2 items from 2004
10 September 2004 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »
It's a cracking good detective yarn with hints of Chinatown and Raymond Chandler, and it's a sharp political lampoon of things we're all reading about on today's front pages. It's also a sociopolitical portrait of a state, in this case Colorado, along the lines of Sayles' Sunshine State (Florida) and Lone Star (Texas), in which picturesque environments are fractured by divisions of culture and class.
The film probably lacks the requisite sex-and-violence quotient to expand much beyond adult specialty venues. Distributor Newmarket Films certainly has a magic touch, however, with films that provoke controversy. Sayles' transparent portrait of a corrupt political dynasty that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Bush family could provide that controversy.
A gubernatorial election in Colorado has Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), the prodding, ex-alcoholic, linguistically challenged son of the state's venerable senator (Michael Murphy) running for his first public office. His dad's campaign team is in complete charge, led by take-no-prisoners manager Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss).
While filming an environmental TV spot, Dickie's fishing line snags the battered corpse of a migrant Latino laborer. Chuck is paranoid enough to see this unsettling incident as a dirty political trick. So he hires Grace Seymour's Mary Kay Place) detective agency not only to investigate but also to lean on a trio of individuals on the Pilager family's enemies list. The assignment falls to Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston), who belongs to the noble detective-fiction tradition of the disgraced yet white knight capable of moral outrage: Formerly an idealistic journalist, Danny once walked into a political setup and got fired when his newspaper was forced to print a retraction for a muckraking story.
Huston's performance expands as the story proceeds, his loose, rumpled physicality and restless forward drive expressing an impatience with slick, insincere answers and an overpowering need to solve this riddle.
Through his eyes, the viewer is sucked deep into a vortex of corruption that whirls around a large cast of shifty characters that includes the Pilager family; media magnate/developer Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson); lobbyist Chander Tyson (Billy Zane), who happens to date O'Brien's former lover, top political reporter Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello); and Mort Seymous (David Clennon), Grace's husband, who is desperate to develop the planned community of Silver City in and around an old mine where the Pilagers and Benteen once did business.
What makes Sayles' storytelling so compelling is his uncanny ability to capture the different speech cadences of each character. There is Roven's double-speak with coded phrase meaning different things to different folks; the candidate's inability to follow a single thought all the way through a complete sentence; double-edged words that drip with cynicism belonging to his estranged sister, Maddy (Daryl Hannah); Benteen's deliberate, Orwellian misuse of such words as "freedom" and "resources"; the hate-laced verbiage from right-wing radio jock Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer); and Tyson's smooth counterpunching when confronted with clear contradictions.
Not that images are neglected. Veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler, in his fourth outing with Sayles, turns film noir on its head with sun-blasted city streets and high, cloudless skies in the seemingly innocent Colorado landscape.
Writer-director-editor: John Sayles
Producer: Maggie Renzi
Director of photography: Haskell Wexler
Production designer: Toby Corbett
Music: Mason Daring
Costume designer: Shay Cunliffe
Danny O'Brien: Danny Huston
Nora: Maria Bello
Dickie Pilager: Chris Cooper
Chuck Raven: Richard Dreyfuss
Sheriff Skaggs: James Gammon
Maddy: Daryl Hannah
Mitch: Tim Roth
Wes: Kris Kristofferson
Sen. Pilager: Michael Murphy
Chandler: Billy Zane
Grace: Mary Kay Place
MPAA rating: R
Running time -- 128 minutes »
Visiting one lone theater (Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Hollywood for one noon show daily) in a bid for awards consideration, writer-producer-director Jordan Walker-Pearlman's "The Visit" is already a winner and a triumphant first release from New York-based Urbanworld Films. Destined, hopefully, to reach more moviegoers at a later date, the low-budget drama about a fractured black family earned a Special Recognition from the National Board of Review as well as several kudos from festivals and NAACP Image Awards nominations for supporting actors Billy Dee Williams and Marla Gibbs.
Hill Harper ("Loving Jezebel", CBS' "City of Angels") heads a great cast in this absorbing, moving adaptation of Kosmond Russell's play. Based on Russell's relationship with his brother in an Ohio prison, "The Visit" is structured around the emotionally charged encounters between incarcerated Alex Harper) and his family members who reluctantly come to see him. Walker-Pearlman, in his feature screenwriting debut, adapts the material with nary a false step.
The film opens with Alex's successful older brother Tony (Obba Babatunde) visiting the prison for the first time in 10 months. Sentenced to 25 years for a rape he claims he didn't commit, Alex is deeply hurt by his family's abandoning him to his fate. He also has AIDS, and fears he will die in prison. It has been five years since Alex saw his parents, and he reaches out to Tony for help.
Admitting to the prison psychiatrist (Phylicia Rashad) that he's made mistakes in the past but maintaining his innocence, Alex gets his wish when his parents come for a short, poignant reunion. But while his sympathetic mother (Gibbs) listens to him and reasserts her unconditional love, Alex's father (Williams) has long ago made up his mind that his younger son deserves his punishment. This first encounter with his father ends on a depressing note as they have a joyless group photo taken to remember the occasion.
After this visit and others during the course of the film, Alex has fantasy dreams of a better life where love, understanding and happiness outshine the drab, dangerous prison environment. There are several flashbacks, including young Alex's disappointment when Tony departs for college. Beaten down and desperate but not equating himself anymore with the "guys" who brought him down into the "dirt," Alex is calm and cooperative when he comes before a parole board in one of the film's most astonishing and beautifully executed sequences.
Talia Shire, David Clennon, Glynn Turman, Efrain Figueroa and Amy Stiller play the parole board members, who argue before even seeing Alex when they discover his medical condition. This peek into the process of official redemption provides a complex counterpoint to the struggle Alex has with his domineering, incredibly stubborn father, who cannot forgive his son for the character flaws he inherited and not becoming a "real man."
Another visitor, Alex's childhood friend Felicia Rae Dawn Chong), shows him how a kindred soul can overcome unthinkably grim life events. An ex-drug addict like Alex, Felicia killed her abusive father but has successfully returned to lead a good life. During the nine months the film covers, Alex achieves a spiritual reawakening that resurrects his frayed soul even as he physically weakens and his freedom is denied.
Filmed mostly at the decommissioned Lincoln Heights jail in Los Angeles, "The Visit" has a conservative yet forceful style that brings out the best in all of the performers. Harper is superb, and Williams delivers one of the best supporting performances of the year. Gibbs, Chong, Babatunde and Rashad likewise display all their considerable talents in one of the most important and satisfying films of the year.
Screenwriter-producer-director: Jordan Walker-Pearlman
Based on the play by: Kosmond Russell
Director of photography: John Ndiaga Demps
Production designer: John Larena
Editors: Alison Learned, Jordan Walker-Pearlman
Costume designer: Carlos Rosario
Alex: Hill Harper
Tony: Obba Babatunde
Henry Waters: Billy Dee Williams
Lois Waters: Marla Gibbs
Felicia McDonald: Rae Dawn Chong
Dr. Coles: Phylicia Rashad
Marilyn Coffey: Talia Shire
Running time -- 107 minutes
MPAA rating: R
2 items from 2004
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