Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Little Movie that Does


There is a scene in "The Lord of the Rings," at the very end, after the Shire has been scoured, where St. JRR writes this:
The Northfarthing barley was so fine that the beer of 1420 malt was long remembered and became a byword. Indeed a generation later one might hear an old gaffer in an inn, after a good pint of well-earned ale, put down his mug with a sigh: ‘Ah! that was proper fourteen-twenty, that was!’

This is how I feel about movies in 2008. A hundred years from now, people may think "Wow, what a great year for movies! It's a regular 2008!" And amid all of the SLUMDOGs, DARK KNIGHTS, and WALL-Es, there's a quiet little film that didn't get too much buzz. But it's good. Oh, boy, it's good.

THE VISITOR has no pretention. It's a movie about a sixty-something college professor named Walter Vale who lives alone since the death of his wife. He lives in Connecticut, but still keeps an apartment in NYC, although he hasn't visited it since his wife passed away. When he's called to New York for a conference, he's surprised to find that a young couple is living in his apartment. Tarek, a Syrian musician, and Zainab, his Senegalese girlfriend, are scared to death that Walter will call the police for two reasons. First, they don't want to go to jail. Secondly, they are in the US illegally. Walter's response to the two of them is the beginning of his story.

Strangely, this is a coming of age movie. And while coming of age movies are hardly rare, it is quite unusual to find one about a sixty year old. Tarek and Walter begin a friendship based solely on necessity (on Tarek's part) and loneliness (on the part of Walter). Tarek plays the Djembe and Walter, who desperately wants to express himself in some way, latches onto it. It becomes not only an outlet for Walter, but also a symbol. It's a symbol of injustice and inequality, and it's a symbol of humanness.

As their unlikely friendship deepens, a tragic circumstance befalls Tarek and Zainab (which I won't reveal here), and Walter is given a choice. It's a choice to return to safe, quiet, Connecticut where he can finish his book in peace, or he can stay in New York and fight - even if fighting is the last thing he's capable of. Walter is presented with the question that we all find ourselves struggling with sooner or later: "This is injustice. What do I do? Shrink or fight?"

There are some politics in THE VISITOR, but it's not a political movie. It's a movie about a guy who is a visitor in his own home.

Richard Jenkins (nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for this performance) is a face you'll know. He's a "That Guy." He's got 84 credits on IMDB, and I guarantee you've seen a bunch of them. But in this, he shines. There is no makeup to cover the pock marks on his face and no histrionics to demand Oscar voters' attention. He's just a guy, playing another guy. He won't win that Oscar - "That Guy" never does. But maybe he should. This is one of the most touching and real performances that I've seen in a long time.

THE VISITOR gets 4 and a half African Princesses out of 5.

7 comments:

the hamster said...

i'm personally shocked you did not include IRON MAN, STRANGERS, QUARANTINE, and THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELLING PANTS 2 in your list of 2008 winners. and you call yourself a film-maniac?

for my money, i think we need less romantic comedies and more films about friendship, particularly male friendships. and i'm talking about LETHAL WEAPON shoot-em-up-off-the-commode crime partner films; i mean, films like this, like REIGN OVER ME, LORD OF THE RINGS, PHILADELPHIA, STAND BY ME, heck even PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. these are rare films, but necessary films. these are films that show men tapping into an honest masculine quality that is rarely exalted: loyalty and the hope to stick closer than a brother.

yes, ladies, i realize that women are also capable of loyalty and undying friendship. i am not saying that loyalty is a strictly masculine attribute. however, we have allowed a voice in mainstream art to speak the opposite of men for so long and so loudly that we think nothing of the constant depiction of men incapable of true loyalty or true relational devotion outside of booze, strip clubs and hunting trips.

the Lord said something different of men (and women) relationally. and i like seeing pieces of capital-T Truth in art.

this is one of my little soapboxes. thanks, john barber, for giving me platform room. i'm looking forward to this flick.

the hamster said...

by the way, sir, great review. you have successfully pavlov-belled my film hounds for this cinematic treat.

Phil Breedlove said...

Nice review...makes me want to knock over a Red Box and see if one falls out.

Sean said...

I was three or four paragraphs into this before I realized it wasn't Kevin. You two are starting to write a lot alike!

The review makes me want to see the movie. The movie poster makes me want to never ever think about this movie again. I'm torn...

John Barber said...

Don't hold the poster against the movie... Trust me. It's worth the 104 mins.

Janna said...

Hamster - Pineapple Express was pretty doggone funny. I think you forgot to mention Sideways, as a good buddy film.

The fact that Tarek is not originally from the macho america helps him get away with being so sensitive. His personality and charisma captivate, even an old codger like Walter.

John - it's too bad you haven't figured out how to make money writing this stuff! I'm glad you recognize your need for true friends and that you are loyal, and sensitive too!

the hamster said...

yes, yes. my comment was a bit uncalled for and over there and sociologically touchy-feely, but it's exactly what i was thinking when i read john's review. i'm trying to mow down the filter in my head that holds me back from saying the things i want to say. i've done too much of that lately. call me melodramatic - it suits my moods.