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MAY 12, 2008

Heck on Wheels

Reviewed: Roman de Gare, Speed Racer, Beaufort, Then She Found Me, Redbelt, Mr. Lonely

By Mark Jenkins

A Bumpy Ride: Pinon and Ardant in Roman de Gare . (Samuel Goldwyn)

Also this week: An interview with Son of Rambow director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith

A THRILLER THAT'S ALSO A FARCE, a romantic comedy, and a road movie, ROMAN DE GARE has a lot of fun with genre — and with expectations. Veteran French writer-director Claude Lelouch even alludes to a class of fiction with the film's title: Roman de Gare means "train station novel," and refers to a light read. The movie opens with a homage to genres past: Its opening sequence is set at Quai de Orfèvres, site of Paris's police headquarters, and is shot in a stark black-and-white that evokes the 1947 policier named for that address. Quai de Orfèvres is where a noted French crime novelist, Judith (Fanny Ardant), has been taken to questioned about an alleged murder.

The film is rather ominous for much of its running time, thanks to a subplot involving an escaped serial killer. Lelouch hints that Pierre (veteran supporting actor Dominique Pinon, who has a cartoon-character face) is the wanted man. But Pierre might also be Judith's ghostwriter, or a runaway teacher. And when Pierre meets Huguette (Audrey Dana) at the highway rest stop, she soon asks him to try on another identity: that of her fiancé, who abandoned her at the roadside cafe after they quarreled. Huguette doesn't want to disappoint her family, who live on the most primitive sheep farm in all of France, by arriving without the promised husband-to-be.

This confusion of identities is, in a sense, autobiographical: Before beginning the film, Lelouch recognized that he was trapped by expectations. So he directed under a pseudonym, although he dropped the alias before the film was released in France. Roman de Gare is full of such feints and frauds, some of them trivial, other consequential. Although the film is fundamentally an entertainment — the best one Lelouch has had released in the U.S. in a very long time — it is serious about the director's craft, which is storytelling.

Exploring the movie's themes further is difficult without revealing too much of the plot. Let's just say that the person who is ultimately revealed to be the writer shares many characteristics with Lelouch, who admits to preying on innocents for his stories. "Every novelist is a predator," says one character. So Roman de Gare is ultimately a crime story. It's about a man who manipulates his characters, and is even prepared to murder them. All to please his unindicted co-conspirators — the viewers. (2007, 103 min; at Landmark E Street, Shirlington, and Cinema Arts)

WITH ITS M&M COLORS and mix of animation and live action, SPEED RACER resembles little that Hollywood's ever done before. Yet the movie has a couple of problems that are typical of contemporary American cinema: 1) It's a compelling piece of production design in search of a story and some characters worthy of all the visual hubbub, and 2) it doesn't seem designed for any existing audience. Too dumb for adults and too nasty for preteens, the movie will elicit mostly yawns, punctuated by the occasional parental squawk.

The characters, supposedly the object of our nostalgic affection, include adolescent auto racer Speed (Emile Hirsch) and girlfriend Trixie (the naturally anime-eyed Christina Ricci), along with his family (Paulie Litt, John Goodman, and — geez! — Susan Sarandon) and a chimp. Korean pop star Rain plays a competing driver, and stray Japanese phrases can be discerned amid the multi-lingual sports commentary. But writer-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski don't delve deeply into the original, whose title was Mach Go Go Go! (Why did Speed drive a Mach 5 car? Because the Japanese word for five is "go.") When Speed Racer was created, racing in Japan was largely run by the mob, yet the Wachowskis' villain is not a yakuza boss but a variety of the megalomaniacal tycoon so common in American films. (He looks something like Christopher Hitchens, but he's peddling corporate hegemony, not the Iraq War.)

Kinetic to a fault, Speed Racer sends cartoon cars through Hot-Wheels-on-acid loops and a video-game version of the Alps, while the camera cuts and swishes faster than the Mach 5 can corner. Yet the effect suggests those historical documentaries that pan unceasingly across old photographs and illustrations; the nonstop movement can't disguise that the basic material is inert. What is interesting about the movie is its negation of the "philosophy" of the Wachowskis' Matrix trilogy. Where those flicks chronicled the battle against virtual reality, this one embraces the digital shadow-world. "I go to the races to watch you make art," Speed's mom tells him, and Speed Racer insists that motion and color trump humanity. It turns out that Neo took the wrong turn: If only he had grabbed an animated roadster and sped into unreality, he'd have been as happy as, well, the Racer family sitting down to CGI pancakes. (2008, 135 min; at area multiplexes.)

