Martin Scorsese’s first feature film Who’s That Knocking at My Door? was shot over the course of several years, and was originally released in 1967 as I Call First. Its piecemeal origins are betrayed by two discrete sequences: one recounting the misadventures of a group of slacker friends in downtown New York, and a very different, more character and dialogue-driven love story between J.R. (Keitel) and the unnamed “Girl on the Staten Island Ferry” (Zina Bethune).
Non-linear cross-cutting between the two adds up to more than the sum of their parts. J.R. is increasingly hesitant to horse around with his gangster friends, a lifestyle involving shaking down debtors, terrorizing each other with loaded pistols, and going uptown to get with — and then rob — gullible girls. His reticence is explained by a parallel sequence in which he meets cute with The Girl. Similarly, their young courtship is given weight by the audience’s knowledge of what he’s done with his life so far, and how drastic a change he faces by considering marrying her.
J.R. is much more sensitive than his brutish chums to the splendor of nature and to the catharsis of cinema. His idea of seducing a girl is to lecture her on Hollywood Westerns, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) in particular. His models of masculinity come from the movies, especially John Wayne and Lee Marvin, and he divides women into two categories: broads and girls (which is another way of saying whores and madonnas). The Girl is savvy enough to know what she’s getting into; she clearly catches his meaning when he slips and openly refers to her as a broad.
Another piece to the puzzle was a sex montage added in order to ensure distribution. Scorsese scores J.R.’s fantasy of sex with a series of women to The Doors’ “The End”, later of course also to become a key ingredient to his peer Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now! (1979).
Holding everything together is a framing device in the form of a flashback to young J.R. being served food by his mother (Catherine Scorsese, Scrosese’s own mother). It’s an obviously happy memory, but we learn that the core theme of the film is that J.R. is emotionally crippled by the Catholic guilt instilled by his family and upbringing. He is unable to consummate the relationship with the girl he loves, and who loves him back. When he finds out she’s a victim of rape, he alternates between not believing the facts and blaming her. Even in the end, he sees her rape as something he must forgive her for. The penultimate sequence is a montage of Catholic iconography set to the title track by The Genies.
As an English Major in another life, I’m not uninterested in poetry, or Keats in particular. Movies about poetry are another matter. It’s difficult to imagine a less natural source material for the eminently visual medium of cinema than poetry. You can mute the sound, drain the color, or take off the 3D spectacles, but the one thing you can’t subtract from movies is the moving picture.
Other filmmakers have tried to visualize essentially invisible things before: scents (Perfume), academic research (The Da Vinci Code), and math (A Beautiful Mind, Pi). The handful of movies about writing (Capote, Factotum, Henry & June, Wonder Boys) are nearly outnumbered by movies about not writing (Shakespeare in Love, Barton Fink, Adaptation, The Shining).
“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art”
When it comes to poetry, the most internal and abstract form of writing, it’s slightly disappointing that the most writer/director Jane Campion makes of it is to have her characters read verse aloud. However luscious the cinematography, it doesn’t help that the historical Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and John Keats (Ben Whishaw) weren’t all that interesting as dramatic characters. The former is a lovestruck obsessive and the latter a sickly artiste not meant for this mundane world. It’s the standard biopic cliché: the insufferable wunderkind and the suffering woman that loves him anyway. At least, in this case, Keats wasn’t an addict (q.v.: Factotum, Bird, Ray, Walk the Line, Walk Hard, etc.).
Fanny reads Keats’ sonnet about her “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art” at the close of the film. She lived to witness his posthumous recognition, and never stopped mourning him.
In his 1999 essay Celluloid Vs. Digital, Roger Ebert cites studies equating the experience of watching a movie to entering a fugue state: “film creates reverie, video creates hypnosis.” In other words, experiencing a film in the traditional manner, projected at 24 frames per second in a darkened theater, affects the brain in a way akin to dreaming. Inception is far from the first movie set in dreams, but it may be alone in attempting to encode the experience into the architecture of a film itself. Whether you compare it to onion skins or a puzzlebox, the form follows the content.
The bar has been set very low by the likes of Avatar, but Inception is finally proof that movies with budgets in the hundreds of millions need not be moronic and disposable. Yes, Inception is a sci-fi action movie full of well-tailored outlaws, guns, fight sequences, and exploding mountain fortresses, but it’s also an intelligent, complex experience for adults. If it took a weak remake and two movies about a vigilante in a rubber bat costume for Nolan to get here, then so be it.
