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Monday, November 18

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Towelhead

I find it kind of twisted that there are two films being released this week that feature the rape of an underage girl. A little later I'll talk about an icky little number called Hounddog, but the film that takes the subject more seriously and doesn't necessarily make the moment as easy to dismiss is the feature directorial debut from Oscar-winning writer Alan Ball (American Beauty), who also created the superior HBO dramas "Six Feet Under" and "True Blood." Based on the novel by Alicia Erian, Towelhead is a powerfully realized and difficult drama about 13-year-old Jasira (newcomer Summer Bishil), a Lebanese-American girl whose mother (Maria Bello) forces here to live with her father (Peter Macdissi) in Houston in the 1980s, during the first president Bush's term just as the first Gulf War was becoming a reality. With a hint of things to come in a sequence involving Jasira and her mother's misguided boyfriend, Ball makes it clear right off the bat that this story is going to challenge our notions of appropriate and inappropriate, but he does so not in a playful, winking manner, but with the perfect blend of seriousness and confusion.

Jasira perfectly encapsulates the vessel for all of the world's mixed messages about beauty, sex, and power. Her father is incredibly controlling and conservative, but he flaunts his vivacious new girlfriend every chance he gets. Jasira sees advertisements with gorgeous women, skims through dirty magazines while she's babysitting the son of neighbor Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart in one of his best roles), and is taught unfortunate lessons about where a woman's power is generated. With no clear female role model in her life to help her sift through it all, Jasira translates and incorporates these signals into her own two-fold sexual awakening, through a flirtation with Vuoso and a more conventional relationship with a fellow student, a black kid named Thomas. The Gulf War also provides the impetus for another set of message aimed at Jasira, those regarding race. Kids at school and the young boy she babysits all barrage her with racist behavior, but even as her father attempts to teach her to stand up for herself and resist such verbal attacks, he forbids her from seeing Thomas because he's black and he thinks associating with him will somehow cheapen her reputation.

As far too many girls and young women do, Jasira looks for human connection in the form of ill-advised sexual encounters with both the men her life. While Thomas is a sweet and caring kid, Vuoso objectifies her in order to make what he does to her easier. He sees her as a girl who has developed faster than other girls her age, and somehow uses this as justification. The part of the plot that some people might have the most trouble with is that Jasira is not totally blameless, which in no way justifies what happens to her, but it may make it more difficult for some to simply view Vuoso as a monster. After something of a history playing bastards in his early films with writer-director Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men), Eckhart is one of the few actors on the planet that doesn't have to worry about a role like this endangering his career. Beyond that, however, he plays this part brilliantly, capturing Vuoso's own confusion and weak center. We never get the sense that he's a serial pedophile, and his confusion about what he's doing is quite clear.

In the film's third act, another neighbor, played by Toni Collette, enters the picture as something of a much-needed savior for Jasira. And while I thought her introduction into the story might have been a bit of an easy save for the young girl's many dilemmas, it still feels like the place this film needed to go. Towelhead is not the story of a victim. Instead it is the story of a survivor, an actual heroine who makes declarations about her life, needs, and wants by the end of the film that are shocking and completely necessary. I hosted a screening of this film a few weeks ago, and I prefaced the experience by asking the audience to stick with the film even if it got a bit to uncomfortable to do so. The concluding few scenes are so uniquely stunning and gratifying that is makes all of the discomfort worth it. Ball's visual style manages to make the movie feel both naturalistic and other worldly, almost like a dream or a memory. Towelhead is a film you will never forget, and you will never want to. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my in interview with Towelhead writer-director Alan Ball, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Lakeview Terrace

In looking over all of this week's releases, I realize that almost every one of them is about an incendiary topic. One of the kings of making us take a good, ugly look at our own behaviors is Neil LaBute, whose earlier films In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, Nurse Betty and The Shape of Things all have a way of smashing some truly ugly actions and thoughts in your face and making you deal with them as few directors do. I've only seen a couple of LaBute's plays, but from what I've seen and heard, they are even more brutal. I dig the guy's original works, but it's tough to be a fan of projects of his that aren't self-generated, such as Possession and the abysmal Wicker Man remake. Lakeview Terrace is by far the best of LaBute's work that he did not write (the original screenplay comes from David Loughery and Howard Korder), but it still has some problems. The third act takes a story that could have been a groundbreaking tale of a kind of racism aimed at mixed-race couples and turns the film into a standard-issue, overblown stalker movie that reminded me at times of Pacific Heights.

