The Pianist—Not Just "Another Holocaust Movie"
There is a moment in The Pianist, the new film from Roman Polanski (Chinatown), that bears the mark of the great director's dark sense of humor. A Jew on the run from the Nazis sees an opportunity to find refuge and safety, and he runs toward it. But at the very moment when there is no more reason for him to be in danger, a sickening twist of circumstance intervenes—almost a silly thing if it were not so deadly serious. The entire audience is drawn to the edges of their seats, and because it is Polanski steering the film, it's impossible to know whether this grueling survival story will take a tragic turn due to a mere misunderstanding.

This paralyzing, intense sequence is just one of many sobering scares in this awe-inspiring and exhausting motion picture, which won the coveted Palm D'Or Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. This week it continues to gain rave reviews from critics as it begins its U.S. run. Some are predicting Oscar nominations for best picture, best director, and best actor. Adrien Brody deserves high honors for his work portraying Wladyslaw Szpilman, a concert pianist whose career, family, and community are trampled underfoot as the Nazis crush his Warsaw home.

As I wrote last week, The Pianist is the most riveting film I saw in 2002. (My full review is at Looking Closer.) This week, other religious press critics are offering similar praise.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) praises it as a "masterful film, one that resolutely avoids melodrama, polemicism, heroics, or sentimentality. The Nazis commit ghastly atrocities, but aren't demonized; the protagonist … isn't celebrated. The result is a powerful film that is not about good and evil or cowardice and courage, but simply, starkly, life and death, civilization and chaos."

Doug Cummings (Chiaroscuro) says Polanski's Holocaust film "is a surprisingly hopeful one. This film … benefits in the sort of tossoff detail only a survivor could know. The movie differs from Schindler's List in at least two ways: it circumvents the extermination camps by focusing on the slow roasting of Warsaw and its people by slight degrees, and its protagonist isn't a savior looking in, but a victim reaching out. And Szpilman and Polanski (artist-survivors, both) offset the terrors by a love for music, a source of unquenchable beauty that touches all those with ears to hear and miraculously provides a way to endure."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) addresses what may be a common misconception: "Going into the film, there is a tendency to say, 'Not one more Holocaust movie.' But this is not just another Holocaust movie. It is a history, which has been brought to life by a brilliant mind and will speak to everyone with its good sense, to all who seek to understand the past." Regarding Polanski, he writes, "The Pianist is arguably his best movie to date. [The film] builds to an incredible intensity. Every scene is thought out carefully. [Brody's] acting is superb. The sets also are incredible. Polanski takes viewers from the beauty of pre-war Warsaw to a devastation that is hard to imagine. As it is, the movie is almost a documentary with the power of drama. The Pianist deserved the Cannes Film Festival Palm d'Or."

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But some disagree. Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) calls it "a very personal work for the filmmaker who himself escaped the Krakow ghetto when he was only 7," but argues that it "fails to have the expected emotional impact."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) also notices a tone of "detachment," but considers that a strength. "There have been some critical complaints that the film is too emotionally detached; that we don't have a visceral connection with the characters or understand how they are emotionally responding to the events around them. I believe this, in itself, is a tremendous statement that Polanski is making. The enormity of the events; the unexplainable hatred and evil that showed its face; the amount of loss and grief mixed with the guilt of surviving. … It is all too much for human comprehension. We record, as does Szpilman, what is happening with a sense of disbelief. That disbelief later must grow to a kind of detached awareness because to emotionally connect with the sights, sounds, and smells of the horror would be too much for us to bear.

Elliott also observes a reflection of Scripture in the storyline: "As horrific as it is, we can be reminded of God's grace, mercy, and deliverance. 'For the enemy hath persecuted my soul; he hath smitten my life down to the ground; he hath made me to dwell in darkness, as those that have been long dead. Therefore is my spirit overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is desolate. I remember the days of old; I meditate on all thy works; I muse on the work of thy hands. I stretch forth my hands unto thee: my soul thirsteth after thee, as a thirsty land.'"

For an archive of rave reviews from mainstream critics, click here.

Just Married Has Critics Calling for an Annulment
The beginning of the year is typically the time when studios dump into theatres the poor products that stand no chance of winning awards. This year's top example: Just Married.