Inception is the natural progression from Following, Memento, and The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s quartet of wholly original visions. Insomnia, a safe remake of the far more incendiary Norwegian original, now seems like a detour, a paying of dues to enter the mainstream. His pair of Batman franchise entries injected a modicum of psychological realism into the pulp source material, but the grimly ponderous weight of it all was perhaps more than it could bear. For my money, nobody other than Tim Burton has managed to find the right mixture of camp and solemnity that makes up Batman.
While Inception may have some surface resemblance to numerous heist, caper, long con, action, and science fiction films, it is nevertheless a very welcome New Thing. Its deepest thematic links are probably to cerebral sci-fi meditations Solaris and Until the End of the World. The nightmare planet in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris haunted visitors with imperfect reincarnations of their most emotionally significant others. When a grieving astronaut is reunited with his ersatz wife, long dead of suicide, is it a blessing or a curse?
Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World posits a future in which dream-reading technology would be enormously addictive, psychologically damaging, and permanently alter society. If a technology is ever invented for a group of people to not only enter an individual’s dreams but also to construct the dreamworld itself, how plausible it is that society would not be radically transformed? In Inception, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master at corporate espionage. His expertise is with a process normally utilized for the “extraction” of trade secrets, but inverted to inception: to implant an idea, a task which proves to hold massive significance to Cobb. Like a drug, we’re told, these machines gradually seep away users’ ability to dream on his or her own. We glimpse a sort of opium den in which burned-out dream junkies go to re-experience the normality of not only dreaming, but more importantly, waking up from dreams. Wenders’ The End of Violence would similarly look at another dystopian future in which global surveillance is taken to its logical extreme.
Inception’s action sequences beg comparison to everything from James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission: Impossible. Its creative fight sequences, taking place in virtual arenas in which the laws of time and gravity are fluid, recall The Matrix. But the true narrative and structural template is much more along the lines of long-con tale much loved by David Mamet (particularly Homicide and Redbelt) and heist films Rififi, Thief, and Heat, in which a crack team of criminal experts work with a psychologically damaged leader on a high-stakes One Last Job.
The bloodless massacre of hordes of armed thugs seems designed to resemble video games. The obliquely portrayed violence is partly explained by a PG-13 rating that hypocritically permits dozens of onscreen shootings, but disallows blood, and thus any sense of the repercussions and ramifications of violence. But in the world of the film, the thugs are explained to be manifestations of the subconscious. A slight-of-hand morality magic trick that makes it OK for our heroes to mow them down with machine guns and grenades (again, this flashes back to The Matrix, in which the good guys rationalize away their mass killing of virtual avatars).
Inception had already developed a reputation as a mind-bender even before release, but I found it to be surprisingly straightforward if you pay a little bit of attention. If you choose to take the film at face value, pretty much everything you need to know is spelled out for you, often in frankly literal exposition (usually in exchanges with Ellen Page’s inquisitive character). The key ambiguity is a simple but profound question raised in its final moments. Interpreted one way, the film neatly wraps itself up in an airtight box (which is extraordinary in and of itself, when most big-budget movies often fail to make logical sense). Interpreted another way, it calls into question everything you’ve seen.
This moment hinges on Cobb’s totem, a personal item that each dream-traveller must rely upon to detect whether or not they are awake. Both Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) warn Ariadne (Ellen Page) to never allow anyone else to touch hers. But Cobb also freely admits that his totem first belonged to his wife Mol (Marion Cotillard). Complicating matters, unless I missed something, we never see her with it outside of the dream world. The top had symbolic meaning to Mol, for she locked it up in a metaphorical safe in her dreams. Cobb then uses it to plant the notion in her head that the dream world is not real, in order to encourage her to break her addiction and wake up with him. If the top was real, would she not be able to test herself with it when she woke up?
One further clue that suggests much of what we saw may be Cobb’s dream: if he and Mol lived the equivalent of 50 years in Limbo, several levels deep into their subconscious, why do they seem to only wake up through one level of dreaming? Is Cobb still trapped a few levels down?
