Category Archives: Road Movie

Blu-ray reissue: Lost in America ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Lost in America– Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed. Director/co-writer Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and hit the road to “find themselves”; they’ll “touch Indians” (with a “nest egg” of $145,000). Due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and the couple find themselves on the receiving end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like all of Brooks’ movies, it is at once painfully funny and painful to watch (he paved the way for Larry David and Ricky Gervais). Criterion’s extras are a bit skimpy here, but the new 2K restoration is fabulous.

Blu-ray reissue: They Live By Night ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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They Live By Night – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

This 1949 film noir/progenitor of the “lovers on the lam” genre marked the directing debut for the great Nicholas Ray. Adapted by Ray and Charles Schnee from Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us (the same source novel that inspired Robert Altman’s eponymous 1974 film), this Depression-era tale concerns the unexpected and intense mutual attraction that sparks between a young escaped convict (Farley Granger) and a sheltered young woman (Cathy O’Donnell). The young lovers’ primal drive to meaningfully connect with someone who truly “gets” them clouds the illogic of expecting to play house when one of them is a wanted fugitive.

With its themes of young outcasts, adolescent confusion, and doomed love, the film presages Ray’s 1955 social drama Rebel Without a Cause more so than it does his later noirs like In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground,  Moody, atmospheric and surprisingly sensual for its time (it doesn’t hurt that Granger and O’Donnell are so beautiful). Criterion’s 2K restoration lends depth to the shadows and light of George E. Diskant’s cinematography. Extras include commentary by “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller.

Blu-ray reissue: The Last Detail ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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The Last Detail – Powerhouse Films Blu-ray

Hal Ashby’s 1973 comedy-drama set the bar pretty high for all “buddy films” to follow (and to this day, few can touch it). Jack Nicholson heads a superb cast, as “Bad-Ass” Buddusky, a career Navy man who is assigned (along with a fellow Shore Patrol officer, played by Otis Young) to escort a first-time offender (Randy Quaid) to the brig in Portsmouth. Chagrined to learn that the hapless young swabbie has been handed an overly-harsh sentence for a relatively petty crime, Buddusky decides that they should at least show “the kid” a good time on his way to the clink (much to his fellow SP’s consternation). Episodic “road movie” misadventures ensue.

Don’t expect a Hollywood-style “wacky” comedy; as he did in all of his films, Ashby keeps it real. The suitably briny dialog was adapted by Robert Towne from Daryl Ponicsan’s novel; and affords Nicholson some of his most iconic line readings (“I AM the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker!”). Nicholson and Towne were teamed up again the following year via Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. This edition sports a fabulous 4K restoration (the audio is cleaned up too, crucial for a dialog-driven piece like this). Loads of extras-including a sanitized TV cut of the film, just for giggles.

SIFF 2017: Lane 1974 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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This episodic road movie/coming of age story may be too episodic for some tastes, but for those of a certain age (ahem), it hearkens back to the quietly observant character studies that flourished from the late 60s through the mid-70s  like Scarecrow, The Rain People, and Harry and Tonto. Writer-director SJ Chiro adapted her screenplay from Clane Hayward’s memoir. 13 year-old Lane (Sophia Mitri Schloss), her little brother, and their narcissistic hippie-dippy mom (Ray Donovan’s Katherine Moennig) adopt a vagabond lifestyle after they’re kicked out of a Northern California commune. Schloss delivers a lovely, naturalistic performance as a budding adolescent coming to the sad realization that she is the responsible adult in the family, and that her mother is essentially the self-centered child.

Goin’ mobile: Top 10 road movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2016)

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Since Memorial Day weekend signals the warm-up to the summer travel season, I thought I would address those stirrings of wanderlust by sharing my picks for the Top 10 road movies. As usual, the list is in alphabetical order. So…fill ‘er up and check the oil!

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 Five Easy Pieces – “You see this sign?” Thanks to sharp direction from Bob Rafaelson, a memorable screenplay by Carole Eastman (billed in the credits as Adrien Joyce) and an outstanding, iconic performance by Jack Nicholson, this remains one of the defining American road movies of the 1970s. Nicholson was born to play the protagonist in this character study about a disillusioned, classically-trained pianist from a moneyed family, working at soulless blue-collar jobs and teetering on the edge of an existential meltdown. Karen Black gives one of her better performances as his long-suffering girlfriend. The late great DP Laszlo Kovacs makes excellent use of the verdant, rain-soaked Pacific Northwest milieu. And remember where to hold the chicken salad…

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Genevieve-A marvelous entry from Britain’s golden age of screen comedies, this gentle and good-natured 1953 film centers on the travails of an endearing young couple (Dinah Sheridan and John Gregson) as they join their bachelor friend (Kenneth Moore) and his latest flame (Kay Kendall) on their annual road trip from London to Brighton as participants in an antique car rally. After the two men have a bit of a verbal spat in Brighton, they decide to convert the return trip to London into a “friendly” race, with a 100 pound wager to be awarded to whoever is the first to reach and cross Westminster Bridge.

