January Blindspot: Defiance (2009)

defiance-movie-posterrr

Release: Friday, January 16, 2009

[Netflix]

Written by: Edward Zwick; Clayton Frohman

Directed by: Edward Zwick

Defiance at the very least satisfies a certain curiosity I had about a film that featured Daniel Craig not in a suit and tie, and as of this posting — admittedly a time-sensitive and quite frankly rushed one — I feel more inclined to recommend it more on that basis rather than for its dramatic credentials. I mean, Defiance isn’t a bad film but it’s just not a great one and that’s kind of a shame.

Really, the most damning thing I can say about it is that in hindsight I would replace this film with something else for my January Blindspot — but, well, that wouldn’t make this a very blind Blindspot list, now, would it? Defiance is well-made but pretty forgettable, and while its lead man seems outwardly appropriate for the part of Tuvia Bielsky, a Polish Jew who helped thousands of refugees escape the death camps and ghettos of Nazi-occupied Europe, Craig once again makes it obvious he works best in roles that don’t require him to adopt an accent. Yeesh.

When Edward Zwick’s film premiered in 2009 it apparently caused quite the kerfuffle. Polish columnists in particular brutalized Defiance, accusing it of the sorts of things directors like Peter Berg and Michael Bay are regularly found guilty of today: xenophobic tonality; the glorification of violence; the oversimplification of extraordinarily complex circumstances. I didn’t find Defiance damaging or incompetent as others have, but its issues are obvious. Despite the fertile historical ground in which his material is rooted, Zwick bogs down an urgent tale with direction that largely feels uninspired and repetitive.

As his film notes during the end credits, the Bielski partisans — four brothers who amassed a secret community of some 1,200 homeless Jews in the depths of the sprawling Naliboki Forest, a near impenetrable mass of evergreen and marshland encompassing northwestern Belarus — never sought recognition for their heroic actions during some of the darkest days in human history. Zwick felt it was high time they received a little.

The narrative primarily focuses on the rift that develops between the two eldest brothers, Tuvia and Zus (Liev Schreiber) who, when brutal, violent oppression finally hits home differ in opinion over how they should respond. Tuvia, despite an early scene of bloody retaliation, insists on avoiding confrontation and becomes the de facto leader of the camp. Zus on the other hand feels strongly about seeking vengeance and joins a local Communist troupe, vowing to take the fight right to the Nazis.

The events depicted in Defiance occur over the course of a year. We watch as conditions within Tuvia’s faction deteriorate as winter sets in and as impending Nazi forces constantly force them to move around within the forest. They battle against starvation, exposure and the inevitable in-fighting as the need to stay hidden intensifies with each passing day. We cut back and forth between this sad scene and Zus’ predicament as he finds himself surrounded by “comrades” who don’t necessarily share the same sympathies toward the Jewish refugees. They do, however, eventually agree to provide much-needed medicine to Tuvia in exchange for help in knocking out a radio transmitter that is interfering with the Russian’s communications.

The film rides a fairly strong wave of emotion on the back of solid performances most notably from Craig, Schreiber and Jamie Bell, the latter finding a way to come into his own as he finds himself mounting a last-ditch defensive stand when German tanks appear in their neck of the woods. (Sorry.) Mia Wasikowska also leaves an impression as a love interest for Bell’s courageous Asael. Their blossoming romance quickly yields a wedding ceremony in one of the film’s defining moments, a tender act of love nestled at the heart of a narrative shrouded in darkness.

I’d feel better closing this piece on a note of positivity rather than with more complaints about how the film perpetually shirks its responsibility of authenticating events as detailed in the 1993 novel by Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, upon which Zwick’s movie is based. Of galvanizing survivors with a story that does history proper justice. Defiance isn’t that film. It’s something more closely associated with typical action fare, with the kinds of movies you expect Daniel Craig to star in. As Tuvia he is more James Bond than Moses.

No, allow me instead to wax poetic about the film’s visuals for an easy out. Even several days after, that wedding ceremony remains burned into my memory. The snow coming down, in all its cheesiness. The intimate gathering. The golden sunlight. Eduardo Serra’s camerawork simply stuns; he seizes the opportunity to capture the forest in all its eerie beauty, offering Defiance this compelling but disturbing dichotomy between the enchanting allure of nature and the ugliness of humanity. Who would have thought we would have ever heard the words ‘Mazel tov’ uttered in this place, in this time?

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

defiance-2

3-0Recommendation: I can’t help but feel disappointed by Defiance but this is far from a bad movie. It just isn’t a very ambitious one. Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell are the clear stand-outs (even if the former’s accent is horrendous at the best of times). But as a visual display, the film earns a fairly strong recommendation from yours truly. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 137 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.uk.pinterest.com 

Denial

denial-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 30, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: David Hare

Directed by: Mick Jackson

There’s no denying the spectrum of emotions Deborah E. Lipstadt experienced during her days in the Royal Court of Justice, recounted in her book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (upon which this film is based), deserves the silver screen treatment. Hers is a story that’s at once infuriating and inspiring, one that addresses the unfathomable but of course very real possibility of people denying that the Holocaust ever happened. Or, at the very least, that the aftermath was ever as devastating as it has been reported.

