A terrific premise receives only so-so treatment in this fictional yarn that details the strained relationship between a young Adolph Hitler and a Jewish art dealer. John Cusack stars as Max Rothman, a one-armed World War I vet running a successful art gallery in Munich right after the close of the war. Max makes the acquaintance of Adolph Hitler (Noah Taylor), a nerd with no family and no friends who wants to become an artist; he attempts to befriend and encourage this temperamental loner even as the young Adolph begins to realize he has a special skill as an orator, delivering explosive political diatribes. Early claims that Max should be banned because it dares to show Hitler as human were ludicrous, not only because the movie hardly presents the future dictator in a sympathetic light but also because Hitler was human and the picture makes the relevant contention that the evil that men do hardly springs full-formed from birth but is instead cultivated by the choices made and directions taken in one's life. But for all the food for thought offered by the film, its overall success is diminished by the fact that there's too much Max and not enough Hitler; indeed, the scenes focusing on Max's strained home life, his flirtations with a mistress (Leelee Sobieski), and his business dealings can't begin to match the sequences that concentrate on his touchy affiliation with the budding Fuhrer. And a final plot twist that would be more at home in a dopey Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy doesn't help, either. 1/2
Being John Malkovich was an act anybody would be hard-pressed to follow, yet here are director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman attempting to capture lightning in a bottle for the second straight time. While falling short of Malkovich's brilliance, this loopy comedy certainly scores points for originality -- or at least until it writes itself into a corner during the final half-hour. It's almost impossible to convey the complexity of the plot in just a couple of lines, as Kaufman has inserted himself into the film as the main character. The movie's Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) suffers from writer's block as he attempts to adapt the nonfiction book The Orchid Thief; complicating his task are his encounters with his twin brother Donald (Cage again), the book's author (Meryl Streep), and the book's subject, an eccentric flower breeder (Chris Cooper). A dense picture operating on more than one level -- for starters, it explores the downside of the "creative process" in sweaty detail -- this works as long as it's relying on its warped comic touch and free-flowing performances by the three principals. But apparently not knowing how to end this thing -- or worse, cynically ending it in a manner that hammers home an obvious point about the state of Hollywood filmmaking -- Kaufman comes up with a sour conclusion that flies in the face of everything that has come before. What remains, on balance, is a good film, but not the great one that was within its grasp.
Not only for theater aficionados, this adaptation of the stage hit is a musical for people who don't even like musicals, weaving its deliriously dark tale with enough cyanide-laced cynicism to win over moviegoers who wouldn't know Oklahoma! from Oh! Calcutta! Director-choreographer Rob Marshall and Oscar-winning scripter Bill Condon (Gods & Monsters) keep the proceedings both lively and lacerating, and if, after years of overexposure, the story's themes relating to the cult of celebrity have all the bite of a toothless gerbil, at least they're presented in an irresistibly engaging fashion. Among other things, this knockout of a musical finds Catherine Zeta-Jones in her best screen work to date, Richard Gere putting forth his finest effort since An Officer and a Gentleman, and Renee Zellweger adding to her string of unassailable performances. Zellweger, that most Kewpie Doll of actresses, turns into Lethal Barbie as she handles the role of Roxie Hart, a starlet wanna-be in Prohibition-era Chicago who, like fellow singer-dancer Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), is behind bars for murder. Both women's public images are carefully handled by slick lawyer Billy Flynn (Gere), and all three work the angles to ensure they each land on top. The actors' exuberance and Marshall's imaginative staging just might be enough to raise this once-revered genre from the dead. 1/2
CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND
"Never let them see you sweat" is a tagline that apparently went unheeded by George Clooney, who huffs and puffs mightily in his directorial debut. This adaptation of Chuck Barris' memoirs, in which the creator of The Gong Show (among other TV inanities) claims to have been an assassin-for-hire for the CIA, is a genuine mixed bag, full of entertaining moments but also bogged down by Clooney's overwhelming desire to emulate his frequent screen collaborator Steven Soderbergh (the latter serves as executive producer on this film, marking their fifth alliance of the past year and seventh overall). Trying for an air of hip irreverence that has never been Soderbergh's strongest filmmaking attribute either, this follows Barris (Sam Rockwell) as he balances a successful TV career and a steady sweetheart (Drew Barrymore) with his clandestine activities for the government, represented here by a CIA mentor (Clooney) and a sexy super-spy (Julia Roberts). Appearing in virtually every scene, Rockwell (The Green Mile) is well-cast up to a point, but he has yet to provide any afterlife to any of his screen personas; he doesn't inhabit his characters as much as get assimilated by them (despite having seen him in a dozen pictures, he has yet to deliver a performance that sticks in my mind). But Clooney as actor nicely underplays, while Roberts is used far more effectively than in Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven. 1/2