Tag Archives: adrien brody

After Midnight

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as one of my “Most Disappointing Movies of 2011.” Then, as the year came to an end, I kept seeing it pop up on best-of-the-year lists, always praised as “witty” and “magical.” And now it’s right on course to Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay, with good odds of winning the latter. So, from the depths of my confusion and curiosity, I have to ask again: what is so great (or even good) about this movie?

Hell, I’ve been so earnestly curious that I rewatched it. Maybe I’d somehow missed the magic that first time around! But no, it actually got worse. I still love the wall-to-wall jazz soundtrack and the amber-tinted Parisian scenery; it’s certainly a pleasant movie to look at. (Although a tourist brochure does not a great movie make.) And it has a handful of supporting performances that make me smile: Marion Cotillard as “art groupie” Adriana, Adrien Brody’s rhinoceros-obsessed Dalí, and Corey Stoll as a hilarious, swaggering Hemingway.

But the whole movie’s premised on one long joke. It’s just Owen Wilson’s Gil being introduced to one Lost Generation luminary after another, then stammering in disbelief, “Hemingway? The Ernest Hemingway? Tom Eliot? You mean T.S. Eliot? Picasso? As in Pablo Picasso?” At first, it’s endearing; an hour later, it’s tiresome. The 1920s scenes are affable and sometimes funny, but they never go beyond facile wish fulfillment. They lie somewhere between a costume party and a wax museum, depicting their era as a time when everyone was a genius, went to parties, and fell in love with strangers from the future.

Continue reading

6 Comments

Filed under Cinema

Horror and Roman Polanski’s Holocaust

Just before I left the Philadelphia area, Ashley and I sat down to a romantic evening watching a Holocaust drama – namely, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). Adrien Brody, who deservingly won an Oscar for his performance, is Władysław Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (duh) living in Warsaw during World War II. Brody is the film’s core, yet he’s never histrionic or larger than life; as a matter of fact, he’s smaller than life, as he grows more and more emaciated and is forced into tiny, claustrophobic spaces. It’s a very understated film that replaces the expected emotional outpours (see Schindler’s List) with muted reactions and muffled sobs.

Whereas Spielberg’s List almost becomes giddy with the process of duping the Nazis (sort of like a prestige version of Indiana Jones), Szpilman is always receding and taking anything he can get. There’s no room for huge gestures when a sip of water is a miracle. For long portions of the film, Brody barely says anything while his friends and family argue about possible courses of action. After he escapes the ghetto and is smuggled into a series of apartments, he becomes purely a survivalist, ultimately risking his life for a can of pickles. Szpilman’s story combines luck with animalistic perseverance because, as the film suggests, those two traits are necessary to survive.

If you’re like me, your ears pricked up when I said the word “apartment” back there, for it’s no coincidence that Polanski also directed the “Apartment Trilogy” of horror films (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant). The Pianist is, perhaps surprisingly, very much of a piece with this earlier work – only this time around, Polanski’s paranoid, fidgety style is applied to real-life horrors experienced by the director himself, albeit in Krakow.

It’s useful, I think, to look at The Pianist as an autobiographical/historical companion to Polanki’s fiction-based films. It shares its basic characteristics with much of his filmography: a frightened individual must escape from an overarching conspiracy that s/he is powerless to stop and incapable of fully understanding. Rosemary crumbles physically and emotionally in the satanists’ hands; Jake is rendered speechless by Noah Cross’s unfathomable, wide-reaching evil; Trelkovsky is warped by the posthumous pull of Simone Choule’s habits; and Szpilman is reduced to a shadow of a man by the unyielding grip of the SS.

All of these fights are intrinsically unfair because the characters’ opponents are conspiratorial and nebulous. Szpilman and the others are just human beings, ordinary and alone, being oppressed by indestructible systems. This comparison clarifies Polanski’s view of the Nazis: they’re agents of horror with the scales tilted violently in their favor, able to gaze down with ease on Szpilman even as he tries to escape their field of vision. Imbalances in vision, and therefore knowledge, are vital to the conflict in Polanski’s films. Just think of Jake Gittes’s investigation in the first act of Chinatown as he peeks through spyglasses and cameras, not realizing that he’s being set up.

Szpilman is similarly myopic, but unlike Jake, it’s not because he’s too headstrong to see; instead, it’s because he’s an individual and hence unable to perceive the historic arc of the war surrounding him. All he can do is listen for immediate developments; the Nazis have too tight a lid on their future plans. (In one horrifying scene, a woman asks a Nazi officer, “Where are you taking us?” and he promptly shoots her.) The visual equivalent to this myopia is the keyhole shot.

The keyhole shot, in which an object is viewed through a narrowed scope akin to a silent film iris, is one of Polanski’s stylistic trademarks. It was the entire substance of his early film Toothy Smile and was most famously used to look at Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby. In the shot pictured above – and, later on, through a crack in a hospital window – Szpilman struggles for a glimpse of the hostile outside world. Like Polanski’s other apartment-bound protagonists, he wants to keep up a protective barrier while still sizing up external threats. For Carole in Repulsion, that threat was a single young man; for Szpilman, it’s the carnage that engulfs Warsaw in the aftermath of the Ghetto Uprising.

