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The survivor: Brody in The Pianist.

In a Minor Key
By Laura Leon

The Pianist
Directed by Roman Polanski

The most meaningful course I ever took was Dr. Roselle Chartock’s high school class on the Holocaust. Many parents protested their children’s participation in this course; one of the fears was that we would be subjected to gruesome details. However, aside from an initial crash course in the horror—films of the camps, the victims, roomfuls of human hair or bones made into furniture—which lasted maybe a day or two, the class immersed us in issues of individual and group responsibility, the nature of humanity and human dignity, the use of propaganda, and so forth. Hardly a day goes by when something from this course doesn’t come to mind, or help me in measuring my reaction to, say, an atrocity somewhere in the world.

Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist, set in World War II Warsaw, reminded me a lot of that class. Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), the title character, enjoys a middle-class existence playing piano on Polish radio and living with his intellectual parents, brother and two sisters. When the Nazis invade Poland, the Szpilmans decide to stay, believing the invaders’ falsely reassuring posters that the Jews will be protected. Little by little, the lives of the family and their neighbors are restricted as the Germans institute a series of administrative rules that, of course, marginalize them; ultimately, they are herded into the Warsaw ghetto and then, finally, to cattle cars bound for Treblinka. These scenes are filmed with dispatch, economically pointing out how people like the Szpilmans attempted to get along by cooperating with the authorities—a tack that was perhaps easier to follow when confronted daily by incidences of Nazi brutality and increasing numbers of corpses littering the streets.

Polanski’s camera avoids lingering on individual scenes of grotesqueness or inhumanity, and it completely evades the sentimentality that derailed Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Rather than focusing on isolated incidents, the director forces us to take it all in as part of one big sweeping panorama of history, and in the end, this decision pays off. We get this sense of history slowly unfolding as the Szpilmans await deportation: Amid the mass throng of Jews, some reassuringly tell each other that of course the Nazis won’t kill them since this is their largest labor force, while children hawk candies for outrageously high sums. As one cynic notes, what do these junior salesmen think they’re going to do with the money? Wladyslaw’s family combine their meager resources to buy a caramel, which the father splits into six equal pieces. This last shared meal has somber notes of a communion service, but again, Polanski doesn’t dwell on it. Contrasting the lengthy wait at the deportation site is the swiftness with which the pianist is plucked from his doom (his family all perished in the camps) and cast adrift, utterly on his own, in the abandoned, litter- and corpse-strewn ghetto. The camera gives us a quick shot of numerous suitcases left behind, and that is all, before going on to the second half of the story, which involves Wladyslaw’s attempts to stay alive in occupied territory.

Here the movie’s pace changes dramatically, slowing down somewhat to give us an idea of the intensely long period of time in which the protagonist had to wait before liberation. From his escape from a workforce in the ghetto, to hiding out in locked apartments with the help of good-hearted strangers, to living like an animal in the shelled-out remains of apartment houses, Szpilman persevered with an odd mix of pluck and passivity. Brody, who heretofore has usually played wiseass good guys, is astonishingly good in depicting the lengths that one will go to in order to survive, and in evoking the very surreal, even comic, nature of this quest. He goes from foppish, dreamy young man to a scarecrow outfitted in a German officer’s greatcoat and a Jesus of Nazareth beard in a way that makes us feel that we’ve been along the entire time.

Polanski makes the brave argument that survival under such conditions depends in part on the kindness of strangers—including, perhaps, the enemy—even if that kindness is inconsistent. Case in point is German officer Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), who happens upon the bedraggled pianist late in the game and asks him to play for him. The fact that this bombed-out mansion houses an intact (and in-tune) grand piano, or that the enfevered and shattered Szpilman can still play without error, may seem more ludicrous than surreal, but Polanski boldly carries on to a climax in which the Jewish pianist and the German officer silently and together possess a moment in which the shared histories of their European cultural history momentarily gains advantage over the history of that continent’s infighting and war.

Again, a film like Life Is Beautiful might have made this officer a complete ass, or worse, had him risking life and limb to protect Szpilman. Here, while Hosenfeld does provide Szpilman with some food and news, he continues to call him “Jew” until he’s about to decamp. Polanski is vastly interested in the great mysteries of life, how one person lives whereas another, perhaps less passive, dies, or how one gesture can transform a moment even as it clouds the picture of both its donor and its recipient. Moreover, he is obsessed with the ways in which an ordinary person reacts to forces far greater. This was, of course, a central point in the still-creepy-after-all-these-years Rosemary’s Baby, and to an equal, if less demonic, extent in Chinatown. With The Pianist, the filmmaker comes full circle, conveying with full force and no sentimentality, the ways (heroic or otherwise) in which that ordinary person reacts to and lives within the hell of war. If Dr. Chartock were still teaching at my high school, I’m willing to bet that she’d include this movie in her Holocaust curriculum.

