A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 145 – Local Hero

Local Hero – July 23, 2010

This is a funny movie. If you’ve never seen it, I suggest you remedy that. But it also makes me ache at the end. Not that it ends poorly. In fact, it ends rather well for almost everyone involved. Almost. It’s a bittersweet thing. It’s a longing thing. It aches. And it aches in a familiar way for me, so while this is largely a comedy, it also makes me cry.

It’s a quiet comedy, really. Where many others have loud guffawing moments, this one has softer humor. Much of the humor is in subtle deliveries of lines and in the situation itself. What physical humor there is isn’t of the pratfall variety. It’s things like the main character and his business partner sitting down to a quiet dinner in their hotel and the main character getting squirted in the eye with juice from their lemons twice, but there’s not a single word uttered. It’s things like the two of them walking down a rural Scottish beach in their full double breasted suits and polished shoes, briefcases in hand. That’s the humor.

It’s a quirky movie, but quirky seems like a thoroughly inadequate word to encompass what makes it so wonderful and bizarre at the same time. You sort of have to see it to truly understand it. I could try to explain it, and I will, but I won’t do it justice.

The bigwigs at Knox Oil and Gas, a USA-based oil company, decide they need to put an oil refinery off the coast of Scotland, so they tap acquisitions man MacIntyre to go to Scotland and secure the small fishing village of Ferness. Of course he goes in thinking he’s dealing with a bunch of naive locals, but the locals are anything but naive. They all know exactly what’s going on and the resident accountant/lawyer/hotelier, Gordon Urquhart, assures everyone he’ll string MacIntyre along until they’ve milked as much money as they can from Knox. The trouble officially starts when they find out that a local hermit, Ben, who lives on the beach, actually owns the beach, which was gifted to his family hundreds of years back. The papers are in a museum, even. But the trouble really starts a lot earlier when Mac starts to fall in love with Ferness.

I’ll get back to Mac, I promise, but first I need to go back a few steps, to Knox. The president of the company is Felix Happer, played wonderfully by Burt Lancaster. He comes off a little distracted. One assumes he’s invested in the company in some ways, but he’s also obviously unhappy, employing a bizarre therapist who heaps abuse on him as part of his therapy. That has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the movie. It’s just this odd thread that keeps popping up in the scenes with Happer back in Houston. He’s also obsessed with the sky and what’s in it, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Mac has to call him back several times to tell him about things like meteor showers and the northern lights. And this is pre-cellphones, so all phone conversations are conducted with Mac in a red phone box in Ferness, frantically trying to pop enough 10p coins in to keep up a connection with Houston.

There’s also a whole subplot with Mac’s Scottish contact, Danny Oldsen, and Danny’s growing obsession with a researcher from Knox’s Aberdeen labs. Marina’s a fantastic swimmer, and has no idea about the oil refinery. She’s envisioned a marine laboratory, because Ferness is a special place. Magical, almost. Unique.

Back to Mac. There are a lot of little moments in between the humor where you can practically see the gears turning in Mac’s head while he figures out that his life is not what he wants. He and Danny slowly lose their full suits and ties and polished shoes. They slip into sweaters like the locals, and roll up their pant legs and take off their shoes. By the time the town throws a little ceilidh to celebrate and Russian fisherman Victor shows up, to the town’s delight, Mac’s pretty settled in. And it really hits me at the ceilidh, around the end, when the band is playing softly and the aurora borealis shows up. I start getting choked up. And then I don’t have time to get too choked up because it’s funny too. Which is what this movie does so well. It’s touching and poignant while at the same time making you chuckle. It never feels jarring. The really funny bits still fit right in with the thoughtful bits and the quiet bits and the aching bits.

By the end, when Mac’s made friends with Gordon and Victor (the Victor friendship was surely even funnier in 1983 when the movie came out and it was thoroughly improbable that Victor would make it to Houston or Mac would make it to Murmansk, but they exchange cards anyhow) and the unlikely team has set up almost everything, there’s this feeling of both triumph and dread. Sure, people are happy, but look at why – an oil refinery and the loss of this amazingly beautiful place. This special, magical, unique place. I end up feeling bad for Mac. He has this big awakening in the perfect setting, realizes what he wants, and then it slips away. I don’t have a name for this feeling. All I know is that I felt it in college when I was in a landlocked town and desperately needed the ocean I grew up near. It’s an ache, when the salt air is gone and you can’t hear the waves. It’s an amazing movie that can stir that feeling in me again when I’m just a mile from the ocean.

