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Portraits of the Artist

Max finds Hitler's battlefield drawings promising but superficial. The artist needs to find an "authentic voice." The would-be painter meanwhile is being recruited by his commanding officer as a propagandist. Thus, the war for Hitler's soul: Max attempts to transform him into a modern artist; the future führer tries to paint but can manage only a tiny black line. "You're a bit lazy, Hitler!" Max observes, comparing the ill-tempered corporal unfavorably to another gallery artist, Max Ernst (whose The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child is on exhibit some half-dozen years before it was painted).

As shot in Budapest, 1918 Munich has marked affinities to the recent art world. Max's gallery is an abandoned factory. Artists, like the version of Hannah Hoch played by Leelee Sobieski, live in raw lofts. Performance art is a given. To accommodate Hitler, Max invents a new school, kriegkunst. But Hitler, who is having more success as a beer-hall rabble-rouser than he is securing a one-man show from Max, is onto something else, scrawling a new formula: Art + Politics = Power. "This is the new art, Rothman!" he shrieks. "I am the new avant-garde."

Hitler, Meyjes stresses, is impervious to irony. Max, unfortunately, is not. The movie winds up reducing the tragic history of the 20th century to a paradox of bad timing. Still, this facile punchline doesn't entirely dispel the film's strained but serious approach.

As much witness as protagonist: Brody in The Pianist
photo: Guy Ferrandis
As much witness as protagonist: Brody in The Pianist

Details

The Pianist
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Ronald Harwood, from the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman
Focus
Opens December 27

Max
Written and directed by Menno Meyjes
Lions Gate
Opens December 27

Catch Me If You Can
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Jeff Nathanson, from the book by Frank W. Abagnale and Stan Redding
DreamWorks
Opens December 25

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Steven Spielberg's seasonal offering Catch Me If You Can is also based on a true story—the career of teenage con man Frank Abagnale, who passed himself off as an airline pilot, doctor, and lawyer, cashing millions of dollars' worth of bad checks all the while. The movie has a generic resemblance to Wendell B. Harris's Chameleon Street, but where Harris's psychodrama was a mordant metaphor for race and passing, the dubious-sounding Abagnale story is played as a breezily Spielbergian tale of parental loss and redemption.

Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) grows up in suburban New Rochelle, the child of an ex-GI (Christopher Walken) and his French wife (Nathalie Baye). This high-strung and romantic couple generates more interest than anything else in the movie, and the viewer suffers as much as Frank when they separate. The boy runs away to New York City, where he quickly learns the power of a uniform and embarks on his improbable impersonations. Catch Me If You Can is set in the mid 1960s, and Spielberg enjoys reconstructing the period, albeit with cathedral lighting, as well as the plot's media-driven aspects. (When Frank decides to become a doctor, the young prodigy studies Dr. Kildare; before taking the bar exam, he immerses himself in Perry Mason.) DiCaprio is far more successfully cast here than in Gangs of New York: His performance is all about acting; it's a mild kick to see how he'll manage to talk his way out of nearly every scrape.

Frank is trying to please his father and get his parents back together. With the entrance of Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the FBI straight arrow obsessed with bringing him in, the filial relationship takes on another dynamic. Sporting a stingy-brimmed hat and erratic Boston accent, Hanks gives a ludicrous performance. As sentimental as he is crusty, this huffing, puffing pooperoo looks primed to break into a hoedown at the drop of a corncob. ("I guess they couldn't get Dan Aykroyd," a colleague noted.) Frank takes to calling the workaholic G-man on Christmas Eve, and given that this slight comedy clocks in at 140 minutes, it's a season's greeting that gives for years.

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