Utne Reader Film Reviews

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Broken Homeland

The Visitor
(Overture Films; in theaters April 11)
Political without being preachy and tender without being sentimental, The Visitor reveals the frustrations of an average American who wants to stop his country from destroying itself and its ideals. Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a white-bread, widowed Connecticut college professor who has lost his passion for life. One night, when he returns to his unused New York apartment, he discovers an illegal immigrant couple—Tarek, a charming man from Syria, and his Senegalese girlfriend—who have been living there by mistake. What could be a sitcom-like set-up evolves into a brilliant gem of a movie about friendship and post-9/11 politics.

Actor-turned-director Tom McCarthy tells his story with the same compassion, humor, and sensitivity that he brought to his debut, The Station Agent, in which another unlikely group of characters—including a dwarf, a Hispanic hot dog vendor, and an 11-year-old African American girl—come together to convey a larger story about loneliness and companionship.

The Visitor wins you over with a disarmingly sweet beginning that shows Walter bonding with Tarek over the West African djembe drum and then breaks your heart when this newfound friend is whisked away to a detention center. Ultimately, The Visitor conveys the sorrowful realization that no matter how much we want to change the system, sometimes we can’t.
—Anthony Kaufman

 

Helvetica
(Plexifilm; on DVD)
What do tax forms, Do Not Enter signs, the Postal Service, and Target have in common? They all use Helvetica, the sans serif typeface that has become the acme type of the modern world since its introduction 50 years ago. Clean, simple, and remarkably well-balanced, Helvetica, this documentary reveals, is not just a font but the catalyst for a “global visual culture” that dominates our landscape and has inspired legions of imitators—even a backlash. Watch as the world’s top graphic and type designers discuss its merits, often in German accents that invite parody, in a film that will have you doing a second take every time you really look at type. While it may be best appreciated by designers, Helvetica will appeal to anyone who is interested in the power of visual communication. —Keith Goetzman

 

4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days
(IFC First Take; in theaters and on video-on-demand)
A woman’s choice to have an abortion has been glossed over in Hollywood films from Knocked Up to Juno. This movie all the way from Romania captures the brutal realities of what happens in a society that forbids the procedure. Winner of the top award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, Cristian Mungiu’s bracing drama about a female student trying to obtain an illegal abortion takes place during the fading reign of Nicolae Ceausescu. Mungiu’s vision of his country haunts and oppresses. No one can be trusted, neither the “doctor” who comes to her aid nor our heroine, a shrewd young woman trying to negotiate her own survival. Masterfully told, 4 Months is Hitchcockian thriller and lacerating political and moral inquiry all rolled into one. —A.K.

 

Improvisation
(Eagle Eye Media; on DVD)
The marquee performance in this archival collection, which gets up-close-in-concert with music legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, lasts just 10 minutes. It is rare footage, captured in 1950 by the “pope of photography,” Gjon Mili, of bebop god Charlie Parker blowing alto sax alongside tenor man Coleman Hawkins, drummer Buddy Rich, and bassist Ray Brown. If that doesn’t justify the rent, Mili’s Jammin’ the Blues, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best short film in 1944, should close the deal. Opening from above on Lester Young—leaning back in his signature porkpie hat, surrounded by swirling smoke and other jazz giants—it cuts from lush in-studio long shots to off-kilter close-ups and dreamy dance sequences that swoon, then swing. Hard. —David Schimke

 

Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea
(Docurama; on DVD)
The Salton Sea is actually an inland lake created in the Southern California desert by an irrigation error in 1905, sold as a resort paradise in the 1950s, and now, beset by fluctuating water levels, home only to dusty, sun-fried communities of holdouts, eccentrics, and dead-enders. Filmmakers Christopher Metzler and Jeff Springer vividly capture locals like an outrageous Hungarian drunk named Hunky Daddy and a man building a painted mudcake mountain for Jesus, while also telling the epic environmental story behind the Salton Sea. (The lake is largely human-made, but many birds have come to depend on its waters.) Though the film is narrated by John Waters, the filmmakers keep the camp in check—a wise move, because you really couldn’t make this stuff up. —K.G.