monstrous man: Ganz as Hitler in Downfall.
by Oliver Hirschbiegel
the first German film about Adolf Hitler and an Oscar nominee
for Best Foreign Language film, covers the 12 days leading
to Hitler’s suicide and the end of the Third Reich. But though
Hitler’s final days have been covered before, Downfall
brings new depth and objectivity to the collapse of the
Nazi state. Meticulously directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and
featuring a harrowing lead performance by Bruno Ganz as Hitler,
Downfall is nearly on a par with Schindler’s List
for movies about the Third Reich.
Only don’t expect any uplift. Most of Downfall occurs
in the bunker, a sprawling complex built 30 feet below the
Reich Chancellery in Berlin, and Hirschbiegel is relentless
in his observation of madness and destruction. Among the retinue
that goes underground with Hitler is his secretary, Traudl
Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara). Events are seen mostly through
her eyes; the film is partly based on Junge’s autobiography,
and through her, we get a sense of the lure of being in the
very vortex of power. Traudl, a 22-year-old naïf, spends more
time with the Fuhrer than any of his advisors, and as his
typist, she is privy to all of his correspondence.
She’s also the object of Hitler’s kindly and paternalistic
side, as are some other underlings. The director’s intense
realism with the personalities of Hitler and his closest cronies
has drawn criticism, but by providing insight into the real
human beings that they were, their ego-driven fanaticism and
monstrous actions are made even more horrific. The domestic
final solution committed by Magda Goebbels (a chilling Corinna
Harfouch), especially, is difficult to watch.
Conversely, there’s a element of sympathy for Eva Braun (Juliane
Köhler), a fun-loving ditz who willingly deludes herself as
to the man she’s attached to, and who goes out in a blaze
of hedonism tempered by sadness. The gorgeous, charming Köhler
(Aimee & Jaguar) gives one of the film’s best performances,
and that’s saying a lot. But it’s the Swiss actor Ganz who
carries the film. That Ganz doesn’t actually look like Hitler
seems to aid him in creating a distinctive version, one that
is not only despicable, but pathetic. By 1945, Hitler’s deterioration
was pronounced. Ganz captures this deterioration: It’s in
the sheer venom to his ranting, his grotesque lack of compassion,
and the delusional aspect to both his methodical plans for
committing suicide and his interludes of grandiose certainty
that Germany, under his brilliant command, is going to win
As Downfall’s close scrutiny implies, Hitler’s insanity
and his magnetism are flip sides of the same coin, and his
death obsession holds sway to the very end. One of the more
sickening aspects of the last days is how much of the Nazi
party remains in slavish obedience to the powerless dictator.
With what reason and authority he has left, Hitler tries to
ensure that the German populace is eradicated in its entirety.
Hirschbiegel is known for his skill with claustrophobic settings—he
was acclaimed for a prison drama called The Experiment—and
he gets the most out of this concrete purgatory with its sickly
lighting. The destruction of Berlin, too, has a penned-in
menace, from its rubble-choked streets to the hellish, overcrowded
hospital staffed only by an aged surgeon and an academic internist.
The internist (Christian Berkel) questions Hitler’s scorched-earth
policy and serves, faintly, as the voice of reason. As the
Russians advance, the SS commits its last acts of terror,
turning on the citizens of Berlin, and on each other, with
mindless savagery. The contrast between the efforts of those
trying to stay alive, or to keep others alive, with the suicidal
vanity of the bunker crew is lastingly disturbing.
The film ends with an admission of culpability from Junge,
who died in 2002. Even without it, the film’s contemporary
resonance would be noticeable: The Nazis’ equation of depravity
with moral superiority is something to think about in these
increasingly fanatical times.
dad from hell: Ferrell in Kicking & Screaming.
by Jesse Dylan
The Little League program with which our family is involved
focuses not on competitive spirit—nor even, for that matter,
on the realities of the game—but on falsely maintaining a
sense of fairness and equality. Perhaps you’ve been there:
There’s no such thing as a strike; everybody gets on base,
even if that means everybody waits while your kid swings the
bat scores of time; and there’s no such thing as a double,
let alone a home run. Oh, and did I mention that the league
frowns on informing the kids of the actual game scores, even
though any kid with a reasonable IQ can figure it out, and
even though the parents and the coaches are highly
cognizant of the end sum of any game?
This, my friends, is the new mentality of youth sports in
America, which decrees that there is no middle ground between
everybody having a good time and everybody learning to play
a competitive sport. And it is this mentality that the new
film Kicking & Screaming feebly tries to channel
while making weak attacks on the philosophy of winning at
Amiable Phil Weston (Will Ferrell) is a vitamin salesman and
happy husband to Barb (Kate Walsh) and dad to Sam (Dylan McLaughlin).
