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Nick Nolte

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2008 in Film.

Well, now that we’re in the second month of 2009, and since I’m *mostly* caught up on last year’s prestige crop, it seems arguably the last, best time to write up the belated Best of 2008 Movie list. (I did see one more indy film of 2008 Sunday morning, but as it was after my arbitrarily-chosen 1/31 cutoff, it’ll go in next year’s list.) Compiling the reviews this year, it seems my October hunch was correct: For a combination of reasons, I went to the movies a lot less than usual in 2008. (The review count usually clocks in around 45. Last year, I only saw 30 films on the big screen.) And, looking over the release schedule, I see lots of movies I had every intention of viewing — Appaloosa, Be Kind, Rewind, Blindness, Choke, Leatherheads — and never got around to.

At any rate, given what I did see, here’re the best of ’em. And here’s hoping the 2009 list will be more comprehensive. As always, all of the reviews can be found here. (And if a movie title doesn’t link to a full review, it means I caught it on DVD.)

Top 20 Films of 2008


1. The Dark Knight: Yes, it’s the obvious fanboy pick. And, admittedly, TDK had pacing problems — it was herky-jerky at times and the third act felt rushed. Still, in a not-particularly-good year for cinema, Christopher Nolan’s operatic reimagining of the Caped Crusader and his arch-nemesis was far and away the most enjoyable experience i had at the movies in 2008. And if Candidate Obama was America’s own white knight (metaphorically speaking) this past year, Heath Ledger’s Joker was its mischievous, amoral, and misanthropic id. If and when the economic wheels continue to come off in 2009, will stoic selflessness or gleeful anarchy be the order of the day? The battle for Gotham continues, and everybody’s nervously eyeing those detonators. Let’s hope the clown doesn’t get the last laugh.

2. Milk: What with a former community organizer turned “hopemonger” being elected president — while evangelicals, conservatives and sundry Mormons inflicted Proposition 8 on the people of California — Gus Van Sant’s vibrant recounting of the tragedy of Harvey Milk was obviously the timeliest political movie of 2008. But, in a year that saw entirely too much inert Oscar-bait on-screen in its final months, Milk — romantic, passionate, and full of conviction — was also one of the most alive. While it extends some measure of compassion even to its erstwhile villain (Josh Brolin), Milk is a civil-rights saga that harbors no illusions about the forces of intolerance still amongst us, and how far we all still have to go.

3. The Wrestler: Have you ever seen a one-trick pony in the fields so happy and free? Me neither, to be honest, but Aronofsky’s naturalistic slice-of-life about the twilight days of Randy “the Ram” Ramzinski was likely the next best thing. I don’t know if Mickey Rourke will experience a career resurrection after this performance or not. But he won this match fair and square, and nobody can take it from him.

4. Let the Right One In: As if living in public housing in the dead of a Swedish winter wasn’t depressing enough, now there’s a nosferatu to contend with… My Bodyguard by way of Ingmar Bergman and Stephen King, this creepy and unsettling tale of a very unsparkly pre-teen vampyrer will leave bitemarks long after you step out into the light.

5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days: A 2007 release that made it stateside in 2008, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days is a movie that I probably wouldn’t ever want to watch again. Still, this grim, unrelenting journey through the seedy hotels and sordid back-alleys of Ceaucescu’s Romania is another hard one to shake off. And, tho’ I caught it early on, it remained one of the very best films of the year.

6. WALL-E: If you saw one movie last year about a boy(bot) from the slums meeting — and then improbably wooing — the girl(bot) of his dreams, I really hope it was WALL-E. Hearkening back to quality seventies sci-fi like Silent Running, Andrew Stanton’s robot love story and timely eco-parable is a definite winner, and certainly another jewel in the gem-studded Pixar crown. I just wish it’d stayed in the melancholy, bittersweet key of its first hour, rather than venturing off to the hijinx-filled, interstellar fat farm. Ah well, bring on Up.

