In frantic summer fare, ‘The Visitor’ is welcome

Posted Sept. 11, 2008, at 4:59 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

THE VISITOR, written and directed by Tom McCarthy, 103 minutes, rated PG-13.

The new Tom McCarthy movie, the beautifully measured “The Visitor,” is about a man at a crossroads, with the most appealing road to take — at least at this point in his life — appearing to be the one that leads to the top of the highest cliff. And then off it.

His name is Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, never better), he’s a widower, and as the movie opens, he’s no one you’d particularly want to befriend, unless of course you meet each other at a glum bar and thus shared similar gray outlooks on life.

Everything about Walter suggests a life in which the air has been let out of the room. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t talk much. His career as an economics professor seems more of a burden to him than it does a source of energy and creativity.

And yet Walter, well — he’s complicated. At one moment, he’s unnecessarily rude to his students. In another, he is the student, in this case a man on the downside of life who is struggling to learn the piano from an elderly woman he ultimately fires because he believes she’s failing at her job.

“How many teachers have you had before me?” she asks.

“Four,” he says.

Her knowing gaze might as well be ours.

The film, which McCarthy (“The Station Agent”) based on his own script, is a surprise of restraint and calm in the wake of summer’s more aggressive howlers. In that way alone, it’s a welcome reprieve, offering audiences a moment to get to know real people again, and perhaps to feel a connection to them that was difficult to do in, say, such films as “The House Bunny” or “Death Race.”

The film narrows its focus when a colleague recommends that Walter travel to New York City to attend a conference that will highlight a paper he co-authored. Walter’s initial reaction is to resist. But when it’s suggested to him that he has little choice in the matter, he gathers himself together and leaves for an apartment he has kept in the city for years.

It’s when he arrives that he’s shocked into a new kind of existence. In his apartment are two immigrants. There’s Tarek (Haaz Sleiman, terrific), a Muslim from Syria, and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), a Muslim from Senegal. They rented the apartment through a mysterious third party named Ivan and thus were under the impression they were doing so legitimately.

But they weren’t. A scuffle ensues, misunderstandings are aired, and then something expected happens (at least to those in the movie) — a relationship develops. While Zainab initially wants little to do with Walter, Tarek, a gifted, enormously likable musician who plays African drums in Manhattan parks and nightclubs, is drawn to him, particularly when Walter expresses interest in learning how to play those drums.

While on the surface it might seem that a movie about a man who finds his lost rhythm through the vehicle of another culture is predictable and cliched, it certainly could have been in the wrong hands. But McCarthy has the right touch.

Running beneath the surface of his movie are the sort of political undertones that could have come off as canned, particularly since they deal with the tensions surroundings Muslims in New York City in the wake of Sept. 11. Instead, since the movie is more about Walter’s rebirth into the real world, those undercurrents don’t feel forced or preachy, but honest and real. What McCarthy mines is something emotional and moving, which proves especially true when the plot complicates to include Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbass), whose presence in the film deepens it in ways that won’t be revealed here, but which helps to make “The Visitor” one of the best independent films of the year.

Grade: A-

Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 1980 novella “The Mist” is now available on Blu-ray disc; it was one of last year’s more satisfying horror movies. It’s a film about how a mysterious mist rises on the horizon after a storm slams into a Maine town, leaving its residents rushing to repair the destruction left in its wake. Of course, nothing in the mist is as terrifying — or as heroic — as what we ourselves can become when pressed by fear.

That’s the film’s point and that’s what it reveals so well, particularly with Marcia Gay Harden in the juicy role of the Bible-thumping Mrs. Carmody. With Thomas Jane in the lead, the movie offers solid supporting turns from Toby Jones and Laurie Holden, several surprises tucked within the so-so special effects, and an ending that’s so good, it proves that even in today’s mass-market movies, sometimes Hollywood has the guts to turn a blind eye to the box office, focus on what best serves the story — and just get it right.

Death literally is popping up everywhere in the first season of “Pushing Daisies,” a highlight now available on DVD and Blu-ray disc. The show offers an ingenious twist on the crime-solving and romantic comedy genres, with a pie-maker named Ned (Lee Pace) able to bring the dead back to life with a mere touch.

This proves invaluable in finding out who might have killed certain people and why, but it also complicates matters significantly since just one more touch from Ned will leave them dead for eternity. And how is Ned to handle that dilemma when his beloved Charlotte (Anne Friel) is murdered? Ned brings her back to life, sure, but since he can never touch her again, their relationship hovers in a kind of romantic purgatory, one treated with wit and finesse in one of last year’s better new television shows.

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of hundreds of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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