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The film, directed by Shawn Levy, triumphed at the box office this week, ending the thee-week no. 1 run of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Brittany Murphy (8 Mile) and Ashton Kutcher (TV's That '70s Show) star is this lowbrow comedy about a couple whose honeymoon is sabotaged by disgruntled family members. You might think that religious press critics would be pleased to see a film in which the cavorting couple is actually married. Think again.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News) asks, "Can this marriage be saved? Or, more to the point, do we care? Levy lets the self-absorbed couple sulk, pout, and scream until the predictable sappy-happy ending when they come to their senses and lock lips once more. … At least the couple, presumably Catholic, decide to commit to marriage, but it's off-putting how casually they leap into bed, live together, and refer to past affairs so casually."

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) write, "Most adults will probably look at this film as a youth-oriented comedy. The tragedy is that our youth-oriented culture may look at this movie as a training film of how to actually connect with one another in healthy romantic love. Each time Sarah and Tom reach the most painful point of struggle, they, like many people, believe that they may have made the wrong choice in marriage partners. Each of them thinks that maybe they should have waited for more time before getting married in order for them to be 'more mature.' What they fail to understand is that 'maturity' doesn't come about by the passage of time, but rather through successfully working through our pain and struggles."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says the comedy "obsesses over sex. Characters discuss it, pursue it, and overhear it. Jokes are aimed at viewers tickled by flatulence, sex toys, body cavity searches, and a botched attempt at making love in an aromatically befouled airplane lavatory. The point about couples persevering through trials is good, but amid the myriad skewed values in this film, it may have all the adhesive properties of a sticky note."

"Just Married ultimately portrays marriage in a positive light and has surprisingly good performances and a clever script," says Lindsay Stallones (Movieguide), "but it contains many questionable thematic elements, including too much foul language and too many sexual references." Mary Draughon (Preview) agrees that it "may find favor with some teenagers and young adults, but its silliness will disappoint most mature viewers."

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Barris Biopic "Not a Pretty Story"
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind marks the debut of George Clooney as a director. Clooney has an all-star cast bringing to life this somewhat-true story of Chuck Barris, the reckless and obnoxious game-show host of The Gong Show in the '70s. Barris, played by Sam Rockwell (Galaxy Quest), claims that he worked for the CIA and assassinated 33 people even during the years he was famous in the entertainment industry. The movie leaves us unsure whether the stories we're being told are real or imagined.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) "The sleek visuals Clooney employs sometimes give the movie an intriguing film-noir look, but it's still hard to be compelled by the story of this coarse, self-aggrandizing celebrity. Since his superspy exploits seem thoroughly concocted, we are left with the chronicle of how he foisted his lowest-common-denominator programming on the American public. Frankly, it's not a pretty story that you would want to pay to see."

Lynn Nusser (Preview) says, "The vulgar, sex-obsessed, selfish Chuck Barris is hardly big-screen material. The film treats his murder missions nonchalantly, presenting them as dark comedy. If you decide to see the film with its bad language, sexual content, violence and rear nudity, afterwards you may feel the need to offer up some confessions of your own."

Film Forum will feature more reviews of the film as they are posted.

Hoffman Takes the Lead in Love Liza
Phillip Seymour Hoffman has appeared in four films this last year, including Punch-drunk Love and Red Dragon, and he is scheduled to appear in at least four films during 2003. He is earning widespread critical acclaim and is quickly becoming a character actor that every major director wants to employ.

He has his first notable lead role in Love Liza, a melancholy drama written by his brother, Gordy Hoffman. Their friend Todd Louiso directs this story of a widower struggling to cope with his wife's shocking suicide. Torn by anger and guilt, he is terrified to read the letter that she left under his pillow. He develops the foolish numbing habit of sniffing gasoline, in spite of others' attempts to encourage and help him.

Movieguide's critic says, "Hoffman … makes Love Liza a captivating character study of a man on the edge of self-destruction. The end of the story is moral, up to a point, in that viewers may learn that hanging onto grief, anger, self-pity, and self-loathing can lead to dangerous addictions that may destroy not only you, but also the things you love. Regrettably, however, [the film] offers no positive spiritual answers."

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Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "The actor is affecting as the devastated widower numbed by the shock and unwilling to just get on with life. However, the film is flawed in focusing solely on his character's misery without giving viewers any idea about the past life of the husband and wife. It's like watching a relationship story in a vacuum. As we know no more about him at the film's deliberately ambiguous conclusion, or the reason for his wife's death, the movie is ultimately unsatisfying and has scant emotional resonance."

Hitler's Artistic Side Revealed in Max
Noah Taylor is best known for his charming lead role in the romantic comedy Flirting, and more recently made memorable marks on Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky. Now he's starring as the most notorious monster of the 20th century. Max dares to delve into the life of Hitler in the days before the Holocaust. Taylor is scarier than any orc in his intense performance. His performance reveals a bitter, wrathful, prejudiced, and explosive young man torn between his desire for an audience and his mediocre talents as an artist.

