Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.17: Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 37 (C)

At a certain point in Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist, I felt compelled to say to myself “Son of a bitch, how much longer is this thing?”.  Following the critical success of The Pianist, it’s understandable that Polanski might stay in the relatively restrained mode that finally won him his Oscar. It’s also understandable that he might want to finally make a movie that his kids could see. And considering Polanski’s own tumultuous childhood, it’s easy to see why adapting Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist might have been a tempting proposition. But Jesus Almighty, how did he manage to make it this undistinguished?

There’s barely any reason to go into plot details, considering how closely it follows Dickens’ famous novel, but here we go: Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) is an orphan in 1800s England, not exactly the nicest way to spend one’s childhood. After being forced into an apprenticeship with a cruel group of undertakers, Oliver runs away to London, where he falls into a group of thieves led by the eccentric Fagin (Ben Kingsley) and the frightening Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman). When Oliver is later taken in by a kind man, he’s torn between the promise of happiness and the cruelty of his past life.

Polanski’s smart use of perspective and mastery of suspense is evident, as always, but it’s largely undercut by the fact that we’ve seen this damn story a thousand times before, and better. Whether it was in David Lean’s indelible 1948 version, the popular stage musical adaptation Oliver!, or Carol Reed’s bloated but moderately charming film adaptation of the musical, the “Please sir, I want some more” and characters and situations are far too familiar, and Polanski doesn’t update it enough to make anything of interest.

Rather, he seems to have simply decided that adapting Dickens’ novel faithfully was enough. It doesn’t help that the film has the same drab look as the latter parts of The Pianist, but without the earlier film’s gradual draining of color that made it effective. Instead, it just looks like a dully illustrated picturebook. What’s worse, the performances don’t much stand out either. Ben Kingsley’s hammy Fagin at least provides some energy for the otherwise lifeless film, but it pales in comparison to Alec Guinness or Ron Moody. Still, it’s better than the dull versions of Bill Sykes and Dodger that make one pine for Oliver!’s terrifying Oliver Reed and delightful Jack Wild.

What’s most exasperating is that the titular Twist is as dull as the character has ever been. This is saying something, considering that Oliver Twist was never one of Dickens’ best defined characters, mostly a prop to whisk around Victorian London in order to show the city’s inadequacies. One could make the argument that Clark is supposed to be another Polanski surrogate, but he’s too blankly wide-eyed (what I’ve dubbed “Freddie Highmore Syndrome”) to make much of an impression. The kid suffers from FHS so badly that I can’t help but feel I was a way too harsh on Asa Butterfield’s inadequate Scorsese-surrogate in Hugo. He’s the perfect face for Polanski’s least distinctive movie, his equivalent to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood: a film that superficially looks like an auteur’s work if one squints hard enough, but which is too familiar and dull to register.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.16: Roman Polanski's The Pianist


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 83 (A-)

Roman Polanski’s journey to directing The Pianist was a long and complicated one. As a young Jewish boy in 1930s Poland, Polanski witnessed the Nazi atrocities firsthand, was separated from his family, lost his mother to Auschwitz, and survived more or less off of his wits, the kindness of strangers, and sheer luck. The director’s dark, depraved films frequently reflected the traumatic experiences of his life, but he refused Steven Spielberg’s offer to direct Schindler’s List. It wasn’t until Polanski came across the story of Holocaust survivor and acclaimed pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman that the director finally tackled the difficult subject matter. The Pianist eventually won both the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or in 2002 and three Oscars, including a surprise win for Best Director for Polanski. One could easily dismiss Polanski’s eventual win as the Academy’s long-held love for films about the Holocaust (for some real stinkers, see Sophie’s Choice or The Reader), but it would ignore how strong the movie is. As it is, The Pianist has been rightfully hailed as Polanski’s finest film since his 1960s/70s heyday, and as one of the few truly great films about the Holocaust.

Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is “the finest pianist in all of Poland…maybe the whole world”. Szpilman plays piano for Polish radio to great acclaim, but his prestige is thrown to the wayside with the German occupation of Poland in 1939. Szpilman and his family expect the war to end within months, but conditions grow worse in the ghetto and German treatment of Jews grows more extreme. While Szpilman’s family is sent to a concentration camp, a friend pulls him out of line, effectively saving his life. But now Szpilman must navigate the Krakow ghetto, avoid capture by the Germans, and trust a select few people to help him, with any wrong move costing him his life.

Polanski spent so much of his post-exile career (Tess notwithstanding) taking on gleefully trashy material (Bitter Moon, The Ninth Gate) that it’s easy to bemoan his decision to go back towards “respectable” subject matter rather than depicting the Holocaust as one of his signature fever dreams. But while Ronald Harwood’s script occasionally creaks over exposition, it never falls into self-important gussiness that frequently befalls Holocaust films. Better still, Polanski directs the hell out of the film. One of the better touches comes from a slow draining of color throughout the film’s runtime. Early on, Szpilman and company wear vivid, colorful period clothing, which gradually changes to muddy browns and dank greys, as if to suggest that hope and life have been slowly drained from Europe. That Polanski doesn’t make the shift an instantaneous switch compliments the matter-of-factness of the material and the gradual shift from everyday banalities and irritations to very real danger.