Patrick Wilson (Little Children) and Kerry Washington (The Last Kind of Scotland) play Chris and Lisa, who move into a new home in California, next door to Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), who immediately plays the part of a vaguely threatening character in their lives, and a person who clearly does not approve of their relationship. Abel is raising two children on his own and has essentially self-appointed himself as the one-man neighborhood watchdog. Oh, did I mention that Abel is also a member of the LAPD? He is one of the most respected members of the community and the force, making any complaints against his behavior kind of tough for Chris and Lisa to prove or get anyone to care about. What makes it worse is that his style of harassment is subtle (at first), and often the couple doesn't actually see him do anything wrong. There are even times when it seems Abel is willing to be reasonable; those moments last about 10 minutes. Things escalate quickly, and there isn't much more to the film than one assault followed by a retaliation or attempt at reconciliation. But Jackson sells it and plays Abel as one of the worst kind of people — the kind who should know better. His motivation is a bit ridiculous, but just plausible enough to keep me hooked.

And then it all comes crumbling down in Act III, when Abel arranges for a criminal type to break in and severely vandalize the young couple's home while the neighborhood gathers at a party nearby. The final standoff between Abel and the couple is so out of step with the rest of the film that it actually bummed me out that the screenwriters and LaBute couldn't come up with a more low-key conclusion. If you had your heart set on seeing Lakeview Terrace, you could certainly do worse this weekend. I can't quite throw the full weight of my recommendation power behind this film, but Jackson's performance is so strong for enough of this movie that I can at least tell you that for the first 75 percent of the running time, you should be able to enjoy the power of his work. Wilson and Washington are also quite good, but they do more reacting than actual acting. The film is a near miss, but a miss nevertheless.

Trouble the Water

We've all seen more footage of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina than we can handle, but I'm going to ask you to take a look at something I'm guessing most of you have never seen. The centerpiece of the new documentary Trouble the Water is home movie footage taken by Kimberly Rivers Roberts, a resident of the Lower 9th Ward, during Katrina. Roberts and her family were trapped in the uppermost rafters of her home while the flood waters rose. Her commentary is priceless and the images she captured are essential viewing, as they fully capture the confusion, desperation, and outright fear that surrounded the event. Roberts actually began filming the day before the levies broke. She walks down her street interviewing other 9th Ward residents about their plans to leave or ride out the storm. There's no sense of danger or of a plan. Roberts' family (including husband Scott) was luckier than some. They managed to somehow get a small moving van and filled it not with possessions but with people — friends and family — and drove it out of the city.

Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal do a fantastic job of jumping back and forth between Roberts during the storm and Roberts two weeks after the storm, coming back to her community to find everything and everyone gone. At one point in the aftermath, they enter the home of her uncle, who we see in the pre-storm footage drunk and passed out on his porch. It's a lighthearted moment, but it come as no surprise that Roberts finds his decomposing body in his house upon returning to the man's home (we are spared the visual, but their reaction to the smell gets the message across). Roberts is an aspiring rap artist, and we are lucky enough to get a taste of some of her deeply personal music, recorded before and after Katrina, and it plays like the soundtrack to a life altered forever. She is also sharply aware of how she and her fellow 9th Ward residents are viewed, as she comments on how all of the more touristy destinations in the city (like the French Quarter) are already cleaned up and open for business.

As I have stayed glued to the Weather Channel watching the effects of hurricanes Gustav and Ike, it strikes me as clear that we are seeing hurricane preparation and response tactics that were born out of the mistakes of Katrina. What weren't phrases like "certain death" broadcast loud and clear to the residents of the 9th Ward? Trouble the Water is a clear documentation of nearly every Katrina-related mistake on record. Roberts and her people are turned away by armed guards from an abandoned naval base with hundreds of empty residences; a drive by the Convention Center reveals a scene out of a horror film. The painful drive home is almost more than some of you will be able to bear, but if you have any feelings for New Orleans and his trouble recent history, you must see Trouble the Water. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Hounddog

A warning: watching this movie will make you never want to hear any version of the song "Hounddog" again, especially Elvis Presley's version. Set in late-'50s Alabama, the Sundance scandal that is Hounddog concerns a resourceful young girl named Lewellen (the talented Dakota Fanning) and her never-ending attempts to eek out existence in her cabin in the woods. She doesn't get much help from her father (David Morse), who never wanted her in the first place and is often long absent from home, leaving Lewellen home alone. With the girl's mother long dead, her father is seeing a nice woman named Ellen (Robin Wright Penn), who turns out to be the girl's aunt. In a house nearby lives Lewellen's grandmother (Piper Laurie), who would seem like the most able to raise the girl, but she doesn't for reasons I'm not quite clear on. Lewellen is obsessed with Elvis Presley, and can do a fairly spot-on impersonation of him singing "Hounddog" and other songs complete with hit twists and pelvis thrusts. It's a little weird but still cute.

