The Ballad of Jack and Rose

Also: Beauty Shop, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Lost Embrace, and Steamboy.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose

Opens Fri., April 1, at Metro and Uptown

In college, a talented prelaw classmate of mine once said he felt overshadowed because his parents were celebrated legal scholars: "You know what Newton said about how we stand on the shoulders of giants? Well, giants have stood on my shoulders!" Still bigger giants stood on the shoulders of Rebecca Miller and Daniel Day-Lewis, the writer-director and star of Ballad. Their dads were rich and famous leftist intellectuals: Arthur Miller, the American Aeschylus, and C. Day, the British poet laureate.

Like Arthur Miller, the film's hero, Jack (Day-Lewis), has an only daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle). They're the last occupants of the Luddite island commune Jack founded and funded in hippie days. He homeschools Rose in engineering and separatist environmentalist politics; aside from that, she's a Hawthornesque wild child, with a lovely face like a blank slate. She's 16 and never been kissed, except, unsettlingly and ambiguously, by him.

Jack's got a bum ticker, so he rather coldly writes a fat check to hire his occasional mistress (Catherine Keener in a role startlingly more vulnerable than her usual urban hard-chick shtick) to help raise Rose. Kathleen brings along her more conventionally screwed-up kids: savage, horny stoner teen Thadius (Paul Dano) and his kindly, asexual butterball half-brother, Rodney (Ryan McDonald, an actor to watch). There's just a hint of Arthur Miller in the family feud that results, especially in the brothers' strife. But mostly it's like a reality show about ill-suited roommates in an ascetic hobbit's hole.

The acting is top-notch, and lots of the scenes pack comic punch or mythic power. Rose is furious that Jack let outsiders invade their hilltop Eden, and the sight of Kathleen in Jack's bed makes her reach for the shotgun and uncage the snake. She's the most original sexual siren now on screen: She twinkles her peepers and dangles her virginal baubles before the boys, but has no actual interest in sex—she just wants to fuck with her father's control-freak head. Her motives are interestingly amoral and ambiguous, like a cyclone.

Alas, great scenes do not a movie make. Father's and daughter's motives are too opaque to flesh out any sense of character. The scenes add up to no intelligible plot. Major characters randomly wander in and out of what ought to be the story. Minor characters—a drifter chick, a sensitive gardener—pop up with winning vividness but to no apparent narrative purpose. Symbols (a snake, a dreamlike ox) darkly signify without actually spelling out anything significant. Wonderfully promising character clashes peter out. Even the most obvious and central combat, between Jack and the developer (Beau Bridges) who's bulldozing Jack's ecotopia into plastic suburbia, concludes inconclusively.

Rebecca Miller is no tragedian like her dad. She's a lyrical poet with an elliptical turn of mind. She submitted the Ballad script to Day-Lewis years before she knew him. He only agreed to star in it after they'd married and had children. It does have moments of beauty and mystery, but ultimately it's a muddle. He was right to turn it down the first time. (R) TIM APPELO

Beauty Shop

Opens Wed., March 30, at Pacific Place and others

Just when you're positive that you've seen everything, along comes a movie like Beauty Shop to show new ways of throwing away talent. After earning an Oscar nomination for Chicago, then supporting Ice Cube in Barbershop 2, Queen Latifah reprises the latter movie's character of Gina, a talented hair stylist who decides to open her own Atlanta salon after yet another run-in with her evil and controlling boss, Jorge (Kevin Bacon, sporting stringy bleached hair, orangish skin, and a hideous accent). She takes with her shampoo girl Lynn (sickly sweet Alicia Silverstone, with an even more revolting accent) and pieces together a successful and lively beauty shop. (She also inherits a gaggle of sassy stylists from the previous tenant and benefits from the help of her devoted but eccentric friends and family—ain't capitalism grand?)

