Have a Very Leo Noel


    Tough and tender Leo: 'In Gangs of New York' he is an 1860s gang lord; in 'Catch Me If You Can' he's a 1960s smoothie

    (4 of 5)

    STARRING: Adrien Brody, Frank Finlay, Emilia Fox, Maureen Lipman, Thomas Kretschmann, Julia Rayner
    DIRECTED BY: Roman Polanski

    Wladyslaw Szpilman is playing a recital for Polish radio on Aug. 1, 1939. He continues as the first bombs of the invading Nazis rock the studio. He quits only when the station is knocked off air.

    This behavior, it turns out, is typical of Szpilman, on whose memoirs Roman Polanski, a survivor of Poland's wartime ghetto, has based his very good movie. Szpilman, portrayed with stoic grace by Adrien Brody, clings to every last shred of normality, despite confronting one of the great abnormalities in human history — the monstrous ghetto in which Warsaw's Jews were brutally forced to live.

    For a time, he finds work playing piano in a cafe. He barely escapes transport to a death camp. He becomes a slave laborer, then a fugitive, finally living in the ruins of a destroyed city. Always he maintains his silence. Never does he commit a heroic or rebellious act. His only obligation is to go on living, which is mostly a matter of chance, supplemented by his own cunning.

    The Pianist is a raw, unblinking film. It teaches that in dire circumstances our only obligation is to our own survival; all else — culture, ideology, even love — is a dispensable luxury. We admire Szpilman for the way he embraces that pitiless truth. We admire this film for its harsh objectivity and refusal to seek our tears, our sympathies.

    STARRING: Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris
    DIRECTED BY: Stephen Daldry

    Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) published Mrs. Dalloway in 1925. Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) reads it in post — World War II Southern California, and it reshapes her life. In present-day New York City, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) lives a version of the day Woolf imagined for her protagonist in distant London.

    One can imagine this intricate intertwining of historically and geographically separate lives working as a literary conceit. Indeed, Michael Cunningham won a Pulitzer Prize for it with his novel The Hours. While a reader can imagine Woolf and the others, a movie must literally flesh out fictional creations, and so a certain unfortunate literalness of presentation creeps into the picture. Watching The Hours, one finds oneself focusing excessively on the unfortunate prosthetic nose Kidman affects in order to look more like the novelist. And wondering why the screenwriter, David Hare, and the director, Stephen Daldry, turn Woolf, a woman of incisive mind, into a hapless ditherer. Gentlemen, she was only a part-time madwoman. Most of the time, she possessed one of the most interesting sensibilities of her century.

    But this movie is in love with female victimization. Moore's Laura is trapped in the suburban flatlands of the '50s, while Streep's Clarissa is moored in a hopeless love for Laura's homosexual son (Ed Harris, in a truly ugly performance), an AIDS sufferer whose relentless anger is directly traceable to Mom's long-ago desertion of him. Somehow, despite the complexity of the film's structure, this all seems too simple-minded. Or should we perhaps say agenda driven? The same criticisms might apply to the fact that both these fictional characters (and, it is hinted, Woolf herself) find what consolation they can in a rather dispassionate lesbianism. This ultimately proves insufficient to lend meaning to their lives or profundity to a grim and uninvolving film, for which Philip Glass unwittingly provides the perfect score — tuneless, oppressive, droning, painfully self-important.

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