The Terminal (2004)

 

RB score:  10/10

“The Terminal” is a movie that should have been nominated for and maybe won an Academy award or two.  I am perpetually mystified that it did not.    There is much in this movie to appreciate, starting of course with Tom Hanks as the displaced traveler Viktor (from the fictitious Krakohzia) forced to subsist in the international terminal at JFK until his situation can be sorted out….. and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Amelia, the world weary international flight attendant.  The relationship between them is not itself the main storyline but rather a thread in the fabric that does not overwhelm the more all-encompassing themes of the movie.  That thread is played out with subtlety and echoes life more than art.  Count that as being among the film’s many charms.  Actually, 2 such threads, help to keep this movie out of generic romcom land, resulting from some nice performances;  Zoe Saldana, the Immigrations officer along with charismatic Diego Luna as the airport catering van driver who has been admiring her from afar.  In The Terminal, the most prominent theme has to do with humanity vs. bureaucracy.

 

Ridiculous as the bureaucracy might seem, bureaucracy in real life, certainly in the airport setting, often is that way.  To that end,  Stanley Tucci as the Customs official plays an especially keen antagonist.   He’s an interesting element as the chief villain; one who is not an inherently bad person and not a bad guy according to any movie stereotype.   It’s about his character, often seen in the real world,  having more ambition than compassion yet not devoid of the latter. He is limited by his identification with his role at the airport, to the point where he recognizes humanity in others, but either doesn’t know  or doesn’t care what is lacking in his own soul.   Other supporting cast members similarly avoid stereotype and make up a well played ensemble including then-85 year old Indian actor, Kumar Pallana.  Pallana is an amazing dose of humanity in this world.   Without giving any spoilers, he owns every scene where he appears, including that one that is the true apex in the storyline.

 

The international flavor of the cast dovetails beautifully with both the setting and the storyline of this movie.  It is all tied together expertly under the direction of Steven Spielberg, so again I’m not understanding why no Oscar nods.  The concept of the movie isn’t one that has been done to death,  and it engages the viewer from start to finish, containing just enough realism to support the script where more liberties are taken.   In the rough and tumble world of airport or airline employees,  solid friendships develop that cross international and political boundaries.  Credit to the writers for correctly capturing this sort of underworld.  The music by master composer John Williams as always, is perfect.

The comic scene where Viktor, knowing that Amelia likes to go out for nice dinners, contrives a “restaurant” on a terminal patio, is one of those scenes I can never tire of watching due to the perfect blend of physical comedy along with the plotline.  Like some other scenes, it crosses into the land of impossibility due to the restrictions that are placed even on employees but the lack of realism there is completely outweighed by the capture of that sense of being suspended in time and reality that used to be the romance of air travel.  That being a cliche, another one of this movie’s  strengths is how Spielberg mines new content from the more familiar themes.

Some differences of opinion occurred in the critic ranks.  For the critics who were a bit more snarky, I wonder if part of some discontent is due to the ending, the way Spielberg wraps it all up.   The ending plays out oddly anticlimactic given all the action that preceded it, although that is not a weakness, in fact I give Spielberg much credit for fashioning an intelligent ending that ties things together while still giving the engaged viewer enough canvas on which to paint.    There is a climactic moment that doesn’t  occur when the audiences are most used to it, and again that moment belongs to Gupta.  if that isn’t apparent on first viewing, subsequent viewings will make it clear.  Everything that happens after that scene flows from it as a resolution, which may not be quite what audiences are conditioned to expect….resulting in “The Terminal” being one of those movies that invites repeated viewings.

Lookin’ To Get Out (1982)

 

No RB score given

The reason I’m leaving  “Lookin’ To Get Out”  unscored is firstly because it’s not a good film and a low score would not do justice to the memory of a truly visionary director, (see my review of “Being There”) and secondly because the movie just feels unfinished, period. None of the creativity and brilliance of Hal Ashby’s filmography from the 70s can be found in this 1982 vehicle, and much has been written about the declining quality of Ashby films in the 80s until his untimely death in 1988 at age 58.  My thought is that his movies started declining due to his health.  Ashby, who evidently did not live to please the suits of Hollywood, may have been limited by budgetary or other constraints which in turn may have factored into the poor quality found in “Lookin’ To Get Out.”

There was certainly material to work with; two small time gamblers hoping to pay off their debts by hitting it big in Las Vegas.  If not exactly original, should have been rife with movie possibility.  The problems however were not addressed so they sank the entire production, starting with bad acting from Jon Voight.  I don’t even know if you can call what Voight did in that film acting – it’s more like he showed up to work in whatever state, and Ashby just let him run with it.  Burt Young and Ann-Margaret had better delivery but they too seemed to be half asleep.  Hands down the best acting was contributed by the excellent character actor, Bert Remsen, as the sage old gambler.   His scenes are easily the most watchable and at the end, the viewer wishes Remsen had been in more scenes.

