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EW review: Latifah's bad hair day

'Beauty Shop' is boisterous, amiable but not very funny

By Owen Gleiberman
Entertainment Weekly


Queen Latifah, Kevin Bacon
Queen Latifah and Kevin Bacon star in "Beauty Shop."
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(Entertainment Weekly) -- "Beauty Shop," a spin-off of the spiky and popular "Barbershop" comedies, places the ladies in the center shampoo chair, and I went into it hoping for the same sort of buzz -- for the gossipy, rambunctious kick of neighborhood hairstylists saying whatever pops into their heads, manners (and good taste) be damned.

The high spirits are certainly in place. When Gina (Queen Latifah), who has been transplanted from Chicago to Atlanta, quits her job at a trendy salon run by Jorge (Kevin Bacon), a Eurotrash-bitch stylist with enough highlights in his shaggy mane to destroy the cause of metrosexuality, she proceeds to set up her own shop, poaching a couple of his posh clients (Andie MacDowell and Mena Suvari) while she's at it. The backchat is flying before the hair dryers are even plugged in.

There are jokes about big booties and bikini waxes, and far too many obvious ones about the novice white hairdresser (Alicia Silverstone) who comes on like she's just another sistah. (She's the equivalent of Troy Garity's white homeboy in "Barbershop.")

More often than not, though, it's the film that's faking the swagger. Gina opens her business in a low-income neighborhood, but her beauty shop, with its pastel blue walls and free cappuccino, isn't presented as a funky alternative to Jorge's designer digs. It's serene and classy and upscale -- sort of like Latifah's performance.

As Gina, she rules over the salon like a wise den mother, striving to fix everyone else's problems. "Beauty Shop" could be the slow-gear launch episode of a ''warm'' workplace-as-family sitcom. It's a boisterous and amiable movie but not, in the end, a very funny one.

There's a telling moment when Gina and her employees are listening, with deep satisfaction, to a sexy-voiced deejay who unspools a tale of feminine vengeance. She talks about acting real ''ghetto,'' and then, as a punchline, she drops the N-word, which inspires gales of laughter and disbelieving cries of ''No, she didn't!''

At that point, Gina cuts short the fun by declaring, ''No one says the N-word up in this shop!'' Morally, her policy statement is unassailable, yet it comes off as more than a bit schoolmarmish -- not to mention contradictory -- when you consider that everyone in the salon was cracking up not five seconds before over the slangy catharsis of the forbidden word.

"Barbershop" and its sequel featured Cedric the Entertainer making glorious trouble. If there's a female Cedric out there waiting to tell the truth as only a woman can, she is not to be found in "Beauty Shop."

Alfre Woodard, as the most outspoken of the stylists, has a few moments of bossy bravura, and there are fun touches around the edges, like the soul-food peddler (Sheryl Underwood) who keeps offering folks ''monkey bread'' followed by a nutty jungle screech. Djimon Hounsou, as the electrician who falls for Gina, is a love interest too saintly by half.

Latifah is sexy enough to earn his attention, but where, I kept wondering, is the snappish queen of rap bluster? In "Beauty Shop," she's been Oprahfied out of existence.

EW Grade: C+

'Look at Me'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

Beware the father who would call a daughter Lolita -- an evocative name, with its leering Nabokovian associations, that flatters the bestower's sexual vanity but does no favors to a baby girl.

In the superb French comic drama "Look at Me," writer-director Agnes Jaoui ("The Taste of Others") knows exactly what kind of man would be so self-absorbed: He's famous writer Etienne Cassard (the expressively sour-faced Jean-Pierre Bacri, Jaoui's creative partner and coscreenwriter), a man oblivious to the feelings of others, including his young, sylphic second wife.

Etienne is especially, exquisitely insensitive to the unhappiness of his own miserable Lolita (Marilou Berry), a plump, dumpy, angry 20-year-old who has warped her life trying unsuccessfully to get her father's attention (when not enjoying his renown as a substitute for love).

Around the two, the wry filmmaker has created an urbane society of family and friends as ridiculously pretentious and hypocritical as they are cultured, accomplished, and posh: Comparisons with Woody Allen in his prime aren't out of order. And then she lets them all flatter, disappoint, and deceive each other -- with irresistible results. (The sparkling, perfectly constructed screenplay took home a prize last year at Cannes.)

Nor does she leave herself off the hook. Jaoui also plays Sylvia, a boho-chic singing teacher married to a struggling writer (Laurent Grevill), and the couple is just as susceptible to the lures of status and the traps of phoniness as the insufferable Etienne: Sylvia's interest in Lolita as a voice student rises immeasurably when she learns of the girl's provenance. (Music is offered like a balm throughout the story.)

And Lolita's own bruised experience as a child of privilege doesn't keep her from trampling on the feelings of a decent young man who dares to like her for herself.

The title "Look at Me" is a reasonable substitute for the original French title, "Comme une Image" -- the English emphasizes the sadness and folly of sophisticates hiding in plain sight. But Jaoui has also said that she considered a number of others, including "The Right Reasons" (as in, everyone finds excuses for compromise).

The ravishing vocal operatic trio included from Cosifan tutte suggests one other headline for Jaoui's great social study: "Everyone Does It."

