THE TERMINAL (2004) – One of Steven Spielberg’s and Tom Hanks’ finest hours

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If Charlie Chaplin was still alive and creating, it’s easy to imagine him making a light comedy as richly satisfying as The Terminal. Just as Chaplin used to take a prop and wring every possible gag out of it, Steven Spielberg’s prop is a New York airport terminal from which he extracts every story possibility. And Spielberg’s Chaplin is Tom Hanks, who takes a potentially show-offy, Meryl Streep-type role and turns it into a movie character for the ages.

Hanks’ role is Viktor Navorski, a European immigrant who becomes a modern-day “man without a country” when his native land gets embroiled in a revolution. Viktor can’t return home because his country is under siege, and he can’t legally enter New York until his country’s new leadership is recognized by the U.S. So Viktor has no choice but to live in the terminal — much to the consternation of Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), whose chances of becoming the terminal’s top dog are jeopardized by Viktor’s constantly being under foot.

The movie’s premise is laid out pretty flatly in the first ten minutes, which begins to sink one’s hopes. But it’s as though Spielberg wants to get the mandatory stuff out of the way quickly so he can explore all of the possibilities in his huge playtoy. And he spins Viktor through every facet of the terminal like a colorful top, involving the terminal’s quirky workers in his meager existence.

In that sense, The Terminal is a lot like Being There (1979), where Peter Sellers played an illiterate simpleton on whom politicians projected their needs and desires. But Hanks is far from a blank slate. His body language, physical comedy, and deceptively simple dialogue speak volumes. Chaplin regretted having to give up silent movies because he felt that his “Little Tramp” could not express himself uniquely with sound. I think something like The Terminal would have been an effective solution.

That’s not to belittle Hanks’ winning co-stars, especially Catherine Zeta-Jones as Viktor’s potential love interest and Chi McBride as one of Viktor’s many supporters. They all give Spielberg’s work the sheen of a big, beautiful dream.

THE SIMPSONS MOVIE (2007) – D’oh, boy!

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Most reviews of The Simpsons Movie have the same curious tone: They complain that the movie isn’t as edgy or funny as they expected, and then they say that the movie is funnier and edgier than most movies that came out at the same time.

I’ve always found the “Simpsons” TV series hilarious, but I don’t know if it was ever as edgy as people said it was. Its main strength has always been to come right up to the edge of subversion, only to end up embracing the nuclear-family concept.

Since the movie is 89 minutes long (four times the length of a TV episode), it has a broader spectrum in which to play. But it never dawdles; as with the series, the movie is briskly paced, funny, and incisive. Would that every movie comedy met that standard.

Amazingly, this cartoon version of an epic — it uses 15 past and present “Simpsons” writers, and the show’s hundreds of supporting characters — begins with only the idea of the series’ anti-hero, Homer Simpson, falling in love with a pig.

From that moronically simple plot development, the movie blossoms like a flower on steroids. It takes trips physical (north to Alaska) and psychological (Homer goes hallucinogenic). It has erudite references that will sail over kiddies’ heads, and it gets its PG-13 rating by having Bart Simpson briefly doing the full monty.

It takes pot-shots at its parent company Fox and their rival Disney, as well as squeezing in a public-service announcement from Tom Hanks.

And strangest of all, it is often downright touching. (At one point, Homer’s put-upon spouse Marge, voiced by Julie Kavner, leaves Homer a “Dear John” video that might be — no kidding — Kavner’s best-ever acting job.)

As with the show, The Simpsons Movie does what the best comedy does: take a jaundiced eye at the kind of insipid behavior that most of us are either too polite or too ignorant to point out.

I’m cynical about most TV-to-movie spin-offs, but The Simpsons Movie shows that it can be done right, if its makers care enough about the quality. (Oh, and maybe your TV show has to last for 18 seasons first.)