The second problem is a flat script with equally two dimensional characters, making it difficult for a viewer to engage with them.  For example, the early scene where Voight  stumbles into a card game, giggling and losing money,   Voight should have been able to give that character dimension,  goofy perhaps but with other layers.   Instead he just comes across as a drunk idiot. So how much will anyone care about a boring, drunk idiot? Exactly.

Third,  unbelievably lifeless cinematography by Haskell Wexler.   Especially when you consider that Ashby had collaborated with Wexler successfully in other films.  Some of the deficiencies in both the acting and screenplay could have been glossed over with better camera work, especially given the setting. Even the very opening shot, shows Voight slowly driving a car into a parking garage, and the camera should give us something other than dull pictures that are less interesting than concrete walls are in real life.    In trying to view this movie with an “arty”eye, the unfulfilled hope is that this opening merely sets the stage for something else.  No, the film sputters along, remarkably like that car engine in the opening.   Suffice to say there is very little in the way of visual interest, so again, that tends to highlight even more the other shortcomings.

Watching this movie (not recommended), you can almost envision Ashby in the cutting room, sorting through film in a quest for improvement, uneasily aware that while he and Voight might have had fun hitting the bar after filming, that audiences weren’t going to be as entertained.  Couple of interesting points about this film, one, that Voight’s young daughter Angelina Jolie had a small role as well as his wife, Marcheline Bertrand in a bit part at the beginning.  Two, in the ending scene where Voight and Young are giggling together in the cab going to the airport, they are so eerily similar to the dumb modern day cartoon “Beavis and Butthead” to the point where if that creator doesn’t give credit for his inspiration, he should.   Unless you are embarking on a Hal Ashby retrospective, you can, and should, skip this movie, and watch any of his works from the 1970s instead.

Being There (1979)

 

Будучи там (Being There)

RB score:  9/10

“Being There” is a film masterpiece that is every bit as watchable today, almost 35 years after its release.  Because the basic plot of the simpleminded gardener is so well known as to be part of popular culture, I will not rehash that aspect but instead urge anyone who has not seen this movie, to do so as soon as possible as it deserves to be in the library of any film fan.  “Being There” is that rare creation that is not only not derivative, it is so well put together and yet without traditional conflicts and resolutions,  that the finished product takes your breath away.  You can’t watch this without being in conscious awe of what was accomplished by genius director, the late Hal Ashby.  Ashby strikes me as someone who was both a benevolent director who often gave his actors free rein and an intelligent, talented film editor (who actually won an Academy Award for film editing) that worked on his films relentlessly in order to put together the best story.   Dustin Hoffman graciously acknowledged Peter Sellers at the Oscars by stating that the Best Actor nod should have gone to Sellers (and Hoffman was definitely superb in Kramer vs. Kramer),  I’d have to agree because Sellers had to not only act, but really had to live inside this character’s consistent, limited presentment through the whole film and he is in almost every scene!    It’s the culmination of what happens with a brilliant director and top notch cast and crew.    The movie is so damn brilliant Ashby really didn’t need to bother with the sex-related subplots, but the way they were incorporated into the film did flesh out the messages and did not detract from the whole, due in large part to superb performances.  (Shirley MacLaine’s list of awards and nominations should have its own wiki entry if not already in place).  A president being impotent… a woman being fulfilled by a relationship that is unconsummated… yeah, no question Ashby was a free thinker and unafraid.  Years later we all saw this movie recycled with Tom Hanks for the acting chops, but without the groundbreaking directorial insights….., as Forrest Gump.  RB thinks Being There was better by far.

So why in the world was a point even subtracted?  The ending.  Don’t get me wrong, I admire it.  However it is just enough of an internal inconsistency, as they say, to merit a slight deduction.   Up until that point the movie has been a different genre and then abruptly changes.    As with a League of Their Own, the great ending ambiguity  has inspired much discussion and debate.   Was Chance really walking on the surface of the water? Roger Ebert was adamant that there was no wooden pier or other structure under the water.  Film audiences might perhaps believe in a pier because to not have it would force their analysis to the next level, and so transform the film.  It’s like Ashby is saying at the end, This really is a film, this is a play, this is life, so what do you think it represents people?  My take, Chance paused and stuck his umbrella in the water and continued walking across the lake, to show us just what people can do when beliefs are suspended.  That folks, is not a reflection on the character of Chance, or even of the movie structure.  It’s a reflection on all of us as a society and THAT’s why I believe Ashby chose to end the film this way.   “He walked on water” is a phrase you are supposed to say out loud in your mind at least, leading one to ponder how Chance was able to be a curious source of strength for people, when he knew so little,  Then, the follow up question: how long will this trajectory continue? Really, a mentally retarded man being chosen as a Presidential candidate, how can that be?  Because his message is so well received he could do no wrong…. he walks on water!   It’s so sad that Hal Ashby didn’t live to a ripe old age so he could have shared more of his insight with the film student in all of us.   The brilliant Ashby wouldn’t have cared about his ending being perceived as any kind of structural flaw because it was that much more important, that the audience has to think about things.  So 9/10, Hal Ashby, for an A+ movie.  There must be some great film discussions beyond those pearly gates!