More effective still is Polanski’s always cunning use of perspective. The Pianist is seen almost entirely from the limited perspective of Szpilman, a man whose slightest misstep- trusting the wrong person, being at the wrong place at the wrong time- could get him killed. An early highlight shows Szpilman’s family witness the murder of an elderly Jewish neighbor in a wheelchair as he’s tossed out of a window- Szpilman can see his country slipping into madness and cruelty from his window. The use of perspective grows even more impressive as the film grows more episodic later on as the days blend together and Szpilman has to rely on friends- some trustworthy, some not- in order to survive. Szpilman also sees the Polish Uprising outside of his window. The use of perspective here serves both as a reminder of Szpilman’s need to retreat rather than be brave in order to survive and also as a peek into what would happen had Szpilman joined the resistance- admirable but futile action, and ultimately death. Polanski does not judge Szpilman’s actions, but rather plays the impassive observer (if impressive suspense director) to what had to happen in order for him to survive.

Polanski is well aided by Adrien Brody, who won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar (the youngest winner ever at the age of 29) for his subtly powerful performance. Szpilman is at once charming, self-deprecating, and witty, but a man whose increasingly gaunt figure and hollow eyes turn him into a shell of his former self, a ghost haunting the ghetto of Krakow. It’s a remarkable physical performance that relies on Brody’s ability to convey Szpilman’s every thought and passion with his eyes and posture, particularly late in the film when he can barely talk, lest he be overheard and caught.

Szpilman also serves as likely the best Polanski surrogate ever put on film- a man whose survival is best aided by dumb luck, who never knows who he can or can’t trust, and, most of all, as a man whose passion keeps him alive (here piano rather than film). The opening sequence shows Szpilman’s insistence on continuing his classical piece over the radio even as the Germans bombard the city; a later scene shows Szpilman’s irritation that his work is interrupted by the demands of the elite. But one of the best sequences in the film shows Szpilman behind closed doors, hiding in a friend’s apartment where he’s been told he needs to keep absolutely quiet. Szpilman sees a piano, sits down, and starts to play (I practically shouted “NO!” the first time I saw it), only for the camera to reveal that his fingers are a few inches above the keys, and he’s merely miming. It hardly matters- it’s the closest he’s been to music in ages, and it keeps him sane.

Two themes constantly reign in Polanski’s filmography: that of the power play, and that of a world gone mad. Polanski frames the Holocaust as the ultimate power play in a world gone mad- the rights of the Polish Jews are taken away little by little, and for no reason. First Szpilman’s family bicker and proclaim that they won’t wear the Star of David armbands, but as Szpilman’s father is slapped for walking on the sidewalk rather than in the gutter and old men are forced to dance for the amusement of the Germans, their situation becomes more serious. Questions and protestations by Jews are answered by gunshots or, if one is lucky, by a slap in the mouth. Szpilman’s family maintains a dark sense of comedy for some time until they can no longer joke- a final scene of tenderness before everyone but Wladyslaw is sent to the concentration camps shows the once middle-class family splitting an overpriced caramel together. Yet Polanski still manages to see the dark (if impossible to laugh at) humor in Szpilman’s survival- he’s spared not by his own wits, but by the luck of being pulled out of the line by an acquaintance, and even that comes with the knowledge that he’ll never see his family again.

Perhaps the finest scene in the film comes at the end, when a sickly and rail-thin Szpilman escapes to the ruins of a city and encounters a German captain. Throughout the film, Szpilman has encountered both good Poles and Poles who have bought into Hitler’s game, both trustworthy helpers and opportunists who have robbed him. Now Szpilman falls at the mercy of a Nazi. But the man knows that the Russians are coming, that Hitler’s game is up, and who perhaps never believed in Aryan supremacy in the first place. He asks Szpilman to play something on the piano, and Polanski bathes Brody in shafts of light as he passionately hammers out a beautiful Chopin piece. Captain Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), as we later learn he’s called, then clothes and feeds Szpilman, who survives and goes on to acclaim as a concert pianist once more.

The climax suggests an intelligent pragmatism from Polanski: just as there were good Poles and bad Poles, there were decent Germans among the party willing to do something good when it was needed. Still, this is a Polanski film, and the director doesn’t let either man off the hook entirely: Szpilman is given a German army coat to keep warm, but in a bit of dark irony is nearly killed by the Russians when they spot the coat and mistake him for a soldier. An even crueler bit of irony: Hosenfeld wasn’t as lucky as Szpilman. Despite the efforts of the latter to locate the former, he would perish in a Russian internment camp. His sacrifice was noble, but not without consequences. That’s the brilliance of The Pianist, and of Polanski: in a dark and depraved world, even goodness has its price.