Colorful, drolly amusing and engaging throughout, especially thanks to Sheridan and Gregson’s charming onscreen chemistry. Oh, in case you were wondering-“Genevieve” is the name of the couple’s antique car! Director Henry Cornelius’ next project was I Am a Camera, the 1955 film that was reincarnated as the musical Cabaret.

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Lost in America – Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed. Director/co-writer Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and go Kerouac in order to “find themselves”; they’ll “touch Indians” (with a “nest egg” of $145,000).

Actually, Brooks’ character fancies their new elective lifestyle choice to be closer in spirit to the protagonists in Easy Rider (except that Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper didn’t hit the road in an RV that featured a microwave with a built-in browning element for making the perfect grilled cheese sandwich). Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and they now find themselves on the receiving end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like all of Brooks’ best movies, it is at once painfully funny and so very, very painful to watch.

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Motorama – This blackly comic 1991 road movie/Orphic journey nearly defies description. A rather odd 10-year old boy (Jordan Michael Christopher) flees his feuding parents to hit the road in search of his version of the American Dream-to win the grand prize in a gas station-sponsored scratch card game called “Motorama”. As he zips through fictional states with in-jokey names like South Lyndon, Bergen, Tristana and Essex, he has increasingly bizarre and absurd encounters with a veritable “who’s who” of cult filmdom, including John Diehl, John Nance, Susan Tyrell, Michael J. Pollard, Mary Woronov, Meatloaf and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.

What I find particularly amusing is that none of the adults seem to question why a 10 year old (who curses like a sailor and sports a curious bit of stubble by film’s end) is driving a Mustang on a solo cross-country trip. Not for all tastes-definitely not one for the kids (especially since the venerable parental admonishment of “You’ll poke your eye out!” becomes fully realized). Director Barry Shils has only made one other film, the 1995 doc, Wigstock: The Movie.

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Powwow Highway – A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who greatly resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha. He has decided that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a vision quest to “gather power”.

After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off, only to be waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz keep it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.

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Radio On – You know how you develop an inexplicable emotional attachment to certain films? This no-budget 1979 offering from writer-director Christopher Petit, shot in stark B&W is one such film for me. That being said, I should warn you that it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, because it contains one of those episodic, virtually plotless “road trip” narratives that may cause drowsiness for some viewers after about 15 minutes. Yet, I feel compelled to revisit this one at least once a year. Go figure.

A dour London DJ (David Beames), whose estranged brother has committed suicide, heads to Bristol to get his sibling’s affairs in order and attempt to glean what drove him to such despair (while quite reminiscent of the setup for Get Carter, this is not a crime thriller…far from it). He has encounters with various characters, including a friendly German woman, a sociopathic British Army vet who served in Northern Ireland, and a rural gas-station attendant (a cameo by Sting) who kills time singing Eddie Cochran songs.

But the “plot” doesn’t matter. As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how the cinema is capable of capturing and preserving the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.

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Sideways – Not unlike the fine wines coveted by one of its main protagonists, this 2004 dramedy from director/co-writer Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt) is destined to become richer and more fully appreciated over time (and repeated viewings, as I have discovered). Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church really shine as a divorced, unpublished writer and a soon-to-be-married, middling TV actor (respectively), two middle-aged pals who embark on a road trip through California’s wine country.

For the writer, it’s to be a leisurely cruise through the lovely environs, teaching his friend how to appreciate the aesthetic pleasures of the grape, and its subtle variances from vineyard to vineyard. For his less refined pal, it’s one last shot at a boning and grogging debauch before he ties the knot. When the two hook up with Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen, things get interesting (cue the midlife meltdowns). Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor picked up a deserved Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar (based on Rex Pickett’s novel).

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Sullivan’s Travels – A unique and amazingly deft mash-up of romantic screwball comedy, Hollywood satire, road movie and hard-hitting social drama that probably would not have worked so beautifully had not the great Preston Sturges been at the helm. Joel McCrea is pitch-perfect as a director of goofy populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble that his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he decides to hit the road with no money in his pocket and “embed” himself as a railroad tramp (much to the chagrin of his handlers).