Hitler's acquaintance, German artist Max Rothman, is played by John Cusack in his finest dramatic work. As Hitler tries to win an exhibit in Rothman's art gallery, Rothman tries to steer Hitler away from the ugly and divisive politics of German anti-Semites. But when he refuses to give Hitler the exposure he wants, Hitler loses his patience. Their friendship heads for disaster, and the world plunges toward a nightmare.

Menno Meyjes's film is an ambitious idea, and it gives Taylor and Cusack opportunities for passionate speeches and energetic debates. But that is about all the film has to offer. The speeches and arguments themselves are simplistic, telling us what we already know. They sound like what non-artists might imagine artists talk about, but to artists they will sound frustratingly shallow and obvious. I kept wondering what director Milos Forman would have done with the material; his interest in how the angst of troubled men was transformed into art and comedy made both Amadeus and Man on the Moon compelling explorations. As it is, Meyjes divides our attentions between the two major players, failing to take us far enough into either character's heart.

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The film's narrow focus on the days when Hitler failed bitterly as an artist could have gone deeper into questions of how political agendas and artistic vision conflict. Or we might have had a larger biopic, seeing how Hitler's artistic aspirations nearly became a far less destructive route for his passions had he channeled his energies in that direction.

But the title of the film is Max, and thus it seems that the focus should be on Rothman. Rothman's life clearly offers enough material for a whole film in itself; his acquaintance with Hitler could have been included as just another fascinating episode along the way. Molly Parker's brief but intriguing performance as his neglected wife hints at what might have been a more interesting story. As it is, Max ends up feeling like excerpts from a larger, better film; we get two sketchy portraits of passionate and compromising men.

The limited release of the film has brought it to the attention of only a few religious press critics. Ted Baehr (Movieguide) says, "Max is a valiant effort. Sometimes it is so wordy that it is dull, but often it is brilliant. Unfortunately it tries to do something that should not be done … that is to diminish the nature of evil that caused horrific racial genocide on a mass scale in a so-called developed and civilized country." Baehr also objects to the film's portrayal of Hitler, who is "reduced to a nail-chewing, weak-willed neurotic who stumbles upon the idea of anti-Semitism. Historically, Hitler was very clear about who he was."

Mainstream critics are either mildly impressed or somewhat dissatisfied. Stephen Holden (The New York Times) says, "It is a historical fantasy connecting fact and wild supposition into a provocative work of fiction that poses ticklish questions about art and society." David Poland raves, "The thing that really took me by surprise about this film was how gentle and lovely and emotionally complex this journey was. Cusack is at the top of his game as a man of breeding, taste and real caring. Taylor has his career-best role and hits it out of the park."

Religious Media Critics Catch Up with Award-Worthy Films
So many major contenders for this year's movie award-events were released in the past few weeks, religious press critics are scrambling to catch each one if they can. (Film Forum has featured more in-depth coverage of these films in previous weeks. You can peruse the archive here.)

At Looking Closer, I have posted new reviews of The Hours, Narc, and reflections on the films of 2002.

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Dick Staub at Culture Watch and Zach Baliva at Relevant Magazine offer their opinions on About Schmidt; Staub also offers post-viewing discussion questions.

Robert Jackson (Decent Films) turns in a review of Narc, saying that the film "is trying to be something. Really hard. The question is: What is it trying to be?" Film Forum offered an array of reviews for this hard-hitting cop drama last week.

Andrew Coffin (World) reviews several films already covered in this column in recent weeks: Catch Me If You Can, Gangs of New York, and Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Should Christians Leave Behind Left Behind?
Should movies and books receive stamps of approval from Christendom if they have led some of their audience to Christ?

Steven D. Greydanus, in a new essay regarding the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, says no. Greydanus, the mind behind the website Decent Films, argues that LaHaye's Left Behind series is "a franchise that Christians of any stripe should stay far away from."

Visit Decent Films to read Greydanus's Christian-perspective film reviews and the specifics of why he thinks Christians should leave behind Left Behind.

(Douglas LeBlanc offered a similar sentiment in a recent review of the movie Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force: "This series is beginning to feel like a futurist version of the Hell House phenomenon: it tries to lead people to Jesus by scaring them silly.")

Freedom of Expression? Not for Christian Artists, says Pat Robertson
To read about why Pat Robertson walked out of the festival of new movies by Christian art students at Regent University, visit Monday's CT Weblog.

Next Week:Kangaroo Jack, A Guy Thing, and more.