Part of the success is the writing, which is fantastic. I cannot praise the script enough for things like Gordon and Mac’s drunken conversation after the ceilidh where Mac tells Gordon he’d like to swap lives with him. Part of it is the directing, which takes that amazing script and adds amazing moments like the entire town leaving the local church, where they’ve been meeting to talk about Mac, and Mac stands there, his back to them, while Danny watches and says nothing. And part of it is the performances, which are understated and perfect. Peter Reigert plays Mac’s dawning realization with this lovely quiet semi-confusion. Dennis Lawson plays Gordon as both scheming and truly good at heart, trying to do the best for the town while also befriending Mac. And I already mentioned Burt Lancaster. There’s the soundtrack too, done by Mark Knopfler and full of lovely themes I’m sure will be stuck in my head for days. I just went and bought the album on iTunes, actually, and it’s amazingly evocative. It all adds up to this movie. This lovely and quirky and funny and sad movie.

July 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Local Hero

July 23, 2010

Local Hero

This movie is a treasure. A unique and mesmerizing multi-faceted gem. It is also, I am finding, a very difficult movie to review. Part of director Bill Forsyth’s genius is his ability to capture small human moments and poke fun at what might be considered normal. I just don’t know if I have the vocabulary to adequately describe Forsyth’s vision.

The movie itself is a sort of parable about the dangers of the yuppie money obsessed culture of the early eighties. MacIntyre is a big money wheeler and dealer working for Knox Oil & Gas – a mega successful business run out of Texas. He’s not actually Scottish, but he doesn’t tell his bosses that when they ship him off to a little village on the shores of Scotland on the mistaken assumption that his ties in the old world will help them to buy up a huge passel of shoreline to build an oil refinery and distribution point. Mac doesn’t really want to go (he’s more a telex kind of guy and would rather seal the deal over the wires) but he’s a company man, and sees success in this venture as a way to advance his career and get on the good side of the eccentric president of Knox, Mr. Happer. When Mac reaches his destination he figures he’s going to have a tough time convincing the locals to give up their land, but unbeknownst to him and his bumbling local Knox representative Oldsen the villagers already know about the impending sale (news travels fast ‘round these parts) and are eager to sell their land and become millionaires. The town solicitor Gordon Urquhart (who also runs the only hotel in town and the bar) is in cahoots with all the locals to wring as much money from the gullible American as they can. So they string him along for a while, making him think that he’s bringing upheaval to their lives in an effort to drive up the price. And meanwhile Mac is slowly falling in love with the land that it’s ultimately his job to buy and bring to destruction.

Part of the problem for me as a reviewer is that so much of the story is told without dialog. It’s a movie full of quiet performances and subtle humor. Huge long periods of time go by with just the lead characters exploring the world they find themselves in, accompanied by Mark Knopfler’s simple, almost minimalistic and somewhat natural soundtrack. Mac takes off his shoes to explore a tide pool. Oldsen waits on the beach for the mysterious Marina to emerge from the waves. The movie is as elegant as the tides against the rocks, and it lulls you with a gentle rhythm that you don’t often find in the cinema.

A great degree of the movie’s success can of course be credited to the wonderful cast. Peter Riegert as Mac is almost instantly likable, even when he’s still in Texas living his upwardly mobile life. The joke early on is that he’s so isolated. He calls people in the next room rather than talk to them in person. He doesn’t seem to have anybody that cares when he’s about to leave on this journey to another continent. But he’s the ultimate image of a successful American businessman with his digital watch, electric briefcase, expensive car and huge empty apartment. As the movie goes on a lot of the emotional core relies on Riegart’s ability to let the viewer into his character’s head and heart without ever having dialog that explicitly tells us what’s going on.

Then there’s the supporting cast. Denis Lawson (whom crazy Star Wars fans may recognise as erstwhile rebel star-pilot Wedge) is great as the canny businessman Gordon, who seems at all times to have Mac in the palm of his hand, but who is also undeniably part of the village. Peter Capaldi as Oldsen gives the most physically comedic performance in the movie, all gangly awkward flailing like a teen-aged boy. (His character falls in love with a strange marine biologist named Marina who always seems to be in the ocean off the shore.) Then there’s Mr. Happer himself, the head of Knox, played with an innocent kind of verve by Burt Lancaster. He has an obsession with stars and comets, and an irritating shrink who thinks that by insulting and pestering Happer he is proving some kind of point.

The REAL star of the movie, though, is the Scottish seaside. The beaches, crags, and waves. The impossibly green bluffs. The quaint village and its collection of quirky inhabitants. And playing in and around it all Knopfler’s score. What’s so amazing about the music in this movie, and what I’ve so very rarely seen before, is that the music supports the visuals and the emotional thrust of the movie so well without ever dominating the scene. It doesn’t lead the viewer around by the nose, but it works together with the pictures and the performances to get inside your head.

Another thing that’s clever about the movie is that it’s a comedy, with jokes and running gags and plenty of laughs, but it’s also got a sort of wistful, almost sorrowful feel to it. There’s a fragile, magical feel to the village of Fernesse, and really to the entire movie. I don’t know if I can really describe it. I feel like Mac – in the scene when he’s trying to tell Happer over the phone about the aurora borealis. My words are insufficient… you really owe it to yourself, dear reader, to find the movie and watch it. Maybe then you’ll understand what it is I’m trying to say.

July 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment