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A humanist in inhuman times: John Cusack as Max.

A Portrait of the Butcher as a Young Artist
By Shawn Stone

Max
Directed by Menno Meyjes

In Menno Meyjes’ startling Max, ia work of imaginative historical fiction, the first-time director gives us something we haven’t seen before: Adolf Hitler as a human being. A nasty, unpleasant and vile person to be sure, but someone not entirely unsympathetic. The result is challenging and subversive. Max opens a window onto the post-World War I German misery that allowed a grubby ex-corporal with extreme self-esteem issues to transform himself into an icon, and meld anti-Semitism, militarism and eugenics into an ideology that resulted in mass murder and global war. As the writer-director himself commented to an interviewer, how did this slight, inconsequential figure become such a towering historical force in just 15 years?

We meet struggling young artist Hitler (Noah Taylor) through Jewish art-gallery owner Max Rothman (John Cusack), to whom the little corporal brings his tattered portfolio. Rothman is everything Hitler is not: urbane, educated, and middle class. The only thing the two have in common is the war, in which Rothman lost his right arm and all hope for a career as an artist. Rothman pities Hitler, and becomes something of a mentor to him, encouraging the would-be artist to channel his rage into art. This requires a great deal of tolerance, as Hitler’s anti-Semitism is maniacal.

The film is structured around the contrasts between these two characters, both permanently damaged by the war. Rothman is a man without faith; as he tells his mistress (Leelee Sobieski), “I’ve seen the future, and there’s no future in it.” Hitler does have faith—he embraces an idea of the future set in a Teutonic past of glorious Aryan warriors. (When Hitler finally puts this on paper, Rothman’s reaction is electric: He’s bowled over by both its lunacy and thoroughness.) Hitler is repulsed by the modern art Rothman champions, which is informed by the horrors and waste of war. In fact, the key difference between the two is in the way they see the war: Hitler, who won the Iron Cross for his bravery, remembers the battlefield as a glorious place of valor and honor, while Rothman sees it as a cesspool of mud, shit and blood.

Both performances are compelling. Cusack embodies world-weary disappointment, but with an underlying sense of decency that shines through in his relationship with his family and his treatment of the pathetic corporal. Taylor is a quivering mass of self-loathing who only when giving vile political speeches. Taylor also captures the absurdity of the character: Hitler’s attempt to beguile women with a rant about “blood purity” is hilarious, but the laugh catches in the throat when one remembers what this belief led to.

Ultimately, the film’s most illuminating insights are into a society riven by illusory hatreds and catastrophic poverty. The anti-Semitic poor and the middle-class Jews experience the same shame at Germany’s humiliation; the same anger at an economy spinning out of control; the same alienation from a world that has fallen apart. There was no force for reconciliation, however—just a raging, failed artist who, backed by cynical militarists, destroyed it all.

Can You Dig It

Holes
Directed by Andrew Davis

Scads of middle-school children—and their parents—have read Louis Sachar’s award-winning fable Holes, and you can rest assured that these same scads will be thronging to see its cinematic adaptation. In other words, buy your ticket early. This is the show to see.

Whenever a beloved book is made into a movie, its fans worry that its essence will be broken down into something unrecognizable. Happily for all concerned, Holes maintains its quirky integrity, possibly because its screenwriter is none other than Sachar. The movie intertwines three plots, crisscrossing between modern-day and Old West Texas and, even earlier, to Latvia. While it would seem that the only thing connecting these threads is that a main character in each of them is named Stanley Yelnats, as the movie unfolds the viewer realizes that we’re actually viewing a moral fable, one that combines themes of justice, greed, the nature of fate and destiny, even racism. The back-and-forth nature of the narrative keeps you off guard, not so much because you’re confused as hell, but because you’re captivated and eager to see what follows.

Most of the movie is told through the perspective of Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LaBeouf), whose grandfather blames the family curse for its troubles. Seems Stanley’s great-great grandfather had struck a deal with Madame Zeroni (Eartha Kitt), and forgot to fulfill his end of the bargain. Since then, calamities have struck the family. Stanley Sr. was robbed and left for dead by the notorious Old West bandit, Kissin’ Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette). Stanley III (Henry Winkler) has had no luck coming up with a cure for foot odor (unfortunately for the Yelnats clan, III’s apartment is his laboratory). And IV is arrested for stealing a valuable pair of sneakers belonging to his idol, Sweetfeet Livingston (Rick Fox), “the fastest man in baseball.” Despite his innocence, Stanley is convicted and sent to Camp Green Lake. Upon arriving there, he discovers that there’s nothing green or aquatic about his destination. Run by the Warden (Sigourney Weaver), Mr. Sir (Jon Voight) and Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson), this desert stalag purports to help wayward boys develop character by having them dig 5-foot-by-5-foot holes every day.