SET MOSTLY INSIDE THE 12TH-CENTURY CRUSADER'S CASTLE for which it's titled, BEAUFORT offers a soldiers'-eye view of the Israeli Army's 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Director and co-writer Joseph Cedar's powerful film emphasizes the particulars of a small squad's activities, and its isolation from both its comrades and the logic of its commanders. There's much talk about the politics of the troops's position inside Lebanon, but Cedar (a veteran of the Lebanon campaign) treats the chatter as idle next to the immediate concerns of surviving, following orders, and always being ready for the next Hezbollah mortar shelling — all of which are as much emotional issues as practical ones. The convincingly simulated location is crucial to the film's effect. The fort evokes ancient religious conflicts, but inside the old walls are steel-reinforced corridors that suggest the bowels of a spaceship. In a sense, Beaufort is an existential sci-fi flick, in which a few hardy but disaffected men complete a mission that ground control is no longer sure should ever have been undertaken. At this point, every new arrival is a potential wasted life, which recalls a famous question: How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake? (2007, 131 min; at the Avalon Theater)

A BLUR OF FILIAL ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES, first-time director Helen Hunt's smart, agreeably messy THEN SHE FOUND ME is about a woman who loses an adoptive mother, a husband, and a child, only to gain a biological mother, a husband, and a child. That summary might seem to reveal too much of the plot, which is derived from (but, I'm told, wantonly unfaithful to) Elinor Lipman's novel. Yet disclosing the dramedy's central events doesn't much matter, since they aren't especially surprising. The principal astonishment is that Hunt, who co-scripted, has created characters who are sympathetic without being conventionally likable. Hunt's April Epner makes some serious missteps, her semi-estranged husband (Matthew Broderick) is babyish (and a premature ejaculator), and her new romantic prospect (Colin Firth) is pudgy, high-strung, and hot-tempered. Perhaps the worst of all, April's newly announced bio-mom (Bette Midler) is overbearing and a liar, albeit dedicated to building a relationship with her daughter as April rushes through a series of ticking-bio-clock mishaps. Hunt can't quite escape her sitcom persona, but the film certainly doesn't move like a TV show. Especially in its first half, the breathless editing seems more European than Hollywoodish. While Then She Found Me has its conventional aspects, it counters them with moments that are believably awkward. (2008, 100 min; at Landmark E Street and Bethesda and Shirlington)

DAVID MAMET'S SILLIEST MOVIE YET — and that's saying something — REDBELT is the tale of a modern warrior whose purity is defiled by the entertainment industry, which the writer-director has rebuked before (notably in State and Main). Painfully righteous L.A. jujitsu teacher Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) rescues a movie star (Tim Allen) from a bar fight, and is rewarded with potentially lucrative possibilities in The Biz. This boon is well-timed, since Terry's fight academy makes no money, his wife (Alice Braga) is getting antsy, and a freaked-out lawyer (Emily Mortimer) has just brought unwanted attention on the studio by grabbing a cop's gun (which, of course, discharged). Terry eventually realizes that he, like most Mamet protagonists, is being conned. Trapped by the sort of machinations the filmmaker loves too much, the jujitsu master may be forced to compete in a martial-arts tournament that's beneath his principles. The twist is that Mamet, who usually contrives to leave his central characters bereft, here provides an upbeat — ludicrously so, in fact — ending. The film's burlesque of African, Brazilian, and Japanese traditions is tasteless, but nothing tops the insult of Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife) as a samba singer. That gig is the movie's ultimate flimflam. (2008, 97 min; at area multiplexes)

A CONNOISSEUR OF SELF-DELUDED CRANKS and willful visionaries, Werner Herzog is a natural patron for Harmony Korine, the director who returns (after a absence of nine years) with MR. LONELY. But is Korine a crank or a visionary? Well, his new movie does include visions — nuns who skydive without parachutes or injury, a commune of celebrity impersonators, Herzog as a Bavarian-accented priest — and the images are much more impressive than in Korine's crummy-looking previous features, Julien Donkey-Boy (which also featured Herzog) and Gummo. There are even special effects! What's lacking is a script. Instead, Korine offers situations: In addition to the nuns, there's a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who meets a Marilyn Monroe imitator (Samantha Morton) in Paris, and follows her back to a Scottish estate populated entirely by celebrity lookalikes, plus some sheep. The latter are subsequently killed, as if to prove that Korine can confront matters of life and death. But he faces such issues as he did in his script for Larry Clark's briefly scandalous Kids: with much attitude but no truth. Working from someone else's screenplay, Korine may yet prove himself a filmmaker. But for now, he remains a crank. (2007, 112 min; at Landmark E Street)