Brainflow Feed

That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, they revolve mostly around films.)

The Visitor & Iron Man

Thursday, May 15th, 2008 8:46 pm—Film

The Visitor (USA 2008, Drama), Writer/Director: Thomas McCarthy

Iron Man (USA 2008, Action/Adventure), Director: Jon Favreau; Writers: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway

If I had a “Top X Movies” list, The Visitor would be on it. It’s the kind of film that stops me in my tracks and really makes me examine why certain films succeed where others fail.

I recently rented Zoe Cassavetes’ Broken English, a movie that didn’t move me to blog about it. In fact, I don’t think I made it halfway through before turning it off. But Broken English came to mind when I started watching The Visitor.

The former is about Nora (Parker Posey), a single 30-something New Yorker who is frustrated with the dating scene but tired of being alone. Writer/director Cassavetes spells out Nora’s frustration by having her vent to a friend, or ask a new lover where it’s all going and what it all means.

This approach is diametrically opposed from the one writer/director Thomas McCarthy takes with The Visitor.

The Visitor
is about Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a lonely widowed college professor who goes to New York City on business and finds a young immigrant couple living illegally in his apartment—and in the United States, for that matter. Writer/director Thomas McCarthy doesn’t spell out Walter’s loneliness. Instead, he shows it in the simplest, most effective way. He lets us watch Walter.

We meet him as a reserved, reclusive, awkward man trying to learn the piano despite an obvious lack of talent. He goes through piano teachers, firing one after another and forging ahead in his cerebral way, trying to think the music into being.

While watching The Visitor, I asked myself why Walter is instantly captivating; why simply observing him as he sits at the piano, or stands alone in the kitchen stirring spaghetti sauce, is so engaging. The reason is because the writing and direction reveal just enough to let us in, but leave enough room for the actor, and our imaginations, to breathe real life into the character. McCarthy never shows more than necessary.

I was reminded of a Stephen King quote I once read, that says something to the effect of: “Don’t tell them it’s scary; scare them.”

In The Visitor, nothing the characters tell us comes off as exposition. We learn of Walter’s deceased wife in the most natural way, through a simple conversation with a uniquely different but equally awkward man in Walter’s apartment building. From this brief exchange, McCarthy creates a hidden world, a history, a life for even this passing stranger whom we never see again.

That is one of the most extraordinary things about The Visitor. Its script, its performances profoundly evoke an entire life for each character before we ever met them. The detail and richness of each character—the immigrant couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), and Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass)—is so unique. Through even the smallest gestures, comments and reactions, we get a glimpse into the different worlds the four main characters come from. In fact, every part is impeccably cast, down to the smallest spoken role.

Jenkins is pitch-perfect as Walter. He draws you so completely into his world, his loneliness, his reserve, that the one time he truly beams in the film, I felt my heart burst open. That’s how much I came to empathize with him; his joy literally became my own.

As Walter comes to know Tarek, Zainab and Mouna, you see him open up and begin to change, displaying great acts of kindness, generosity and trust. But you also see the decades that passed before those changes were possible. Jenkins’ performance suggests a man who wasn’t always able to let others in, who couldn’t give his wife what she needed and deserved, who didn’t show his appreciation for her until it was too late, and a man whose son understandably chose to live far away from him in London. You never wonder why he had no interest in learning to play the piano while his wife, a brilliant pianist, was still alive.

McCarthy conveys all this without ever spelling it out. There isn’t one moment of falseness in The Visitor.

That truth extends beyond the character development to the film’s more political themes. McCarthy makes a powerful statement about the way people treat one another because of preconceptions we all have. But he doesn’t do this by hitting you over the head with it. Instead, it becomes clear through the course of the main characters’ lives, either directly or indirectly. McCarthy weaves little insights into the film in smart, sometimes funny ways. Look for the scene in the lawyer’s office, or at Zainab’s street stand.

The Visitor
is an incredible character study, but not only of Walter; the film presents a study of the people he meets, the relationships they form, and the world we live in. It also beautifully demonstrates that you have to let love (and music) in to be able to give it out.

Ironically, this is also shown in the summer’s first blockbuster action flick—albeit in a very different manner. Well, the part about love and human connection… not so much the music. (How’s that for a smooth segue? ☺) Iron Man is far less sensitive to matters of race, culture and foreign (or even domestic) relations. But it does its part by making some of the white Americans out to be bad guys, and showing plenty of good guys in the Middle East.

Iron Man brings the Marvel Comics series to the big screen. I haven’t read any of the comics, and had never even heard of Iron Man before seeing the trailers. But that didn’t stand in the way of my enjoying it.

I want to be Tony Stark. At least for a few hours a week. Minus the womanizing. He’s so cool, impossibly smart, commands complete authority over technology. He can fly. What more could you want? How fun would it be to be able to orchestrate machines and equipment the way he does, waving his arms around like a magician or conductor?

The film begins with Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the genius behind American munitions manufacturer Stark Industries, being kidnapped in the Middle East and ordered to build a version of his latest bomb, the Jericho. (Never mind that what they really would have asked him for were the plans for the bomb.) But Stark is too smart for that. Instead, he builds a metal suit that enables him to blast his way out of the cave and return safely to America.

Upon his return, Stark finds that the life he led—of hot babes aplenty, including scantily clad stewardesses (the best kind, right?) with a talent for pole dancing, and weapons of mass destruction—no longer satisfies in the same way.

And so begins the gestation of Iron Man. The film is more a prologue to the Iron Man series than a full-on episode. Some friends of mine complained that there wasn’t enough action for an “action movie.” They compared it dismissively to The Hulk. But I liked The Hulk, although not as much as Iron Man. There’s so much room for psychoanalysis and character development in these action hero movies that I like them better when they involve more than just mindless action. Look at Unbreakable. Okay, I liked that more than most people did, too. Maybe I’m not making a good case here. But there is more humour and action in Iron Man than in either of those movies, and Downey Jr. has the skill and subtlety to convey back-story without dragging it out into the foreground and mucking up the action with too much emotion.

You get it all with Iron Man; it’s a lot of fun, features first-rate effects, and stands a notch (or more) above your typical, vacuous action blockbuster. Who wouldn’t want to spend a few hours in that world?

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