And one wonders about the implausible dream technology itself. It’s offhandedly said to have been developed by the military for training purposes, but very little time is spent on the mechanics of the technology. Some sort of IV is involved in the process of linking people together, but how exactly does an Architect create and realize the world? We see Ariadne fiddle with papier-mache models, and verbally describe the world to the participants, but we’re also told that the architect need not necessarily enter the dream personally, so it’s not her mental map that makes things possible. If the agents are able to conjure things on the fly (Eames produces a grenade launcher out of thin air, and Ariadne folds a city in half), why do they not take more advantage of their effectively unlimited abilities during the heist? Cobb makes a big deal out of a prospective architect being able to devise labyrinths, something like a video game level designer. But Ariadne’s work is literally short-circuited and we never see a dramatic payoff to the theme of mazes.
Ray Bradbury once said that he was not concerned with the mechanics of interstellar travel; if a story he wished to tell required a rocket ship to ferry characters to another world, that was good enough for him. So is it pedestrian of me to wonder about these practicalities, or do these questions actually matter a great deal? Is the lack of specificity about how this miraculous technology actually works a clue? I believe it is linked to the troubling ambiguity of Cobb’s desire to “go home.” Does he simply want to clear his name so he can re-enter his home country, or does he want to plunge deeper into his fantasy? Is he actually guilty of a crime like Roman Polanski, or merely obsessed with indirect culpability like Kelvin in Solaris or Teddy in Shutter Island? Either way, he may have the opportunity to construct a false reality in which he can absolve himself.
I believe Inception is one for the ages, and not just because it has been endorsed by Al Gore. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, it’s the rare science fiction film likely to remain well-regarded for years.
How many heist movies have you seen in which the master thief attempts the mythical One Last Job before retiring?
Despite Leonardo DiCaprio sporting Nolan’s own haircut, Inception might suffer in comparison to his somewhat similar character in his most recent film, Shutter Island. Two thrillers in a row about a man wracked with guilt over his dead spouse.
Wikipedia puts the budget at $160 million, plus a $100 million publicity campaign. As usual, these numbers make my head spin. But at least this time the result is a strong movie.
Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Nolan has developed his own personal actors’ troupe. Inception features return appearances by Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy.
Dennis Hopper’s Colors may be a buddy cop flick on the surface, but it’s hardly typical high-concept Hollywood material. It does have a token overarching plot (involving a mismatched pair of cops tracing the perpetrators of a drive-by shooting), but it’s merely a loose thread to hold the movie together. If neither a character study nor a plot-driven thriller, Colors is a portrait of an issue, a setting, a problem.
A prototype for the HBO series The Wire, Colors is actually a portrait of the deteriorated, hopeless situation in a failed American city lost to gangs and the drug trade. But unlike The Wire, which deeply explores the economics of how and why gangs function as organizations, Colors doesn’t offer much detail on how they operate and what they do. However sensitive and balanced Colors may be, it still takes the point of view of predominantly white law enforcement. As such, it’s easy to see why filmmakers shortly turned to films like Menace II Society and Boyz N the Hood, which would look at some of the same issues from the other side of the milieu.
The interesting title most obviously refers to the term for a nation’s flag (tying in with the themes of war and the institution that wage it) or the signature colors of three major warring L.A. gangs: the Bloods (red), Crips (blue), and a Latino gang (white). The real colors that divide these groups are, of course, race. The one sign of equality in late 80s L.A. is that nearly everyone calls each other Holmes.
The narrative is loosely hung on several cliches, most notably the trope of veteran cop saddled with rookie partner. Officer Hodges (Duvall) is bitter at being drafted into the L.A.P.D. C.R.A.S.H. anti-gang program, after a lifetime of service that ought to have qualified him for sensible hours, a safe desk job, and more time with his family. Officer McGavin (Penn) is an aggressive, preening dandy, eager to attack the gang problem with the blunt tool of incarceration.
But it’s not long after the movie sets up these cliches that it begins to knock them down. The ostensibly wizened Hodges makes a critical mistake, setting free a young gangbanger on the assumption that a brush with the law would scare him straight, while simultaneously intending it to be a lesson to the headstrong book ’em-type McGavin. The punk turns out to have been a major player in the shooting. Another cliche short-circuited: McGavin romances a local girl from the barrio (Maria Conchita Alonso), but she turns out to be far from the madonna he imagined. Not only that, she rejects him anyway.
