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Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIO8OI0JP50

Edward Zwick‘s Defiance is amazingly tepid. It is based on a true story so rife with drama that it practically begged for a film adaptation. As millions of Jews were slaughtered, Defiance tells the story of four brothers who helped hundreds (if not thousands) survive. There have been a slew of Holocaust movies lately, and unlike others, Defiance came with the promise of guerrilla warfare. Even with multiple gun battles, the movie has no discernible moments of excitement. It’s a letdown to see an incredible story end up as a movie with no tension or suspense. This is one of the rare times that a movie would benefit from a longer running time.

Nazis invade Belorussia in 1941, and to escape death, the four Bielski brother hide in the forest. Zus (Liev Schreiber) is a cold-hearted realist, so when he encounters a small band of helpless survivors, he insists that no attempt should be made to assist them. Tuvia (Daniel Craig) is more idealistic than his younger brother. He notes that the helpless survivors will certainly die without help, and decides to protect them. Survivors hear of the Bielskis, and others wander into the forest. When not fighting off German attack, everyone prepares for winter. Zus gets word that Germans killed his family, and views vengeance as the only proper response. He leaves the forest to join the Soviet army, and takes a few others with him. Winter meanwhile becomes a deadlier adversary than the Germans, and morale plummets. Tuvia and his younger brother Asael (Jamie Bell) struggle to maintain order, so their methods become cold-hearted. Zus encounters antisemitism among his Soviet comrades, and when not in battle, he feels increasingly estranged from his community.

From the summary, Defiance sounds like it should be entertaining and moving, right? Too bad it’s so shoddily made. A movie can be about the interesting subject possible, but in the hands of a mediocre filmmaker, the final product can be truly tedious. Here the battle scenes are poorly choreographed, and fail to generate suspense. Forest gun battles are fundamentally static affairs, but even when aerial and tank attacks enter the picture, the action remains boring. The emotional scenes, as when Tuvia and Zus learn that Nazis slaughtered their wives, are strangely inert. Perhaps with more of a back story, we could come to care about these people. With no context, personal tragedies remain personal, and do not extend to the viewer. The actors do the best with they can*, but their parts are so under-written that one struggles to care. Zus and Tuvia bitterly fight and eventually reconcile, and the circumstances in which they reunite are so manipulative and unlikely that I laughed. There are some scenes, however, that ring true. When someone brings a captured German soldier back to camp, the solider is beaten to death by angry survivors who are still mourning their lost relatives. Tuvia passively watches because he understands the survivors’ need for catharsis. Powerful scenes like this one are too few and far between. Five minutes of Defiance of memorable, which leaves two hours of unmemorable mediocrity.

If nothing else, Defiance convinced me that Edward Zwick is a hack. He is fond of movies in which white men save fight with an oppressed people. He is fond of flawed of but ultimately virtuous white heroes who learn life lessons from the oppressed. With Defiance, he deviates from the formula only slightly – since the flawed but ultimately virtuous white men are those who are oppressed, there are no life lessons to learn. Zwick substitutes life lessons with one character proclaiming that Tuvia was sent by God. It could have been something more, but Zwick’s rehash of the same formula reveals his laziness and insensitivity.

* With piercing blue eyes and naturally blond hair, Daniel Craig should not be anyone’s choice for an Eastern European Jew.

Here are other violent Edward Zwick movies in which flawed but ultimately virtuous white men fight with an oppressed people:

Glory. This civil war epic is Zwick’s first attempt to tell such a story, and he (mostly) succeeds. Matthew Broderick plays the flawed but ultimately virtuous Colonel Shaw, who led the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts. Many believed that black men would not make decent soldiers, so Shaw faced an upward battle as he trained his men. At one point, Shaw barks at man prepping a rifle, demonstrating how unfit the group is for battle. Sure enough, the members of 54th become competent soldiers, and even demonstrate bravery on the battlefield. Shaw learns his life lessons from Trip (Denzel Washington), who reminds Shaw that once the war is over, “You’ll go back to your big house.” Washington won Best Supporting Actor for his role, and it’s well deserved. He plays Trip as man who has been treated with such cruelty that anger is his only recourse. The fight scenes are well-shot, and give the viewer an idea of what bravery it took to march in battle. Not surprisingly, the movie is only told from Shaw’s perspective, which means the audience does not get a complete picture of what it meant to serve on the 54th. It’s a good movie, but far from great.

The Last Samurai. This 19th century war epic is Zwick’s second attempt to tell such a story, and he (mostly) succeeds. Tom Cruise plays the flawed but ultimately virtuous Nathan Algren, who is sent overseas to train a group of Japanese soliders. At one point, Algren barks at man prepping a rifle, demonstrating how unfit the group is for battle. Sure enough, the men become competent soldiers. Algren spends a winter as a prisoner of the samurai. Algren learns life lessons from Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who teaches Algren the way of his people as well as the meaning of sacrifice. While living amongst Katsumoto’s people, Algren becomes a man at peace, and develops a sense of purpose. Watanabe deserves recognition for his performance because he convincingly conveys the values that are incongruous with Algren’s Western sensibilities. The fight scenes are well-shot, and give the viewer an idea of what bravery it took to march in battle. Not surprisingly, the movie is only told from Algren’s perspective, which means the audience does not get a complete picture of what it meant to be a samurai. It’s a good movie, but far from great.

Blood Diamond. This conflict diamond war epic is Zwick’s third attempt to tell such a story, and he (mostly) succeeds. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the flawed but ultimately virtuous Danny Archer, a soldier of fortune who goes through war-torn Sierra Leone in search of an elusive pink diamond. Archer learns life lessons from Solomon Bandy (Djimon Hounsou), a simple farmer who buried the diamond. With the help of an American journalist (Jennifer Connelly), Archer and Bandy get deep into dangerous territory, and face nonstop fire from rebels. Along the way, Archer learns about the value of family, and that even a child soldier is capable of finding his lost humanity. Unlike the other two movies mentioned above, Blood Diamond is ruthlessly violent. Zwick is not afraid to show the atrocities of 1999 Sierra Leone – even going so far as to show a boy blasting an automatic rifle indiscriminately into a crowd. With this and The Departed, DiCaprio demonstrates his capacity for gritty roles. His accent sounds more than a little silly, yet he gets bonus point for his consistently ruthless outlook. Not surprisingly, the movie is only told from Archer’s perspective, which means the audience does not get a complete picture of what it means to have one’s life torn apart by rebels. It’s a decent movie, but far from good.

That’s it for this this weeks “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when, in lieu of reviewing a four hour movie about Che Guevera, I have my special inauguration post.

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