"The Visitor" one of this year's best, "Redbelt" a slapdash carnival
Decency is a major theme in two new movies. Both "The Visitor" and "Redbelt" ask the question: How does one keep his decency in an indecent world?
"The Visitor" answers the question with grace and style; "Redbelt" muddles the answer.
"The Visitor" is as good a film as has been released so far this year. It's the story of a worn, bored college professor -- are there any other kind in movies? (We certainly don't want our profs or presidents to be knowledgeable and elitist).
This drab prof is 62-year-old Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), who is a member of the economics department at a college in Connecticut. Walter is just going through the motions, teaching only one course while ostensibly writing a book.
He is a widower (of course), and his son -- whom we never see or hear -- is in London.
Walter has to visit New York City to deliver a paper that he “co-authored,” although he doesn't want to go. He tries to get out of the trip, but his chairman insists.
Walter has an apartment in New York City, to which he hasn't been since his wife died. On arriving there, he finds his apartment is occupied by a young couple of illegal immigrants, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). He is from Syria, and she is from Senegal. They thought they had rented the apartment, but were tricked. The trio cautiously sort things out.
Tarek is gregarious and plays a drum at a jazz club, and Zainab designs and sells her jewelry at a street market.
Walter begins to learn to play the drum under the tutelage of Tarek, and a personal relationship develops between the older man and his engaging young tutor.
But as decent and talented as Tarek and Zainab may be, they are illegals. This causes dire circumstances, and Walter has to become emboldened on their behalf.
He then meets Mauna, Tarek's mother (Hiam Abbass), who has come to New York to help her son, and together she and Walter bond as they battle the system.
This experience humanizes, reenergizes, and sensitizes the man who had forgotten how to feel.
Veteran actor Richard Jenkins has the part of a lifetime as Walter, and he beautifully underplays it.
Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira and Hiam Abbass deftly add notes of human joy, bewilderment, and poignancy.
"The Visitor" is writer-director Tom McCarthy's second movie. His debut was the charming "The Station Agent" (2003). McCarthy is an actor. He played Scott
Templeton, the fraudulent journalist for 10 episodes on this year's finale of HBO's "The Wire."
Because he is an actor himself, McCarthy, in his writing and direction, knows how to create moments of human interaction and meaning. They are small poems to the human spirit.
The best movies are those that understand the human condition and have a personal vision. "The Visitor" is one of those rare creations.
"The Visitor" is a parable of decency. It depends on one's sense of human nature. Some viewers will be irked, others will be frustrated and some will be profoundly moved.
While "The Visitor" is fully realized, "Redbelt," written and directed by David Mamet, is maddeningly erratic.
Mamet wrote and directed "House of Games" (1987) --see it if you haven't -- and "The Spanish Prisoner" (1997) and wrote the play "Gengarry Glen Ross," which became a movie (1992). Mamet loves schemes, scams and cons.
At his best Mamet is a shrewd sorcerer; at lesser times Mamet is like a carnival barker. Unfortunately "Redbelt" is a slapdash carnival.
"Redbelt" seems like a rush job that relies too much on the quick fix. I'm very willing to suspend my disbelief, but "Redbelt" becomes outlandish.
"Redbelt" is the story of Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who has a small struggling academy where he teaches jujitsu, dedicated to keeping the purity of the form against encroaching commerciality. David, if this is a metaphor for your work, it doesn't wash.
When Laura (Emily Mortimer), an anxiety-ridden woman, causes an accident that breaks the window of his studio, the game is afoot. It all winds up in an absurd public fight for the redbelt -- the highest honor.
The best thing about "Redbelt" is that the old Mamet gang is present: Montegna, Ricky Jay, David Paymer, and of course Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon, who sings during the final credits. It's good to have most of them back. I still miss Mamet's first wife, wonderful actress Lindsay Crouse.
The cast is fine, although Mamet has constricted Max Martini with one of the worst roles he's ever written: an ill-fated cop.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is stalwart as the noble warrior, and Alice Braga suitably plays his not-so-noble wife. Emily Mortimer, who really looks like Demi Moore, is effective as the stricken woman. Tim Allen, Joe Montegna, et al. glide through their tricky paces.
Mamet should have used a red pen a lot more on "Redbelt." "Redbelt" is about honor, but its development is ragged and not honorable.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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