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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Overlooked Gems #47: Anvil! The Story of Anvil


Grade: 82 (A-)

For every band that makes it huge, there’s about 1,000 that don’t. Take Anvil, for example. The Canadian metal band influenced virtually every major band on the thrash metal scene (Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer), not to mention finding fans among Guns n’ Roses and Motorhead, but for whatever reason never managed to make a major mark for themselves outside of a tiny cult following. Not being a devoted heavy metal fan (in terms of heavier rock and roll, I prefer punk), I hadn’t heard of Anvil before the release of Sacha Gervasi’s documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil, but the film makes a case for Anvil’s relevance even after their heyday.

Headed by singer/guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner (seriously), Anvil just can’t catch a break. It’s been over twenty years since they played major festivals alongside The Scorpions and Bon Jovi. Kudlow, Reiner, and the other bandmates now play tiny locations to dozens rather than thousands, work lousy day jobs in order to fund their heavy metal dreams, and deal with balancing time with their families and time on the road. The group manages to catch a number of breaks only to have them fall through- their European tour is poorly attended, their manager constantly screws up arrangements, they’re often not paid for their work, and the recording of their thirteenth album, This is Thirteen, is fraught with tension only to be turned down or ignored by major labels. But the members soldier on in spite of the odds. They love the music too much.

Anvil! has been described as a real-life This is Spinal Tap. There’s no doubt several similarities (lousy conditions, touring in obscurity, a show in Japan, a trip to Stonehenge), but it’s far too glib and easy a comparison to hold much water. Gervasi is a talented filmmaker, but he’s also a fan, and he doesn’t undersell the pain or the passion of the members of Anvil at any point. Sometimes his fandom is a bit too much- he doesn’t much explore why Anvil might not have made it big in the 80s- but the fact that he finds humor in their situation without mocking them is what counts. Above all else, Lips and Reiner are likable, downright nice guys just trying to do what they love for a living, and Anvil! is a frequently moving experience because it takes them seriously. The film wasn’t exactly a smash hit when it was released, but it was well-reviewed enough that Anvil has since seen a spike in popularity, opening for Saxon and AC/DC. If that doesn’t speak to the power of the movies, I don’t know what does. 

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.15: Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 61 (B-)

That I enjoyed The Ninth Gate speaks to Roman Polanski’s talent as a filmmaker. Sure, the plot is utterly moronic through-and-through, makes less sense and grows increasingly ridiculous as it goes along, and ends up going absolutely nowhere by the end. With just about any other director, The Ninth Gate would be laughable. With Roman Polanski doing basically Chinatown meets Rosemary’s Baby, it’s perversely entertaining. This thing is fucking stupid, but I like it.

Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is a rare-book dealer working in New York. Dean’s wealthy book collector acquaintance, Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), acquires a copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, a book about summoning the devil. Balkan wants Dean to make sure his copy is the original by comparing it to the only other two known copies. Corso travels throughout Europe to determine the truth, but he’s followed by a shadowy organization of Satan-worshippers led by Liana Tefler (Lena Olin) and by a mysterious woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who has a few secrets of her own.

Polanski sets Dean Corso as a modern Jake Gittes and Boris Balkan as a Noah Cross/Roman Castevet, and it largely works thanks to the performances of Depp and Langella. Depp hits the right note of skepticism and devil-may-care attitude for the role (isn’t it nice seeing him back when he gave actual performances?), while Langella is wonderfully sinister as Balkan. Less assured: Seigner, who Polanski keeps throwing into his movies, convinced that one day she’ll click. She’s as blank as ever.

She’s not too much of a hindrance, though, with Polanski working his magic. He’s deftly aided by cinematographer Darius Khondji, who shoots the film like he’s making Seven again, and composer Wojciech Kilar, whose moody, creepy, often playful work here rivals his more famous score for Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. There’s a simple creepiness and classicism to the opening suicide of Olin’s husband, which Polanski and Khondji shoot with a mixture of doom and matter-of-factness that’s deeply unnerving. Polanski could do this kind of slow-burning horror in his sleep, but while he and Depp clearly don’t take the plot of the film too seriously (there’s an arch tone to the whole thing), they still manage to create a mood of ever-present dread that carries the film past its goofy plot.

Which, come on, the plot is ridiculous. Polanski and his co-screenwriters John Brownjohn and Enrique Urbizu certainly try to turn this into another Chinatown/Rosemary’s Baby story of power, corruption, death and manipulation, but The Ninth Gate’s plot about a book literally written by the devil strains credibility throughout. It doesn’t matter too much in the buildup, in which Depp mostly deals with shady individuals and organizations rather than the supernatural, but the film isn’t as grounded as Rosemary’s Baby, and it finally leads to a lame finale where Langella’s all-powerful villain starts acting like an idiot. The big reveal involving Seigner (she’s a demon, basically) is even more ridiculous, not a final shot that’s the definition of ending with a whimper rather than a bang. It was too late for me to start hating the movie, but by the end The Ninth Gate stops being trashily enjoyable and just turns into trash.