7. Iron Man: Much better than I ever anticipated, Jon Favreau’s (and Robert Downey Jr.’s) Iron Man kicked a summer of superheroes off in grand fashion. In the end, I preferred the gloomy stylings of Gotham in 2008, but there’s definitely something to be said for this rousing, upbeat entrant in the comic movie canon. It delivered on its own terms, and it was a much better tech-fetishizing, boys-and-their-toys type-film than, say, 2007’s Transformers or (I suspect) 2009’s GI Joe. Bonus points for the Dude going all Big Jeff Lebowski on us here…now quit being cheap about the sequel.

8. Man on Wire: 4:40pm: Two foreign nationals and their American abettors successfully navigate past the guard checkpoint of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Their fanatical mission: To use the WTC as a symbol to transform the world…through an act of illegal, death-defying performance art. Although it never explicitly mentions 9/11 (of course, it doesn’t need to — the towers themselves do most of the work, and reconstructing its story as a heist does the rest), the stirring documentary Man on Wire, about Phillipe Petit’s 1974 tightrope-walk between the towers, gains most of its resonance from the events of that dark day in 2001.

After seventy minutes or so, just as it seems this unspoken analogy is starting to wear thin, Petit finally steps out onto that ridiculous wire, and Man on Wire takes your breath away. Nothing is permanent, the movie suggests. Not youth, not life, not love, not even those majestic, formidable towers. But some moments — yes, the beautiful ones too — can never be forgotten. (Note: Man on Wire is currently available as a direct download on Netflix.)

9. U2 3D: One of two 2008 films (along with #16) which seemed to suggest the future of the movie-going experience, U2 3D was both a decently rousing concert performance by Dublin’s fab four, and — more importantly — an experimental film which played with an entirely new cinema syntax. Just as students look back on D.W. Griffith films of a century ago as the beginnings of 2D-movie expression, so too might future generations look at this lowly U2 concert and see, in its layering of unrelated images onto one field of vision, when the language of 3D really began to take off. At which point someone might also say, “Man, I wish they’d played ‘So Cruel’ instead of some of these tired old dogs.”

10. The Visitor: I wrote about Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor (which I saw on DVD) some in my Gran Torino review, and my criticism there stands: As with Torino, the central thrust of this story is too Bagger Vance-ish by half. Still, it’s fun to see a likable character actor like Richard Jenkins get his due in a starring role, and he’s really great here. And, if the “magical immigrant” portions of this tale defy reality to some extent, McCarthy and Jenkins’ vision of a life desiccated by years of wallowing in academic purgatory — the humdrum lectures, the recycled syllabi, the mind-numbingly banal conferences, all divorced from any real-world interaction with the issues at hand — is frighteningly plausible.

11. Synecdoche, New York: Long on ambition and short on narrative coherence, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is the There Will Be Blood of last year’s crop, in that it’s a film that I think will inspire a phalanx of ardent defenders among movie buffs, who will argue its virtues passionately against all comers. For my own part, I admired this often-bewildering movie more than I actually enjoyed it, and ultimately found it much less engaging than Kaufman’s real magnum opus, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Still, I’m glad I made the attempt, and it’s definitely worth seeing.

12. Frost/Nixon: Two man enter, one man leave! More a sports movie than a political one, Ron Howard and Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon is a decently entertaining depiction of two hungry down-and-outers locked in the debater’s version of mortal kombat. That being said, I kinda wish the stakes had seemed higher, or that the substance of the issues at hand — Vietnam, Cambodia, Watergate — had been as foregrounded as the mano-a-mano mechanics of the interview. Plus, that scene where Tricky Dick sweeps the leg? That’s not kosher.