Lewellen is a curious child. In an early scene, we see her playing a game of "I'll Show you Mine..." with a young male friend. She also spends a great deal of time with a local black caretaker (Afemo Omilami), who teaches her about real R&B music, versus that tame stuff Elvis is putting out. When word gets out that Elvis is coming to town, Lewellen does everything in her power to get a ticket, a fact that puts her in a dangerous position later in the film. If you've heard anything about this movie at all since it's premiere at Sundance, then you probably have heard it referred to as the "Dakota Fanning Rape Movie." But what shocked me about Hounddog wasn't that Lewellen is raped; it's that the usually smart Fanning agreed to be in a movie this scattershot and rambling. After leaving home for a time, Morse returns and is struck by lightening, which leaves him simple and unable to care for himself. Laurie seems to be doing a variation of her role as the constrictive mother in Carrie, and there were times when I was certain she was going to yell out ,"They're all going to laugh at you." I suppose in the end there's a message here about doing what's best for yourself and regaining your sense of self, but it's so buried in 50 other non-essential themes that the whole piece ends up feeling muddled and self-indulgent.

The only thing about Hounddog worth mentioning is Fanning's performance. In no way is this girl holding back. And while I rarely if ever use words like brave in talking about any actor's performance, Fanning is brave for taking this role in an otherwise dismal movie. I guess she can take comfort in the fact that almost nobody will see this movie, and that most of the world will probably see her next in the far more accessible and safe The Secret Life of Bees in mid-October. Hounddog, which opens today at Pipers Alley, isn't a failure because it's gross; it's bad because it tries too hard to be some sort of Southern Gothic, soul-searching set piece rather then embracing what it truly is — a tale of dysfunctional, inbred rednecks.

Mister Foe

Now this is a film that embraces is freakish nature and creates a weird and endlessly interesting drama about 17-year-old Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell from Billy Elliot, King Kong and Jumper) who continues to struggle with his mother's apparent suicide years after she has left his life. He takes to a life of spying on people, including the residents who live near his family's house, and then his own father (Ciaran Hinds) and stepmother (Clare Forlani), who ends up seducing the young boy out of opportunity rather than any real attraction. Hallam suspects that his stepmother, who used to be dad's secretary, had a hand in his mother's death, but this may be little more than paranoid delusion. In the aftermath of the encounter, Hallam runs away from home to the city and gets a job as a kitchen worker in nice hotel. It is there that he meets a higher-up in the hotel named Kate (Sophia Myles of Art School Confidential), who looks a great deal like his mother. Being a part-time peeking Tom, Hallam follows her home and watches her routine with great interest, eventually falling in love with her.

It's certainly easier to like Hallam once he stops the stalking and starts an awkward, but very sweet relationship with Kate. He is promoted out of the kitchen and into a job that gives him more contact with the public, which makes Kate less uneasy about dating him. But the film takes its most interesting terms exploring their relationship and the depth of the damage that both of these characters face. We have some idea about Hallam's troubles, but Kate has a few of her own. And Myles' performance keeps all of her emotional baggage in the realm of the believable rather than them seeming manufactured. In addition, the film has an underlying sense of humor about itself (particularly when Ewen Bremner arrives on the scene as Hallam's coworker), and the characters are able to laugh at themselves a bit.

Director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Asylum) has constructed an unusual coming-of-age film that puts its characters through the emotional spin cycle. We can hope that they come out the other side better than when we meet them, but there are not guarantees, and this film understands that simple fact. It doesn't force a happy, smiley ending on this story (I'm not saying the ending isn't happy, by the way, just not conventionally so), and that's something you don't see much from even an independent offering. Mister Foe takes its cues from the bent and fractured mind of its lead character, and sometimes that takes us to dark corners of the human soul. But sometimes, he lets the sunshine in as well. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Igor

We've all been around long enough to know that an all-star cast doesn't necessarily mean a film is going to be any good. I think that rule holds doubly true for animated films, which can pull together a fantastic collection of well-known voices only to saddle them with a completely terrible screenplay. The examples of this are too numerous to mention (the one that pops to mind immediately is Shark Tale). One of the highest-profile casts I've seen in an animated movie in quite some time (at least since Kung Fu Panda) can be found in Igor, a watered-down creepfest from the co-director of Lilo & Stitch 2, Anthony Leondis. Igor doesn't have a bunch of really bankable names doing voices, but they have pulled together a group of people I happen to like, for the most part, which is why it breaks my heart an teeny, tiny bit to say that the film is unimpressive, bordering on dull.

I dug that the film attempted to be dark. For instance, the inclusion of a major character who is always trying to commit suicide is actually pretty great (he's immortal, so his perpetual, depression-driven attempts at self-inflicted death are successful but never permanent). But when you have such phenomenal works in the world like A Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, a film like Igor doesn't really stand a chance. Still, the film has some clever ideas and a few funny moments.

