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DVD Reviews

HTF DVD REVIEW: Towelhead



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#1 of 3 Ken_McAlinden

Ken_McAlinden

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Posted December 30 2008 - 03:17 AM

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Towelhead

Directed By: Alan Ball

Starring: Summer Bishil, Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Peter Macdissi, Eugene Jones, Matt Letscher


Studio: Warner Brothers

Year: 2007 (festival) 2008 (theatrical)

Rated: R

Film Length: 116 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Release Date: December 30, 2008



The Film

Writer/Director Alan Ball's Towelhead faithfully adapts the Alicia Erian novel of the same name to tell the story of thirteen year old Jasira Maroun who is growing up in the period of the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. When her mother, Gail (Bello), discovers some troubling interactions between her live-in boyfriend and Jasira, the teenager is uprooted from her Syracuse home and sent to live with her Lebanese father, Rifat (Macdissi), in suburban Houston. Rifat proves to be equally inadequate when it comes to the task of parenting a sexually awakening teen daughter. He is extremely self-obsessed and barely self-aware, bristling at any implied racist slight by others while forbidding Jasira from seeing a classmate, Thomas (Jones) simply because he is a black male. Rifat also enforces a short-fused discipline inclusive of corporal punishment and verbal abuse eliminating any chance for Jasira to speak frankly and openly about what she is going through. Without any parental support, Jasira is left to fend for herself in a world where she is constantly bombarded by sexual images. This leaves her vulnerable to the advances of her pederast neighbor, Army reservist Travis Vuoso (Eckhart), and fairly rudderless in negotiating a budding relationship with Thomas. A concerned neighbor (Collette) notices the undue attention Vuoso is paying to Jasira, and tries to offer her a safe haven.

Towelhead takes on the hot-button issues of racism and the sexualization of barely post-pubescent teens with a degree of empathy (Ball's trademark as a dramatist) that is bound to make many viewers uncomfortable. As the father of three daughters, I count myself among them. Watching a thirteen year old girl dealing with her personal sexual awakening in an environment where nearly every safety net and parental resource that should be available to her is missing or defective is more than a little harrowing. It is made all the more so by the convincing performance of Summer Bishil who is eerily convincing as a much younger teen stepping on every metaphorical land mine in her path of self-discovery. Eckhart, an actor who has never been afraid of playing unlikeable characters, infuses his pederast predator with more humanity than one normally sees from such characters. Macdissi and Eckhart both play characters completely oblivious to their own defects, which makes them all the more uncomfortably human as one expects that such men would view themselves as the sympathetic heroes of their own stories in real life.

In short, while I cannot say I enjoyed the experience of viewing the film, I must admit that it succeeds in what it sets out to do. This success is due to uniformly excellent performances and sympathetic direction that results in viewers being drawn into the interior world of its main character, following her on her journey even when they can see every mis-step toward which she is heading from a mile away. It is also technically well shot, with excellent cinematography from Thomas Sigel. Ball and Sigel frequently frame shots in ways that are atypically intimate for a film about a young teen girl, but they are consistent with the film's intent to make one empathize with Jasira directly, and are not exploitative so much as uncomfortably (I keep coming back to that word!) frank.

A brief note on the film's title: The film played festivals in late 2007 and early 2008 under the title Nothing is Private. When it was picked up for theatrical distribution, the title was changed back to that of the novel on which it was based. This created some controversy since the title is a racist slur which is sometimes leveled at Muslim, Arab, and Sikh minorities.

The Video

The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 transfer and encoding is one of the better SD presentations of a new theatrical release I have reviewed this year. There are some minor issues with "jaggies" affecting the opening and closing titles and some minor MPEG noise that crops up in dark areas of the screen from time to time, but aside from that, the DVD has excellent color and contrast, carrying off some difficult to render lighting set-ups without obvious boosting in the video domain. Some of the purposely soft and grainy interiors give the compression algorithm fits, but from a reasonable viewing distance, the end result is about as pleasingly film-like as standard definition video is capable of rendering.

The Audio

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a very good presentation of the fine theatrical mix. This mix is an excellent example of how a surround sound field can be employed creatively to effectively support material that is intimate and dialog driven. There are numerous discrete directional effects employed at appropriate times used to illustrate, among other things, the way Jasira feels overwhelmed and constrained by the world in which she lives.

The Extras

When disc one is first spun up, the viewer is greeted with the following series of skippable promos. All are presented in 4:3 video, letterboxed when appropriate, with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound unless indicated otherwise:
  • Anti-Piracy PSA with clips from Casablanca (1:00)
  • DVDTrailer for Snow Angels (2:09)
  • Video Game Promo for Tomb Raider: Underworld (2:08)
  • DVD/BD Trailer for Bam Margera Presents: Where the #$&% is Santa (1:38)
  • Warner Blu-Ray Promo (Dolby Digital 5.1 Sound - 1:09)
  • Anti-Smoking PSA telling you that smoking is not as cool as tobacco companies tell you (:34)
Proper extras consist of two videotaped discussions under the umbrella heading of Towelhead: A Community Discussion (80:34 w/Play All). They are viewable separately or via a "Play All" selection. They are presented in letterboxed 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound. They are identified as follows:
  • Host Alan Ball, Peter Macdissi, Summer Bishil and Hussam Ayloush/Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR (30:29)
  • Host Alan Ball, Author Alicia Erian and Rajdeep Singh Jolly, Legal Director, SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund) (50:05)
The discussions are both cordial and frank, with Ball acting as moderator and ensuring that all participants have ample opportunity to express their views on the controversy surrounding the film in general, but its title in particular. The advocates for the American Islamic and Sikh communities both make a point against the use of the title with which I happen to agree. Using a racist slur as the title for a film from a large distributor presents unique problems no matter what the intent since films tend to be saturation marketed so that posters and advertisements will be seen by a lot of people who will never see the film or know its content. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that this particular film was not all that aggressively marketed, but I still am not all that crazy about the title of this movie showing up in the thread header for this review or on the Home Theater Forum "Software Reviews" and "Forum News" splash pages.

Packaging

The film is presented on a single sided double layered DVD-9 and packaged in a standard Amaray case with no inserts. The disc's main menu graphic is based on a terrible theatrical poster that was used to promote the film, but thankfully less lame graphics were pulled together for the DVD case cover.

Summary

This DVD of Towelhead presents Alan Ball's honest, empathetic, and, for me personally, downright unsettling adaptation of Alicia Erian's novel with excellent audio and video quality. Extras consist exclusively of roundtable discussions of the controversy associated with the film's title between people involved with the film and advocates for the American Muslim and Sikh communities.

Regards,

Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#2 of 3 Michael Reuben

Michael Reuben

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Posted December 30 2008 - 04:16 AM

Excellent review, Ken, and a great description of the film. Critics who dismissed it as simply a retread of American Beauty completely missed the point that this story is told, almost exclusively, from the young girl's point of view.

One other performance that I enjoyed: Lynn Collins (late of True Blood) in the small role of Rifat's girlfriend. I liked the way she plays that moment near the end of the film when she sees him in a new light.
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#3 of 3 TonyD

TonyD

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Posted January 02 2009 - 04:25 PM

ken this is an extremely well written review and gives good reason for someone to watch the movie.

" I cannot say I enjoyed the experience of viewing the film"
exactly, this isn't a movie that as an employee at a video store, I would say,
"yeah I really liked that one, you should watch it too.'
More like this was a well made film about a difficult matter
and i recommend it as a rental.
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