Denial represents director Mick Jackson (Volcano; L.A. Story)’s first theatrical release in almost 15 years. He has returned to craft a dignified if at times clunky dramatization that takes audiences through the harrowing Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd. court case, a trial that lasted for over a month as it painstakingly poured over details like the existence of Zyklon-B insertion points and the significance of Prussian blue — all things that confirm gas chambers were used to kill. You know, the sort of stuff that can’t possibly be denied but is anyway because it is a fundamental human liberty to express opinions in a free society.

Rachel Weisz digs deep and creates a brash but deeply sympathetic character as the embattled Deborah Lipstadt. The plaintiff in this case is notable historian David Irving (bravely portrayed by Timothy Spall). An English author who had written extensively on the military and political history of World War II with a particular emphasis on Nazi Germany, Irving began marginalizing himself in 1988 with his perpetuation of the notion that the Holocaust was a propagandistic tool designed and used by the Jews to gain financial benefits and public notoriety. In 1996 he sued Lipstadt for remarks she made in her recent publication Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory — remarks he believed to be damaging to both his personal and professional reputation.

As a defendant in the English legal system, where it’s Guilty Until Proven Innocent, Lipstadt carries the burden of proof; that is to say, yes, her legal team (chiefly comprised of litigator Anthony Julius and libel lawyer Richard Rampton QC, here portrayed by Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson respectively) has to prove that Irving’s rhetoric is reliant upon omission of facts and details, and that such omission of facts and details was deliberate. One cannot hope for victory over their opponent simply because he or she happens to be a Nazi sympathizer. Adding to her difficulties, Lipstadt is expressly told not to speak during court, that she cannot appear on the witness stand. Nor can any London-dwelling survivor of those camps. Including their testimonies would only aid the enemy. It would invite the possibility of public humiliation and unwanted complications.

Naturally, cameras linger close to Weisz as her composure informs the tone and attitude of the film. Her face becomes tight and twisted in disgust and frustration as the implications of her challenging Irving rather than choosing to settle out of court begin to overwhelm. Evidence of an emotionally hefty if not ultimately rewarding shoot is written all over the actor’s face especially as she goes out on her nightly runs — Weisz of course being born of Jewish immigrants. Denial is riddled with tension and fraught with emotional crevasses down which we journey. The film is at its most sobering when we visit Auschwitz. Her attorneys must gather evidence that gas chambers were used for mass murder rather than protection from incoming bombs. For some time her character isn’t even trusting of her own defense, who must frequently remind their client that becoming emotional in court will not help anything.

Despite some hiccups the case itself is intelligently and thoughtfully presented, and though a lot of legalese is included even in the few scenes that do not take place in court it’s not alienating. Rather than condescend, the meticulous attention to detail creates the cold and clinical air of detachment lawyers are meant to exude, no matter what cause they are rallying behind. Though in this case, a quiet righteous anger in Scott and Wilkinson simmers just below the surface.

It’s a competently shot and well-acted courtroom procedural even if the story that develops outside the walls of this hallowed institution stumbles over itself, a little too excited to arrive at its logical conclusion; to rightfully bathe in the glory of a just resolution to an ugly legal battle. Ultimately Denial is a straightforward presentation of a complex and seminal case in English law, one that is supposed to have revolved around libel and libel alone but which ends up delving into matters of historical accuracy, a directorial decision that will no doubt become a major point of contention for historians and viewers who fancy themselves history buffs. In a sense we should be thankful these creative liberties ultimately pave the way to predictability. To think that this saga would end any other way would be, in a word, unbearable.

timothy-spall-in-denial

Recommendation: Performances allow the film to rise above its narrative flaws. I’m finding myself more and more drawn to Rachel Weisz these days. She is an intense performer and her Deborah Lipstadt is a great example of her skill set. What a resilient individual this person was (and is). This is a film to watch for great contributions from the supporting cast as well, namely Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott. A heavy film, but surprisingly not as confronting as you might expect.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “This case is happening to you, but it’s not about you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Monuments Men

106664_gal

Release: Friday, February 7, 2014

[Theater]

Hollywood’s golden boy, the man who no one thinks will actually age is not only going grey, he’s becoming uninteresting. His latest directorial effort fails as a historical work of art, but succeeds in the extreme in showcasing A-list celeb vapidity. I’ve never been the biggest sucker for the handsome devil myself, and with the release of The Monuments Yawn, I’m ever more comfortable on my little island.