Colors ends on a very down beat, not just the death of a significant character, but what comes after. McGavin is forced into the position of imparting wisdom before he’s earned much himself. The film ends with a long shot held on his face (echoed much later in the final shot of mind Michael Clayton as he most likely ponders his ineffectiveness.
Of note are early appearances by Don Cheadle and Damon Wayans, the latter featuring in a stand-out surreal sequence in which his character T-Bone is out of his mind on drugs. Herbie Hancock’s score has not dated well, nor has the vintage rap soundtrack, including the angry theme song by Ice-T. The opening credits are set to “One Time One Night” by the local L.A. band Los Lobos.
The title of Courtney Hunt’s suspenseful Frozen River refers to both a literal body of water separating countries, and to the tenuous border between merely scraping by and true poverty. Melissa Leo was rightly praised last year for her performance as Ray, a woman struggling to support two boys in upstate New York. Her family appears to have been living beyond their means, even before her gambling-addict husband lit out with their savings. If she doesn’t make the next payments on their huge flatscreen television (a ridiculous sight in their shabby living space) or a coveted replacement double-wide home, they’ll lose the TV and the new home’s down payment. The TV is exactly the sort of needless extravagance that can put a checkbook in the red, and the double-wide upgrade becomes a necessity when their existing place looks unfit to survive the bitter winter.
Circumstances push her into an antagonistic partnership with Native American Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), whose situation is, if anything, worse. Lila’s business is smuggling illegal immigrants over the titular frozen river on Mohawk land. The fact that there is a question as to whether the practice is legal on a reservation is almost a point of pride. No one seems to know the actual law, but the perceived grey area in a way validates the Mohawks’ autonomy. Making a living this way is seen as prideful, never mind the exploited immigrants that pay about $40,000-50,000 each to make the trip, either in cash or the obligation to work it off as indentured slaves.
As I recently wrote about the extraordinary Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, a single event such as a car breaking down or a spouse leaving may be the tipping point leading to homelessness. Both films feature a woman on her own, struggling to meet pressing debts while feeding loving but needy dependents. But Frozen River suffers in comparison when watched back-to-back with Wendy and Lucy (as I happened to), feeling overwritten and with a neatly schematic ending. Without spoiling too much, a surprising burst of exposition near the end explains the rules of almost too-convenient new situation for Lila and Ray right as it’s happening.
Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is, on its own terms, perfect. As such, it exposes the silly practice of rating films in numbers of stars, even if this particular blog is merely one movie lover’s journal of personal reactions, and not pretending to be objective criticism. So please interpret these five stars as meaning that I was utterly moved by Wendy and Lucy.
Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young drifter from Indiana heading nowhere in particular. Her home is a battered car, shared only with her beloved dog Lucy. She’s worryingly skinny, with an unexplained bandaged ankle. She keeps a running ledger in her journal, tracking the rapid decline of the life savings strapped to her waist. We don’t know why Wendy is on her own – whether she’s running from something or someone, or if she’s simply searching for a job. She calls her sister and brother-in-law in Indiana, but they evidently have problems of their own and quickly dismiss her. The poor, miserable girl never smiles, but often quietly hums a tune to herself.
One night, Wendy meets a group of young drifters by a bonfire. Icky (musician Will Oldham – a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) mentions an Alaskan fishery that pays well and provides housing. This is good enough for Wendy, and provides her with a destination. But she experiences a disastrous day while passing through Portland (or in terms of her ledger, as least, the most cripplingly expensive). In short order, her car breaks down, she’s caught shoplifting, loses Lucy, and is very nearly assaulted.
The security guard of the neighborhood Walgreens (Walter Dalton) becomes a genuine friend, whose greatest aid may simply be just talking with her. They briefly bond over the shared miseries of those that fall between the tracks: you can’t get a job without an address or a phone number, and you can’t get an address or a phone number without a job. People like her are always “just passing through.” He gives her $7, a gift he hides from his family, clearly a sacrifice for him.
Wendy and Lucy is spare and economical at only 75 minutes long, but it is heartbreaking and devastating. In some ways, Wendy is better off than the group of drifters she meets at the beginning of the film; she has a car, meager savings, and some discipline. But the number of steps it would take for her to become like them is few, and may happen in only a single day. One can only hope that Icky is right, and that Wendy will find some livelihood in Alaska.
Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a creature rarely encountered in movies and even less in real life: someone genuinely happy. She’s not bothered by others’ life goals; at 30, she doesn’t have a baby or a boyfriend, own a house, or know how to drive. Relentlessly chipper, upbeat, and outgoing, she’s best friends with her roommate (a true rarity!) and has already found the career possibly most suited for her (she’s a gifted, compassionate primary school teacher). Her one vanity seems to be that she’s proud of her legs.
In conversation, Poppy always finds a way to agree with almost anything anyone says. We first meet her chattering away at a sullen bookstore clerk. Having seen Hawkins interviewed around the time of her Oscar nomination, it’s all the more apparent she’s affecting a Catherine Tate impression for the movie. Like Tate, Poppy just barely skirts the edge of being annoying to the audience as well, which considering the reactions Poppy provokes from certain other characters later in the film, probably says more about me than it does her. Poppy’s other major strategy in life is to find a new opportunity in every setback. A back injury sends her giggling all the way onto an exciting adventure to a chiropractor. Having her bicycle stolen provides another opening for a new experience: driving lessons.
Unfortunately for them both, her new tutor is the unstable, ferociously angry Scott (Eddie Marsan). Just a few of Scott’s many neuroses include racism, homophobia, religious fervor, and conspiracy theories. His most paranoid rant (regarding the Washington Monument supposedly being 666 feet tall – apparently a rumor stemming from the misreported height of its foundation) echoes those of the similarly damaged Johnny (David Thewlis) from Mike Leigh’s excellent Naked (1993). Is Marsan the most versatile actor ever? He’s played everything from a sweet-natured man almost paralyzed by shyness in Leigh’s Vera Drake, to a tough preacher in 21 Grams, to a ruthless criminal who keeps losing extremities in Hancock. Yes, Hancock.
Most narratives are usually structured around a protagonist’s problem. How do you tell a story about someone that has no problems? Happy-Go-Lucky defied my expectations that the story would go one of three ways:
Poppy’s happy-go-lucky attitude is a defense mechanism masking an inner sadness. Events conspire that force her to confront and defeat her inner demons. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture a young Julia Roberts.
Poppy confronts a huge tragedy that nearly breaks her spirit. She overcomes the obstacle. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.
Poppy meets someone deeply sad and unhappy, her polar opposite. She fixes this broken person with the power of her indomitable spirit. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture Robin Williams helping Jeff Bridges heal in Fisher King (although it may seem like I’m mocking it here, Terry Gilliam and Richard LaGravenese’s Fisher King is actually one of my favorite movies).
While Poppy’s happiness is totally genuine, she is not deranged. She does not deny that problems and sadness exist in the world and in other people’s lives. Nor does she believe that anyone else can simply shrug off their setbacks, depression, or inner demons. The above scenario to which Happy-Go-Lucky comes closest is the third. Scott and one of Poppy’s sisters are as sad and messed up as she is happy. She tries to help, but recognizes she is unable to fix them. The truly sad realization for the audience at the end is that we see that Poppy knows she must keep her distance from her sister and stop trying to befriend Scott. Her mere presence in their lives drives them crazy.
Strictly speaking, Baz Luhrmann has made only one musical, the guilty pleasure Moulin Rouge (2001). But, last seen directing Puccini’s opera La Bohème on Broadway, he can’t seem to resist the genre. Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), and now Australia all incorporate key elements of the musical: exaggerated emoting, spectacle, and especially, songs. Australia directly quotes whole numbers from The Wizard of Oz, but is actually better described not as Luhrmann’s Oz but as his Gone With the Wind. Which is to say, its an overlong costume drama faintly condescending towards its non-white characters and preoccupied with the epic spectacle of cities burning during wartime.
Australia’s biggest flaw is structural, being essentially two discrete movies featuring the same characters. Imagine a double feature of a movie and its sequel, smashed together into one. The first half concerns the Australian market for cattle needed to support the Allies’ war effort. Englishwoman Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman – a native Aussie who even here has to affect a false accent) owns a small ranch in the outback, and believes her absent husband is cheating on her. She travels down under to sell the land in order to pay down debt, but also to rid her husband of what she imagines to be his adulterous refuge. There, she learns he has been murdered by the monopolizing “King” Carney’s (Bryan Brown) henchman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, Faramir in Lord of the Rings).