Meanwhile, struggling to keep her daughter, Vanessa (Paige Hurd), in a prestigious music school, Gina also has to cope with Jorge's constant sabotage efforts and distractions like sexy electrician Joe (Djimon Hounsou). There are a few entertaining moments to Beauty Shop, like Gina trying to make her ass look bigger, and Miss Josephine (Alfre Woodard) breaking into Maya Angelou poems every 10 seconds. No doubt, Latifah is a talented actress and an enjoyable presence on screen, but she can't fix the fact that she has zero chemistry with Hounsou. Silverstone simply scares the audience with her bad Southern drawl and twitching lip. This Shop will receive few repeat customers. (PG-13) HEATHER LOGUE

Los Angeles Plays Itself

Runs Fri., April 1–Thurs., April 7, at Northwest Film Forum

Not many of us remember the 1996 Steven Seagal cop flick The Glimmer Man. Why is it worth including in this absorbing, high-minded, nearly three-hour-long documentary? Because the movie, like almost 200 others excerpted here, was shot in Los Angeles. It's set there, too, unlike most of the clips collected by film scholar Thom Anderson. As he explains in a voice-over that's really a lecture (and actually read by someone else), the hometown of the entertainment industry is usually cast as a bland, convenient backdrop—a generic anywhere that doesn't impose its identity like New York.

"If we notice the location, we're not really watching the movie," Anderson explains, but his thesis is that by doing the former, we discover a hidden documentary about his precious, authentic Los Angeles within the latter. He finds traces of the city's history in almost every frame: the lost downtown working-class neighborhood of Bunker Hill; the riots of Watts and Rodney King; the crypto-fascist LAPD glorified in Dragnet and partly exposed in L.A. Confidential. Not that he likes that picture (unlike Dragnet, for which he professes kitsch admiration, even comparing Jack Webb to Ozu and Bresson). As Chinatown was to the '70s and Blade Runner was to the '80s, he sees L.A. Confidential as an unsatisfactory '90s analogue for the real Los Angeles—one that both exaggerates and omits important truths about his home. Transportation issues are telling, he argues: In Blade Runner, Harrison Ford never has trouble finding a parking space; in Chinatown, Jack Nicholson is only made impotent when he loses his car. And in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, he notes, though the political subplot is about a mad scientist ripping up L.A.'s trolley lines, Bob Hoskins only rides the streetcar once—and drives everywhere else.

There's no escaping Anderson's pedantic tone; he hates the trivializing acronym "L.A." and has a hard time abbreviating his own thoughts. (Do we really need digressions on why Armageddon destroys Paris?) He's not a great film critic, but he is a serious scholar of his city (like Mike Davis, whom he cites). Think of all those villains, in L.A. Confidential and other flicks, who reside in a white hillside mansion—"Hollywood's war against modernist architecture," he says. Those paradigmatic white-trash scenes of bungalows next to oil derricks are no less reductive. What's missing is the middle: the great nonwhite demographic center of the city, which he finds represented in the independent films of Charles Burnett and forgotten movies like 1961's The Exiles (which the NWFF will screen next week).

It's no surprise that critics love this movie, although one wishes Anderson could also find something to love in all the movies he quotes. It's easy to rap L.A. Story or Grand Canyon or Short Cuts for their glibness or condescension about Los Angeles, but where is the Hollywood movie that gets at least part of it right? What about Shampoo or Valley Girl or Boyz in the Hood? Like any academic, Anderson quotes selectively to support his thesis. Outside of a film school, however, it's the best lecture—and architectural tour—you're going to find about a misunderstood city that's long overdue for its close-up. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

Lost Embrace

Opens Fri., April 1, at Metro

Argentine writer-director Daniel Burman's ode to the Jewish subculture of Buenos Aires won the Berlin Film Festival's best actor prize for star Daniel Hendler and the runner-up prize for best picture, but failed to win an Oscar as Argentina's official foreign-language nominee. That's about right. The best thing about it is Hendler's nervous, peevish turn as a young man burning to spurn his Argentine identity and get back to his grandparents' Polish roots. It'd also be a way of getting back at his AWOL father, who abandoned his family to be a Yom Kippur War hero in Israel. The movie wonderfully renders the small, shrinking world of a low-rent B.A. shopkeepers' mall, but its shambling storytelling style and shrugging embrace of its larger themes keep its pleasures small. But it's sure a keeper: sweet but not too, a tangy, teasing valentine to dear hearts and gentle people who start to feel like family.

Sad-eyed Uruguayan hunk Hendler plays Ariel, who wants out of the mall the way Mister Roberts wanted off that World War II supply ship. To us, tagging along on his aimlessly busy days, it looks like fun to hang out with his mom and comfort his brother, a rabbi wanna-be reduced to wholesaling poignantly unnecessary secondhand toys over the telephone. At the lingerie shop where Ariel and his mother work, the window gives a light-comic Rear Window view of the other mall denizens—the kindly Italian sausage hawker who yells endlessly; the Korean couple who prefer the Jewish mall to the nearby Korean one; the rebbe dispensing his last wisdom before he leaves for a big-bucks job at Miami's ritziest synagogue.

Ariel's mom can't see why he dumped his adorable childhood sweetheart for the dishy shiksa at the Internet outfit across the mall—that woman is 40, with some sort of unseemly arrangement with her elderly employer. Ariel complies each time the shiksa asks for his help in and out of lingerie in the dressing room, but he's not trying her on with an eye to buy. He's more interested in persuading Grandma to overcome her Holocaust-escapee jitters and hand over her Polish citizenship documents, so he can escape Argentina.

The mild, meandering comedy of manners concludes with a few surprises for Ariel. We get a folk fable that is, as Raymond Carver would say, a small, good thing. (NR) TIM APPELO

Steamboy

Runs Fri., April 1–Thurs., April 7, at Varsity

Katsuhiro Ôtomo's first full-length animated film since his genre-creating Akira of 1983 appears to have been a flop in his native Japan, at least with the fanboys. It's hard to understand why, at least for these Western eyes. Steamboy is, if only intermittently, heart-poundingly exciting; the story is fluid (something you can never count on with anime); the characters are sharply defined and beautifully dubbed (the late show will be in Japanese with subtitles); the action sequences are brilliantly directed. Best of all, the frequent hallucinatory spasms of sheer destruction are as perversely exhilarating as those in Akira, but with 22 additional years of technological sophistication powering them.

Maybe it's the setting that put off Ôtomo's core fan audience; if so, it's going to be a problem for the film in the U.S., too. Steamboy takes place in a fantastic re- vision of Victorian England, its central setting the Great Exhibition of 1855 that gathers techno-marvels from round the world. Great catamaran-steamships proudly ply the Thames; dirigibles float ponderously above the Crystal Palace; on the rails (and off them), thundering steam-driven vehicles go chuffing through space. Conceptually, it's too lovely for words; but to any viewer committed to surface futurism in his action anime, I can see how it all might seem too twee for words.

The story concerns three generations of an engineering family, constantly driving the progress of steam power forward, constantly tempted to desert to the dark side of commerce, exploitation, and war. At first I was troubled by what seemed a poor match between the traditional 2-D animation of the principals and the heavy use of 3-D CGI in the backgrounds, but Ôtomo and his designers know exactly what they are doing. Paradoxically, the "flat" characters, even the villainous ones, are made to seem sympathetic and human against the unyielding steel-hard machinery that surrounds them, threatening to erase them both visually and mortally. Only if you can enter wholly into the spirit of an orgy of creative destruction—make that destructive creation—will you find in Steamboy more than noise, dazzle, and sophomoric philosophizing. But if you can put your mind out to pasture long enough to let its imagery saturate you, the film is a tonic for the eyes and the viscera. (NR) ROGER DOWNEY

 
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