Friday, April 25, 2008

Two small movies that demand attention

Summary: Forget the multiplexes. This weekend, you may want to head for an art house where you can catch the uplifting (but not sickening) documentary "Young@Heart" or "The Visitor," an intriguing (if not entirely successful) movie about an emotionally tapped-out economics professor who learns to play drums

The Young@Heart Chorus – average age 80 – easily could have been the subject of a cloying documentary, but this touching look at folks who you might expect to find behind walkers is built around a major surprise. The movie's octogenarians are not given to wallowing in nostalgia. Instead, the group knocks out songs such as Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia,” Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can” and James Browns’ “I Feel Good.” Throw in tunes from “The Clash” and the “Bee Gees” and hard rock begins to trump hardening of the arteries. All of this may be a gimmick, but it beats the heck out of show tunes.

But wait! There's more! The Young@Heart Chorus does a credible job with these tunes under the guidance of Bob Cilman, a younger man who doesn’t coddle them because of their age. And don’t think that anything comes easily to this group: We watch as various members struggle to gain mastery over music that’s not necessarily in their wheelhouse.

British director Stephen Walker refuses to maneuver us into a maudlin corner, allowing these folks to sing and take their fun seriously. Entertaining and ultimately quite moving – a couple of chorus members die during the course of the film – "Young@Heart" reminds us that (regardless of age) we must learn to soldier on in the face of death. To be close to the end and still sing. Not a bad life lesson.

“The Visitor” -- directed by Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent”) -- stars Richard Jenkins as an emotionally depleted college professor who winds up forming and unlikely friendship with a Syrian drummer (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Gurira). The script contrives a meeting for the professor and his new pals, who wind up living in the New York apartment that he seldom uses. Usually, he resides in Connecticut where he teaches -- albeit without much enthusiasm. McCarthy hits false notes here and there, and the movie can’t entirely escape an unfortunate problem: It uses the plight of the poor and benighted to rejuvenate a long-suffering Anglo. But there’s more to “Visitor” than the occasional clinker. Jenkins – familiar to audiences for having played a ghostly father on “Six Feet Under” – creates a character of genuine and credible decency, and the movie soars a bit when Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbass) shows up. Abbass' regal presence almost made me wish that she'd been the main character. The movie -- which ultimately deals with the fate of illegal immigrants – proves genuinely touching, and if it has a larger message, it might be this: Walter, who has been sleepwalking through his life, needs to wake up – and so, possibly, does his country. I don't know how you feel about illegal immigration, but I hope -- like me -- you'll find the drumming irresistible. I only wish there'd been more of it.

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