She meets the hunky Drover (Hugh Jackman), a man whose name is his job, whose job is his name, and the sort of fictional Australian that actually says “Crikey” (q.v. Crocodile Dundee). Audience members interested in the beefcake factor will be delighted to see Jackman has built up his body to a size even bigger than for the Canadian mutant superhero Wolverine in three (soon to be four) X-Men films (although the neck-to-head ratio threatens to tip over into freakish territory). Lady Ashley also befriends the film’s narrator, the young “half-caste” boy Nullah (Brandon Walters, so extraordinarily androgynous that I had to keep reminding myself he was not a girl). Nullah spent most of the movie thoroughly annoying the hell out of me as he shouts out the name “Drover! Yay Drover! Drover, Drover, Drover, yay!” over and over and over again. Ugh.
Nullah’s grandfather, a mystical Aboriginal known as King George (David Gulpilil), has been framed for Lord Ashley’s murder. He watches over Nullah from afar, and encourages him to become a storyteller. The fact that we are being told this story by a little boy to some degree explains and excuses the cast’s hammy mugging (most especially by Kidman, of whom I am swiftly tiring, although I was never really a hater) and how, on the whole, everyone seems to take death pretty well. After losing Lady Ashley’s husband and Nullah’s mother, our gang of heroes is only really upset by the death of Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), an alcoholic collaborating with Carney. They are moved perhaps because he is given a chance to redeem himself right in front of them (as opposed to, say, an innocent person dying offscreen).
Lady Ashely finds she can make more money by tending the ranch and selling its cattle. Not to mention to effect a trifold moral victory: avenging her husband’s murder, beating the local monopoly, and righting a whole host of injustices made against the little boy. Nullah’s white father sexually exploited and murdered his mother, and if that weren’t trouble enough, the state wishes to abduct her and “breed the black out of her.” Such was official Australian policy until the 1970s; for a much better film along these themes see Phillip Noyce’s hugely affecting Rabbit Proof Fence (2002).
All this fuss and to-do is largely resolved and winds down about 1 hour and forty minutes in, the length of a typical movie. But Australia is no typical movie, and has about another hour and half to go. The happy surrogate family living together on the ranch must work itself all the way back up into an all-new conflict: the return of the villainous Fletcher for his revenge. The turmoil of World War II is reduced to an arbitrary inconvenience to the characters as they fight to restore their new makeshift family.
The movie is full of not-always-convincing computer-generated spectacle like cattle stampedes and Japanese kamikaze attacks. But one fleeting little shot caught my eye and reminded me why I like Luhrmann so much. Watch for a brief moment as a velvet curtain drops, and Luhrmann invisibly cuts to the reverse angle. Classy and cool.
The Visitor is the excellent sophomore effort from Thomas McCarthy, writer/director of The Station Agent (2003). The disgustingly talented McCarthy is also an accomplished actor, most recently appearing as a corporate espionage agent in Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity and as a plagiarizing journalist in The Wire.
Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a political science professor at Connecticut College. The recent widower has regressed into a willfully lonely state, having lost his social graces and merely coasting in his responsibilities. In one small way at least, he does seem to be trying to grow a little as the movie begins. He runs through a number of piano instructors, futilely attempting to pick up the instrument at an age he is counseled to not even try. We later learn that this effort is facing backwards and grasping at the past; his late wife was a concert pianist.
Walter reluctantly travels to New York City to present a paper he nominally cowrote. He finds that his neglected vacant city apartment has been illegally sublet by a man named Ivan (which comes across like a clue dropped for a future conflict – who is this Ivan with a key to his place, and will he return? But the plot point is never picked back up). His unexpected tenants are a young couple barely making a living in New York City as artists: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian djembe player, and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), a Senegalese jewelry designer. The conscientious Walter balks at throwing them out and instead befriends them. Tarek begins to teach him to play the djembe, which he takes to more immediately than he ever did the piano.
My one complaint is that the character of Tarek is too sketchily drawn. He’s an implausibly good and nice guy, without a hint of anything even remotely dark. Where are this very gregarious man’s other friends? Even the icy Zainab seems to have pals at the outdoors market where she sells her handmade jewelry.
