonchalantly observes this in-over-the-head couple going on an increasingly violent robbing and shooting spree. Cinema’s Production Code guaranteed that the couple would pay for their actions in the end — but that doesn’t mean that viewers don’t get some titillating and voyeuristic thrills along the way.

John Dall is strangely touching as Bart, depicting how Bart’s pacifism slowly gets swept away by this woman who’s giving him the romance he thought he’d never have (in more ways than one). And Peggy Cummins long ago entered film-noir history as the ultimate manipulative dame. She offers us Laurie at face value, with no reasons or apologies for her grubby, grabby behavior — and just like Bart, we get swept up in her quiet fury.

I’ve never owned a gun or even fired one, for the same reason that many people give: I fear that it would be too easy to give into its temptation as an easy answer to an otherwise low-key conflict. Gun Crazy takes that premise to its ultimate extension. If only Bart had been more obsessed with marbles or coin-collecting when he was young…

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007) – No-holds-barred look at a smooth, ruthless drug dealer

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It’s astonishing how far dysfunctional families will go to convince themselves that they’re not living a lie.

In American Gangster, the dysfunctional family is the American heroin market. The head of the family is druglord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). And the outsider and truth-teller is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an estranged police detective.

Roberts’ and Lucas’ stories are told in mesmerizing parallel. Roberts is cherry-tree-era George Washington when it comes to being a cop. He does something major, seemingly a good deed, that brings him eternal enmity among his fellow cops.

Lucas does something major, too — dealing heroin in Harlem. Yet he is looked up to by his family, his “employees,” and even the Italian mobsters from whom he steals the drug trade. Seemingly, the only person in the world interested in bringing Lucas to justice is Roberts.

Lest these men sound cliche, it’s only because I won’t spoil the movie by divulging its rich character details: The way that Roberts bluffs magnificently to rescue a fellow cop from his certain murder. The way Lucas goes to elaborate lengths to obtain the pure heroin he deals. And best of all, the telling bit of flashy clothing that finally tips Lucas off to Roberts.

Such details are the result of another razor-sharp script from Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and direction from Ridley Scott (who only seems to be getting better in his fourth decade of movie-making).

Among the supporting players, the nicest surprise is Ruby Dee as Lucas’ elderly mother. At first, she seems like a typical, saintly old lady. Then there’s a scene in which she encapsulates an entire movie’s worth of characterization in about three minutes. Beautiful.

Denzel Washington delivers another personal best. Watch Lucas’ sleek suavity boil over into frightful anger. Or watch his face subtly droop when he realizes his drug kingdom is starting to decay.

I had feared that Russell Crowe, as in L.A. Confidential, would play his cop as a one-note good guy. But Roberts’ noble detective work is just one strand of his DNA. As the rest of his life shows us, he’s not terribly virtuous; he’s just driven to do this deed.

Most amazing aspect is how the movie makes us identify with these opposing extremes of the same coin. If you can stomach the violence — and from the start, the movie pulls no punches — American Gangster will richly reward you.

THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) – Machismo in space

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The Right Stuff gives us a 1980’s gloss on America’s first astronaut heroes, warts and all.

The story begins in the 1940’s, with the Air Force trying to find a pilot who could break the sound barrier and live to tell about it. Near the beginning of the movie, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) rides his horse to an Air Force base to inspect the plane intended to break the barrier. The plane’s ignition is spewing flames and looks as though it could take off on its own. The symbolism is none too subtle: Test pilots were the last American cowboys, and Yeager is going to have to lasso this wild horse on his own.

Eventually he does so, leaving other test pilots with new worlds to conquer. “Hot-dog” pilots descend upon Edwards Air Force Base to break Yeager’s records, and Yeager counter by topping the record-breakers. It seems as though there are no more frontiers to tame, until the Russians get a man into space before the Americans. Soon NASA is looking for space jockeys who have “the right stuff,” which means having the guts to fly into space and also look good for the press while they’re doing it.

While The Right Stuff has drawn raves over the years, its critics have contended that the movie displays broad caricatures instead of characters. (Lyndon Johnson, then the vice-president who helped get the space program started, is shown as a yahoo, though his most riotous line of dialogue is said to be based on fact.) I prefer to think that the movie shows its heroes to be all too human, rather than the standard movie heroes of perfection. The space program was obviously making up its rules as it went along, and it asked its pilots to do things that hadn’t been asked of them before. (When a nurse gives Gordon Cooper [Dennis Quaid] a test tube to fill with a particular type of bodily fluid, his reaction is one for the books.)

The cast in uniformly good. Like the pilots they portray, Shepard, Quaid, Scott Glenn, and especially Ed Harris as John Glenn, all come through with flying colors. As NASA housewives who could have come off as drab, Barbara Hershey and Pamela Reed, among others, give nice shadings to their roles. Best of all are the Washington bureaucrats trying to save face — Donald Moffat savoring the role of Vice-President Johnson, and Jeff Goldblum and comedy veteran Harry Shearer as Washington’s answer to Laurel and Hardy.