He is joined along the way by an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake, in one of her best comic performances). His voluntary crash-course in “social realism” turns into much more than he had originally bargained for. Lake and McCrea have wonderful chemistry. Many decades later, the Coen Brothers co-opted the title of the fictional “film within the film” here: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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The Trip – Pared down into feature length from the 2011 BBC TV series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of the 6 episodes; which is not to denigrate it, because it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in years. The levity is due in no small part to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves. Coogan is commissioned by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District, and write reviews. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since they’re going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor Brydon, to accompany him.

This simple narrative setup is basically an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it feels improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s unexpected poignancy as well-but for the most part, it’s comedy gold. The director and both stars reunited for their equally enjoyable 2014 sequel, The Trip to Italy.

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Vanishing Point – I don’t know if anyone has ever done a study to see if there was spike in sales for Dodge Challengers in 1971, but it would not surprise me, since every car nut I have ever known who throws around phrases like “cherry” or “big block” usually gets a dreamy, faraway look in their eyes when I mention this cult classic, directed by Richard C. Sarafian. It’s best described as an existential car chase movie.

Barry Newman stars as Kowalski (there’s never a mention of a first name), a car delivery driver who is assigned to get a Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco. When someone wagers he can’t make the trip in less than 15 hours, he accepts the challenge. Naturally, someone in a muscle car pushing 100 mph across several states is going to eventually get the attention of law enforcement-and the chase is on.

Not much of a plot, but curiously riveting nonetheless. Episodic; one memorable vignette involves a hippie chick riding around the desert on a chopper a la Lady Godiva, to the strains of Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” (riveting!). Cleavon Little plays Supersoul-a blind radio DJ who becomes Kowalski’s guardian angel and provides a sort of Greek Chorus. The enigmatic ending still mystifies.

SIFF 2017: Becoming Who I Was ****

By Dennis Hartley

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Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu. Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness.

SJFF 2017: Shalom Italia **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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Tamar Tal’s gentle, low-key documentary follows three Jewish octogenarian brothers, as they return to the Tuscan countryside of their youth in an attempt to locate the make-shift forest cave that their family and grandparents called “home” for the duration of WW2 (for obvious reasons…as these gentlemen are still with us). It’s best described as The Trip to Bountiful…with more eating and complaining. A bit slow in spots (and repetitive), but the denouement is quite moving.

(For more information, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

Blu-ray reissue: Lone Wolf and Cub ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

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Lone Wolf and Cub –The Criterion Collection Blu-ray (Box Set)

Generally speaking, I don’t gravitate toward ultra-violent films, but this manga-inspired series from Japan (6 features released between 1972 and 1974) is at once so shockingly audacious yet intoxicatingly artful, that any self-respecting cineaste has got to love it…for its sheer moxie, if nothing else. As critic Patrick Macias writes in the booklet that accompanies Criterion’s box set:

“[…] the Lone Wolf and Cub series contains some of the best sword-slinging, Buddhist-sutra-spouting samurai fiction ever committed to celluloid, enriched with the beauty of Japan’s natural landscape and seasoned with the vulgarity of its pop entertainment…”

Erm, what he said. Admittedly, the narrative is minimal, and the basic formula for all the sequels is pretty much established in the first installment: A shogun’s executioner (played throughout by the hulking but surprisingly nimble Tomisaburo Wakayama) loses his gig and hits the road as an assassin-for-hire, with his toddler son (Akihiro Tomikawa) in tow. Actually, he’s pushing the kid around in a very imaginatively weaponized pram (as one does). These films are almost beyond description; but they are consistently entertaining.

Criterion does the usual bang-up job on image and sound with crisp 2K digital restorations on all six films. The hours of extras includes a hi-def print of Shogun Assassin, a 1980 English-dubbed reedit of the first two films. A real treat for movie buffs.

Blu-ray reissue: Wim Wenders-The Road Triliogy

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy – Criterion Collection Blu-ray box set

Few names have become as synonymous with the “road movie” as German film maker Wim Wenders. Paris, Texas and Until the End of the World are the most well-known examples of his mastery in capturing not only the lure of the open road, but in laying bare the disparate human emotions that spark wanderlust. But fairly early in his career, between 1974 and 1976, he made a three-film cycle (all starring his favorite leading man Rudiger Vogler) that, while much lesser-known, easily stands with the best of the genre. Criterion has reissued all three of these previously hard to find titles in a wonderful box set.

Alice in the Cities  (***1/2) stars Vogler as a journalist who is reluctantly saddled into temporary stewardship of a precocious 9 year-old girl. His mission to get her to her grandmother’s house turns into quite the European travelogue (the relationship that develops is reminiscent of Paper Moon). It’s my personal favorite of the three.

