Seen at the Movies:

Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can is more pure fun than any movie around right now. It’s the supposedly all-true story of Frank Abagnale, master forger and impostor. As a teenager, Abagnale successfully impersonated an airline pilot, doctor, and lawyer, among other identities, and garnered millions through check fraud. (He went on to work for the FBI and designed fraud-proof checks, in addition to writing the book on which the movie is based.) This story, set in the 1960s, brings out Spielberg’s prankish spirit, though the director also gets to indulge his customary obsessions with broken families and father figures--Frank (28-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio, brilliantly cast as a 16-year-old passing for 26) is supposedly motivated by the desire to help his charismatic, IRS-beleaguered father (Christopher Walken, in a welcome break from guest weirdo roles), while pursuing FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks, in dark suit and Establishment-nerd eyeglasses) becomes a law-abiding surrogate parent for the character.

The period is lovingly recreated by production designer Jeannine Oppewall, who was seemingly as inspired as much by films and advertising of the era as by reality. When Frank, in pilot drag, is feeling his oats--and nothing signals an earlier time so much as children stopping him in the street for autographs--the colors pop wildly, in pinks and yellows and oranges. Eero Saarinen’s decommissioned TWA terminal at JFK airport is a major location, and a perfect emblem of the times. Costume designer Mary Zophres puts on an irresistibly zesty parade of stewardess uniforms and 60s casual wear. Also perfectly setting the mood are a Saul Bass-style title sequence and John Williams’ jaunty, finger-snapping music. My major reservation about the film, apart from its overextended length, relates to the typically harsh cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, whose glaring sources seem all wrong for the film’s style.


Catch Me If You Can photos: Andrew Cooper/DreamWorks Pictures

You may think, not another Holocaust movie, but The Pianist is something different and wonderful. First of all, it’s directed by Roman Polanski (above), Holocaust survivor and pitilessly unsentimental observer. Secondly, it has at its center a character, Polish Jew Wladyslaw Szpilman, who is not traditionally heroic or brave or self-sacrificing--who survives partly by his wits, partly through luck, and partly by doing not much at all except laying low in empty apartments. He’s a passive survivor. Szpilman is portrayed by Adrien Brody (below), an actor who’s been rising for several years now; with The Pianist, he’s finally arrived. He starts out as a cultivated, slightly arrogant man, playing piano on Warsaw radio and holding his prominent-beaked head high. Gradually, everything--his home, his family, his humanity, really--is stripped away, but still he survives, with Brody’s haunted eyes peering out of a gaunt, bearded face.

Shooting in Poland for the first time in almost 40 years, Polanski and his team, including production designer Allan Starski, costume designer Anna Sheppard (both of whom worked on Schindler’s List), and director of photography Pawel Edelman, brought to life pre-war Warsaw, moving to Germany’s Babelsberg Studio to shoot the Warsaw Ghetto scenes. The most remarkable recreations in the film are of the war’s devastation, seen in the latter part of the movie. Moving through the ruins, Brody is like a figure out of Beckett, a character whose continued existence seems both absurd and somehow noble. --John Calhoun


The Pianist photos: Focus Features

Seen Off Broadway: Joe & Betty is, apparently, playwright Murray Mednick’s unvarnished account of his parents’ horrifically loveless marriage. As family memoirs go, the piece is light years away from the tears-and-laughter formula of, say, Hollywood Arms. We’re in the Catskills in 1951; Joe and Betty live in squalor, bicker constantly, scramble to pay the rent. Their main pastime is verbally flaying each other; when that gets dull, they can always complain about the local blacks or rail against their relatives. There’s plenty more, including family in-fighting, statutory rape, and death. All of this is arresting at first, thanks to Mednick’s thoroughly stylized presentation of his characters. It helps that the cast is strong; in the title roles, Annabelle Gurwitch and John Diehl are especially skilled at giving these gargoyles an underlying sense of humanity (Betty’s poisonous monologues, spoken to their unseen child, Emile, are notably harrowing). But the play’s strong point--its relentlessness--is also its weakness. Scene after scene offers up nothing but more of the same. Not too long into the second act, I began to feel rather like poor abused, reclusive Emile, withdrawing from this ugly reality.


Joe & Betty photo: Carol Rosegg

The design is simple but highly effective: Jeffrey Atherton’s set--basically two translucent walls, a deck, and some furniture--aptly conveys the family’s poverty and Rand Ryan’s lighting plays a key role in creating a distinct look for each scene. The costumes are by Bridget Phillips and the sound by Robert Oriol. In many ways, Joe & Betty is a brave, uncompromising piece of work; dramatically, however, it is inert. --David Barbour

Heard from Florida: Architectural lighting designer Michael O'Brien is up to his ears in animals. Actually, this Miami-based LD is busy designing special themed lighting for the Palm Beach Zoo as the facility is being redeveloped as a theme park. O'Brien is working with Barbizon's Troy Starr, who is handling show control integration and coordination for the park-wide control that uses a Crestron system with a CobraNet backbone. O'Brien is also using a lot of LED color washes and some fiber-optic effects with an eye toward low maintenance. In addition to specific lighting for automated fountains, Mayan pyramids, and animal exhibits, O'Brien is also determining the proper light levels for stairs and pathways so that two-legged visitors can see where they are going. --Ellen Lampert-Greaux