Towelhead

Standard


This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene

Towelhead
Year of Release: 2007
Rating: R for strong sexual content, sex involving a minor, and some language.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: No.
Spoilers: Mild.

I’m not going to lie – the fact that Towelhead stars Aaron Eckhart may have been the primary influence in my decision to scoop it out of the five dollar movie bin. But I’m happy to report that despite its generally mediocre reviews and little-known female lead, entertaining and teachable moments both abound in this film.

Directed by American Beauty’s Alan Ball, Towelhead is the coming-of-age story of Jasira (Summer Bishil), a thirteen year old Lebanese American growing up during the Gulf War (side note: the early nineties fashions are expertly executed here). From the film’s opening scene, we learn that Jasira doesn’t exactly have an easy time of it: Her mother’s live-in boyfriend helps Jasira shave her pubic hair, which causes her mother (Maria Bello) to go ballistic, blame Jasira, and send her daughter packing to live with her stern Lebanese father Rifat (Peter Macdissi) in Houston, Texas. Making matters worse is Jasira’s creepy new army reservist neighbor Travis Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), his oblivious wife, and their racist son whom Jasira must babysit while enduring endless taunts and racial slurs.

Jasira’s sexual awakening is sparked by a pile of nudie magazines she discovers one afternoon while babysitting at the Vuoso house. She likes the way the magazines make her feel, and learns to rock herself back and forth to the point of orgasm. Travis is at first outraged upon discovering Jasira with his secret stash, but his anger quickly dissolves to intrigue when Jasira tells him that the magazines give her physical pleasure, and he discreetly drops a few off at her doorstep one night for her to keep. After an incident with the Vuosos’ son turns ugly, however (Zach calls Jasira a towelhead and she hits him in the arm), Travis angrily shows up late at night and demands his magazines back. As Jasira turns to go get them, Travis rapes her.

From this point forward, the spark of Jasira’s sexual awareness spreads like a roaring flame. She starts spending time with a classmate named Thomas and eventually sleeps with him. Travis Vuoso, despite his initial horror over fingering a thirteen year old girl, is soon “courting” Jasira by taking her to dinner in the evenings. During all of this, Rifat is off spending time with his girlfriend du jour, and we begin to understand that virtually every man in Jasira’s life has threatened, abused, or abandoned her in some way. Thomas, a generally nice kid exploring his own young sexuality, is the only exception to this rule, and along with a concerned pregnant couple across the street (Toni Collette and Matt Letscher), he seems to be the only character who genuinely enjoys Jasira’s company and looks out for her best interests.

If you have any interest in feminist and/or intersectionalist theory as many of my readers over at Role/Reboot do, this film is for you. Beyond the politics of being a Middle Eastern American during a war in Iraq and holding minority-on-minority racist views (Jasira’s father explicitly forbids her from seeing Thomas simply because he is black), this film should resonate with any woman who has been or felt objectified. Jasira is incapable of exercising any sort of agency over her own body due to the shame she is made to feel about her large breasts, her use of tampons (“Those are for married ladies,” Rifat reminds her in the grocery store”), and the smooth power Travis holds over her (he reprimands her for looking at pictures of “sluts,” yet traps her into being his own sexual plaything). She views her body as men would view it, until toward the end of the film when she walks out of a “Glamour Shot” studio at the mall and decides once and for all to make decisions for herself. Bishil, eighteen at the time of filming, radiates as Jasira even if the scenes between her and Eckhart are at times painful to watch. And uncomfortable subject matter aside, Ball does throw in some occasional comedic highlights that don’t at all feel forced: Jasira guiltily stores the Vuosos’ dead pet cat Snowball in the freezer; Rifat, cradling a few boxes of feminine products in his arms, asks Jasira if she would “describe her situation as light, medium, or heavy?” Heavy, indeed.

Olympus Has Fallen

Standard

Currently Streaming on Netflix

Rated R for frequent use of F-bomb and lots of blood, brains, stabbings, shootings, splatterings & explosions

Review contains mild spoilers

This Catch Up is written by Telaina Eriksen

This movie is for lovers of big 80s-style action movies—Die Hard, Terminator, True Lies, etc. Lots of big names in this cast—Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, Gerard Butler, Angela Bassett, Ashley Judd, Dylan McDermott, Rick Yune and Melissa Leo (who gives a wonderful performance as Secretary of Defense). Directed by Antoine Fuqua, one of Hollywood’s few African-American film directors (his most well-known film is Training Day starring Denzel Washington), this movie is far superior to the tepid White House Down which came out, strangely enough, at about the same time. White House Down didn’t know what it was—was it an action movie? Was it a comedy? It had no clue; so it got muddled in a no-man’s land of story-telling. Olympus Has Fallen knows exactly what it is—a story-driven action movie.

Secret-service agent Mike Banning (Butler) is President Benjamin Asher’s (Eckhart) best friend and the head of his Secret Service detail. An accident happens, and Asher blames Banning for it. Banning is banished to the U.S. Treasury Department for 18 months, where he intermittently pleads to his boss Lynn Jacobs (Bassett) for his old job back. Banning glumly sits at his desk until one day he looks out his window and there are North Korean terrorists (unsanctioned by their government) attacking the White House.

This is the part where youtube and IMDB commenters whine, “This is just so unrealistic. This could never happen.” Well, I think we get into trouble when we compare movies we watch for our entertainment with real life but I would also respond to the “this could never happen” whiners that I don’t think we foresaw anyone flying planes into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, either.

President Asher ends up in the White House bunker with the terrorists and a turncoat Secret Service agent (McDermott). The terrorists begin to coerce Cerberus codes out of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense while Banning, the lone remaining Secret Service agent in the White House, struggles to rescue the hostages.

The beating of Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan is one of the plot points that makes this movie rise above typical popcorn action movie fare. Similar to G.I. Jane (a movie which was critically panned when it came out but I have always very much enjoyed), this scene shows the squicky feelings we have as a nation when women are beaten in service to their country. We seem, as a nation, to have no problem when a woman is beaten by her romantic partner. Because that happens every 12 seconds in this country and we have yet to find any solutions for that abuse. But for a woman to receive a beating in service to her country, well, that just brings up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings. After McMillan’s ribs are broken, President Asher orders to her to give the terrorist (Yune) her Cerberus code telling McMillan, “He will never get mine.” So stand down with the tough, little lady. We like to keep our beatings domestic, thank you very much. (See what I did there?)

Some other fun things in this movie include Gerard Butler’s American accent. I don’t know exactly where Banning is from, but I want to visit there. I think it might be BrooklynBronxNew Jersey. And I adore the scene in which Acting President House Speaker Trumbull (Freeman) tells the old white general (Robert Forster) who exactly is in charge. There is also a great scene when Banning and Asher are in a deep bromance moment and it looks like they might kiss. I think they might have sold more movie tickets with a little slash. Butler and Eckhart are both very attractive men. But no one asks me these things.

And while this movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, it does have many named women in positions of power who do get screen time. Not perfect but so much better than many action movies.

Despite its high body count and arguable implausibility, Olympus Has Fallen offers some great acting (I would watch Freeman, Eckhart and Butler in almost anything), awesome special effects and most importantly, a story to go along with blowing shit up.