Stanley—renamed Caveman by fellow campers Zigzag, X-Ray and Armpit—soon realizes that the Warden is actually having the holes dug in order to find some sort of treasure, and his suspicions are confirmed when he notices that her cabin is plastered with old newspaper clippings describing the exploits of Kissin’ Kate Barlow. I’ll say no more as to what’s out there in the dirt, but it has something to do with the power of faith, love and onions, and it’s truly a mystery worth savoring. Along the way, Caveman befriends camper Zero (Khleo Thomas), so-called because everybody thinks he’s completely ignorant. Zero is the champion digger, and helps the much slower Caveman in exchange for reading lessons. The tender friendship that develops between these two boys is straightforward, and demonstrates how Caveman maintains his integrity and compassion while growing tougher in the camp’s mean environs.

Holes is that rare movie that doesn’t preach to the young people in its audience, but instead respects their intelligence and rewards their innate curiosity. Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) respects his source material, which builds upon a clear moral structure, much like the best fairy tales, and embellishes it with three-dimensional characters and wry humor. The filmmakers wisely chose actors who look like middle-schoolers, and thankfully they’re not all a bunch of cynical wiseasses who know better than anybody. The lack of cheap sentimentality is refreshing, and is just one of the many things that this movie gets so right. Like its predecessor book, the movie Holes is a national treasure.

—Laura Leon

You Have Failed, Grasshopper

Bulletproof Monk
Directed by Paul Hunter

Bulletproof Monk, a martial- arts flick that’s more imbecilic than its title, concerns a Tibetan kung-fu scholar (Chow Yun-Fat) who is entrusted with a sacred and all-powerful scroll after his master is executed during World War II. That the monastery slaughter is carried out by Nazis instead of Chinese communists isn’t worth noting, although the fact that the scroll has been passed down for a thousand lifetimes is: That’s about how long this steaming heap of cruddy clichés seems to last. The estimable Chow manages to keep his dignity even when forced into parodying his starring role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and that’s about his meanest feat in the movie. The fight scenes are a chaotic mess with the occasional cheesy CGI effect thrown in—and not for good measure.

After being shot, The Monk With No Name (as Chow’s character is called) discovers he has been made indestructible for the duration of his 60-year guardianship. He flies away, and where he goes, nobody knows (least of all the audience) until he pops up in present-day New York City. He meets a skank-punk pickpocket (Seann William Scott), and together they rescue a little girl caught in the subway tracks. The scene’s construction is so pathetic (the three of them simply disappear as the speeding train goes by), it couldn’t cut it in a home video. The Monk decides the punk’s reluctant participation is a sign of his potential, and enlists him as his protégé. The interaction between Chow and Scott is about as appealing as washing down a piece of chalk with a glass of vinegar.

Although the film’s low points are too numerous to recall, count among them the punk’s big fight with a posse of underground (literally) street thugs who do more posing than fighting; the Monk’s Sergio Leone-style shootout atop a taxi; and torture sessions in a secret laboratory. Unfortunately for Scott’s lobotomized acting, none of the punk’s pratfalls manage to wipe that silly smirk off his face. After chasing down its interminable tangents, Bulletproof finally gets around to the reappearance of the Nazi, now a decrepit wreck in desperate need of the scroll. In the meantime, the brain-dead dialogue insults every Asian culture known to Westerners with its cheesy philosophizing, with the exception of one exchange: When the Monk tries to explain one of his unintelligible Buddhist concepts, the punk replies, “This is America. We don’t have enlightenment. We have Big Macs, strip clubs, and shopping malls.” Add to the list junk movies, like this one.

—Ann Morrow

Lost in California

Laurel Canyon
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko

What’s more fun than watching a couple of straightlaced Ivy League kids collide with a funhouse full of California hedonists? Quite a few things, actually, judging by the abysmal goings-on in Laurel Canyon. The film can’t decide whether it wants to be a serious look at a dysfunctional mother-son relationship, a rock & roll movie, or a sexy romp among the beautiful people.

The uptight Easterners are medical-school grads Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale); he’s training in psychiatry, while she’s writing a dissertation on genetics. Sam is interning at a Los Angeles hospital, so the two are staying, temporarily, with his record-producer mom Jane (Frances McDormand) in her Laurel Canyon spread.

When it comes to sex, drugs and rock & roll, Jane is old-school—she’s sleeping with Ian (Alessandro Nivola), the lead singer of the band she’s producing, and fools around poolside with whoever’s available. Sam is, of course, horrified, and is a mass of repressed anger. Alex, also of course, is a little turned-on; scruffy Ian brings out her experimental side. To complete the circle of desire, there’s psych-intern Sara (Natascha McElhone), who develops a serious jones for Sam.

Unfortunately, little of this is sexy, fun or compelling. Jane’s a jerk, Sam’s a prig and Alex is so underwritten she hardly exists. Only the outsiders, Ian and Sara, are allowed any charm at all; it’s like they walked in from a different film. This isn’t a problem with the actors but with the script.

Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, whose High Art was a fascinating look at the intersection of celebrity and desire in the New York art scene, seems flummoxed by California and rock & roll. Jane isn’t credible as a record producer; the industry types are clichés; and the music itself is uninteresting. Everything feels false, right down to Jane’s house, which is packed with racks of vinyl LPs but not a single CD. The film is contemporary; if this is supposed to subtly suggest the ’70s, it fails as badly as everything else the director attempts.

—Shawn Stone


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