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Overall Rating
2.71

Awesome: 14.29%
Worth A Look: 14.29%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad71.43%
Total Crap: 0%

2 reviews, 9 user ratings


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Spitfire Grill, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Dreadfully Obvious Melodrama"
2 stars

After spying the talented and beautiful Alison Elliott in a previous supporting role, I was excited over her making her starring debut. Too bad her considerable talent is totally wasted here.

The Spitfire Grill would have been a much livelier entertainment had it abandoned its over-inflated, emotionally "epic" proportions and just told a believable story. Writer/director Lee David Zlotoff is so utterly determined to manipulate the audiences' hearts that he overlooks the main flaw in his overall conception: the material and characters aren't worth engaging in, so our heartstrings can't be tugged at without earned access to our emotions. The story premise of The Spitfire Grill is stale stuff from the get-go, and Zlotoff hasn't done much to enliven or deepen the with valid dramatics and story enlightenment. The story? Well, let's just see if this spins any heads in a disarrayed state of simulative wonder: A young misunderstood young woman arrives in a small town where her unusual presence elicits doubts and undue suspicion upon her. On top of this, through her innocent nature, she'll defrost some rather cold heart and contribute a newfound sense of social responsibility to this town of very little change. If this comes off as tiredly familiar, you can rest assured that the execution of the material isn't any better.

The lovely and talented Alison Elliott stars a Percy, who has just been released from a correctional facility in Maine. As required by her parole conditions, she arrives in the nearest town and makes immediate contact with the local sheriff; Percy's resources are pretty much nil being that she has no family, no money, or a place to stay. The sheriff is sympathetic to her situation and arranges a job for her at the town cafe, The Spitfire Grill (hence title), and the owner (Ellen Burstyn) accepts her services in exchange for free room and board. Everything seems to be going along fine, but this is Movieland, folks, where everyday happenstances that wouldn't ordinarily cause so much as a raised eyebrow get blown up into laughably majestic proportions. The cafe's regulars (which seems to include just about all of the citizens in this postage-stamp-size town) can't take their eyes off Percy. She dresses in normal clothing and doesn't do anything to attract attention, yet there are so many pairs of eyes locked onto her you'd think she were serving pancakes in the buff. This stale cliche is so blatantly stupid that it comes as quite the relief when Percy stands her ground by shouting to the customers that she just got out of prison and they can now go back to their meals in peace. (It's as if Percy, acting as Zlotoff's alter ego, were slapping him for the stale conventions of the previous scene.) It's a bad sign when a filmmaker tries to attach an unconvincing label onto a character just to create a plot gimmick for suspicion to be used later on down the line -- it reeks of premature contrivance.

And it doesn't take long for the contrivances to arrive on their scheduled time. For instance, you know the moment we're introduced to the owner's shy daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) that Percy's "unbiased nature" will act as a catalyst for purging the daughter's insecurities away and transform her into a strong-willed woman. Of course, it doesn't help that the usually-unbearable actor Will Patton (of No Way Out) plays her restrictive husband. Another dreary subplot involves a mysterious man who comes to the diner after hours to collect food that the owner leaves out for him. Of course, Percy will become intrigued by him, follow him, and discover the grand "relevance" he's supposed to represent. And it all leads up to a sloppily constructed conclusion where Percy is accused of a crime she didn't commit and is forced to flee from the law. (Yes, I involuntarily groaned the instant I saw that damn stash of money.) The three actresses work hard to establish some sort of sensibility to their roles, but they've been directed to all but sublimate their acting instincts to fuse with a fuzzy dramatic core. These talented women are relegated to portraying facile concepts, not flesh-and-blood characters, and the lack of valid emotionalism leaves them stranded. Be that as it may, they're still viably watchable and each has the occasional inspired moment. Harden, who gave an uninhabited, riveting performance in the quirky New Zealand import Crush, is stuck with playing a stereotypical introvert. The role definitely defeats her, but she still manages to get a few positive licks in with sheer acting imagination. And Burstyn succeeds at projecting some stoic homegrown decency without italicizing it. Unfortunately, Alison Elliott suffers the most. She proved herself a volatile talent in films such as the underrated Steven Soderburgh-directed neo-noir thriller The Underneath and the riveting HBO docudrama Indictment: The McMartin Trial. Here, functioning as the physical emblem of the film's theme, she's forced to animate herself in the numerous close-ups in trying to emit a naturalness/undiluted-by-social-norms aura that only succeeds in making her look doughy-eyed. Elliott is able to glide over a few of the pretensions -- she makes her presence known -- but not enough to display front and center the vibrancy she's more than capable of.

Director Zlotoff has taken much care in blanketing the film with the same 'ol uninviting atmosphere the town-folk exude: the cinematography is so dedicated to shrouding the exteriors with dense clouds and mist that eyeglass wearers might be tempted to give theirs a good cleaning. The color logistics of the photography are lazily conceived -- the predominating grayness is intended to reflect that of the emotional texture like in the old Westerns where the villains were easily identifiable by being clad in black outfits. Zlotoff's limited imagination is running on empty, with his directorial instincts dried up and evaporated. The pacing is dreadfully slow while the scenes slog forth without an iota of tempo; it's not enough for Zlotoff to put the actresses through this molasses pit, but us as well? The Spitfire Grill is undoubtedly a bad film even though Elliott carries off the opening passages with unforced grace. Every time something positive threatens to happen there's always some numbskull contrivance sprouting up that's been telegraphed zip codes ahead of time. There's nothing worse than wanting to give your heart to a film and being shut out by the same techniques being taken to lure you in. Zlotoff alienates the audience by talking down to them in terms of common and behavioral sense; every mood and emotion is magnified for us by the angelic close-ups and syrupy score, so the viewers aren't given the leeway to have an honest emotion. And when Percy's final path to her tragic destination has been earmarked by Zlotoff's bumbling sensibility you might find a greater sense of hostility towards a filmmaker than ever before. Percy's fate isn't even remotely worthy of her, and the solemn superiority to which Zlotoff executes the scene is all the more enraging for being so stupidly conceptualized. It's one thing for a filmmaker to try and pass himself off as God, but it's a cinematic crime to inflict unjustifiable malice on an appealing heroine just so all the hokum can fall neatly into an idiot's sardonic schema of right and wrong.

Skip it.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=510&reviewer=327
originally posted: 10/14/07 01:55:05
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User Comments

4/27/14 PAUL SHORTT PREDICTABLE, CLICHED MELODRAMA DESPITE GOOD PERFORMANCES 2 stars
1/25/11 Quigley Elliott gives an utterly poignant performance; not to be missed, despite predictable story 5 stars
6/09/05 Agent Sands Just your average mid-90s earthy heartwarmer. Burstyn stands out. 4 stars
1/03/05 D Fantastic movie, heartwarming at the least 5 stars
3/19/03 Jack Sommersby Cliche-ridden and mean-spirited. Elliot, though, is luminous and superb. 2 stars
3/30/02 Teresa A story worth watching. 4 stars
5/22/99 Mrs. Moviegoer Great movie. Definitely worth renting. 5 stars
8/29/98 Mister Whoopee Alison Elliott aside, there's nothing in this film to like. T'was icky. 2 stars
8/26/98 Pete I found this flick watchable. Yet, I can't explain why. I did like Alison Elliott 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  30-Jan-1996 (PG-13)
  DVD: 07-Dec-1999

UK
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