THE SPITFIRE GRILL1/2
Written and Directed by : Lee David Zlotoff
Main Cast : Alison Elliot (Percy Talbott), Ellen Burstyn (Hannah Ferguson), Marcia Gay Harden (Shelby Goddard) and Will Patton (Nahum Goddard)
Produced by : Castle Rock Entertainment
Length : 120 mins (approx.)
Rating : ** 1/2
Theatres : Shaw Theatres
Synopsis : Percy Talbott, a young woman just out of prison, tries to find new hope in a Main town called Gilead. She gets a job in the Spitfire Grill, a diner run by Hannah Ferguson. Percy almost manages to build a new life for herself but discovers her past is irreversible and cannot be erased. Events in Gilead take an unfortunate turn which leads to tragedy.
THE SPITFIRE GRILL is Zlotoff's first foray into a feature film after a successful career as the creator of the hit television series MACGYVER. Unlike MACGYVER's gadget-theatrical, THE SPITFIRE GRILL is a dramatic movie trying to portray the promises of renewal, the healing of guilt and pain and the discovery of new hope amidst numbing and hopeless indifference. Being a first film for Zlotoff, it is predictably a safe effort, packing in as many secure elements as possible.
One of these is the presence of Academy award winner Ellen Burstyn to lend dramatic weight to the film. But her character reads like the one she portrayed in HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT. She is by and large alternately grumpy or cheerful with only sprinklings of wistful sadness. Predominantly one-dimensional, it is impossible to endear her to the audience nor entirely dislike her. Undeveloped, she is difficult to identify with and harder to care for.
Zlotoff also garners the musical talent of James Horner, whose film credits with rousing scores is impressive and remarkable (BACKDRAFT, BRAVEHEART and APOLLO 13). In THE SPITFIRE GRILL, he does well to portray the film as understated and sensitive, a saving grace that combines effectively with the cinematography. Horner knows his work, and the cinematography is not overblown here with swells of the orchestra as he was meant to do in LEGENDS OF THE FALL. Rather, Horner and Robert Draper (Director of Photography) give THE SPITFIRE GRILL possibly one of its strongest assets- its breathtaking and uplifting visuals with a quieter and unaffected score. This effectively downplays the melodramatic potential of THE SPITFIRE GRILL and steers it away from swimming too indulgently in sentimentality (though eventually it does).
Beyond these, THE SPITFIRE GRILL still manages to hold its own as a movie. And this is despite the numerous clichÈs that run like portraits of characters you've read about before. Shelby Goddard is the conventional housewife under her husband's thumb, made to believe she is stupid and useless. But she learns to utilise her culinary skills and stands up to her husband after being in the inspirational company of Percy. Nahum Goddard is all-cruel, all-mean, all-suspicious and almost inexplicably so towards the sympathetic figure of Percy. Even the explanation that he has a chip on his shoulder (regarding a golden boy cousin Eli : another clichÈ that runs in the movie's backdrop) seems too convenient a reason. The rest of Gilead's townfolk are largely faceless and lack fleshing out. There is Joe Sperling (Kieron Mulroney) who tries to befriend Percy, but is too much a mouthpiece of good Maine-originated sense (Main is also where Stephen King lives!) and does not even become vaguely human enough by the conclusion of the film.
The one character who stands out above the entire cast is certainly Percy Talbott. Played with a quiet sensitivity that is at once attractive and identifiable, Alison Elliot's acting is the only one that draws sympathy. Elliot's features are stark and troubled, appearing to enclose both child and woman in a single uncertain entity. She is tenuous, bitter, frightened and yet emboldened with a sense of hope and renewal in Gilead. In one scene she even sings the hymn that the town name "Gilead" and the issue about the trees grown from stumps (and the healing properties of their bark) hint at from the outset : "There is a balm in Gilead that heals the weary soul, there is a balm is Gilead that makes the wounded whole". True enough, in a contrived metaphorical link, the tree stumps that have matured into trees are symbols of the town Gilead and Percy herself- all wounded and grown up, considered useless, yet with the potential to renew themselves.
All these combine quite readily into a credible film that is likeable but runs overly long because of indulgent story-telling and several disparate thematic strands to weave together. One of these is the mystery of the unidentified man who collects supplies from a sack outside the diner every night- a Zlotoff version of a town Boo Radley. Another is the mythic tale of Hannah's lost son "golden boy" Eli (not unlike Brad Pitt in A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT), who apparently perished in the Vietnam War and plunged Gilead into numbness and hopelessness. Yet another is the story of the tree stumps and the scientist who discovers the healing properties of their bark. However, Percy's tale somehow reels all these lines into a poignant story with good, solid and watchable themes. while at times clichÈd and overwrought, much of the film is technically well produced, if too indulgent.
For a first effort, Zlotoff has chosen the beaten path- which is not a crime, only a predictable foray into the film industry. THE SPITFIRE GRILL has many good elements and many average aspects, but it does finally deliver its message of renewal (after a long wait)- as the film achieves a vivid circularity of life, its end and its rebirth, defeat and then hope for new life. As the diner is sold to someone from out of town (as Percy was an outsider), Gilead is rejuvenated and reverses its numbness in cold Maine to a springtime of joy and exhilaration with life and healing.
It's worth a try if you're in the mood for a long show that is dramatic and sentimental... if not, it's much too indulgent to be fully enjoyed.
The Flying Inkpot Rating System:
* Wait for the TV2 broadcast.
** A little creaky, but still better than staying at home with Gotcha!
*** Pretty good, bring a friend.
**** Amazing, potent stuff.
***** Perfection. See it twice.
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