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Caught a number of films in the theater and on DVD over the past week, so as per usual, here’s the skinny:

L’Auberge Espagnole: I went into this movie more blind than usual – The only review I had read was George‘s, and for some reason I thought the film was about a mid-life crisis. So I was quite happily surprised by this sweet comedy about assorted European Erasmus students enjoying a Barcelona summer. Like Y Tu Mama Tambien (which I thought was a little overrated but good nonetheless), this movie illustrates yet again just how tame and lame our domestic youth comedies have become. L’Auberge was funnier, sexier, and more intelligent than any of the assorted American Pies or their ilk, and, whatsmore, all of the characters acted and seemed like “real” people. This movie seems to understand that it’s possible to capture the joys of youth and friendship without resorting to a constant stream of lame, mostly unfunny gross-out jokes. Even when L’Auberge founders in cliche (Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson) or somewhat hamhandedly offers us a life-lesson in the last ten minutes or so, its moralizing still didn’t come off as egregiously as in Old School or Anger Management, to take two recent examples of bad American comedy. In sum, L’Auberge Espagnole is a fluffy film but a fun one nonetheless, and special marks go to Kevin Bishop as the visiting brother/terminal wanker – He more than makes up for the Audrey Tautou factor.

The Hulk: Ok, we may suck at comedies, but there are some things that American film does well, and very few of them are evident in The Hulk. “I’m trying to make a delicacy out of American fast food,” said Ang Lee about this project, and I had high hopes he might make something special out of the green machine. Well, I usually like Ang Lee, and I like the Hulk comics (never cared all that much for the TV show), but sadly, the two together didn’t work at all. Hulk begins with a great credit sequence and then falters for the next hour and a half…in fact, the Hulk himself doesn’t show up until an hour or so into the movie – Instead, we’re forced to sit through long, bad monologues about memory repression and daddy issues that never really amount to all that much. Even when it seems the movie is starting to find its sea legs, when [Significant Spoilers to follow] Hulk escapes into the desert and Nick Nolte (chewing the scenery like Al Pacino gone rabid) surprisingly becomes the Absorbing Man, it turns out to be just an illusion. Instead, we get more improbable conversations about daddy, and the Absorbing Man – one of the Hulk’s classic villains – instead becomes Cthulu the Jellyfish God or something. All in all, Hulk turned out to be long and boring. It’s sad, really, ’cause this film could have been really good. The Hulk looks right, even if his jumping is a bit off (He should come down with the force of a minor earthquake each time, not bounce around like Q-Bert), and I liked the comic book wipes and fades employed throughout the picture. But, in the end, to quote Amadeus, the Hulk suffers from too many notes. They could’ve played up the Frankenstein angle or the Jekyll and Hyde angle, but they don’t have time to do both and layer on all the Freudian repression stuff. Make all the delicacies you want, but in the end Hulk should be big, green, angry, and destroying stuff (He also should be talking, but oh well.) Somewhere along the way, Ang Lee lost focus and became more concerned with making an arthouse “comic-book movie” than with making the Hulk. Particularly given how pitch-perfect X2 turned out, this is a considerable disappointment.

Human Nature: Charlie Kaufmann’s other movie (besides Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Adaptation, the last of which seems at least tangentially related to the material of this film) was a holdover from my Blockbuster night earlier in the week. And while there are a number of funny scenes throughout the movie, they sadly don’t add up to being a very funny film. The performances are generally good, particularly Tim Robbins as a repressed, manners-obsessed scientist (who tells his tale from beyond the grave, which was a bit strange since I watched Jacob’s Ladder again only last weekend), Rhys Ifans as “Puff,” the ape man subject of Robbins’ experiments (One of the funnier scenes in the movie involves Ifans trying frantically to hump a slide show screen, despite being continuously shocked by Robbins), and Miranda Otto (a million miles away from Rohan) as Robbins’ coquettish, quasi-French assistant. Sadly, though, there’s a lot of downtime between the jokes, and I lost interest in the movie in the last half hour or so. I’m on the fence on this one, but in the end I guess I wouldn’t recommend it.

The Grey Zone: This film is obviously a 180 degree turn in tone and content from Human Nature, so I’m glad I ended up watching them on different nights. The Grey Zone is a very bleak tale of the 12th Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners assigned to tend the murdering gas and fires of Auschwitz in 1944. Hard to watch at times, it might even be more unflinching than The Pianist, since it just throws you immediately into the horror without the slow buildup of the Szpilmans. Most of the action of the movie, which began as and still feels like a play, evolves around the plans for a coming uprising, and how they’re thrown into disarray by an unusual event in the gas chamber. If you can stomach it – and can get over the anachronistic accents and Mamet-y dialogue, the Grey Zone is well worth viewing, not the least to experience the surprise of a film in which David Arquette gives a more nuanced and absorbing performance than Harvey Keitel, who reminded me of Kurt Fuller’s impression of Col. Klink in Auto Focus.

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