The Gumping of movies proceeds apace. Wendy Finerman, who co-produced Forrest Gump, has struck again with Fairytale: A True Story. Like that Oscar-winning celebration of mental deficiency, Fairytale is skillfully acted and richly mounted. And like its predecessor, it’s as dumb as a sack of doorknobs.
Screenwriter Ernie Contreras bases the film on a fascinating real-life incident. In the summer of 1917, at the height of the Great War, two young English girls produced photographs of fairies that they claimed to have snapped near a brook bordering Cottingley, their West Yorkshire village. Three years later, the mother of one of the girls took the photos to a Theosophical Society meeting. Subsequently, they were brought to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose article about them in Strand magazine sparked international debate over the authenticity of the images.
As most readers of this weekly probably know, fairies do not exist. In the early 1980s, the now-elderly shutterbugs admitted that they had faked the photographs using cardboard figures stuck to hatpins. Their confession is excluded from Contreras’ “true story”; only a single, unstressed shot of a nosy journalist fingering some pasteboard winged silhouettes hints at the fraudulence of the pictures. The movie’s mission is to reduce its audience to a pack of duped schoolchildren determined to save Tinkerbell with its redemptive applause. In playing viewers for chumps, Finerman and director Charles Sturridge miss the opportunity to create a truly magical movie about how children use their imaginations to sustain hope in the face of desolation.
One can’t fault the film’s performers. Thirteen-year-old Florence Hoath is endearing as Elsie Wright, a vulnerable girl distraught over the death of her older brother. Elizabeth Earl, a 10-year-old charmer with the volatile sensibility and craggily expressive face of a mini-Katrin Cartlidge, makes a smashing film debut as Elsie’s spunky cousin, Frances Griffiths, whose soldier-father is missing in France. Paul McGann and Phoebe Nicholls sympathetically portray Elsie’s parents, whose marriage is strained by their conflicting opinions about the veracity of the photographs, as is the friendship of Doyle (Peter O’Toole) and his skeptical chum, illusionist Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel). The production is as sumptuously detailed as Sturridge’s television miniseries Brideshead Revisited and his big-screen adaptations of A Handful of Dust and Where Angels Fear to Tread. Every frame is stuffed to overflowing with period furnishings and costumes, antique cars and trains, and post-Edwardian bric-a-brac.
What’s fatally wrong with the movie is that it equates gullibility and innocence, just as Forrest Gump promoted dimwittedness as virtue. Presented truthfully, the story of two unhappy children who create an imaginary world to assuage their feelings of loss could have been deeply affecting. (Val Lewton’s low-budget Curse of the Cat People memorably developed this theme a half-century ago.) But Fairytale can’t resist playing its audience for suckers. In several early sequences, the fairies are shown from an omniscient point of view, unambiguously verifying their existence. (Tim Webber’s pedestrian special effects make these sequences even harder to swallow. His buzzing, darting sprites look so much like swarming mosquitoes that one involuntarily reaches for a rolled-up newspaper.) Near the fadeout, after a cloying aerial ballet by the pesky winged critters, even the grown-ups start seeing them, thereby violating what minimal credibility the film manages to sustain.
The Gumpery that prompts more than half our nation’s population to asseverate its belief in angels reduces Fairytale: A True Story to a pack of superstitious lies. Photographing Fairies, another movie based on the same material, is scheduled for release later this year. Let’s hope that version has the brains and honesty to tell it as it was, and is.
Contempt for the viewer’s intelligence proves even more ruinous to Red Corner, a courtroom thriller set in contemporary Beijing. During the film’s hyperhackneyed climax, the audience at the public preview I attended burst into hoots of derision. Director Jon Avnet, whose Up Close and Personala brain-dead transformation of doomed anchorwoman Jessica Savitch’s life into the umpteenth tear-jerking remake of A Star Is Bornstank up theaters last year, has yet to meet a cliché too hoary for his embrace. Once again, a potentially gripping subject, an accomplished cast, and a handsome production fail to salvage a hopelessly inane screenplay.
Entertainment conglomerate attorney Jack Moore (Richard Gere) arrives in Beijing to negotiate a satellite communications deal with the Chinese government. (Apparently, this consists of peddling Beachsidea Baywatch cloneand other junk programming to that nation’s trash-starved populace.) After spending the night in his hotel room with a beautiful model he picks up in a disco, he is awakened by the police to discover that the woman is dead and her blood is smeared on his body (shades of Lost Highway). Accused of a murder he did not commit, he’s arrested and brought before the Kafkaesque Chinese judicial system. He’s offered leniency if he confesses but certain execution if he professes his innocence. Jack’s court-appointed defense lawyer Shen Yuelin (Bai Ling) urges him to enter a guilty plea, but he refuses. Imprisoned, forced to eat slop from dishes washed in his own piss, and brutally beaten by thugs in his cell, Jack struggles to figure out who framed him and why. In less than a week, he convinces Yuelin that he is guiltless and persuades her to gather evidence on his behalf.
I will reward any reader incapable of guessing the outcome of this plot with an order of double-cooked pork.
Hack screenwriter Robert King originally set his story in Russia but, due to a historical inconvenience, was forced to switch its locale to another Evil Empire while retaining all his Cold War platitudes. An opening shot of Tiananmen Square replaces the obligatory shot of the Kremlin. Apart from Yuelin and a few minor characters, the Chinese are depicted as inscrutably malevolent. Implausibility reigns. While handcuffed, Jack miraculously manages to elude his captors, run the entire length of Beijing without being apprehended, and force his way into the American embassy. Under Jack’s influence, Yuelin overnight repudiates her hitherto unquestioning faith in the Chinese legal system and begins spouting cornball anti-commie dialogue (“I do not wish to be silent any more….We have lived in silence too long”). The incoherent climactic courtroom sequence would strain even a dunce’s credulity; the befuddled presiding magistrate makes Judge Ito look like Thurgood Marshall. After two emetically banal romantic epilogues, viewers are likely to stagger from the theater in a state resembling MSG overload.
Temperamentally ill-suited to projecting sincerity and injured innocence, Gere does not disgrace himself, but he fails to reach the inspired heights of his hard-edged performances in Internal Affairs and Primal Fear. With her delicate, Audrey Hepburnlike beautybangs, a swan neck, limpid eyesLing makes a much stronger impression, though it must not have been easy for this clearly intelligent woman to enunciate King’s mortifying dialogue. The film’s most impressive achievement is Richard Sylbert’s resourceful production design. Denied permission to film in China, Sylbert creates a wholly plausible Beijing by combining large-scale interior sets built on Hollywood sound stages with guerrilla-shot 35mm Chinese footage and computer-generated matings of color photographs and live action.
Only marginally more informative about Eastern politics and culture than Buddy Hackett’s ancient Chinese waiter routine (“Yea, rady, tea an lice cum flee”), Red Corner will not be exhibited in China for obvious reasons and is unlikely to strengthen the U.S.’s halfhearted efforts to bolster human rights and freedom of expression in that nation. What, then, is the raison d’être for this ideological cartoon? My hunch is that it’s Gere’s crudely propagandistic revenge for China’s invasion of Tibet and the suppression of his pal the Dalai Lama. If I’m correct, this movie reinforces my conviction that people who believe in spiritual gurus, fairies, angels, God, and other forms of voodoo should not be entrusted with attending to the exigencies of the here and now.CP