13. Snow Angels: David Gordon Green’s quiet, novelistic Snow Angels is an early-2008 film I caught on DVD only a few weeks ago, and it’s been slowly sneaking up the list ever since. Based on a 1994 book by Stewart O’Nan, the movie depicts the intertwined lives of a small New England community, and recounts the tragic circumstances that lead to two gunshots being fired therein one winter afternoon. (If it sounds like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, it’s very close in form, content, and melancholy impact.)

In a movie brimming over with quality performances — including (an ever-so-slightly-implausible) Kate Beckinsale, Nicky Katt, Amy Sedaris, and the long-forgotten Griffin Dunne — three actors stand out: Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby fall into one of the most honest, believable, and affectation-free high school romances I’ve seen in a movie in ages. And the always-watchable Sam Rockwell sneaks up on you as a perennial loser who tries to be a good guy and just keeps failing at life despite himself. At first not much more than an amiable buffoon as per his usual m.o., Rockwell’s gradual surrender to his demons — note his scenes with his daughter, or in the truck with his dog, or at the bar — gives Snow Angels a haunting resonance that sticks with you.

14. Burn After Reading: As I said in the original review, it’s not one of the all-time Coen classics or anything. But even medium-grade Coen tends to offer more delights than most films do in a given year, and the same holds true of their espionage-and-paranoia farce Burn After Reading in 2008. From John Malkovich’s foul-mouthed, (barely-)functioning alcoholic to George Clooney as a (thoroughly goofy) lactose-intolerant bondage enthusiast to, of course, Brad Pitt’s poor, dim-witted Chet, Burn introduced plenty of ridiculous new characters to the brothers’ already-stacked rogues’ gallery. This is one (unlike The Ladykillers) that I’m looking forward to seeing again.

15. Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Another catch-up DVD rental, this was Woody Allen’s good movie last year (as opposed to the woeful Cassandra’s Dream), and a smarter-than-average relationship film (as one might expect from the man behind Husbands and Wives and Annie Hall.) There’re some definitive Allen tics here that take some getting used to in the new environment of Barcelona — a very Woody-ish omniscient voiceover, some Allenesque quips emanating from Scarlett Johannson and the striking Rebecca Hall (late of Frost/Nixon and The Prestige), and, as per Match Point and Scoop, some rather outdated depictions of the class system. (Hall’s fiance, played by Chris Messina of Six Feet Under, is basically a caricature of the boring, born-entitled Ivy League grad, circa 1965.)

Still, if you can get past all that, Vicky Cristina is quite worthwhile. (And, as far as the Oscar buzz goes, I’d say Javier Bardem makes more of an impression here than does Penelope Cruz.) Whether you’re as old as Woody or as young as Vicky and Cristina, the story remains the same: love is a weird, untameable thing, and the heart wants what it wants.

16. Speed Racer: Easily the most unfairly maligned movie of 2008 (and I’m not a Wachowski apologist — I thought Matrix: Revolutions was atrocious), Speed Racer is an amped-up, hypercolorful extravaganza of the senses, and, this side of the original Matrix, one of the more interesting attempts I’ve seen at bringing anime to life. Critics derided it pretty much across the board as loud, gaudy nonsense, but, then as now, I’m not sure what they went in expecting from the film adaptation of a lousy sixties cartoon involving race cars and silly monkeys. This is where some readers might ask: “Um, are you really saying Speed Racer is a better movie than Revolutionary Road?” And I’m saying, yes, it’s much more successful at what it aimed to accomplish, and probably more entertaining to boot. Sure, Racer is a kid’s movie, but so was WALL-E. And, given most of the drek put before the youths today, it’s a darned innovative one. Plus, I’ve seen a lot of filmed laments about quiet-desperation-in-the-suburbs in my day, but for better or worse, in my 34 years of existence, I had never seen anything quite like this.