It’s not just Szpilman’s relationship with his volatile wartime world that reminded me of the Apartment Trilogy. It’s also the way the denizens of that world are represented. The Nazis and their Polish allies take their position of authority over the Jews seriously to an absurd and irrational degree. One Nazi insists that Szpilman’s father walk in the gutter, a ridiculous request that suggests the ridiculousness of its historical context, and a landlady who demands Szpilman’s papers greatly resembles Shelley Winters’ bitchy concierge in The Tenant. The Jews in the ghetto, meanwhile, adapt to their grotesque situation in different ways – some by lashing out, some by grifting their neighbors, and some by turning inward like Szpilman.

Polanski’s presentation of the ghetto, in scenes like the one pictured above, is sometimes tinged with the very blackest of humor. These little ironies aren’t “ha ha” funny; they emphasize the utter, incomprehensible injustice of it all. Another example is when Szpilman is discovered by the Russians as they march into Poland, but is shot at because he’s wearing a Nazi officer’s coat. The Russians corner him, conclude that he’s Polish, and ask, “Then why the fucking coat?” Szpilman’s response almost sounds like a bleak punchline: “I’m cold.” His suffering is so obvious that pointing it out verges on comedy.

The Pianist is a film about the kafkaesque side of the Holocaust: about how it slowly descended on an unsuspecting family who didn’t realize its enormity until it was too late. Structurally, it’s very much like one of Polanski’s psychological horror movies or conspiracy thrillers, but greatly magnified, as the villains here have created an efficient killing machine that encompasses an entire continent. Szpilman could never stop the Nazi onslaught, but the film does hold out one saving grace. Despite the loss of his family and community, he does live to play the piano again. In Polanski’s world, which was partially shaped by firsthand experiences with the Holocaust, that’s the best you can hope for.

As a final treat, I noticed a few images that very clearly echoed Polanski’s other films. It can’t be coincidence that Szpilman is given a potato that has begun to sprout, identical to the symbolic tuber from Repulsion:

And it’s not surprising that the order-into-chaos image of papers scattering in the air would appeal to Polanski. Here’s a shot that appears to anticipate the ending of The Ghost Writer by nearly a decade:

3 Comments

Filed under Cinema

Sugar, Splice, and Everything Nice

Last Thursday, I went to see Splice. It didn’t sound great, necessarily, but I’d read conflicting reviews of it across the horror blogosphere, so I figured I might as well go check it out. (Besides, in theaters full of mediocre sequels and Marmaduke, it was pretty much the only appealing movie.) As expected, it wasn’t great, but it was food for thought, so I’m writing a review based on the notes I took while watching it. (Yes, I’m that kind of movie nerd.)

As you’ve probably read elsewhere already, Splice is about a pair of genetic engineers who tumble down the slippery slope, watch things spiral out of control, and endure other metaphors for incremental chaos. In short: Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) are young, they’re in love, and they clone things. They work for a corporation that pays them to produce special proteins; Elsa – against Clive’s wishes – decides to take their work to the next level, leaving them with a rapidly-growing chimera baby named Dren.

But, well, Elsa gets attached to Dren, then Dren gets attached to Clive, they go to a farmhouse in the countryside, a kitty dies… all the consequences you can easily foresee when you hear the words “mad scientist.” This is clearly co-writer/director Vincenzo Natali’s 21st century take on Frankenstein – the plot, character names, and the line “It’s alive,” constituting one big allusion – and he’s partially successful. The film cultivates many motifs already present in the Frankenstein story relating to the hell of parenthood, yielding a nice mix of black comedy and family melodrama. (Coincidentally enough, this is exactly what I thought of Seed of Chucky, which sustains this mood far better than Splice.)

Unfortunately, these delights are front-loaded, so Splice‘s second half is a lot less funny, clever, or logical – and the characters stop behaving in interesting or sensible ways. Granted, Elsa and Clive conform pretty well to the “absent-minded nerd” stereotype, subsisting on a diet of pizza, ramen, and tic tacs as they work on Dren. But as the film reaches its ickiest moment, science and reasonable decisions take a backseat to plot twists, which pretty much derailed my commitment to the movie. After that, it pretty much falls apart; much unnecessarily convoluted rape and murder ensue. It’s a real shame, because in a more deserving context, the closing scene could really have been powerful.

Focusing just on the first half of the movie, however, there’s a lot to love. The sudden scares and gross-outs you’d expect are pretty seamlessly incorporated alongside the interpersonal conflict. Clive and Elsa’s dispute over whether or not to keep Dren alive gets caught up with Dren’s own accelerating emotional problems, transmuting this little domestic squabble into pure horror. It’s just the right tense atmosphere for a simultaneous lesson in the ethics of science and parenting.

Alas, all of this promise just leads to a dead end. Elsa’s mother was crazy and abusive… but that doesn’t really go anywhere. Clive wants a child, then doesn’t want this child, then really wants this child… but then he and Elsa change their minds altogether. Much of Splice aspires to the cool, perverse genius of David Cronenberg. Between the tiny cast, secluded Canadian settings, and the curious coupling of science and sex, you can tell that Natali studied The Fly, and studied it well. But rather than ending with The Fly‘s controlled tragedy, Splice goes off in a million directions at once, and fails to make characters’ deaths count.

Like Dren, Splice includes many of the right ingredients for success. It has a pair of talented and attractive stars, some great special effects, and an intriguing, if not overly original, premise. But as with Dren, these parts fail to congeal as the experimenters lose sight of their original goals. It’s no masterpiece, but an intriguing mesh of disparate genetic material. Was this ever about cinema?

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema