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


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.


It’s the Great Pumpkin, blog readers!


For the 52nd(!) year in a row, the delightful “Peanuts” special “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” is being broadcast tonight (8 p.m. EST on ABC). There’s not much I can add to the half-century of praise this charming half-hour has received and deserved. In fact, The AV Club has said it better than I ever could — click here to read their review/tribute/plug of the show. And embedded below is the original promo for the special from 1966, when it initially aired on CBS. (And remember, it’s “When the Great Pumpkin comes,” not “If.”)



10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (1999) – Let me count the ways


Seven things I hated about 10 Things I Hate About You:

1. The movie’s gimmick is that Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) is barred by her hermetic father Walter (Larry Miller in yet another thankless role) from going on a date until Bianca’s sister Katarina (Julia Stiles) decides to ever date a man. That seems pretty unlikely, given that Katarina is a male-hating, insult-spouting bundle of neurosis. Somebody involved in the movie thinks this is an original character, but I saw About Last Night… (1986), in which Elizabeth Perkins played the same sort of self- and man-hating hag. We’re meant to feel sorry for this kind of character because she’s been so hurt that she lashes out at the world in spite. Personally, I feel that this sort of character gets what she deserves.

2. The movie thinks it’s clever just by doing hip updates of William Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew. What a pity that this movie is readily available on video, and episodes of the 1980’s TV series “Moonlighting” are not. “Moonlighting” did a killer take on Shrew that had more laughs in the opening credits than are in this entire movie.

3. Updating Shakespeare to modern-day high school is a nice concept, but the movie’s script never develops the concept any further. Instead, it does a lot of dumb sitcom-like jokes to curry favor with the teenaged viewers most likely to rent this movie. In fact, I’d be amazed to see any high school in America that is run like the one in the movie. The teachers regularly curse out the students and get no reprisals for it. Sure!!

4. Allison Janney (later to do far better in TV’s “The West Wing” and “Mom”) here plays a horny guidance counselor who spends most of her job-time writing a dirty novel on her laptop.

5. The Walter character is a beaut. Two daughters, and he barely lets either of them experience the real world. When one of the girls actually is allowed to go out, Walter insists she wear a “pregnancy suit” to remind herself of the dangers of sex. And that leads to…

6. There isn’t an event that isn’t motivated by anything other than the urge to get a cheap, sitcom-type laugh. The guy (Heath Ledger) who eventually woos and wins Katarina can’t just sing a song to Katarina — he persuades the high school band to back him up. Never mind that most high school bands need weeks of practice just to do a simple half-time-show number. And when Katarina wants to divert a teacher’s attention in order to get her guy out of trouble, she flashes her breasts at the teacher in front of an entire class. Don’t tell me that either Katarina’s action or the teacher’s reaction wouldn’t send the local school board into apoplexy.

7. Two women, Karen McCullough Lutz and Kirsten Smith, are credited as the screenwriters for this tripe, proving that females in Hollywood can sell out as easily as males do.

One thing I do like about this movie is the climactic scene where Bianca and her boyfriend are challenged by the local macho student, and it looks like the typical “two guys fighting for the girl’s honor” scene. Instead, Bianca takes matters into her own hands and decks Mr. Macho. In a movie with a supposedly feminist slant, this is the only scene that smacks of modern-day reality.

ARBUCKLE & KEATON, VOL. 1 (2001) – Comedy compilation more historical than hysterical

(To Lea at the delightful silent-film blog Silent-ology: Sorry for the following sacrilege.)
Kino Video probably issued the Arbuckle and Keaton, Vol. 1 DVD based on the strength of Kino’s earlier, mostly flawless Buster Keaton compilations. And in spite of this DVD touting some short subjects of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle at the height of his fame, Keaton remains the DVD’s main draw — at least, for me.

The story goes that in the late 1910’s, Arbuckle was America’s second-most-popular comedian, bowing only to Charlie Chaplin. When Arbuckle met up with Buster Keaton, he recognized Keaton’s comedy strengths and debuted Keaton in his movies as an ever-reliable sidekick.

Yet based on the evidence shown here, Keaton in even secondary roles was someone to keep an eye on, while Arbuckle’s appeal has assuredly diminished over the years. Unlike Chaplin or the solo Keaton, Arbuckle has little of a persona to fall back on. One can imagine how Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Keaton’s Stone Face would react in a given situation. But Arbuckle seems to change his stripes whenever any gag, in or out of character, presents itself. About the only persona that emerges for Fatty is that he’s…well, fat.

And the plotlines, concocted mostly by Arbuckle, are just as arbitrary as his character. The short The Bellboy (1918) begins in a hotel and segues strangely to a bank that’s being robbed. The Butcher Boy (1917, and Keaton’s film debut) begins in a grocery store and switches to a girls’ boarding school.

But unlike Arbuckle, who all but winks at the audience in an attempt to win their love, Keaton plays straight no matter the situation and scores points all around. Out West (1918) presents Keaton as a barroom gunslinger, and just by force of personality, he makes you believe it. And heaven knows, nobody could take a fall or elaborate a simple gag better than Buster.

Arbuckle’s hoary stories are not helped by racist humor (in Out West, barroom bullies shoot at the feet of a frightened black man, and Arbuckle goes right along with the bullies) and by musical accompaniment (by “The Alloy Orchestra,” according to liner notes) that rates as Kino’s worst.

Anyone with an interest in Buster Keaton’s humble film origins might want to give this a look. Silent-film buffs might be drawn in initially but will most likely lose interest about halfway through.

Spike Lee’s 4 LITTLE GIRLS (1997) – Powerful documentary about violence against race


4 Little Girls is a remarkably clear-eyed telling of an incendiary tale — how four young black girls, ages 11 to 14, were killed in a 1963 bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
I hesitate to compare 4 Little Girls to Schindler’s List, and yet it has that same quality of being a restrained, dignified recounting of an emotional incident. Spike Lee had been wanting to tell this story since before he became a noted filmmaker, and Lee brings all of his remarkable talents to bear. The movie is not flashy, just quietly gripping.
Lee frames the incident within the bigger picture of the Southern civil rights movement, particularly as it took place within an inflamed Birmingham. We see the town’s police commissioner, Bull Connor — described by one interviewee as “the dark spirit of Birmingham” — keeping order in town while driving a tank painted white, an image that is sure to bring gasps to those who aren’t familiar with the full story (which, I humbly admit, included me). And we see a repentant Gov. George Wallace, dragging a reluctant black colleague on camera so that Wallace can introduce him as “my best friend in the world.” (Notably, the “friend” looks quite unconvinced.)
It is that Wallace footage that might seem the most showy in a documentary otherwise bereft of editorializing. But it seems right to include the footage after seeing how the segregationist tactics of Wallace and others led indirectly to the deaths of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley. Using little more than home movies and interviews with surviving family members, Lee brings the dead girls back to life and shows us that, when racial stereotypes are accepted and even honored, individual tragedies are the result.
Mostly, the story is told through simple, heartbreaking facts. Chris McNair tells us of the day he had to explain to his daughter Denise how she was taken by the aroma of a cooking hamburger at a lunch counter but could not eat there because she was black. And the film comes full circle by pointing out the inexplicable resurgence of black church bombings in the 1990’s.
Most of the victims’ relatives, understandably, become quite emotional on-camera. It can’t have been easy to reopen these old wounds, but 4 Little Girls makes you grateful that they endured their pain to do it. I only wish the movie had been up for Best Picture, as it is worth a dozen L.A. Confidential‘s.

THE COLOR HONEYMOONERS (2008) – Baby, they’re not the greatest

(Time-Life Video has released a DVD set of episodes from the 1960’s era of The Jackie Gleason Show. Although I’m a long-time Gleason fan, I have no desire to purchase the set, even though it contains [as trumpeted in the DVD’s PR] “seven ‘Honeymooners’ episodes not seen in 50 years!”
That’s because I’ve seen The Color Honeymooners, a set released in 2008 that showcased a nine-episode arc in which the Kramdens and the Nortons — portrayed in the ’60s by Gleason, Art Carney, Sheila MacRae, and Jane Kean — go on an unexpected trip to Europe. These eps were actually my introduction to “The Honeymooners” when I was a kid — but viewing them decades later, I found they hadn’t aged nearly as well as the “Classic 39” episodes from 1955-56.
Here’s my review of The Color Honeymooners. [NOTE: If you are interested in purchasing the Time-Life set, it contains “Honeymooners” segments that are from the same era but completely separate from those on the Color set.)
These segments from Jackie Gleason’s CBS variety show in 1966 are hour-long, musical (!) “Honeymooners” segments in which the Kramdens and the Nortons win a trip to Europe and have various adventures. (These are actually color remakes of musical episodes that were performed on Gleason’s variety show a decade before.) While I enjoyed these episodes well enough, I nevertheless get the impression that this is where Gleason’s comedic style, as with Lucille Ball’s in the 1960’s, started to calcify.

The black-and-white “Honeymooners” seems more “authentic,” if you will — you really get the sense that this is a couple barely making ends meet. By contrast, in the color eps, you can see Gleason and Carney really playing to the crowd. Every time a familiar bit of shtick comes, the audience goes crazy — a precursor of the whooping and hollering yahoos you hear on live-audience sitcoms these days.

And in the B&W eps, Gleason is far more believable as a pale, manic, barely-getting-by bus-driver. It’s kind of hard to identify with the Kramdens when each episode begins with a splashy production number, and once-pale Ralph sports a Miami tan.

Lastly, some of the writing is a bit open-ended, such as the episode where Kramden and Norton fall off their cruise ship and end up stranded at sea. (SPOILER ALERT)  In one scene, they’re in a lifeboat; in the next and final scene, there’s a quick wrap-up where their rescue is barely mentioned. They get all sorts of press coverage for their European trip and hardly anyone even notices a rescue at sea?

As replacements for Joyce Randolph (as Trixie Norton) and Audrey Meadows (as Alice Kramden), respectively, Jane Kean is acceptable enough, but Sheila MacRae is wildly off the mark. She’s not nearly the non-pushover that Meadows was, playing Alice far too much for pathos. That works in scenes such as the one where Alice befriends an Italian child, but not when she has to stand up to Ralph. (An unintended laugh comes at the capper of one of the episodes, where Gleason tries to do a “Baby, you’re the greatest!” moment and can barely get his arms around the full-figured MacRae.)

This is nit-picking, I know, especially for die-hard “Honeymooners” completists who want everything they can get their hands on. (The familiar character traits still earn laughs, as when Ed Norton [Carney] comes back from a visit to the Roman Colosseum and tells Ralph, “Don’t bother going there — the place is falling apart!”) Still, some of these sore points make the Color Honeymooners run a distant second to the “Classic 39” in terms of writing, acting, and production.

ROCKY BALBOA (2006) – Welcome back, Rocky


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.