Sunday, June 22, 2008

Two Movies Worth Checking Out

Over the past week I have attended two exceptional movies. Both are "mainstream" but take viewers to the edges of our understanding of what we can do to, with or for one another.


As part of the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) I got to see Alan Ball's first directorial pix: Towelhead. This from Time:

By mid-August, audiences should be ready for something provocative enough to jar us out of our special effects-induced stupor. Enter Alan Ball, the Oscar winning writer of American Beauty and Six Feet Under, the George Lucas of the dirty-little-suburban-secrets genre. For his directorial debut, Ball adapted a novel by Alicia Erian about an Arab-American girl growing up and coming of age in Texas during the first Gulf war. Newcomer Summer Bishil plays the lead; Peter Macdissi is her strict father, Aaron Eckhart an Army reservist whose head is turned by his young neighbor. Towelhead has all the makings of the best of Ball: precocious teens, narcissistic parents, uncomfortable sexuality, cutting cultural commentary. And, in this summer movie, the aliens who teach us about ourselves aren't CGI.

And this from Apple:
TOWELHEAD follows the dark, bold and shockingly funny life of Jasira, a 13-year-old Arab-American girl, as she navigates the confusing and frightening path of adolescence and her own sexual awakening. When Jasira’s mother sends her to Houston to live with her strict Lebanese father, she quickly learns that her new neighbors find her and her father a curiosity. Worse, her budding womanhood makes her traditional and hot-tempered father uncomfortable. Lonely in this new environment, Jasira seeks friendship and acceptance from her neighbors Mr. Vuoso, an Army reservist, and Melina, a meddling but caring expectant mother. Thrown into an unfamiliar suburban world, Jasira must confront racism and hypocrisy at home and at school - and at the same time struggle to make sense of her raging hormones and newfound sexuality. Her boyfriend, Thomas, though a few years older, provides some comfort - but even that relationship causes problems when her father discovers that Thomas is black. Surrounded by adults who are just as lost as she is, Jasira yearns for understanding, even amidst often brutal acts.
Summer Bishal aced this role. Alan Ball came to Seattle for this showing to a packed Egyptian Theater. He said she walked in during the first week of the call for this role. She was 18 but looked 13. Her "character arc" takes her from pawn between her divorced parents to a "somewhat in charge of herself" person. Hard to do at 31 much less 13 and as a minor. She begins to make choices amidst steady swirls of decisions made for her.

I grew up in a family with strict rules among a community with families with strict rules. Parts of the ending don't read fully likely to me, but there's a lot of variety out there in the secret lives of suburban families. Could be as vital for cross-cultural conversations as Crash was a few years back.

The Visitor

My comment about Towelhead being useful for cross-cultural dialogues applies equally strongly to The Visitor. Interestingly enough, the actor who played the father in Six Feet Under has the lead in this sleepwalking-white-guy-awakened-by-a-little-bit-of-soul movie. From Matchflick:

'The Visitor' is an extraordinary film, able to captivate an audience with its simplicity and humanity. It stars the terrific Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale, a widowed college professor still deeply saddened by the death of his beloved wife. He no longer seems to care about anything, especially not his job; but he is called to deliver a paper at a conference in New York, so he leaves his suburban home in Connecticut and flies to the Big Apple, where he has an apartment he rarely stays in. He finds it is occupied by two illegal immigrants, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), from Syria, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), from Senegal. Kindness compels him to let them live there until they can find another place, and he befriends the extremely amicable Tarek. Zainab is not as trusting, it takes her a while to warm up to Walter, and what helps that process along is a shared love of music. Tarek is a musician, and introduces Walter to exotic African drum beats, and Tarek helps Walter overcome his self-imposed introversion, by introducing him to new people and injecting some joy and fun back into his life.
Tarek gets arrested on the way with Walter to play drums in Central Park. He then enters the Kafkaesque world of immigration prisons, lawyers, and limited legal rights. The facility where Tarek is taken, Walter learns, is in a distant area of the Bronx, run by UCC, United Corrections Corporation (fictional company based on private prison corporations). A visual reference to the privatization of correctional work. To the director's credit, no verbal reference is made to this fact. The building is windowless and Tarek in a later scene says UCC's idea of "outdoors" is one of the cells with the roof cut out.

Though Walter had begun to make the transition to African Drums the movie's pacing still felt European Classical. Still, the frustrations of dealing with a "justice" system that is clearly "unfair" shows up the tragic ironies that the abuse of powers sprout.

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