EW Grade: B

'Kontroll'

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

Not since Luc Besson tracked circles around himself in the Paris Metro tunnels of "Subway" has a director employed an urban catacomb transport system as exhaustively -- or exhaustingly -- as Nimrod Antal does in "Kontroll."

A subway is a ready-made dystopian movie set, and Antal, shooting in the Budapest underground (the world's second oldest), can't get enough of the steel gray fluorescent maze, the ominous slow drop of the escalators.

The audience, however, gets more than enough. Antal has assembled what may be the single most colorless group of mangy lowlifes I have ever seen -- a pack of inspectors whose job it is to harass the passengers already on trains into showing their tickets. (It's efficiency like this that killed Eastern European communism.)

Their principal activity, though, consists of not liking one another and declaring it with repetitive abrasiveness. The hooded phantom who keeps popping up to shove passengers onto the tracks is the only figure in "Kontroll" with even a semblance of purpose.

EW Grade: D

'Dust to Glory'

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

In "Dust to Glory," director Dana Brown attempts to do for souped-up cars and trucks and motorbikes and the daredevils who drive them what he did for the surf lords of "Step Into Liquid."

Every year since 1967, in the desert of Mexico, racers of every stripe have gathered for the Baja 1000, a full-throttle endurance race in which teams of badasses power any vehicle they choose along a thousand vicious miles of rocky, winding wilderness road.

Anyone who wants to can enter, so that even though the contest is headlined by professionals with corporate sponsorships, the Baja 1000 has never lost its dune-buggy-to-hell aura of '60s anarchy.

It turns out, however, that speeding along dirt roads isn't nearly as photogenic -- or as varied -- as surfing is. Brown fragments "Dust to Glory" past all continuity, and his relentless gosh-wow! narration makes you wish he had taken the full leap from fan to filmmaker.

EW Grade: C

'Schizo'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

A teenage movie character nicknamed after a mental illness is bound to fulfill the shock value of his moniker in any language. But in the spare, neo-realist Russian-language drama "Schizo," the eccentric behavior of Mustafa (Olzhas Nusuppaev) mirrors the emotional hardships and bleak landscapes of the young man's impoverished life in an unbeautiful stretch of Kazakhstan.

Mustafa is pushed by his mother's shady boyfriend to help recruit amateur fighters for an underground boxing-and-betting racket, and "Kazakh" director Guka Omarova employs her bare-bones but empathetic filmmaking style to capture the desperation and casual criminality of illegal bare-knuckle boxing.

Following a bout that ends in a fatality, Mustafa befriends the woman and little boy left behind by the dead boxer, and for the first time, he feels a sense of belonging. The family is one of those openhearted edge-of-nowhere units that tend to appear, conveniently, in neo-realist films set in foreign landscapes.

Yet, working from a script cowritten with accomplished Siberian filmmaker Sergey Bodrov, the director creates a taut picture of a place, and a liberating moment of choice.

EW Grade: B

'Mail Order Wife'

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko's smirkily audacious "Mail Order Wife" starts off as a documentary about a Queens doorman with an ugly shrub of hair, a body as bulky as a washing machine and a stare of the damned. When he picks a comely young Burmese mate out of a catalog, you think: This is just the sort of guy who would want a mail-order bride.

When she arrives in New York and he begins to treat her like dirt, you think: I knew this wouldn't work out. And when she responds by running into the arms of Gurland, who looks like a sleazy young Marvin Hamlisch, you think: OK, what, exactly, is going on here ...

Everyone knows what a mockumentary is, but what do you call a documentary that teases us into deciphering whether it's real or not? Like last year's "Incident at Loch Ness," which followed Werner Herzog's discovery of the Loch Ness monster (I almost bought it until Nessie popped out of the water as often as Jaws), "Mail Order Wife" is dedicated to the idea that truth is stranger than fiction even if it is fiction.

It took gifted hucksters to make this movie, a funny and spirited -- what to call it? -- crockumentary.

EW Grade: B

'dot the i'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

The X that marks the one spot of audience interest in writer-director Matthew Parkhill's feature film debut "dot the i" is Gael Garcia Bernal in his first starring role in an English-language movie.

Minus the novelty of observing what happens when the sweet-faced Mexican hunklet gambles a handful of indie cred on a project built to Slamdance (not even Sundance) proportions, this perilously overdesigned, speck-size romantic thriller would collapse of its own labored let's-make-a-festival-film trickiness. Come to think of it, even with Bernal as headliner, "dot the i" leaves too many t's double-crossed.

Bernal plays Kit, a Brazilian aspiring actor in London who meets Carmen (Natalia Verbeke, with a Brittany Murphy look) at exactly the wrong time: The impulsive Spanish girl is celebrating her engagement to her dull British beau, Barnaby ("Master and Commander's" James D'Arcy), at an all-girl ''hen party'' in a French restaurant when the farewell-to-freedom kiss she bestows on Kit turns into a real smooch.

Sparks fly, jealousies are aroused, that sort of high-temperature thing -- all of it documented on videotape through subterfuge only explainable at the end of the increasingly unreliable plot.

The movie is in love with its own story loops and fancy, pop-dream cinematography from Almodovar associate Affonso Beato, which is fine; it's also in love with its own indie-culture cleverness, which isn't.

EW Grade: C-

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