Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Alan Ball’s dark, complex, and challenging directorial debut TOWELHEAD (****) is 2008’s most underrated film. From the title to the subject matter, this is not a film for everyone, and most people, I’m betting, will hate it and find it offensive. Well…of course it’s offensive…that’s sort of the point of the story. Based on a novel of the same name, Ball, who previously wrote AMERICAN BEAUTY and created SIX FEET UNDER, etches a disturbing portrait of a 13 year old Lebanese-American girl named Jasira (the graceful Summer Bishil) going through a sexual awakening at a strange moment in her life. After her careless mother ships her off to live with her domineering father (a fantastic Peter MacDissi in one of the year’s best supporting performances), she’s confronted with a lot of issues: racism, sex, her first period, her first boyfriend, a seedy and leering neighbor (Aaron Eckhart in yet another terrific performance), and parents who haven’t a clue of how to treat her. In many ways, TOWELHEAD feels like a Todd Solondz film; there are shades of his bitter work throughout the narrative. Ball, by never condescending to his audience or his characters, takes very difficult material and creates a blistering attack on senseless racism and the way that adults can use their authority in all the wrong ways. There are more than a few scenes in TOWELHEAD that will have you squirming in your seat; again, that’s sort of the point. This isn’t easy cinema and it’s a film that is likely to have its fair share of haters. But to hate this film would be to miss the many valid and important points that it raises.
Danny McBride is a comedic genius and he’s an unstoppable, one-man force in Jody Hill’s hysterical indie-comedy THE FOOT FIST WAY (***1/2). Sort of a white-trash version of ROCKY meets THE KARATE KID with a lot of R-rated potty talk, McBride, playing a delusional Tae Kwon Do instructor, provides this flimsy, cheap-looking movie with heart, soul, and fire. Teaching both kids and adults the way of the fist and foot and dealing with his slutty, Barbie doll wife, McBride never lets the comic energy slide, even when the material feels light as a feather. McBride, who stole all of the scenes he appeared in during TROPIC THUNDER and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, is so natural at underplaying his material that it’s next to impossible not to laugh at just the sight of him. The plot is predictable, the production values are as low-rent as possible, but McBride holds the entire production together, serving as co-writer, producer, and star of this micro-budgeted comedy which seems destined to become a major cult hit.

Nanette Burstein’s entertaining documentary AMERICAN TEEN (***1/2) may be contrived to within an inch of its life but that doesn’t mean it’s not highly watchable. Burstein set out to chronicle the lives of about six high school seniors in Indiana and came away with a distinct portrait of the mindset of the American teen. Some of the events felt a little staged and some of the narrative seemed a little convenient. But no matter – it’s all very engaging and surprisingly touching in a few instances. I didn’t believe for a second, however, that these kids never encountered any drugs during filming; they’re shown drinking and smoking cigarettes but c’mon, what American teenager these days isn’t getting high on something or partaking in some innocent experimenting? That being said, the kids in the film are all representative of the kids you went to high school with: the jock; the hot, popular girl; the dorks, both male and female. Yes, they’re all archetypes, but for a project such as this one, it works. If your high school years are still fresh in your mind, or if you hold any reverence for those daunting times, AMERICAN TEEN will provide you with a trip down memory lane

JAR CITY (***1/2), a creepy thriller from Iceland, was one of the more visually arresting genre films I’ve seen in quite some time. Similar in some respects to the original INSOMNIA, this is a whacked-out policier revolving around genetics, murder, and one cop’s dogged determination to find the truth. It’s better to know as little as possible about JAR CITY if you have any intentions of checking it out. A US remake is planned so if foreign thrillers are your cup of tea, make sure you seek this little film out before Hollywood inevitably butchers the source material. I shudder to think about what will happen with the planned remake of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.

TRAITOR (***) is a solid political thriller with yet another outstanding performance from Don Cheadle, playing a shady US operative who may actually be a terrorist. TRAITOR also features solid work from Guy Pearce as an FBI agent who is frantically on the search for Cheadle. The budget on TRAITOR had to have been small, but no matter. First time helmer Jeff Nachmanoff, who previously co-wrote the absurdly entertaining disaster film THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, directs with energy, tension, a good sense of pace, and never lets the narrative stop to take a breath. It’s not as fine tuned as Ridley Scott’s BODY OF LIES but it’s a solid political pot-boiler that’s well worth renting.

I wish I could say that I loved THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE (**1/2). Pedestrian is the word that comes to mind. Going through the motions is another phrase that leaps into my head. Series creator Chris Carter served as writer-director on the film, which makes it even more shocking that the film was as tepid as it was. It was nice to see Mulder and Scully back together again and the film isn’t terrible -- it's got a few solid bits and pieces. It’s just not very good. The plot is murky, the action scenes have no zip or spark, and both Duchovny and Anderson seem bored. Which is a major bummer. Sure, they still have their solid chemistry, and they still can rattle off their witty back-and-forth banter with aplomb. But overall, the film felt stale and, most surprisingly, boring. The story revolves around some missing people in snowy Virginia and some sketchy Russian scientists conducting strange experiments. When I learned that this film wasn’t going to deal with the alien mythology that was the show’s bread and butter, I was annoyed and worried. If you’re a fan of the show and the first feature film (which I loved), this new installment will certainly deliver a few fun moments. But I expected more. Much more.

Not much needs to be said about THE PROMOTION (*1/2), the directorial debut of Steve Conrad, who wrote the grotesquely underrated Nic Cage dramedy THE WEATHER MAN. So many great actors and comedians are wasted in this bore: John C. Reilly, Sean William Scott, Jenna Fischer, Bobby Cannavale, Jason Bateman, and Lili Taylor are the immediately recognizable faces set adrift in this aimless comedy. Reilly and Scott are grocery store workers competing with one another for a big promotion. Except nothing is really all that funny. After a somewhat promising set up, Conrad goes nowhere with his material. The only saving grace is that the film clocks in at less than 90 minutes. Sure, there are a few chuckles, a few nice shots, and some familiar faces. But that a’int enough to warrant a recommendation.

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