The trio’s brief period of happiness is broken when Tarek is detained over a misunderstanding that incidentally reveals he and Zainab have both overstayed their visas. As Walter tries to aid his new friends, he finds himself plunged into the black hole of illegal immigration and Homeland Security. Tarek’s overprotective mother Mouma (Hiam Abbass) arrives, and Walter becomes her ambassador as they shuttle back and forth to a detention center in Queens (a borough the movie portrays rather unflatteringly). If finding new friends and an invigorating creative outlet had not already plunged Walter back into life, a budding romance with Mouma completes his new slate.
The Visitor and The Station Agent both manage to just barely skate the razor edge of sentimental cheese. Keeping the story of Walter’s emotional rehabilitation from being too corny is the worry that Walter is maybe a bit too desperate to ingratiate himself. Mouna understandably does a doubletake when she learns how much he is sacrificing to help Tarek, even though they have all known him for only a few days. Indeed, the perpetually nervous Zainab suspected his intentions from the very beginning – his aid would seem to be too good to be true were he not a man with a desperate hole in his life. Zainab’s distrust is the defensive stance of someone who knows she could be kicked out of her new home at any moment – xenophobia dressed up as combating terrorism. It’s all the more affecting when she finally melts and opens up to Walter and Mouna.
Any one of these characters could be the titular Visitor: Tarek, Zainab, and Mouna are, in the eyes of the Department of Homeland Security, at worst potential terrorists and at best temporary labor, no matter what they may have to offer. Walter has homes in Connecticut and New York but doesn’t really live in either one.
Director Julian Jarrold’s lavish period piece Brideshead Revisited trots the globe like a genteel James Bond adventure, visiting London, Venice, and Morocco, but especially the opulent Castle Howard. From the perspective of an ignoramus that hasn’t read Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, this compressed version of what I imagine to be a grander prose narrative doesn’t much fit the traditional structure of a feature-length movie. For instance, a major character disappears halfway through, and the internal contradiction of another’s stunted emotional life versus his grasping desires is not a very cinematic subject.
Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is a voraciously ambitious only child of a bitter, sarcastic, widowed father. He leaves his emotionally stifling home behind to study history at Oxford. His true aspirations are to be a painter, even though the chilly atheist does not seem to posses the rich emotional life of an artist. His middle-class London fashions divide him from his new upper-class peers, but from his first arrival on campus, he feels immediately drawn to the “sodomites.” As we learn more about Charles, we see that he does not so much share their sexuality as he is fascinated by their outwardly dramatic, emotionally honest natures, and considerable wealth – none of which he posesses. Curiously, Goode’s most recent screen appearance is as the similarly emotionless and sexually ambiguous Ozymandias in Watchmen.
One among Charles’ new friends is equally hungry to attach himself to him in return. The alcoholic, infantile Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) has more love for his teddy bear and housekeeper than for his extremely Roman Catholic mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson, whose role is not much more than a cameo, despite being featured front and center in the poster). Charles is awestruck by the wealth and opulence of Sebastian’s vast family estate Brideshead. As they pass through the chapel, the staunchly atheist Charles mimics his host and genuflects. Sebastian upbraids him, for not only is he from another social class altogether, worse, he is not Catholic. Charles first exposes the essential nature of his character when he replies that he was “just trying to fit in.”
But just as Charles’ cold home was defined by an unloving patriarch, Brideshead is blanketed by Lady Marchmain’s oppressive miasma of Catholic guilt. Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) escaped by decamping to Venice, where Catholics are a bit more liberal: they live their lives as they wish, and simply confess their sins away when necessary. At first, it seems only Lord Marchmain’s mistress Cara (Greta Scacchi) understands the situation: this homosexual dalliance is just a phase for Charles, but Sebastian is truly in love with him. We later learn that Lady Marchmain, whom one might assume would be blinkered by her pious faith, is fully aware of her son’s pain. She also gives an even more astute analysis of what drives Charles to attach himself to the family: “You’re so desperate to be liked, Charles.”
Charles is able to psychoanalyze himself in the end: “did I want too much?” All his actions are driven by desire: for the affections of the Oxford gay clique, to reside in Brideshead, to marry Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), and to be praised by high society as a painter. But Charles is icily detached, with a notable lack of emotion and empathy. He calmly divorces his wife offscreen, in order to marry Julia and become lord of Brideshead. But as her family gives the sacrament of last rites to Lord Marchmain against his wishes, she perceives a miracle as he relents and reaccepts his faith in his final moments. Her own faith is rekindled and she rejects Charles. In the end, his actions have ensured the final generation of the family, and leave the desirous manse to no one.