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The Spitfire Grill

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Spitfire Grill

Starring: Alison Elliott, Ellen Burstyn
Director: Lee David Zlotoff
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 116 Minutes
Release Date: January 1996
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Marcia Gay Harden, Will Patton, Kieran Mulroney, Gailard Sartain, Louise De Cormier, John M. Jackson

Review by Steve Rhodes
2 stars out of 4

THE SPITFIRE GRILL is a sometimes delightful, but all too often disappointing fable. At its best, it is a morality tale with some touching characters and a magical setting. I hate to report that the directing and the script by Lee David Zlotoff is uneven and unconvincing. THE SPITFIRE GRILL serves to both mesmerize and to frustrate its audience. This is a shame since at its heart it is such a sweet little story. I should say that I never found the movie overly sentimental for which it has been so heavily criticized. It has also become a needlessly controversial film in the press, but more on that later in the review.

Talented actress Alison Elliott plays inmate Percy Talbot. Percy is one of the women in the Maine Tourist Information Bureau's phone bank in the prison. Percy is just finishing up her time for murder, and the warden has arranged for her to get a job in the small and busybody town of Gilead, Maine. This a cliched little village where everybody maintains the right to know and comment on everyone else's business. I am not sure if towns like this actually exist, but it is easy enough to suspend disbelief and assume that they do.

As Percy approaches Gilead, it is a quintessential Normal Rockwell hamlet. Bathed in the evening glow of Robert Draper's cinematography is clump of houses and a white church with the canonical tall steeple. James Horner's (APOLLO 13 and BRAVEHEART) music is mystical - full of flutes and harps. Thus is the audience set up for a deeply felt and moving cinematic experience which this pictures only partially fulfills.

Percy goes to work at the SPITFIRE GRILL owned and operated by senior citizen Hannah Ferguson (Ellen Burstyn). Burstyn plays the only completely developed character and is the only actor who delivers an entirely convincing performance. This is a role that is usually done with gushing sentimentality. Here Burstyn transforms her character into a tough old bird with more resilience than heart. Typical of this is when she tells her nephew and the picture's poorly cast villain Nahum Goddard (Will Patton) that "Until I forget my name or start drooling at the mouth, I'll thank you to let me make my own decisions."

Joe Sperling (Kieran Mulroney) stops by one day at the grill and begins to fall for Percy. Since she claims to be from Ohio, but has a strong and vaguely Southern accent, he tells her, "You sound like you're from the South." She mysteriously informs him that, "Things ain't always what they sound."

In a supporting role full of rarely realized potential Marcia Gay Harden plays Nahum's wife Shelby. She goes to work at the grill to help Percy when it is discovered that Percy's cooking is inedible. Shelby and Percy band together as friends against adversity. Harden's acting range consists of various sad smiles.

Perpetually morose Percy keeps describing herself as being poor white trash. If she is, then she gives poor white trash a good name. She works hard in the grill and even develops a scheme to help Hannah finally sell the grill which she has been attempting to do for the last ten years. Other than her smoking and the slight problem of having killed someone, of course with good reason, Percy is close to sainthood. She even helps out the mysterious homeless person that appears late every night.

In case, you haven't realized it by now, this movie is bursting at the seams with mysteries. A few are interesting, but most are lame. In the characterizations of Hannah and Percy is where the show comes alive and demands to be seen. The other ingredients serve only to bog down a promising story.

As the movie gets to full steam in the middle, the music and the cinematography open up. They move from the mystical beginnings to settings and sounds of grandeur. By the end of the film they come full circle and are back to the intimate. Both of these technical elements of the picture work well.

The ending is one of my favorite parts of the film. It follows the more hard hitting aspects of the premise of the movie that so often gets lost in its development. Suffice it to say, that it is not your typical happy ending.

Before I close, I must comment on all of the controversy in the press surrounding the funding of the film. The shocking truth is that some Catholic nuns provided some of the money. They were looking to find a picture with morals that they approved of, and this film had them. Why this causes people such anguish, I have no idea. In film after film Hollywood ridicules religion and the church. If you see someone in religious robes in a movie, you immediately begin to suspect him since most scripts have him be a killer, a child molester, an alcoholic or run a cult. THE SPITFIRE GRILL avoids discussions of religion and the only church in town is abandoned so the pro-religious aspects of this picture are dramatically less than anti-religious ones of most other films.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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