Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sundance: More on Terror

[Film Fest] As previously noted, last year's Sundance Film Festival was practically all Iraq, all the time. Now that we've endured a cinematic year of "Iraq fatigue," the films are apparently trying to be a bit more circumspect about sneaking in their Middle East-conflict-themed content.

Towelhead, from Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball, avoids the contemporary conflict entirely and instead heads back to Gulf War I. It’s the story of 13-year-old Jasira (Summer Bishil), a biracial girl who has just moved from her mother’s home in New York to live with her Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi) in Houston. The war itself serves only as a backdrop, while the story itself addresses coming-of-age tropes with both dark humor and uncommon candor. Ball bends his characters in unique direction – particularly Jasira’s Christian, patriotic, brutally traditional father – while giving a dark-humored intrigue to the story of a girl looking for anywhere she can feel like she belongs and is cared for. Be prepared for plenty of provocative, taboo-busting subject matter along with the exceptional performances; I did mention this is the guy who created Six Feet Under, right?

Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor initially doesn’t appear like it could be more removed from political realities. Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a widowed Yale economics professor, is flailing about at trying to learn the piano in his oversized Connecticut home. When he heads to New York for a conference, he finds that the seldom-used apartment he keeps there occupied by an illegal immigrant couple victimized by a con man. Not surprisingly, Walter befriends the Syrian-born drummer Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend, and winds up caught up in their lives when Tarek gets caught up in a deportation struggle. The detours into social commentary begin to feel forced, but McCarthy – whose terrific drama The Station Agent played in competition a few years ago – has a keen enough sense of character that the film remains compelling.

Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? – the feature documentary follow-up from Super Size Me creator Morgan Spurlock – doesn’t exactly hide the fact that it’s going to touch on the War on Terror, although it uses comedy to disguise what becomes a policy statement. Using the impending birth of his first child as a frame, Spurlock heads to the Middle East to find the guy making the world such a dangerous place for his future progeny. Like Super Size Me, it’s often a terrifically entertaining piece of filmmaking, particularly a hilarious opening credits sequence pitting Spurlock against Osama in video-game form, a la Mortal Kombat. But ultimately Spurlock’s thesis comes down to “It’s not all about Osama, it’s about the economic and political conditions that make his ideas resonate.” And no offense, Morgan, but you aren’t exactly breaking new ground. Maybe he’ll succeed at bringing this already-familiar poli-sci notion to the masses – except that we already know the masses aren’t interested. (Scott Renshaw)

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