In Darkness


It's a fiddler in the sewers.

It’s a fiddler in the sewers.

(2011) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Robert Wiekiewicz, Benno Furmann, Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup, Agnieszka Grochowska, Marcin Bosak, Julia Kijowska, Jerzy Walczak, Oliwer Stanczak, Milla Bankowicz, Krzysztof Skonieczny, Kinga Preis, Olek Mincer, Piotr Glowacki, Maria Semotiuk, Michal Zurawski, Zofia Pieczynska, Etl Szyc, Weronika Rosati. Directed by Agnieszka Holland

There are those who society tends to write off as incorrigible. These are the dregs, those who cannot be redeemed. They were always destined to be criminal and so they will always remain.

In Nazi occupied Poland, a group of Jews have fled the ghetto of Lvov and made their way into the sewers. Sewer inspector Leopold Socha (Wiekiewicz) has discovered them in there. Socha and his compatriot Szczepek Wróblewski (Skonieczny) have supplemented their incomes with petty crimes and they see the Nazis as no particular change from the situation they’ve been in all their lives. However rather than turn the Jews in, Leopold seizes the opportunity to extort the Jews from their money in exchange for protecting and supplying them.

As time goes by the heat grows more intense to turn in wayward Jews and the penalties more severe for sheltering them. The Jews’ money begins to dwindle and the expense of buying food for the small group has become exorbitant. They wonder how long their opportunistic savior will continue to keep them safe.

In addition the toll of living underground amidst the smell and the grime is taking their toll on the refugees who have begun to squabble among themselves. Nazi patrols are actively scouring the sewers but the deft Socha, the only man in Lvov who knows the sewers well, steers them away most of the time. Still, Socha is at heart a criminal – who knows how long it will remain true.

This is based on the book In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall which chronicles the real-life Jews who fled to the sewers and the real-life Leopold Socha. Holland, one of Poland’s most acclaimed directors, manages to capture the dim lighting and claustrophobia that the refugees surely must have experienced.

One of the main misconceptions about this movie is that it’s about the Holocaust. I beg to disagree. While the Holocaust is the setting, this isn’t the story of the refugees but it is Socha’s story. It is his change of heart that is the crux of the story, his movement from petty criminal to heroic protector which seems nearly impossible on the surface.

Holland wisely doesn’t turn the Jews in the tale into stoic survivors who endure each atrocity and degradation with clear eyes and full heart. They aren’t always heroic nor are they always nice. They are in a terrible situation with the prospect of being caught and killed hanging over their heads at every moment. We cannot imagine that kind of pressure; it seems pretty understandable to me that they would not always deal with it well.

Most of the actors are largely unknown over here (although Furmann was in the Wachowski’s Speed Racer) and do pretty solid jobs. Sometimes reading subtitles on the screen can distract from really enjoying an actor’s performance and I think that’s definitely the case here. It’s hard to catch subtleties when you’re just trying to read the translation.

Still, this was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Academy Awards and justifiably so, although it didn’t win (it was heavily favored to do so). While comparison to Schindler’s List are pretty easy to make, this isn’t the same thing. The Spielberg film had a larger canvas and a much broader brush. Here, we are kept mainly underground in tight spaces that are dimly lit. If Schindler’s List is a Michelangelo, In Darkness is a Goya – but they are both fine art.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look inside the legend. Some great footage from the old “Playboy After Dark” television show.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really challenge much. Presents Hef as a bit of a saint.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, some bad language, sexuality and nudity as well as some disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although filmed in Poland with a mostly Polish crew and in Polish, the writer of the film was Canadian and some of the financial backing came from Canadian sources. When it and Monsieur Lazhar were both nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2012 Academy Awards, it marked the first time that two Canadian films were nominated for the award in the same year.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Holland interviews one of the actual survivors of the Lvov sewers. There is also an interview with Holland in English.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.6M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Take Shelter

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Speed Racer


Speed Racer

Apparently Speed Racer is out-running the Aurora Borealis.

(2008) Science Fiction Action (Warner Brothers) Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox, Hiroyuki Sanada, Richard Roundtree, Ji Hoon Jung, Benno Furmann, Roger Allam, Kick Gurry, Paulie Litt, Christian Oliver, Art La Fleur. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

 

When I was growing up (a preface my father used to make to what would turn out to be a long-winded lecture about why his generation was superior to my generation which sucked rocks), part of my afternoon routine after getting home from school involved turning on the television and watching an anime double feature (although I didn’t know they were called anime at the time) of “Kimba, the White Lion” and “Speed Racer.” I had no conception that what they were doing were anything like groundbreaking – having seen some of those episodes again recently I can tell you with great confidence that they were anything but from an animation standpoint – but I knew they were in color, they were fun and even if they weren’t animated as well as my favorite shows like “Scooby Doo” and “Wacky Racers,” they at least had storylines that I found to be a little bit better than the very light stuff that were common for the time.