The movie is not quite perfect. At a little over three hours, it could have used a little trimming. It has a couple of endings too many, and some gaps in continuity. (One scene depicts bar-hopping women hoping to “conquer” all of the astronauts, and the scene inexplicably cuts from John Glenn eyeing the women to Glenn lecturing his fellow astronauts on abstinence.)

But the movie is never less than engrossing, and if you can tolerate the machismo banter, it’s worth it to see a portrait of some flawed men who nevertheless had what it took to conquer space.

BLACK SNAKE MOAN (2007) – Pulp friction

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Black Snake Moan doesn’t begin to hide its trash origins; in fact, it embraces them. But the movie gets at something, and it does so far more effectively than a lot of higher-toned movies.

The movie’s premise at first seems hopeless. Rae (Christina Ricci) is an outrageous nymphomaniac. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) is a broken-down blues singer whose wife has just left him. One day, Lazarus finds Rae at the side of a road near his home, beaten and near death. He goes to town to get some medicine for Rae and finds out about her seedy reputation. Out of nowhere, Lazarus divines a cure for what ails Rae: He chains Rae to the radiator in his front room and, in essence, says that she won’t be released until her demons are expunged.

That premise alone is going to elicit at least two reactions from the movie’s potential audience. Feminists will carp about an older man passive-aggressively chaining up a woman because he thinks it’s for her own good. Then there are the lascivious men in the audience who will lick their lips and say, “Ooh, man! Christina Ricci in bondage!”

But surprisingly, once the movie gets past its sweaty, Southern Gothic beginning, the characters really start to unveil some interesting layers. Ricci takes what could have been a simple, tacky role and gives it some genuine depth. Her take on Rae reminds me of Jodie Foster in The Accused — showing a woman’s vulnerability in the face of her supposed worldliness and sexual voraciousness.

And Jackson, after sleepwalking through Snakes on a Plane, once again twitches with electricity. It’s as if his Bible-spouting hitman from Pulp Fiction suddenly got a mirror stuck in his face to show him that he has a few of his own demons to conquer.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Justin Timberlake is very effective as Rae’s erstwhile lover. “Law & Order’s” S. Epatha Merkerson is a sunny presence throughout, providing some joy to counter Jackson’s gravitas. And John Cothran Jr. takes a stereotypical role — a very preachy preacher — and turns it inside out. The scene where his character explains his concept of heaven is a metaphor for all of the movie’s characters — cutting through the guff and getting to what really matters.

At its center, Black Snake Moan is about an old codger condescending to save a young girl’s soul and realizing how much cleansing his own soul needs. The movie might not be as spirited as a homecoming revival, but it certainly is a blessed tonic to more pretentious movies with similar themes.

 

LITTLE MAN TATE (1991) – Amazing movie about an amazing child

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In her directorial debut Little Man Tate, Jodie Foster exhibits the same innate, glorious intelligence that she has personified so beautifully as an actress in movies such as The Accused and Contact. In her best movies, she comes across as a no-nonsense woman who is sometimes too blunt because she has no time or patience for social niceties. That approach works perfectly here, particularly in Foster’s supporting role as a single mom who is clueless about how to handle her prodigy-son.

The title character is played by Adam Hann-Byrd, who is one of those Hollywood rarities: a child actor who doesn’t give off the slightest sense that he’s acting. Fred, the child prodigy, is a genius, and of course, he is branded as a freak by his more average classmates because of this. Dianne Wiest plays a teacher who wants to encourage Fred by enrolling him in a summer course for such prodigies. Thanks to the teacher’s snooty attitude, Fred’s mom is immediately suspicious of her motives. But both women, through the film’s many trials of Fred, provide what he needs: the teacher provides the means for Fred to express himself with like-minded students; Fred’s mom provides his nurturing and love at all costs.

That includes making Fred unsympathetic at some points. One scene, a conversation between Fred and his mom, shows Fred belittling her for not being as smart as he is. Rather than letting Fred have it with a you-don’t-talk-like-that-to-your-mother speech, his mother sits there and takes it — not because she’s a wimp by any means, but because she knows that Fred is lashing out at not being accepted by his peers and she is, unhappily, his closest target. Their reconciliation scene is touchingly directed by Foster, too — the teacher tries to nose into their business one more time, realizes what’s happening, and backs off.

Those scenes, and many others, are so refreshing because they treat everyone in the movie, from Fred on down, like real people. Harry Connick Jr. plays a college-age student who sympathizes with and befriends Fred, and yet he and Fred also have a confrontation. Nobody in the movie is spared from being human (read: losing his/her temper, even with someone he/she loves). That alone makes the movie a rarity in mainstream films.

1991 was a beautiful year for female-directed movies, including Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides and this one. In fact, these two would make an ideal double feature. Just keep a generous supply of Kleenex nearby while watching them.