Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Visitor - Dir. Thomas McCarthy

The Visitor opened about a year ago, at a time when few "awards-minded" films are released. It was one of the first movies to open in 2008 with an Oscar buzz attached to it, for lead actor Richard Jenkins. Jenkins was nominated, and a few weeks ago he lost out to Sean Penn. I could have tried to rent Milk last night but I was just assuming it would be not be available. I watched The Visitor on Starz On-Demand last night, very tired due to a reckless Friday night which involved 3 hours of sleep, at best, thinking, "Well, I'll probably fall asleep but it's supposed to be good, so I should at least try...."

I'm very glad I decided to do that, and I did not fall asleep. I am writing about it on Flying Houses because this is the kind of movie that gets forgotten about by the public at large and flits around on cable for months or years--perhaps like The Station Agent, McCarthy's only other film which he wrote and directed, which is supposed to be quite good, and which I've never really tried to see. The Visitor is a very good film--the only criticism I can make is that it tends to view the world through rose-colored glasses too much. Not in its conclusion, or portrayal of law enforcement procedure--but in its total disregard to issues of cost of living.

Richard Jenkins plays Walter, an economics professor at Connecticut College, who is summoned to New York to present a paper at NYU which he co-authored, though he really just read it and attached his name to it. The woman more responsible for it is in the throws of late-stage pregnancy, and so he agrees to go to New York, where it is casually revealed that he keeps an apartment--for the last 25 years. I understand that tenured professors make pretty good money, but still, a home in Connecticut, and an apartment in New York that he almost never goes to--that's the first offense. He finds two people living in his apartment, Syrian musician Tarek, and Senegalese jewelry-maker Zainab. At first they flip out because they think it's their place--they've been rented it by a man named Ivan, who is only mentioned by name and never explained, offense #2. Walter feels bad for them after they leave, because they've been polite and understanding, and tells them they can move back in and stay for a few days.

He goes to the conference at NYU, which are certainly some of the best scenes in the film. The Kimmel Student Center is used to excellent effect in the film. He goes to Washington Square Park and starts to listen to the drummers playing the bongo on the bottoms of buckets. He later finds that Tarek plays the bongos, and after being taught a few lessons, realizes that the drums are one of his great undiscovered loves. These are some of the other best scenes--for about twenty minutes--perhaps minutes 20 through 40 of the film--it can seemingly do no wrong. Never mind that Tarek and Zainab are supposedly looking for an apartment--who knows how they'd be able to afford it--but because it doesn't come to fruition it is not enough to call if offense #3. You can't help but be happy for Walter, who is such a cut-and-dry figure at the beginning, and who develops this very real, dare-I-say heartwarming friendship with Tarek and his girlfriend, who is oddly standoffish at points.

The turning point of the film occurs after the drum circle performance at Central Park, another one of the best scenes. In the rush to get through the subway turnstile, Tarek gets his giant drum bag stuck at an interval after it has locked, and he casually steps over it. A note on turnstile hopping: I do not know if I have done it in New York, but I definitely did it in Paris a few times, where it is commonplace enough that I saw a few other people do it, generally at night. I might have done it once in New York, but the manner in which Tarek is stopped is something very real and frightening and you really just want to curse the hell out of the subway police. Definitely one of the most emotional parts of the movie, and Jenkins plays the part of powerless advocate at just the right tone. Later Tarek is brought to a correctional facility in Queens, and then for the final arc of the film, his mother arrives from Michigan because she believes that her presence alone in the city will help get him out.

Another great scene is when Tarek's mother, Mouna, meets Zainab and asks, "Show me what you liked to do in the city with him." And they ride the Staten Island Ferry, because it's a free boat ride, and because you can point out where the WTC used to stand, even if you didn't get to see it in person, and because you go right by the Statue of Liberty, which is certainly a major symbol in the film. Later there seems to be a relationship blossoming between Walter, a widower, and Mouna, a widow, but the film never veers into sacharrine unrealistic notions of romance, and is all the more powerful for it.

While the set-up may be a bit unrealistic for monetary reasons, and while the issue of illegal aliens in the U.S. is given a rather elementary surface examination, The Visitor is still a film that everyone should see. It will make you happy in ways you didn't expect, and it will make you really start to care about the characters, whether you recognize the manipulative quality or not. That extra 20% in income taxes that Tarek and Zainab avoid having to pay is maybe just what they need to make living in NYC work out alright. I think the film could have presented the other side of the issue, at least slightly, just to give a voice to the other side, but it is still an important film politically, because it calls for revision of U.S. immigration policy, which has only become more strict and harsh since 9/11. What happens to Tarek is upsetting, and while he may not technically be allowed to stay in the country, there still should be some way to allow him to become a naturalized citizen before such life-shattering actions are taken. Jenkins voices these emotions in such a way that you don't disagree with him, and while it is up for debate whether he deserved the Oscar, he clearly deserved the nomination. While this is definitely a "message film," it's not a boring or inappropriate one, and the last shot of film is memorably great. It may not seem like the most exciting movie from a synopsis standpoint, but it deserves to be given a chance by everybody.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Trail of the Dead - Jon Evans

As a formatting issue, Flying Houses reviews music with the band name first and the album title after the dash, and books with the title first and the author's name after the dash. This is because it just seems like the journalistic standard. That new Franz Ferdinand album might make for a confusing review or the Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified could be the same.

