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Our First Test Screening Review Of Alan Ball’s New Film Proves NOTHING IS PRIVATE!!

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. I honestly didn’t even know this one was filming, so all of this is news to me. I’m excited to see what Alan Ball does his first time at bat as a director, and I think he’s one of the rare creators in recent American television who got to wrap up a hit show on his own terms and who really nailed the ending when he got the opportunity. And I know it’s vogue to hate AMERICAN BEAUTY in hindsight, but I don’t. I think Ball’s the real deal, and I’m glad to see him taking this step. So how’s the movie? And more importantly, what the hell is it about?

Went to a preview screening of the new Alan Ball (American Beauty / Six Feet Under) film last night - his first feature as a director. Tentatively titled "Nothing Is Private" and scheduled for next Oscar season, based on the book "Towelhead" by Alicia Erian. I'm not one to give spoilers so I'm going to avoid major plot points and just go with overall impressions. Those who MUST know more details can go read the book. It's essentially the story of the sexual awakening / coming of age of Jasira (Summer Bishil), a thirteen-year-old Arab-American girl living with her Lebanese father in Texas. Set during the first Gulf War, politics and racism - while present - take a backseat to the real meat of the story: Jasira's relationship with the three men in her life: her abusive father (Peter Macdissi, a/k/a Olivier the art teacher on 6FU), her lecherous neighbor (Aaron Eckhart), and her horny boyfriend (newcomer Eugene Jones). But to simply call them "abusive" "lecherous" and "horny" is to do disservice to them all: these are extraordinarily complex characters. As bad as they are, all have redeeming qualities. And in their own ways, all of them care very deeply for Jasira. Where one is a failure, another picks up the slack. She's caught in a devil's bargain, in a sense, bouncing between three men - each of whom give her something she needs, emotionally, but each with a heaping helping of a lot she could do without. As she navigates these waters, she begins to understand not just her own sexuality but - just as important - the power she holds over men. In a different film, she could be a femme fatale in the making. (Sequel in ten years, maybe?) But it's a very funny film as well... as dark as her situation is, there's a lot of humor in it. It's not nearly so oppressively dreary as the plot on paper sounds. This is the fella who wrote American Beauty and 6FU after all, right? The movie does not pull punches. It is absolutely unflinching in it's portrayals of abuse and rape, physical and emotional. Unfortunately, most of that will likely be cut in pursuit of the R-rating, and it's a great part of what gives this work it's remarkable power. The way it dances between dark comedy and just plain darkness is highwire act of consummate skill. There's one scene between Eckhart and Bishil that is SO uncomfortable, so intense, so raw, that it'll have the censors flipping their wigs - but remove even one frame and it's power is significantly diminished. While my friend and I were not chosen to be part of the official "focus group" (we weren't dressed cool enough, I guess) those of us talking outside after the film formed our own "group" (for which I am now officially reporting) - and the consensus was we hope the filmmakers have the cojones to release it with the dreaded "NC-17" (or just unrated), Blockbuster be damned. The sex is never salacious, but it's frank portrayal is bound to enrage those with knee-jerk negative responses to anything that even smells of it. I can't help but worry that they're already planning on / resigned to toning it down... on the survey sheet they asked our impressions of various relationships in the film... Jasira and Thomas (the boyrfriend), Jasira and Melina (the nice hippie neighbor, played by Toni Collette) - but conspicuously absent was the relationship between Jasira and Vuoso (Eckhart), easily the most fascinating and complex relationship in the film. All that said, there are SOME things that need to be cut, and other that could have perhaps used some fleshing out. In the last half hour the pace slows down dramatically, and characters begin to "see the light" one after another in rather predictable fashion. In a strange way, the third act moves too fast (in therms of character development) and too slow (in terms of overall pacing) simultaneously. The unofficial-focus-group mostly agreed that as it reached it's conclusion, it got a tad after-school-special-y. The ending isn't a cop-out or anything - in terms of the events that occur and the realizations that the various characters come to, it's all well and good. The HOW it plays out, though, is where it falters. For a film so devastatingly and refreshingly brazen to suddenly descend into touchy-feely talky-preachy was kind of a letdown. There are points where you feel like you've been detoured into a dramatic reading of "Our Bodies, Ourselves." The only other fault our not-the-focus-group group all agreed on was the title - "Nothing Is Private" - kind of blah as far as we were all concerned. None of us thought of anything better, and the title of the source material, "Towelhead" didn't really fit well either, as the racism plotline was downplayed - and when present, occasionally seemed a bit forced to me. But faults aside this is a film worth seeing, especially for the acting. The cast is, across the board, tremendous. If this doesn't have "Best Ensemble" locked up at the SAG Awards next year, I dunno what does. I'll tell you now to look for Macdissi to pick up an Oscar nom for Best Supporting (assuming the film ever gets a general release, and in any form that hasn't been cut to shreds) and possibly Eckhart as well. But the real story here is Summer Bishil.

It's early in the year for me to be making grand statements (something I'm not prone to doing in the first place) but this isn't just a "good" performance. Heck - I'm not sure "great" does it justice. This is like going straight from high school to the major leagues and hitting a Grand Slam in your first at-bat. It's one of those performances that is so spot-on, so subtle and complex - it reminds me of what Ebert said after seeing Charlize Theron in "Monster": forget being nominated, if she doesn't WIN Best Actress, they might as well retire the category. This isn't like the occasional nomination you see for a kid (Osment, Breslin, etc) - performances that are impressive... for a kid. Not this time, though - this is THE performance of the year, male or female, and the one to beat come Oscar 2008. There are scenes of such raw, awkward, and subtle emotion on display here they simply boggle the mind. There may be naysayers who suggest that Ball is fetishizing her and is just as bad as the male characters in the film - she's onscreen nearly the entire running time, at the center of every scene, lovingly photographed (and I might as well say it: she is astoundingly beautiful) - but with a performance this good, you want to give it as much screen time as you can. So there you have it - if there's any justice, it's your first peek at next year's Oscar race. I can't think of a funny name for myself. They're spreading rocksalt outside my window right now, and that sounds like as clever a name as any other. So call me Rocksalt.
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