17. Gran Torino: Alas, Speed Racer, it seems, grew old, got ornery, and began fetishizing his car in the garage instead. Good thing there’re some kindly Hmong next door to pry open that rusty heart with a crowbar! Like The Visitor, Torino suffers from an excess of sentiment when it comes to its depiction of 21st-century immigrants and their salutary impact on old white folks. But, as a cautionary coda to a lifelong career glorifying vigilantism, Eastwood’s Gran Torino has that rusty heart in the right place, at least. And while Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski may be a mean old cuss, Eastwood’s performance here suggests that the old man’s got some tricks in him yet.

18. A Christmas Tale: I wrote about this movie very recently, so my thoughts on it haven’t changed all that much. A bit pretentious at times, Arnaud Desplechin’s anti-sentimental holiday film has its virtues, most notably Chiara Mastroianni eerily (and probably inadvertently) channeling her father and the elfin Mathieu Amalric wreaking havoc on his long-suffering family whenever possible. It’s a Not-So-Wonderful Life, I guess, but — however aggravating your relatives ’round christmastime — it’s still probably better than the alternative.

19. Tropic Thunder: Its pleasures were fleeting — I can’t remember very many funny lines at this point — and even somewhat scattershot. (Tom Cruise as Harvey Weinstein by way of a gigantic member was funny for the first ten minutes. Less so after half an hour.) Still, give Tropic Thunder credit. Unlike all too many comedies in recent years, it didn’t try to make us better people — it just went for the laugh, and power to it. And when the most controversial aspect of your movie turns out not to be the white guy in blackface (or, as we all euphemistically tend to put it now, “the dude disguised as another dude“), but the obvious Forrest Gump/Rain Man spoof, I guess you’ve done something right.

20. W: Nowhere near as potent as Stone’s early political forays, JFK and Nixon, W still came close to accomplishing the impossible in 2008: making the out-going president seem a sympathetic figure. I suppose several other films could’ve sat with distinction in this 20-spot — In Bruges or Benjamin Button, perhaps — but none of them would’ve afforded me the opportunity to write these lovely words once more: So long, Dubya.

Honorable Mention: It wasn’t a movie, of course. But 2008 was also the year we bid farewell to The Wire. Be sure to raise a glass, or tip a 40, in respect. (And let’s pray that — this year, despite all that’s come before — a “New Day” really is dawning.)

Most Disappointing: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Worth a Rental: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, In Bruges, Revolutionary Road, Valkyrie

Don’t Bother: Cassandra’s Dream, Cloverfield, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Doubt, Hellboy II: The Golden Age, The Incredible Hulk, Quantum of Solace, Slumdog Millionaire, Wanted

Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler, Sean Penn, Milk, Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Best Actress: Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In, Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight, Josh Brolin, Milk, Jeff Bridges, Iron Man, Sam Rockwell, Snow Angels
Best Supporting Actress: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler, Tilda Swinton, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Unseen: Appaloosa, Australia, The Bank Job, Be Kind, Rewind, Blindness, Body of Lies, Cadillac Records, Changeling, Choke, The Class, Defiance, Eagle Eye, The Fall, Funny Games, Hancock, Happy Go Lucky, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo, Leatherheads, I Loved You So Long, The Lucky Ones, Miracle at St. Anna, Pineapple Express, Rambo, The Reader, Redbelt, RockNRolla, The Spirit, Traitor, Waltz with Bashir

    A Good Year For:
  • Billionaire Do-Gooders (The Dark Knight, Iron Man)
  • Lonely Old White Guys (Gran Torino, The Visitor, The Wrestler)
  • Magical Immigrants (Gran Torino, The Visitor)
  • Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon)
  • Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, Burn after Reading)
  • Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man, Tropic Thunder)
  • Romance at the Junkyard (WALL-E, Slumdog Millionaire)
  • Sam Rockwell (Choke, Frost/Nixon, Snow Angels)
  • Teenage Vampirism (Let the Right One In, Twilight)
  • Tosca (Quantum of Solace, Milk)
    A Bad Year For:
  • GOP Ex-Presidents (Frost/Nixon, W)
  • Political Do-Gooders (The Dark Knight, Milk)
  • Pulp Heroes (The Spirit)
  • Vigilantism without Remorse (Gran Torino, The Dark Knight)
  • Would-Be Assassins (Valkyrie, Wanted)
2009: Avatar, The Box, Bruno, Coraline, Duplicity, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Knowing, The Lovely Bones, New York, I Love You, Observe and Report, Push, Sherlock Holmes, The Soloist, State of Play, Star Trek, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Terminator: Salvation, Up, Where the Wild Things Are, The Wolfman, Wolverine and, of course,


Thunder Rolls.

