more movies

Two more movie reviews. The second contains a number of spoilers, because I propose a theory about the movie and cite evidence in support of it.

Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth

During a conversation about movies the other day, mentioned that his favorite is LOCAL HERO. It prompted me to think hard about why I had always given it a miss. I had many chances to see it on cable during the 1980s — I think it must have been a favorite of someone who worked at Cinemax, because I seem to recall them giving it lots of promotion as a special pick, or as part of their sleeper series, or something like that. It was also on in fairly heavy rotation for a while there, and I would catch bits of it here and there, but the pace of it seemed too slow, and I never managed to get into it. It was like having a book recommended to you, but every time you pick it up you read the same few pages over again and find yourself putting it down.

However, it occurred to me that I would probably enjoy it if I watched it now, with some more years in me and a broader appreciation of slower paced movies and quirky comedies. So, I rented it, and sure enough, I found it to be charming and funny.

The story is about a guy (Peter Riegert) who works at a Houston oil company that wants to turn a few miles of land on the coast of Scotland into the site of a refinery. Riegert is dispatched to the small village to work out a deal to buy the land from the locals for a handsome sum. The locals play it sly and cool, but secretly they're all ecstatic that they're going to become millionaires overnight.

Overall, LOCAL HERO reminds me a lot of other tiny-UK-village-with-eccentric- locals comedies I've seen (and enjoyed) through the years, like WAKING NED DIVINE and THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL AND CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN, and so forth. This movie has the added mix of eccentric Americans (both Riegert and his astronomy-obsessed boss, played by Burt Lancaster), and strange bits of magical realism (hm, that's probably not the right term): sights in the skies at night, and a truly beautiful young woman who may or may not be a mermaid.

It's a small town, so everyone works various different jobs. The proprietor of the hotel and the owner of the bar is also the accountant who is the spokesman for the town in the negotiations with the oil company. I kept thinking the actor playing this guy looked familiar, and I had to slap myself in the forehead when I saw in the credits that he was good old Dennis Lawson, "Wedge" from the Star Wars movies (and Ewan MacGregor's uncle, incidentally).

The movie has a sweet, light tone, and is full of funny bits that build up over time, and some that become more apparent on repeat viewings. There is a bittersweet coda, but I thought it was a really terrific way to end the movie. We follow Riegert all the way home to his apartment in muggy old Houston. By now he's been thoroughly enchanted by his short stay in Scotland, has unrequitedly fallen in love with the hostess at the hotel, and has filled his pockets with shells lovingly collected from tidepools. Having now been on a few trips to wonderful places in the world and returned to a home I wasn't sure I liked as much any more, I thought this quiet ending was very effective. There's one more thing after this that caps it all off with a wink, but if you haven't seen it, I'll let you watch it for yourself.

LOCAL HERO is a movie where you can feel affection for every single character in it, and there are really no bad guys, and there's a happy ending but not for everybody, because life is a little more complicated than that. It's a bad place to be a rabbit with ambitions, anyway.

My only quibble: the unconvincing Texas accent by a disk jockey during the opening credits, which is more of a Southern twang than a Texas drawl. Nobody else would notice this or care.

Anybody who says that this is their favorite movie has very good taste. Recommended for everybody.

Viewed on: 08-02-04

Directed by Steven Spielberg

The scenario: a man (Tom Hanks) arrives at JFK airport and is unable to leave, either by stepping foot onto U.S. soil or by boarding a plane back to the Eastern European country where he came from, for a year or so. This is vaguely based on a real-life incident, but mostly the facts are jettisoned in favor of inventive set-pieces that mine the premise for comedy (and a little pathos).

The first time I saw this sweet movie confection, I mainly just let it carry me along without stopping to analyze it too much. As I often am these days, I was delighted just to witness Spielberg's total fluency as a filmmaker, someone who knows cinema backwards and forwards, and can pull off ridiculously complicated things that general audiences wouldn't stop to find remarkable. He's my favorite director, and I always tended to regard him as having an innate talent and voice for filmmaking the way Mozart had with music. He was a young prodigy, but now he's well into middle age, still developing and going through changes. The strong stylistic tendencies of his early work have softened, and in this movie, like his last (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN), we can watch him having fun with lighthearted material.

Anyway, that was my general reaction the first time I watched it. I had a few problems with the way the movie ended; after a lot of build up, a lot of things happened a little too fast, and a main subplot seemed to kind of pizzle away. I wasn't sure what to make of that.

I waited several weeks and then went to see it again. This time, it was enormously more entertaining than it was the first time, because a few minutes into the movie I had a sudden and dramatic idea about what Spielberg and Hanks were up to. It was subtle enough that I missed it the first time, but once I started watching with this in mind, winking evidence to back it up piled so high that I was rather beside myself at having figured it out, because it made every scene more fun.

The idea came to me while I was watching the scene where Hanks is exploring the airport terminal for the first time, and catches a news broadcast about the upheaval in his home country — the source of his being stuck, since it invalidates his passport. For a moment I wondered why Hanks seemed to be almost overplaying the emotion of it. He races from television to television, unable to understand English well enough to make out what is going on, unable to speak English well enough to get anyone to help him. He looks stricken, nearly in tears, just so absolutely fraught that I wondered about the acting choice to play it up so melodramatically. There was a moment when it reminded me of silent film acting — which, owing to the language barrier, it basically was.