After watching this film, if you find yourself in agreement that the guy is overrated, I’ll move over and share some space. This island is big enough for the both of us.

The latest contribution from the Ocean’s Eleven star is threefold: Clooney’s front-and-center as art historian/appreciator Frank Stokes and can also be found behind the camera directing a cast with its own sense of history. He also wrote the story. The likes of John Goodman, Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett were all at his disposal, as Clooney attempts to dramatize a most unusual circumstance — with the exception of Blanchett’s character, the rest form a band of art buffs who are tasked with locating and recovering precious works from a Nazi regime quickly crumbling during the final year(s) of World War II. They must go behind enemy lines and risk their lives in an effort to ensure der Führer isn’t successful in completely eradicating a culture via the hoarding and subsequent destruction of their remaining artistic creations.

By George, the man’s got a fascinating premise to work with, a heck of a cast, and an indisputably impressive film résumé that has earned him many a star and stripe. Yet he does a disservice to all of the above by creating a film that’s as boring as history courses are to the students who perceive their enrollment in them to be a complete waste of their time.

There’s no denying that one of the world’s most recognizable names has eked its way into a position of absolute authority. We’re at a point where seeing ‘Clooney’ beside the directorial credit is less of a surprise as it is an assumption confirmed; the longer you endure as a performer, the transition from actor to director is a bridge that will inevitably be crossed. . .just because. Of course, there are names aplenty who have realized their storytelling abilities are best demonstrated from the director’s chair, while still being able to show a modest level of conviction in their on-screen presence. Clooney is such a big name that the fact he’s a director now might be a reality we are going to invariably dismiss as the norm for aging A-listers.

In the many instances he comes up short as a director here, it’s not for a lack of trying. With a well-selected cast and a beautiful, authentic sense of time and place, his intentions are earnest and noble. He infuses wit into a story that, given the heaviness of the historical context, really could use it, and he appropriately selected class acts like John Goodman, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban as the vehicles for comedic relief. Too bad they never manage to yank the material out of neutral and become truly funny, as they more often than not are known for being capable of.

Costumes, make-up and set design are all impressive as well, particularly the set design. The film oozes 1940s quaintness. Dull browns and greens compose most of the shots taking place outdoors, while rich hues of mahogany and other colors of royalty help accentuate the dominance of the presence of the Third Reich, even in its state of decay in this moment in time. All actors are outfitted in appropriate garb that feels of the day, while the use of a portable radio that Frank discovers plays up the nostalgia factor wonderfully.

But considering all of these qualities, The Monuments Men should be so much better. It needs to be so much better. If the story were a map, we’re lost instantly in an incoherent jumble of directions, references, points of interest and a few other historical bits and bobs. At the very least, the journey we are meant to undergo throughout France and Germany is set up for some entertaining discovery. Instead what we are provided is a sprawling mess with an alarmingly low payoff come the long-awaited conclusion. Poor, if not nonexistent, character development is chiefly responsible for the way in which this film peters out into nothingness.

This mission is a noble undertaking, and so it stands to reason we should have some fairly compelling characters to deal with for two hours. As it turns out, this is arguably Bill Murray’s most uninteresting turn ever as Sgt. Richard Campbell, whose shining moment is cracking a tooth on some shitty food. Bob Balaban’s Preston Savitz feels nothing less than squandered; and while Goodman and Dujardin have more work to do, it’s still menial as compared to Clooney’s talky lead.

As per usual, good old George is perfectly satisfactory as a leading man, playing the invigorated art appreciator who’s responsible for rounding up the troops (I really need to cease and desist with the cute puns). His directorial eye isn’t so trustworthy though, as he clearly has no idea how to control tone. The Monuments Men is monumentally tone deaf as it switches from comedy to drama back to comedy and even to romance from time to time in the space of a few short scenes. Plenty of films slip in between genres, but none feel as bipolar as this one does.

Worse than any of the aforementioned, the film is really a tough sit because it so often falls flat. This includes the comedic side of things. Clooney proves he’s as incapable of writing a convincing, historical script as he is directing it. His most recent directorial effort is a cardboard cut-out of what should be compelling filmmaking; it’s flimsy, hollow and yeah. . .cardboard-y.

Best just to stick to the basics, George. You know, looking great in front of the camera and all that jazz.

mm-1

2-0Recommendation: Tall order, recommending this one. The Monuments Men is a massive disappointment on virtually all levels. The main reason to go see this at this point is for the sake of seeing Mr. Clooney in another role, playing alongside otherwise excellent big-screen legends. Here, everyone (with the exception of the man himself) seems wasted in a movie that doesn’t seem interested in. . . .well, making anything interesting. I’d say skip this if you can help it.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “Take a goddamn cigarette, Private.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Book Thief

ef452c63f81d0105dd4486f775adec81_500x735

Release: Friday, November 8, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

The talented, young Sophie Nélisse steps into this significantly bleak lead role as the orphaned Liesel Meminger after her mother leaves her with a German couple during the escalation of World War II. Burdened with an extraordinarily trying existence, Leisel’s pain soon will become your own as you watch her life deteriorate as the movie progresses. Make no mistake: there may be a child actress who’s going to carry the story, but this isn’t exactly candy and unicorns we’re dealing with here. There are no neat bows to tie things off nicely as gifts or holiday surprises. There are just books.