In Wrong Move (**), Vogler is a writer in existential crisis, who hooks up with several other travelers who also carry mental baggage. It’s the darkest of the trilogy; Wenders based it on a Goethe novel.

Kings of the Road (***) is a Boudu Saved from Drowning-type tale with Vogler as a traveling film projector repairman who happens to be in the right place at the right time when a depressed psychologist (Hanns Zischler) decides to end it all by driving his VW into a river. The two traveling companions are slow to warm up to each other, but they have plenty of time to develop a bond at 2 hours and 55 minutes (i.e., the film may try the patience of some viewers). If you can stick with it, though, you’ll find it rewarding…it kind of  grows on you.

All three films have been given the usual meticulous Criterion restoration, showcasing Robby Muller’s beautiful cinematography.

Tour de France: Microbe and Gasoline ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 30, 2016)

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I guess I’m mellowing with age. The first sign was when I saw a Wes Anderson film…and actually liked it. As I wrote in my 2014 review of The Grand Budapest Hotel:

I have been somewhat immune to the charms of Wes Anderson. I have also developed a complex of sorts over my apparent inability to comprehend why the phrase “a Wes Anderson film” has become catnip to legions of hipster-garbed fanboys and swooning film critics […] Maybe there’s something wrong with me? Am I like the uptight brother-in-law in Field of Dreams who can’t see the baseball players? […] To me, “a Wes Anderson film” is the cinematic equivalent to Wonder Bread…bland product, whimsically wrapped.

Mr. Anderson isn’t the only director I’ve had this “problem” with. Enter Michel Gondry, who I’ve always viewed as Anderson’s French cousin (i.e. a purveyor of bland product, whimsically wrapped). As I lamented in my 2014 review of Gondry’s Mood Indigo:

Not that I haven’t come to expect a discombobulating mishmash of twee narrative and wanton obfuscation from the director of similarly baffling “Romcoms From the Id” like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, but…enough, already.

I seriously doubt that Gondry literally read my silly little review and took it to heart, but I’ll be damned if he hasn’t dropped the twee narrative and wanton obfuscation for once, and made a film that I really enjoyed (hey wait…when did those ball players get here?!).

Microbe and Gasoline is a straightforward coming-of-age/road dramedy about two nerdy 14 year-old school chums who embark on a decidedly offbeat summer adventure. With its socially awkward protagonists and gentle comedic observations on the emotional (and hormonal) turbulence of young adolescence, the film is a mélange of Small Change, Gregory’s Girl, My Bodyguard, and Breaking Away, with a just a hint of Weird Science.

Daniel (Ange Dargent) is a daydreamer and budding artist who sketches portraits of his classroom crush Laura (Diane Besnier) in lieu of paying attention to the teacher. Small for his age and slightly built (hence the nickname “Microbe”), he is frequently mistaken for a girl. This makes him a natural target for bullies. Theo (Theophile Baquet) is the new kid at school, which automatically makes him an outsider. Theo (dubbed “Gasoline”, because he helps out in his dad’s auto repair shop) is more boisterous than Daniel, but generally shunned by the other kids because of his caustic wit, which he uses as a shield.

Bonded by their shared insecurities and outsider status, Daniel and Theo become fast friends. Theo mentors Daniel on strategies to get Laura’s attention (although he’s obviously not speaking from experience) and how to handle the bullying (of which he undoubtedly does speak from experience). “Remember,” he sagely tells Daniel, “today’s bullies are tomorrow’s victims.” When school’s out for summer, the two decide to split Versailles and hit the road, Jacques. The only problem with that plan is that they are too young to hold driver’s licenses. So, combining Theo’s mechanical savvy with Daniel’s vivid imagination, they design and build their own vehicle…a wooden shack on wheels.

Best described as an outhouse set atop a go-cart (or perhaps a mini-version of Howl’s Moving Castle), the theory is that if they encounter any gendarmes on their journey, they simply pull over to the side of the road and, voila! It’s just a shack on the side of the road. This element of the narrative is Gondry’s sole acquiescence to his innate twee tendencies.

This is the director’s most accessible film, with great performances all around (although Audrey Tautou seems underutilized in her relatively small part as Daniel’s mom). Parents should be advised that the film has an ‘R’ rating (one scene in particular, in which Daniel wanders into a massage parlor for a haircut, assures that this one will never pop up on The Disney Channel). It’s a simple tale; but if you hit the right notes (as Gondry does here) there’s eloquence in simplicity. It may not win a prize for originality, but in the midst of a summer movie roster rife with murder and mayhem, it’s a breath of fresh air.