ROMAN DE GARE Ever since winning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for the 1966 international smash Un homme et une femme (A Man and a Woman), writer-director Claude Lelouch has steadily turned into persona non grata in the United States, to such a startling degree that most of his movies don't even rate any sort of theatrical run on this side of the Atlantic. Thankfully, his latest film managed to slip through the embargo, as Roman de Gare is a suspenseful drama with enough satisfying twists to keep any mystery hound satisfied. In an atypical but brilliant bit of casting, the pinch-faced Dominique Pinon (Amelie, Delicatessen) plays a mysterious man who's catching his breath at a highway rest area when Huguette (Audrey Dana), a temperamental hairdresser beaten down by life, gets unceremoniously abandoned there by her fiancé. Alone and frightened, she reluctantly accepts a ride from this odd-looking character. But who is he, exactly? The film hints that he's the serial killer who just escaped from prison. Then it suggests that maybe he's the teacher who abandoned his wife and kids for a life on the road. And finally, the man himself claims to be the personal assistant of – and perhaps even the ghostwriter for – best-selling author Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant). Lelouch and co-scripter Pierre Uytterhoeven repeatedly pile on clues that take us in one direction before swerving down a different path, yet what's especially clever about the plotting is that anything that proves to be merely a red herring is then incorporated into another storyline, thereby minimizing the danger of dangling plotholes. That's not to say the movie is drum-tight – the climactic revelation isn't as carefully thought out as what precedes it – but moviegoers in the mood for an alternative to the summer blockbusters will forgive any minor slippage. ***1/2
HANCOCK The idea behind Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" can be applied to this sci-fi outing that, somewhat surprisingly, ends up taking the path "less traveled by." Yet equally surprising is the fact that this enjoyable film would have been even better had it played out as expected. The premise is irresistible: Hancock (Will Smith) is an alcoholic, antisocial superhero whose crimefighting exploits usually end up causing millions of dollars in damage to the city of Los Angeles. The residents have had enough of him, and the police even have a warrant out for his arrest. Hancock couldn't care less until PR guy Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), despite protests from his wife (Charlize Theron), decides he's going to help Hancock overhaul his public image by transforming him from a menace to society into a hero worthy of respect. The first half sprints with this plotline, resulting in a movie that's consistently funny and inventive – even the typically heavy-handed direction by Peter Berg (The Kingdom) can't dilute the fun. But without warning, scripters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan orchestrate a major plot pirouette, one that dramatically changes the relationships between the characters and allows a sharp satire to mutate into (in no order) a melodrama, a romance, a tragedy, and a myth-building muddle. No movie should survive such a clumsy shift, and yet this manages to get back on its feet, thanks in no small part to the conviction that Smith and Theron bring to their roles. Audience members willing to hop aboard this emotional roller coaster ride will respond to the resultant pathos far better than viewers wondering why the laughs suddenly went MIA. **1/2
HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY While this sequel to the 2004 feature doesn't lack for visual wonders, it's utterly clumsy in the storytelling department, a genuine shock given writer-director Guillermo del Toro's usual ability to spin a tall tale. Here, Hellboy (Ron Perlman), the satanic emissary who fights on the side of right, must face off against an albinotic, ancient leader (Luke Goss) who hopes to revive an army of lumbering brutes to destroy humankind. Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) is clearly most content when he's frolicking with freaks, but his obsession comes at a high price. The original Hellboy wasn't anything special, either, but at least the predicament of its red-hued hero carried some dramatic heft, particularly in the way his feeble wisecracks masked the painful ache in his soul, a loneliness that could only be cured by the love of another mutant, the pyrokinetic Liz (Selma Blair). The misfit romance between Hellboy and Liz was arguably the best part of the original flick, yet del Toro miscalculates this time around by moving the pair too quickly to the status of bickering, boring lovers. For all its cool critter content, this is surprisingly snooze-inducing when it comes to its storyline and even its central characters; there's an aloofness to the whole enterprise that's atypical for the director, suggesting that maybe his mind was already racing ahead to future projects. Then again, with The Hobbit on his plate, that was probably to be expected. **
Great observations, Titus. Thanks for posting!
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