Books and bad government. The Book Thief‘s set against 1940s Germany, as Hitler’s oppressive regime continued to tighten its grip around the necks of everything European, and when life for certain people was at its most intolerable. In the case of wide-eyed Leisel, in fear of getting her daughter also killed her mother, a Russian Communist, abandons her on the doorstep of Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann. Of course, the girl sees this as nothing but a betrayal, naturally, as she can’t comprehend something like the possibility of getting shipped off to a Concentration Camp at her age. Her new life with her foster parents seems depressing and strange, particularly as her mother is not exactly the warm and fuzzy type.

Rush, on the other hand, plays a kind old man whose care and concern for this troubled child is as evident as his appreciation for the accordion. Saddled with great loneliness, Leisel would desperately like to learn how to read and write since getting publicly humiliated at school one day, and since she doesn’t find much else in the town that interests her.

There is a blonde boy, Rudy Steiner (played by Nico Liersch), who tries to capture Leisel’s attention by showing off his flirt, his athleticism and his political affiliation (seriously, I had no idea Hitler Youths were so naturally inclined to running away — it’s sort of ironic, if you think about it). He’s more or less unsuccessful for the longest time as all Leisel wants to do is read. The only thing she’s brought with her from home is a single, black book, which reminds her of her brother. It’s a simple acting of collecting that will fuel her will to stay alive and try to remain positive, despite the destruction and chaos all around her.

What begins as a habit of reading to her Papa, trying to figure out what certain words mean, evolves into full-fledged obsession with the written word when Leisel meets a strange, quiet woman named Ilsa (Barbara Auer) who shows her an entire library of books. One by one Leisel takes these books and brings them home to read quickly.

An interesting development has rendered her not the only ‘guest’ in the Hubermann’s modest home. A debt from Hans’ past leaves the couple with no option but to shelter a young Jewish boy (Ben Schnetzer) on the run, confining him to their basement so no outsider can see him. So Leisel’s inadvertently picked up a roommate and now enjoys reading to him, showing this newcomer what she has learned.

Reading as a thematic element is used fascinatingly throughout Brian Percival’s sophomore directorial effort. Reading serves many purposes to Leisel: first as a tool to learn and blend in with society; later it blossoms into a source of passion for the young girl who’s torn between wanting to find her real mother again, and staying with her foster parents; later still it becomes a survival guide for her and the townspeople as the effects of war take their toll on Germany. The importance of being literate becomes more symbolic as the stakes are ever raised. Unfortunately, not a great deal of interest is raised with them, however.

What The Book Thief lacks is a significant ‘oomph.’ Like the scores of atomic weapons raining down over Europe from American bomber planes, there should be jumps and uncomfortable scenes aplenty throughout a movie set in such a harrowing time in history. Instead far too much time is invested in the act of reading itself, slowing down the pace of the film to a merciless crawl. Save for two scenes — one in which is quite unnerving as we crowd into a subterranean shelter with everyone and listen to the bombs exploding closer and more violently throughout the world above us — the entire film is bereft of the drama one would expect to find in a story about the persecution of an entire people.

The best thing that can be said about the way in which the director chooses to handle the adaptation of Australian Markus Zusak’s novel might be that it beautifully recreated this dark period. While Leisel’s plight is one deserving attention, her story seems only to fit in as a small jigsaw piece in this never-ending puzzle of why any of this genocide and the subsequent additional loss of life through war had to happen in the first place. Of course, there’s really no obvious answer to that question (if one exists at all), and that’s exactly the kind of thing that makes The Book Thief, an otherwise decent film to look at, such a frustrating chronicle.

Despite the gloominess in places, this is far too safe a tone to make much of a splash in the greater world of film. And it’s certainly not the Oscar-contender it first appeared to be in the trailers, though there are some lines of a thought-provoking nature dotted around the place.

run-baby-run

2-5Recommendation: Becoming dangerously close to being boring in several spots, The Book Thief prefers a quieter, more intimate examination of a brutal period in European history by using one girl’s tragic journey as the vehicle with which we travel through the emotions. Extreme patience is required for this one, as it picks a plodding pace and never really lets up on that until the end. It features good performances, but nothing extraordinary and the bleakness at times might prove wearisome for any who haven’t read the book before watching.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “I am haunted by humans.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com