On repeated viewings, the Oscar that young Adrien Brody won for his performance in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist seems even more deserved - it’s the subtle but inspired spark that makes the film more than just a Holocaust film, due the perfunctory sort of critical respect that can mistake solemnity for power.
Which is not to downplay the genius of Polanski; a lesser director might have turned the true story of Warsaw Ghetto survivor Wladislaw Szpilman into an adventure story, a thriller kitted out with wartime props and an undeserved moral resonance. Polanski’s skill makes the awful reduction of Szpilman’s life under the Nazis bitterly real; not only a man’s life and career, or even his family, but a whole city, a country, a world itself, is being destroyed.
At the heart of this, Brody as Szpilman is an understated protagonist - hardly a hero, but a man whose survival is more much luck and chance as bravery and fortitude. Brody plays him as a cynical romantic, more than a bit self-absorbed. In one of the most heart wrenching scenes in the film, he turns to his sister as they walk to the cattle cars that will take them away and says, sadly, “I wish I had known you better.”
A bigger star, or a lesser actor, might have overplayed the part, lunging for heroic stances, assuming Szpilman’s suffering like a beauty queen’s sash. The only discordant note is implicit in the story, which sometimes paints Szpilman as the ultimate suffering artist, with his ennobling artistic harrowing provided by the Nazis.
The deluxe edition of the film is quite a package, with one whole disc of historical material and a “making-of” featurette, and a third disc of Chopin performances from the film’s soundtrack.
Die Another Day
The twentieth James Bond film is a mostly seamless tapestry of “greatest hits” from previous Bond films - killer satellites, fabulous babes emerging from the surf, even a reprise of the Cold War, courtesy North Korea.
When the villain, a dashing, gadget-mad industrialist played by Toby Stephens, reveals that he built his whole overbearing false identity on a parody of Bond, there was yet another glimpse of the promising roads that countless Bond films have glanced down, then ignored, preferring the return to business as usual - really big stunts and even bigger explosions. It’s the sort of disappointment that Bond fans have learned to live with. Includes the usual menu of commentary tracks, trivia tracks, making-of features and music video - provided by Madonna this time around, who regrettably rates a “making-of” of her own.
Berga: Soldiers of Another War
Black Hawk Down SE
These two PBS documentaries are the sort of fantastic stories that scream out for movie treatment. The story of Seabiscuit, the underdog racehorse who became a champion, was in fact filmed in 1949, and will arrive onscreen again this summer, in a film starring Tobey Maguire as “Red” Pollard, the horse’s equally broken-down jockey.
If the film that comes out seems a bit unlikely, even implausible, it’s helpful to watch Stephen Ives’ documentary as reminder that the real story was just as over the top - an incredible tale of kindly owners, long shot hunches, hard-luck jockeys, career-ending accidents and miraculous comebacks. There’s even a rivalry with another horse, an imperious champion named War Admiral, and a nation in the grip of a depression who takes to the graceless nag instead of his thoroughbred opponent.
Berga, the story of American GIs sent to die in a Nazi slave labour camp, some merely for “looking Jewish”, is another kind of story that demands movie treatment. Charles Guggenheim’s film feels a bit sketchy, like a treatment for that gut-wrenching movie. It’s a story worth telling, though it has to overcome its most obvious aspect: the inhumanity of the Nazis, which while historically undeniable, has lost some of its dramatic resonance through time and re-telling.
The three-disc special edition of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down aims to be both movie and history, by packaging two exhaustive documentaries on the 1993 street battle in Mogadishu with commentary-rich versions of the film, as well as a “making-of” documentary longer than the film itself. Scott’s film, while technically astounding, is tentative about addressing the larger political context of the battle; the whole package included here comes a bit closer to dealing with this failure.
South Park: The Complete Second Season
The second season of South Park wasn’t a huge evolution for Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s obscenity-laced, gleefully crude cartoon. Parker and Stone had their formula down almost from the first episode, and their success afterwards was based on the simple idea that if you have a taste for their taste-free satire, you’re going to be a fan.
The highlights of the second season - episodes like "Chickenlover", "Chickenpox", "Cow Days", "Spookyfish" and the brilliant, Canadian-themed "Terrance and Phillip in Not Without My Anus" - would be overshadowed by even more scabrous future shows. It would have been nice to hear Parker and Stone’s commentaries on the episodes, but the only substantial extra is a documentary that gleefully paints the show’s creators as shallow sellouts, intent on running the franchise into the ground, a preemptive excuse for any future ungenerous box-set packages.