When it comes to penning movie reviews around here, I tend to find writing about comedies the most difficult. (See, for example, my original mulligan on Borat.) For one, it’s hard to quantify exactly what makes a picture *funny*, and often what one person finds uproarious, another finds on the wrong side of lame. (Although I’m sure all right-thinking people can agree on the merits of The Big Lebowski.) For another, comedy more than any other genre seems dependent on one’s mood. (Case in point, Anchorman, which I saw in a funk and shrugged at, then caught later on TV and found quite amusing)

All of which is to say that, even more than usual, my thoughts on Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder should be taken with a grain of salt — Actual results may vary. For my part, even though both Stiller and Jack Black were basically doing their usual schtick, and Steve Coogan is pretty much wasted (in more ways than one), I found Thunder to be a decently funny experience last Wednesday. It’s got a bit of the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach, and some jokes — say, Tom Cruise gyrating in a Harvey Weinstein fat suit — end up getting run into the ground through overuse, Austin Powers-style. But, that being said, I had a good time. It helped that I’m a sucker for the sort of Hollywood inside-baseball humor that Thunder endlessly trafficks in. (IMHO, that’s also the only redeemable thing about HBO’s otherwise aggravating Entourage.) And there are elements of it that just appealed to my funny bone — seeing Nick Nolte finally get all Chris Walken up on us, for example, or the funny-’cause-they’re-tired ‘Nam-era ditties (Creedence, Rolling Stone, Buffalo Springfield) interspersed throughout the flick. So, I’m not going to say it was the best film of the year or anything, but as a diverting and amusing morsel of late-summer fare, Tropic Thunder gets the job done…for me anyway.

The story, as you probably know, involves a behind-the-scenes look at an Apocalypse Now-level movie disaster deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia. After a few wry trailers (the funniest and most dead-on being Satan’s Alley, although I’d have hated to be Eddie Murphy during The Fatties 2), we’re introduced to the gang on hand. There’s fading action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller, being Stiller), drug-addled comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black, going for Farley/Belushi and ending up with Black), Aussie thespian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr, weirdly genius), hip-hop phenom Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson, used mainly to cover Downey’s ass), and newbie Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel, late of the Apatow factory), all under the supervision of video director Damien Cockburn (Coogan). Once the film ends up a month behind schedule (three days into filming), the who’s-more-grizzled source material for this ‘Nam picture, Four-Leaf Tayback (Nolte), insists Cockburn bring his bevy of spoiled stars into “the s**t.” Well, things go wrong, of course. And, soon, stranded somewhere near the Laotian border without even a Tivo on hand, this cast of thespians — only some of whom seem to understand the trouble they’re in — must navigate and negotiate their way back to SoCal-style civilization…but not before ticking off the local drug cartel, living out the inexorable men-on-a-mission tropes, and, just possibly, making a decent 80’s-style actioner in the process.