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (a.k.a. Trail of the Dead) have put out their newest album last week and a review can be found here and if I were myself from a couple years ago I would probably be taking the long walk down to Reckless Records to buy it, but I digress. Their secret new album is called "Jon Evans" and is coming out later this year, in a move not unlike Radiohead's "Kid A"/"Amnesiac" release schedule. Naming their album after a person is a curious move, but does not come as a total surprise after one of their earlier songs that staked out their reputation, "Mark David Chapman" was similarly-titled, not to mention "Baudelaire."

But "Jon Evans?" Who is Jon Evans? Well, he is a writer. A real living person. "Dark Places" is his first novel. He has written four more. Here is what a short biography on a book site says about him: Jon Evans is the son of an ex-pat Rhodesian father and Canadian mother and was born and raised in Canada. He has travelled extensively all over the world and works as an IT consultant between trips. He currently lives and works in San Francisco.

The Trail of the Dead have created a concept album based around this man's life. Does it come close to Zen Arcade or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness or Cursive's Happy Hollow? Sadly, not. However it is a very original idea that should not be discounted. The first track on the album is about a guy named Paul Wood who goes hiking on the Annapurna Circuit in Malaysia. He and his friend from South Africa are hiking around a mountain and they discover a dead body with Swiss Army knives in his eyes. The man's name is Stanley Goebel which immediately makes me think, Nazi.

But Stanley is actually a fellow Canadian of Paul's (whose name is actually Balthazar) and a pretty good guy on all accounts, and Paul continues home to San Francisco in the second "movement" of the album, titled "California." There he works as an IT Consultant, and soon the economy topples and Paul gets laid off. Conrad Keely must be trying to make a statement about the current state of global society. Now all art will be about desperation, poverty, and human resilience. It works in this case, as Paul uses the opportunity of unemployment to solve the mystery of this murder--because here's the kicker--two years earlier, his girlfriend Laura had been murdered--in the same way! With knives in her eyes!

Probably the best song on the album is "Cookie Monsters" which involves Paul's attempt to track down the killer via posts made to a secret online page where the identity of the murderer is revealed. One of the rules of the game he plays is to only log onto the page at public terminals and then to delete all the browsing history before he leaves--but he forgets to delete the cookie history too! Since Paul is an IT Consultant he knows all of these secret tricks to online pseudo-hacking and eventually hatches a plan to lure the murderer back to Africa, where Laura's murder took place, while recruiting several old friends from the overland trucking trip to Africa that the first murder happened during.

Since Keely & Co. have constructed such an elaborate plot for their album, it is very difficult to discern the majority of the action in the story. Only if you read all of the lyrics from beginning to end will the story come through at all, and even then it seems vague. Just hearing Keely try to sing songs about all of this complicated subject-matter makes for an unforgettable listen.

Finally, Paul stages a dramatic conclusion during the song "The Pillar of Hercules" that ends the story on a happy note. Not to be outdone, Trail of the Dead close out the album with the revelation of Jon Evans--the author of the story about their album about Paul Wood--and how he is a successful mass-market paperback writer that won an award for his debut novel and now finds himself blocked, and so is forced to go back into more IT work than writing. For the originality of the material, Trail of the Dead have released their most essential album since Source Tags & Codes, one that will capture the attention of adventure-seekers and serial killer-hunters and superhero-impersonators everywhere. Their conceit is not to be outdone, and the humor they reveal displays a side of the band that will be totally welcome in indie rock circles everywhere--total disregard for audience expectations and totally random musical ideas. It's weird, but it's usually compelling, though not as good as the greatest concept albums of all time, still an album that should rank in the top 20 of 2009. At the very least, it's a gift for Jon Evans, the real writer, who will no doubt be amused that a pretty popular band has decided to write an album about him. They even make another prescient observation--the only band Paul mentions liking is Prodigy, and Prodigy released their first new album in five years (since Evans wrote "Dark Places," actually) the same day as their other recent album, "The Century of Self." You've got to hand it to them--they definitely don't lack any ambition.