The Wachowskis (then still known as brothers) were evidently of the same mindset as I growing up. Fresh off of their world-beating success that was the Matrix trilogy, they basically could do whatever they chose and a live-action remake of the beloved Japanese cartoon series was what they chose. In hindsight it may seem a trifle…ill-advised.

Speed Racer (Hirsch) is a talented young racer in the World Racing League. He is haunted by demons – the death of his brother Rex in a gruesome crash during an unsanctioned race – and yearns to break the records his brother set. Unlike most of the racers in the League, Speed is an independent without corporate sponsorship; his father Pops (Goodman) builds the cars, Sparky (Gurry) maintains them, Mom (Sarandon) makes pancakes and his little brother Spritle (Litt) gets into mischief. Usually around is Speed’s girlfriend Trixie (Ricci) who spends so much time with Speed’s family you wonder if she has a family of her own.

Into their lives blows Arnold Royalton (Allam), chairman of Royalton Industries, one of the leaders in WRL sponsorship. He is impressed by Speed’s record-breaking pace and wants to take him to the next level – the championship of the WRL. He is urbane and charming and loves pancakes. However, Spritle snoops around and discovers that there is a dark side to Royalton and eventually Speed declines the offer. Royalton turns petty and vindictive and vows to destroy the Racer family and does everything within his power to do just that.

Then there’s the mysterious Racer X (Fox) who turns out to be working undercover for Inspector Detector (Furmann) of Interpol who enlists Speed to help find out who’s responsible for the illegal race fixing that has plagued the WRL and caused economic chaos. In order to do that he’s going to have to conquer the unsanctioned race that was responsible for his brother’s death and is the most grueling, dangerous race on the planet – the Crucible.

The Wachowskis have an amazing visual sense and this might be their most brilliant movie from a visual sense ever. The movie uses a palette of bright neon-infused colors, like someone had thrown Slurpees across the screen and then black lighted them. The world of Speed Racer is more brilliant than the cartoon it sprang from, with supercharged cars hurling at you at breathtaking speeds. Much of the movie was filmed against a green screen (a la Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) and much of the world of the WRL is computer generated.

However, as good looking as the movie is it lacks a few things. Like, for instance, a plot that doesn’t disintegrate upon any sort of inspection. I can forgive that to a certain degree – all that technology is fine and dandy but it would have made for a better movie with a bit more attention to detail when it came to the writing. However, there are a few things that just dropped the movie from being a game changer.

The length, for one. Two hours of visual assault begins to numb the senses; there were too many car races and not enough plot development for this type of time commitment. You can only see so many cars racing around a highly stylized track before you begin to yawn unless you’re a dedicated Formula 1 or NASCAR maniac.

And for another, the presence of Spritle and Chim-Chim. Yes, I know they were integral parts of the original cartoon and they were meant to be the avatars for the kids the cartoon was aimed at but I think they outstayed their welcome. They were too much at the forefront of the film and quite frankly, the characters are annoying and they dumb down the movie way too much to be comfortable. Nothing against Litt, the young actor who plays Spritle – he didn’t write the part after all – but I’m to the point that when I see his character onscreen while watching the DVD I hit the Fast Forward button.

Hirsch was cast in this movie after an acclaimed Oscar-nominated turn in Into the Wild and it seemed his career was on the rise. Unfortunately I never got a sense that Hirsch was motivated to do much more than read his lines. This is an unfortunately flat and lifeless performance that harkens back to the emotionless voice acting that characterized the original cartoon and to be fair that might well be a deliberate decision on either the filmmakers or Hirsch’s part; it’s just a bad decision and if it is the case, is another reason why remakes should never try to import things that don’t work from the original just for nostalgia’s sake.

Allam makes for a fine villain and for some quirky reason channels Tim Curry who is also one of the fine villains of recent years. Here he’s both venomous and urbane; always  a lethal but delicious combination when it comes to movie villains. Fox, who was heavily in the public eye for his work in the cultish TV show “Lost,” shows off a different kind of heroism and is one of the best things about the movie. Certainly my attention perks up whenever he’s on the screen.

This is definitely the case of a movie that is innovative and lovely to look at, but falls apart upon too close an inspection. The cure for that? Don’t inspect too closely. Look at it for what it is – an eye candy sugar rush that is going to put you in a happy coma after two hours of non-stop bliss. This is entertainment, pure and simple – imperfect to be sure but entertainment nonetheless.

WHY RENT THIS: Brilliant visuals. Allam is an over-the-top villain and Fox shows off his heroic chops as Racer X.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: About a good half-hour too long. Spritle and Chim-Chim are far, far too annoying.  Hirsch a little bit flat as Speed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of violence. Some of the car crash scenes are a little bit gruesome. There are a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr, the English voices of Speed and Trixie in the original cartoon series, voice race announcers in the feature film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a game and a couple of extra features not found on the DVD edition which itself is nothing to write home about.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $94.0M on a $120M production budget; the movie was a major box office disappointment.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grand Prix

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Amazing Spider-Man