Charmed, I’m sure

Last month I posted a brief review of the move Everything is Illuminated because I like the unexpected, unconventional and beguiling nature of the story, the well-crafted scenes and performances, and the human insights that lingered in my mind for days afterward. I hadn’t expected to like the movie all that much yet I was totally won over. Since then I’ve thought about some of my other all-time favorite movies and realized that many of these shared distinctive characteristics with this film. The stories aren’t really related to each other, but they are all off-beat (non-formulaic) delights that surprised and charmed me and — as we head into a snowy weekend — I thought they might charm you as well.

My top three favorite movies may shift from time to time, but Local Hero will always be near the top of my list. Released in 1983, it stars Peter Reigert (post-Animal House) and Burt Lancaster and is directed by the estimable Scottish director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Comfort and Joy). Like all of the movies here it has a light, whimsical streak running through it. The story is that a large Houston oil company sends one of its acquisition specialists, McIntyre, to a small Scots town to purchase the town and, especially, its deep water port that they want to turn into a refinery. Part of the joke is that Mac isn’t even Scottish — his ancestors adopted the name when they got off the boat from Hungary because it “sounded American”.

Devoted to his job and his lifestyle, Mac sets out to complete his mission as quickly as possible but finds himself becoming enchanted by the place and ambivalent about his task. One of the special twists of the story, however, is that rather than being outraged and protective of their community, the locals can’t wait to sell it and become rich! There are several subplots as well and a great cast of characters (referring both to the actors and to the “townspeople” in the movie). The movie is quirky but not in a heavy-handed, off-putting way and it reveals itself little-by-little. The story is partly meant to be a commentary on American capitalism abroad, but this is done warmly and with wit; the scenes between Mac and an entreprenuerial Russian sailor are some of the best, though these are surpassed by Burt Lancaster’s small but vital role. Beautiful scenery, a beautiful story, and did I mention that there’s a mermaid as well?

I always link The Coca-Cola Kid with Local Hero in my mind because it also tells a comedic tale of what happens when American interests go abroad, but in a more allegorical manner. The screenplay is by an Australian and directed by a Yugoslavian, but culture clashes at the center of the movie, and the characterization of Becker (played by Eric Roberts in one of his less-twitchy roles) is more bemused than pointed. Becker is a hot-shot marketing guru from Coca-Cola, sent from Atlanta to Australia to boost sales in that country. (The movie was made without the fore-knowledge or blessing of Coca-Cola). When he discovers a populated valley in which absolutely no Coke has ever been sold he sets out to conquer, in the process meeting the patriarch of the valley, a cantankerous lord who bottles his own brand of soft drinks.

Greta Scacchi plays the love interest, again, somewhat as an allegory, as are several other characters who come and go with their own perceptions and assumptions about Americans set up in contrast with Becker’s assumptions of this new land. It’s a funny and generally gentle story with great music, including a terrific Coke jingle that the company should have adopted in real life. It’s a good companion movie to watch with Local Hero, but there are a couple of scenes with nudity so it’s probably not for kids (though the story wouldn’t be as interesting to them anyway).

A movie that is ideal to watch with the whole family is The Secret of Roan Inish. There are no big stars in the film, but it is directed by John Sayles, who’s work I’ve liked since “The Return of the Secaucus Seven” (another off-beat charmer that was later ripped off by “The Big Chill“). The story focuses on Fiona, a young girl sent to live with her grandparents on the Irish coast after her mother dies and her father and brothers go to work in an industrialized city. Her grandparents still live near the island that was the home of Fiona’s family going back several generations and the seat of the family’s mystical history and the setting for the mysterious disappearance of Fiona’s younger brother, Jamie, spirited away when he was an infant.

While that sounds rather dark, the story is anything but as Fiona and her cousin find themselves gradually unwrapping the nearly forgotten ancient secrets of the family and the mystery of what happened to Jamie. Rest assured, there isn’t a speck of evil in the story. In fact, one of the things that makes the film so unique in my mind is that it generates such a compelling drama without a single villain. The young actress who plays Fiona (Jeni Courtney) is amazing and easily carries the movie. I’m surprised that she hasn’t gone on to do other movies (“Roan Inish” was released in 1995). It’s a tremendous story of faith, love and character and an ideal experience for the whole family. Bake some bread, cook up a pot of soup, and eat while you watch the movie!

This is another movie that took me by surprise when we first watched it. The Emperor’s New Clothes is a “what if” story about what might have happened if Napoleon had managed, through the use of a body double, to escape from Elba and make it back to France. Rest assured, however you think this might have turned out, you’ll definitely be surprised by the story that unfolds. Ian Holm is fantastic as the two Napoleons and the story is a very funny and touching one with a bit of romance and adventure thrown in.

I’m not sure why we even rented it in the first place, but I’m glad we did. While the premise sounds predictable, the story is delightfully original and veers away from the cliched scenes and character reactions that you might expect. It’s not a “major” film but it is very entertaining with likeable characters and a seductive plot. If you rent it just sit back and relax and go with the story and you won’t be disappointed.

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