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Survival of the fittest


"You're not bad --- you're innocent. Innocent people are just... uh... dangerous."

These words are spoken about 16-year-old Rose Slavin (a lovely Camilla Belle), but they could also apply to her father Jack (mmmmm... Daniel Day-Lewis). The year is 1986 when The Ballad of Jack and Rose opens, and our title characters are the sole inhabitants of a former commune on an island off the East Coast. Over the course of the film, however, the outside world will invade the Slavins' seemingly idyllic sanctuary, and that innocence will be lost.

There's something vaguely creepy about this father-daughter relationship, but it most likely stems from the fact that Rose is clinging to Jack with everything she has. Jack suffers from a terminal illness that has left him a bag of bones and his daughter ill-equipped for life without him --- so much so that she plans to exit when he does. Jack's solution is to invite his sometime-girlfriend Kathleen (a weary-looking Catherine Keener) and her two teenage sons to live with them and ostensibly watch over Rose once he's gone.

Rose reacts to these perceived trespassers with outright hostility and tragic manipulation. She puts the obviously outclassed Kathleen through the wringer, and the young men are putty in the hands of this brown-eyed Daddy's girl. Jack, meanwhile, is waging a war of his own with a real estate developer building on the island. He fights his battles from his high horse and is as oblivious to the consequences of his actions as his beloved daughter is hers.

The third movie written and directed by Rebecca Miller, The Ballad of Jack and Rose is a frustrating piece of film. It's beautifully shot by Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and features a riveting performance by Day-Lewis, but the eleventh-hour epiphanies of Miller's characters do little to redeem their behavior or rope the viewer into caring. And a deflowering scene juxtaposed against the escape of a copperhead into a little nook is right out of Symbolism for Dummies. I adored Miller's last film, Personal Velocity, and this feels like a step backwards.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose could best be compared to a cake that didn't turn out quite right. It contains the finest ingredients and was made by a talented baker, but something went amiss during the process and left us with something that only looks delicious.

"Well, they're not really wild if you're taking care of them."

Mark Bittner fields these comments with the good humor of a 21st-century flower child. He's called the St. Francis of San Francisco's Telegraph Hill because he's taken it upon himself to look after the wild parrots that often roost there. The people strolling through the area stop to admire and ask him questions about the flock, but there's a skeptical jerk around every corner.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, a charming documentary by Judy Irving, focuses the lens on Bittner and his close relationship with a group of cherry-headed conures that have made their home in the trees of the City by the Bay. Bittner, a ponytailed and smart 40-something slacker, has no visible means of support and enjoys rent-free lodgings while he interacts with and observes his subjects.

Bittner has names for the parrots and occasionally invents elaborate back stories about them as well. We get to know Mingus, who has a bum leg and loves music; Picasso and Sophie, a longtime couple; and Connor, a blue-crowned conure who is quiet and somewhat of an outcast because of the color of his head. Bittner speaks about these birds as if they were his feather-covered children, and as we begin to get as attached as he is, reality sets in. The demolition of his free accommodations is imminent, and Mother Nature reminds us about the survival of the fittest.

The camerawork, though not as accomplished as that found in bar-raising documentaries like Winged Migration or Microcosmos, perfectly captures the parrots in their habitat and illustrates the personalities to which Bittner lovingly refers. Too bad about the musical score, though --- in the late '80s it probably would have been considered New Age, but now it's just plain boring.

I've often watched documentaries and wondered how the presumably black-hearted filmmaker was able to disassociate from the (very) moving images and keep from getting involved. Most satisfyingly, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is not one of those films.

"This is how I tried to become a real Japanese."

Adapted from an autobiographical novel by Amelie Nothomb, Fear and Trembling is about a young Belgian woman's desire to make a go of it in Japan. Amelie (Sylvie Testud) was born in the Land of the Rising Sun and has fond memories of her early years, so she accepts a year-long contract to be an interpreter at the Yumimoto Corporation. The next 365 days consist of a number of unwitting faux pas on her part and increasingly cruel repercussions from her superiors which ultimately find Amelie in the role of restroom attendant, but the stubborn woman finds a kind of masochistic peace in not quitting.

I love that leading ladies outside of the United States don't need to be gorgeous sex bombs, only good actresses. Sylvie Testud (probably best known here for The Chateau) won the Cesar for this performance and has a goofy, Everywoman look that helps the viewer relate to her.

Fear and Trembling has a Secretary bent to it, with its dark humor and sadism in the workplace, but it's the culture clash angle that kept my attention, leaving the Japanese notion of honor open to new interpretation.