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DVD Review: The Pianist/Talk to Her

By Glenn Abel

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photo Roman Polanski was returning to hell, and he needed a companion. He chose screenwriter Ronald Harwood.

"Better to have someone you trust to go through all of this," Polanski says of the task of re-creating his childhood horrors in the holocaust drama "The Pianist."

"You study the (Nazi) films, the archives -- there are masses of them -- and this is very hard," the Polish director says. "It's a very difficult period for the head."

Harwood, the South African writer of "Cry, the Beloved Country," was the perfect man for the job, Polanski says. "We used to laugh all the time," exorcising some of the demons the men had to confront throughout the making of the film. Both men won Oscars for their efforts as "The Pianist" became the story of this year's Academy Awards.

Polanski's comments come in a compelling 40-minute documentary that's the sole extra of note on the DVD of "The Pianist." Billed as a making-of featurette, "A Story of Survival" transcends that reliably lightweight genre on the power of Polanski's words and vivid recollections. No one who cares about the director's work should miss it.

Universal presents "The Pianist" in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1) and in pan-and-scan, both DVDs retailing for $26.98. "The Pianist" looks fine, up to major studio standards. Audio is generally OK, in DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1, with a fairly tame mix that makes little use of the rear soundstage. Center-speaker dialog is noticeably muffled at times. The DVD opens with the studio's usual ads for upcoming films, particularly obtrusive given this film's subject matter and tone.

Polanski says he chose the autobiography of Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman because it was written right after the war, when the memories were fresh. The book's detail of the Nazi occupation was "vividly true to me, a child of the same period," Polanski says.

Szpilman's tale was largely set in the Warsaw ghetto walled off by the Nazis; Polanski escaped from the nearby Krakow ghetto at age 7. Szpilman lost his family to the death camps; Polanski's mother perished at Auschwitz. "There were a lot of similarities but great differences, too," Polanski notes.

The director tells his own story clear-eyed, almost matter-of-factly, but with heart. As he speaks, images from Nazi camera crews are intercut with nearly identical clips from "The Pianist," showing how director and writer used WWII film archives to ensure authenticity of their movie. Of the Nazis who shot the footage, Polanski says, "They were actually recording their masterpiece" -- the Holocaust. The director's only flash of anger comes as he recalls nearby Russian troops doing nothing as Polish freedom fighters were crushed.

The director says he and screenwriter Harwood found the pianist's book was "written like a journal, therefore unfilmable. So we had to give it a shape." Nonetheless, he maintains, the film is quite faithful to the autobiography.

Harwood and other co-workers say Polanski demanded that all elements in the film -- story, costumes, design, sets -- be 100% true to his memory. "Roman, of course, was a wonderful touchstone because it had happened to him," Harwood says. Costume designer Anna Sheppard, who often butted heads with Polanski on the set, agreed: "Instinctively, he will know if it is right or wrong."

"We were trying to rebuild the world exactly as it was," Polanski says. "Making this type of film, it is extremely important to step aside with your bright ideas and just tell the things as they were." Cinematographer Pawell Edelman says his orders were "everything should be invisible -- all technique, all our tricks we should forget." Even Oscar winner Adrien Brody was ordered to play his role flat.

The making-of includes recent footage of the real-life Szpilman playing a Chopin nocturne (the pianist died in 2000). Another ad pushes the soundtrack CD. Limited bios, filmographies and a trailer complete the disc.

Talk to Her

Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her," another film that provided a pleasant surprise on Oscar night, comes to market with commentary from the "chatterbox" Spanish director and one of his stars, Geraldine Chaplin.

The disc retails for $26.95 and is available only in widescreen (2.35:1, as shot). The picture seems flatter and softer than in the theatrical version. Interior scenes are often dark but with handsome colors. The Spanish-language film comes in adequate Dolby Digital 5.1. English subtitles are in bright yellow, clear and easy to follow. Almodovar and Chaplin's commentary is in Spanish, also with subtitles.

Almodovar, suffering from a cold, does most of the talking, laughing at his own torrent of words and at one point promising Chaplin, "I'll be silent at any moment." His chipper chat is in contrast to the film's mostly downbeat tale of two women who end up in comas. Veteran actress Chaplin is respectful of her director and seems there mostly to keep him company.

Almodovar, who won an Oscar for "Talk to Her's" original screenplay, spends a lot of time describing the obvious, but the commentary does have its moments. The director ("Matador") returned to the bullfighting arena in this film and displays a detailed knowledge of the blood sport's rituals. The director does not address the animal-rights protests of "Talk to Her's" bullfighting scene but does describe the sport as "brutal and extreme." Actress Rosario Flores spent four months learning how to fight, Almodovar says, and actually received offers for representation as a matador.

Flores and co-star Leonor Watling spent four months in intensive yoga training in order to prepare for the scenes in which they are in comas. "To play the role of a woman in a coma, it is not sufficient just lying in bed," Almodovar says. "The body must give the impression of being alive -- in a remote (mysterious) place."

Almodovar tries to engage his co-commentator in a discussion of her father's work, talking about how one scene reminded him of "The Circus," but Charlie Chaplin's daughter lets it go without comment.

Almodovar says the film's party scene was shot at his house, with his circle of friends. As the camera pans the crowd, the director tells who the guests are in real life and what they mean to him. One couple conceived a baby that night. It's an odd mix of reality and fiction that adds offbeat charm to the proceedings, an Almodovar specialty.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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