The aspect of Tropic Thunder which *originally* was drawing the most heat is Downey, Jr.’s resurrection of one of Hollywood’s darker stains in its past, blackface. (Controversy has since moved on to the portrayal of mentally handicapped people in the film-within-the-film Simple Jack, which, to my mind, is patently absurd. Watch Forrest Gump or Rain Man again sometime and you should get the point.) At any rate, surprisingly given the poor taste involved in reviving minstrelsy in any form, I thought Downey and the writers actually pulled it off. This is mainly thanks to the incredulity of Jackson’s Alpa Chino to most of Downey’s racist tics, such as reveling in crawfish, gumbo, and the like. All in all, I’d say David Roediger should be proud: Downey and the Tropic Thunder team managed to make their blackface routine a comment about the enduring racist foibles of white people (and the supreme actorly ego of Russell Crowe-type Method men) more than anything else, and thus help to subvert black stereotypes by drawing attention to them. (Of course, one irony here, at least from Spike Lee’s perspective, is that Jackson’s “Alpa Chino/Booty Sweat” act could be construed as even more minstrel-ish than Downey’s role.) In any case, it was a high-wire tightrope act for Downey to pull off, and the fact that his performance has elicited so little controversy suggests how well he pulled it off. (In fact, the five minutes where Downey pretends to be Asian, and pretty much just chop-sockey’s it up rather embarrassingly, illustrates how badly this could’ve gone, and how much we’ve still got to work on.)

The Great Debate: Minotaur v. Centaur.

By way of my bro, Underground Online queries numerous celebrities and luminaries on the most pressing issue of our time: Who would win in a fight between a minotaur with a trident and a centaur with a crossbow? Those weighing in on the debate include David McCullough, Ridley Scott, Helen Mirren, Ed Harris, Marc Singer, and the Battlestar and Wire crews. I was asked before being shown the site, and you can count me in the centaur camp. Screw the dice: If this is happening outdoors and not in close quarters, ranged cavalry > heavy infantry (although admittedly there’s something to be said for the existential Nolte thesis.)

Let the devil wear black, for I’ll have a suit of sables.

In the trailer bin, the full-length preview for Tropic Thunder, with Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, and, uh, Robert Downey Jr. in blackface. (Downey’s got a pretty high degree of difficulty here to not crash and burn, obviously, but my guess is he’ll probably be less off-putting than Fred Armisen’s cringeworthy Obama.) And, while it’s probably straight-to-video, I like the admittedly gimmicky premise: the trailer for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Undead, i.e. Hamlet with vampires.

Old Gods and Little Children.

In this week’s trailer bin, 9/11 meets The Blair Witch Project (and maybe even a dash of Cthulhu?) in the cleverly low-fi teaser for J.J.Abrams’ 1-18-08, a.k.a. Cloverfield. Freddie Highmore (of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) discovers his own Pan’s Labyrinth of sorts in the new trailer for The Spiderwick Chronicles, also with Mary-Louise Parker, Nick Nolte, and David Strathairn. And Ben Affleck directs his brother Casey in a Boston missing child case in this look at Gone Baby Gone, by the author of Mystic River and also starring Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, and The Wire‘s Amy Ryan (Beadie) and Michael Williams (Omar).

The Thick Red Line.

Only six years after The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick readies his fourth film, Che, tentatively with Benicio Del Toro in the title role. (Expect voiceovers.) I just watched TTRL again the other night and was amazed once again how many people are in it. I remembered Jim Caviezel, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, George Clooney, John C. Reilly, Ben Chaplin, Nick Nolte, Adrien Brody, Sean Penn, and Elias Koteas from the first go-round in the theater. But seeing it again this week, I now also noticed Tim Blake Nelson, Nick Stahl, Jared Leto, Matt Doran (Mouse from The Matrix), and Thomas Jane — plus Miranda Otto as Chaplin’s wayward wife on the homefront. I’d love to see the unreleased six-hour version someday (which, according to the credits, apparently also includes Viggo Mortensen, Mickey Rourke, Lukas Haas, Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Pullman, Jason Patric, Martin Sheen, Donal Logue, Randall Duk Kim [The Keymaker from Reloaded], and a full-on performance by Brody), even if it ends up being too much for one sitting.


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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The Nix, Nathan Hill

Recently Read

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Elvis Costello
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer

Uphill All the Way

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