humanist in inhuman times: John Cusack as Max.
Portrait of the Butcher as a Young Artist
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.
You Dig It
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.
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.
Have Failed, Grasshopper
by Paul Hunter
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.
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
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