Then for fun, I pictured Hanks as having a little mustache and a derby, and it was like all of the tumblers clicked into place and the vault door sprang open. The movie was a Charlie Chaplin homage. Not, like I said, an overt one. If they'd put a mustache on him, it would have been obvious (or more obvious). And it doesn't cover the whole movie — the last 45 minutes or so don't really fit this theory so much. However, the first hour of the movie seemed rife with evidence that Spielberg and Hanks had decided together to make a Chaplin homage, Hanks with his acting, and Spielberg with his directing, and that they would do this very quietly, for their own amusement.

Once upon a time, Charlie Chaplin made a movie called THE IMMIGRANT, which was about immigrants coming to the U.S. and having run-ins with the immigration authority. And now we have THE TERMINAL (the title of the movie now seemed more appropriate, too, what with Chaplin having made dozens of movies titled “The [something]”), which has a different plot but a similar-enough premise.

So here's Hanks in his little brown suit, with his rather funny waddling walk. I didn't even notice how odd his gait was the first time, but now I was seeing that it was definitely not a normal looking walk. It's not the Tramp's walk, but it suggests it. There are shots in the movie of Hanks's feet, showing him standing with his feet splayed sideways — but I suspect I might be reading too much into that. However, there is the outright slapstick of full-bodied pratfalls, the kind you don't see anymore. where both feet fly out from under you and you land on your back. (Both Hanks's and Catherine Zeta-Jones's characters make these pratfalls.)

Significantly, Hanks shows himself adapting to circumstance by being enormously resourceful, a definite Little Tramp trait. In fact, speaking of that, what really had me believing that I was reading this movie correctly was that the first big challenge that Hanks's character overcomes is that he's hungry but has no money. Hunger is pretty much an archetypal Chaplin problem. Hanks doesn't eat his shoes, but he does show some ingenuity in fashioning sandwiches from free condiments. Then he hits on a means of earning money, a quarter at a time, by returning luggage trolleys to their holding rack, and soon he's feasting to his heart's content.

This trait of adaptability plays out in other ways. For Hanks, like Chaplin's Tramp, home is wherever you are, as long as you pretend it is. He begins to change an under-construction wing of the terminal into living quarters, fashioning a bed from terminal seating, a refrigerator from a vending machine, and so on.

More gags that reminded me of Chaplin: on his first night in his makeshift bed, Hanks is startled awake by a furious noise and the hot blare of spotlights behind him. His arms shoot into the air in a gesture of surrender. It turns out to be just an airplane taxiing away from the gate outside, a classic silent comedy visual gag. While collecting racks to earn change, he unceremoniously dumps onto the floor a couple of kids who are riding around in a cart. I laughed at that the first time, but the second time it reminded me of how children were not delicate creatures in slapstick comedies. They were tough little things to be thrown around, getting laughs just because of our inverted expectations about manhandling them. (When I mentioned this theory to a friend of mine, he pointed out that it was surprising to him to see children being treated so roughly in a Spielberg movie, so he was amused that I had a theory to explain the discrepancy.)

After a while, I started even hearing John Williams's tumpty-tumpty musical score as being reminiscent of the music Chaplin composed for his own films. At the very least, the score is not an argument against this theory. I am also reminded that the movie was shot, not in a real airport, but in an enormous set built specifically for the movie, with several stories connected by working escalators. There's a wonderful documentary about Chaplin (THE UNKNOWN CHAPLIN, narrated by James Mason) that delves into Chaplin's methods of working. At a certain point in his career, he wielded so much power and had access to so much money and resources, that he could make up his movies from scratch, trying things, throwing them away, trying other variations, going back to earlier ideas but in a refined way. At each of these stages, a construction crew would build full sets (including working escalators, if Chaplin wanted to play around with one), only to tear them down and build something else, only to rebuild what they had before when he changed his mind again. I don't think anyone since has had this kind of ability to order things to be built just to play around with, but the construction of this vast airport set just because Spielberg wanted to make this movie reminded me of that.

There is one joke near the end of the movie that is more of a Buster Keaton gag. A guy brandishing a mop runs out onto the tarmac, and appears to stop a jumbo jet in its tracks by swatting at its front wheel. Keaton had a gag he liked to pull (I don't think it's in any of his movies, I saw it in a documentary about him) where he appeared to stop a freight train by yanking gently on the end of the caboose, then set it in motion again, backwards, with a second tug. He did this by having experience with the timing of trains coming to a stop and backing up, and it was just in the timing. Even though this joke with the jet plane seems like the kind of thing they'd do with computer graphics, I can bet you that, in fact, we are watching an undoctored take of an actor with a mop and a real plane, and just the perfect timing of a swat at the wheel with the plane coming to rest. There's really no reason for this action to be in the movie except that Spielberg wanted to do it for fun. However, it's the kind of movie that allows for little bits of random fun.

When I got home from the movie this second time, I immediately did a Google search on “Spielberg The Terminal Chaplin,” and found a quote from Spielberg where he said that this movie was fun because it gave Tom Hanks an opportunity to do Charlie Chaplin stuff. I win!

If you go see THE TERMINAL, you might keep this in mind, but remember what I said about how it doesn't really hold up for the entire movie. I do think I'm right that it works as a quiet homage.

Viewed on: 06-18-04, 07-12-04

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