The Spy Who Tried to Fool Me

The Recruit
Directed by Roger Donaldson

The CIA is experiencing a surge of popularity onscreen these days, and there are reasons why covert ops have always been the preferred fodder for thrillers. But the personalities behind them are frozen into formula as rigidly as the recycled Cold War rhetoric of Bush II: The Sequel. In The Recruit—a snazzy if unexciting foray into the inner workings of “the Farm,” the agency’s training camp—an older and wiser spook lures a rebellious firebrand into the fold, for the greater good of God and country. On the heels of Morgan Freeman and Ben Affleck (Sum of All Fears) and Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock (Bad Company), we now have Al Pacino and Colin Farrell in the father-figure and like-a-son roles. The pairing is the best thing in the movie, aside from the high-tech surveillance toys that fill in for plot twists in these high-anxiety thrillers.

Pacino is Walter Burke, a CIA recruiter and instructor who has a genius for pushing buttons. Which is how he entraps James Clayton (Farrell), an encryption wunderkind fresh out of MIT, into signing on for a job. James is athletic, attractive and extremely competitive, and speaks several valuable languages, such as Farsi—his father, before his untimely death, was an oil executive stationed in various international hotspots. Not that James is going to any such places. As Walter tells him, everything is a test, and the film’s brain teasing comes from not knowing if James’ extreme predicaments are real or just character-exposing setups devised by the wily Walter. During training, which includes learning to hold up under torture, James falls for his classmate, Layla (Bridget Moynahan, previously paired with Affleck in Sum), who is just as athletic, attractive and competitive as he is. Walter manipulates James’ desire to please him under cover of manipulating James’ desire for Layla. One training exercise involves picking up “assets” in a nearby bar—a handy skill should the next wave of global terrorism be perpetrated by nightclubbing postgrads. But the real intent of the exercises is to turn up the heat between the two gorgeous and potentially lethal recruits, on the flimsy pretext that one of them could be a mole.

The photogenic Farrell (Hart’s War) hasn’t been tested as an actor yet, and so far, he appears to be typecast as the brunette Brad Pitt—a few good moments in Minority Report excepted. Pacino, it seems, can barely disguise his delight in stealing scenes from his charismatic costar, and he’s in delectably satanic mode here, releasing each syllable as though pulling the trigger on a stun gun, and wearing a beatnik goatee that’s more subversive than James’ tattoos and two-day stubble. As wily as Walter, Pacino plays the supposedly covert instructor as a motor-mouthed showboat, adding a welcome shading of humor to the abruptly silly ending.

—Ann Morrow

Heck’s Angels

Biker Boyz
Directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood

A few years ago, Los Angeles New Times scribe Michael Gougis wrote an article about the African-American biker subculture in Southern California. Everyone associated with its eponymous film adaptation, Biker Boyz, says the article—which detailed very private, formalized groups of riders who lived and rode by a specific code—is terrific. The film, however, has apparently seized on the aspects of the story most easily translated into familiar Hollywood clichés, with sadly predictable results.

Smoke (Laurence Fishburne) is the “King of Cali,” the fastest rider on the scene. He leads a gang called the Black Knights in races against other gangs. (These “gangs” are clubs, not crime organizations.) Smoke’s posse includes Soul Train (Orlando Jones), Motherland (Djimon Hounsou), and tough girl Half-Pint (Salli Richardson-Whitfield). All the other riders want to take Smoke down, including Dogg (Kid Rock) and Kid (Derek Luke). Kid has a personal, father-son-style beef with Smoke. Much time is taken up with trash-talking and elaborating the arcane rules of the game. It all may be based in reality, but the film makes it seem hackneyed.

When it comes right down to it, a motorcycle flick like this lives or dies on its racing sequences. From that perspective, consider this paragraph an autopsy. Bikes racing at speeds up to 165 mph should be thrilling, but, to begin with, the editing is disjointed. Director Reggie Rock Bythewood hasn’t a clue how to give us a sense of speed or danger. The showy tricks he employs, like fast crowd shots and obvious CGI imagery (supposedly from the racers’ perspectives), do not work. There is some excitement in the trick riding—bikers popping wheelies or standing up on their bikes in the middle of traffic—but trick riding isn’t what the movie is supposed to be about.

Worse, too much of the film is just plain technically sloppy. The continuity in some scenes is mind-bogglingly bad. Not to get all film-geeky, but in a few important scenes actors are in glaringly different positions from shot to shot, their emotional moments destroyed by poor camera direction and unsympathetic cutting. These are mistakes that might be forgivable in a low-budget indie film but are mortal sins in a studio flick.

What’s left to like? Not much. Many of the actors already were motorcycle enthusiasts, and it shows. They look comfortable just hanging out on the bikes. Fishburne proves again he can lend suave cool to an action cutout character; Hounsou again lends grit and gravitas to a small role in an unworthy film; Luke again shows great potential in an underwritten part; Rock proves again that a pop star need not have much in the way of acting skill to land an important part in a motion picture. The original concept—telling the story of a fascinating African-American subculture—was fine. The result is not.

—Shawn Stone

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