John Cusack voices the title character. Actually, the name "Igor" isn't just a name; it's a rank as well, for anyone who is the assistant to a mad scientist. In the village of Malaria, the sole exports are evil designs meant to cause the world at large great harm. If you happen to be born with a hump, you become an Igor; if not, you will likely become a scientist.

It just so happens that our Igor is the assistant to the least successful scientist in the town, Dr. Glickenstin (John Cleese), who kills himself experimenting on his latest creation. Igor is actually smarter than most of the people in the town, but because of his status, he'll never legally be allowed to be a scientist, despite the fact that he has secretly been working on a creature made of dead body parts. His best friends are a reanimated rabbit named Scamper (Steve Buscemi; this is the suicidal character) and the quite stupid Brain (Sean Hayes), an actual brain in a jar who some people call Brian because he wrote his name on his jar incorrectly. The top scientist in the realm is Dr. Schadenfreude (the five or six people who laughed when we first heart this name get bonus points), voiced by Eddie Izzard, is in fact nothing more than a scientist who steals the best evil inventions from others. His girlfriend Jaclyn (Jennifer Coolidge) plays a big part in these acts of thievery, and the pair soon discover what Igor is up to.

One of the film's most bizarre turns (and least interesting in the end) is that the creature that Igor creates is named Eva (voiced by Molly Shannon). When Igor doesn't believe that her brain is evil enough he takes her to a brain washer, who proceeds to inundate her mind with evil images and thoughts, until stupid Brain accidentally changes the images to that of "Inside the Actors Studio." As a result, Eva emerges as a peace-loving actress — not good considering the King (Jay Leno) has his heart set on the most evil creature in the realm. The actress plot twist is funny on paper, but Shannon doesn't do much more than spout cliché actor sayings like, "What's my motivation?" And her character doesn't do much except be ginormous and clumsy and act like a prima donna. The rest of the film, with maybe the exception of Buscemi, feels like they're holding back. Cusack is better than this, and Eddie Izzard is practically phoning in squeaky-clean comedy, when you want him to bust out with a little blue humor. Buscemi saves every scene his character is in, but that's not enough to save this movie. One can only hope that November's Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is a little better... but I wouldn't count on that.

Hollywood Chinese

There have been films about the black experience in Hollywood (in terms of both the way blacks have been portrayed over the decades and the roles that have been offered to African-American actors). We've also seen documentaries about the roles of Hispanic in film and the portrayal of gay characters throughout history. But I'm pretty certain Arthur Dong's Hollywood Chinese is the first doc about the Chinese experience both behind and in front of the camera. This movie isn't so much concerned with the overall Asian experience in American film, just the Chinese-American world, which began as Chinese laborers working the railroad and other jobs whites didn't want came to California and began working mostly behind the scenes as technicians. The film also doesn't talk much about Chinese actors or directors who came to America in recent years to make their own films (such as Jet Li or John Woo), although that is covered to a lesser degree.

Hollywood Chinese, instead, goes into fascinating detail about the birth of Chinese-American cinema and the earliest portrayal of Chinese culture in old nickelodeon arcade that featured faked beheadings of Chinese prisoners. Dong interviews most of the great groundbreaking Chinese-American actors of today and the past, including Nancy Kwan, Joan Chen, James Wong and B.D. Wong, as well as delve into the impact of such performers as Anna May Wong. But the meat of the film deals with the feelings of such people as writer Henry David Hwang, Amy Tan, James Shigeta, Justin Lin and others as they watched their culture portrayed and sometimes minimized by the likes of characters such as Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee is a surprise interview here) and works like The Good Earth, The World of Suzie Wong, Flower Drum Song and The Last Emperor. It becomes clear that the Wayne Wang (whose Chan Is Missing is considered to be a pivotal moment in Chinese-American cinema) adaptation of Tan's The Joy Luck Club was looked at as the culmination of generations of people waiting for their story to be told as pure and honest as possible.

The film looks at the practice of "yellow face" (white actors playing Chinese characters), and how martial arts movies were incredibly good and bad for Chinese-American actors, even today. I also liked the way the director picks apart the submissive female roles that many Chinese women were forced to take on, while the men were forced to play feminized men, and how these two preconceptions were analyzed and turned on their head when Hwang's M. Butterfly became popular. Hollywood Chinese is excellently researched and filled with clips from all of the films discussed. Even if you aren't familiar with these films, the doc serves as a self-contained lecture series complete with a list of mandatory films to screen. Consider this your crash course in a branch of film history almost never covered in text books and research material. The film is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, September 20 at 8:15pm, and Tuesday, September 23 at 8pm.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for more than 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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