His only source of conflict seems to come from his fiercely
competitive, über-successful dad Buck (Robert Duvall making
hay of his Great Santini persona), a soccer coach so
fixated on winning that he trades Sam to a loser team, the
Tigers, rather than have him continue to warm his own bench.
Determined to prove to Sam that he’s more than just a benchwarmer,
Phil agrees to coach the Tigers, and to prove to his Bad
News Bear-ish team that, despite lack of skill and competitive
temperament, they, too, can have a really fun time.
There are some very humorous moments in which Phil, initially,
goes the sensitive, new-agey route with the team, before descending
into the full throttles of competitive drive, fueled by coffee
and a lifelong sense of failure. He enlists Mike Ditka, his
father’s feuding neighbor, to instill discipline and skills,
a stunt that is mildly amusing, though it works better when
it’s just Phil and Mike debating life. The kids that Phil
coaches are the usual motley assortment of types—there’s the
pint-sized cutie who, in this case, has two mommies, there’s
the kid who will do any gross stunt for effect, the oversized
dummie, the smart aleck, and, in the words of Gilligan’s
Island, “the rest.”
As is the case with just about any American film about sports,
the underdogs, having been thoroughly humbled, go on to triumph
against all odds, proving yet again that you can have your
cake and eat it too—even if you truly suck. The trouble with
the movie is that it’s just too namby-pamby about either
side of the “how to coach kids” debate. While it purports
to mock the ultra-competitiveness seen in, say, the Niskayuna
school district, these scenes are actually more interesting
than those in which the filmmakers extol the virtues of foregoing
the tryout system in order to let everybody play.
The parents of the Tigers are seen, alternately, looking vaguely
troubled or wildly rooting for the team when it begins to
win by relying on a pair of Italian-born ringers. One can’t
help but wonder why screenwriters Leo Benvenuti and Steve
Rudnick didn’t make more out of the parents’ complicity in
(a) wanting to win and (b) not wanting to actually coach themselves.
This golden opportunity is squandered, however, in favor of
shots of kids eating worms and—almost another movie in itself—Phil’s
descent into caffeine addiction. Kids will no doubt find a
lot to laugh about in scenes in which soccer balls connect
with an opponent’s groin, but adults will be left to scratch
their heads and wonder.
by Jaume Collett-Serra
Generally speaking, I just say no to horror flicks, not wishing
to subject myself to bad acting, fake blood, severed limbs
and, well, the heebie-jeebies one gets, say, when walking
from a darkened garage to one’s dark house. So seeing House
of Wax was more a matter of missing the start time of
the chosen movie, and deciding, what the hell, we can always
leave—which in itself sounds much like a plot device of too
many horror movies.
The “reimagining” of House of Wax, directed by Jaume
Collett-Serra from a script by Chad and Carey W. Hayes, is
somewhat of a pleasant surprise. It succeeds, at least, in
the way that the plot conveys a bit of psychological subtext,
and in the way characters you mentally mark as soon-to-be
dead meat come in for some surprises—if only with respect
to the order of victimhood.
You know the drill. Teens go on a road trip fraught with sexual
tension and, in the case of renegade twin Nick (Chad Michael
Murray), a serious antisocial streak, when they get off the
main road for some much-needed rest—and, of course, sex, in
the case of Blake (Robert Ri’chard) and Paige (Paris Hilton).
It should be said that Hilton, if not exactly an actress,
shows enormous good humor in sending up her randy image, particularly
as downloaded by millions a la that notorious sex video. Rounding
out the group are Nick’s dimwitted friend Dalton (Jon Abrahams),
who has a crush on Nick’s twin Carly (Elisha Cuthbert), aka
the “good twin,” and Carly’s squeeze Wade (Jared Padelecki).
It takes some time for the blood to start flowing, but that
actually serves to nicely notch up the fear factor. The filmmakers
make good use of creepy Louisiana woods, foreboding pickup
trucks, exposed limbs, and, eventually, a haunted town whose
theatre marquee still advertises Whatever Happened to Baby
Jane. Jason Baird’s wax figures are really quite good,
and Brian Van Holt, playing that other, more nefarious pair
of twins, is suitably creepy and terrifying, depending on
which brother he’s playing.
While you sort of know what’s going to happen, the movie provides
a few surprises, like how much you root for a red-undies-clad
Hilton to beat the crap out of her tormentor, or how if you
were Carly, you’d be really glad, given the situation, your
brother was such a badass. The ultimate showdown between good
and evil features a melting house of wax that, to my mind,
looked a wee too much like the contents of newborn diapers,
but at least the movie ends with that all-important, spine-tingling
hint toward a sequel. Not bad for a second choice.