January Blindspot: Defiance (2009)

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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.

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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 

Only Lovers Left Alive

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Release: Friday, April 11, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Jim Jarmusch

Directed by: Jim Jarmusch

Vampires have never seemed as hipster as they do in Jim Jarmusch’s beautifully framed and deliberately paced tale of two long-time lovers reuniting in Detroit — but in an incredible twist of fate script they have also never seemed so appealing.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are in a romance so convincing their performances transcend faking attachment at the hip. Hiddleston’s unkempt Adam and Swinton’s fragile but unbroken Eve — don’t worry, the names are tongue-in-cheek — coalesce on a spiritual level we can’t help but believe wholeheartedly. If you can quash the temptation to label them as the most anti-social couple of all time (or at least since the 16th Century) you’ve won half the battle that is the challenge to the perception of the vampiric legend that is Only Lovers Left Alive.

The second half of the battle is accessing the conclusion of the film, a galvanizing reflection on the “gift” of mortality. Being mortal may suck, but probably not as much as sucking blood for to stick around longer to see what, if anything, about eternity might change, sucks. For this is a slow-burn, a candle-wax dripping kind of slow that will have some feeling as though they are macraméing themselves to their couch. Hipster me loves the pacing, the tedium of old souls scourging the Earth for something new to invigorate their old-fashioned sensibilities while they reap the benefits of humans (a.k.a. ‘zombies’) making short work of destroying themselves through selfishness, bitterness and open hostility. It’s a challenge to be sure, but the reward gained from enduring is a vampiric cinematic experience unlike anything else.

Only Lovers is not as static as it sounds. Jim Jarmusch, both writer and director of this offbeat little gem, throws a kink in the perpetually unaddressed ‘vampiric’ lifestyle in the form of Mia Wasikowska’s much younger and more reckless Ava, sister of Eve. When she randomly shows up in Adam’s secret hideaway — a cramped space more akin to a hoarder’s cavern — she threatens to expose the pair’s identity to the world at large. For presumably decades, perhaps centuries, Adam’s been impressively fending off any curious passersby who have dared approach his stoop and now, this relative adolescent is about to be his and his beloved’s downfall? He’ll be fanged if it happens on his watch.

(In)accessibility is part of Only Lovers‘ hipster appeal, and because it is, I ought to embellish on my introductory statements, lest I be mistaken for one myself. If you don’t “get” this film, then you’re just not cool enough . . .

No, but seriously. I’ve taken off my thick wire-framed glasses and am prepared to give this film a proper look. It’s a sluggish, stubborn film, even for someone who enjoys the slow burn. And Only Lovers lacks the crackling power at the end of the fuse and if you so much as yawn during any given moment you’re likely to miss something that adds to this collage of atmospheric production and refined performance. I guess what I’m saying is that for every reason Jarmusch’s commitment to the offbeat is effective it is also polarizing. That’s a shame when this movie is this well-acted and cast. It also finds profundity in the decrepitude of a Detroit reeling in the economic collapse of 2008/2009. A former car manufacturing plant is converted into a gothic cathedral wherein our leads find solace and serves as one of the film’s more impressive set pieces.

Perhaps what is most admirable about this non-conformer is its odd sense of humor. Without this Only Lovers would be labeled an obtuse, pretentious bit of film, unable or even unwilling to harness its true potential. But because vampires refer to us mere mortals as the weird ones; because Anton Yelchin’s Ian, guitar enthusiast and friend of Adam, is too ignorant for his own good, there is a thread of commonality that unites vampire and zombie. The weirdness is most certainly accessible to the open-minded. Jim Jarmusch is inviting those who are curious inside his unique little world with fantastic performances and beautifully realized settings alike.

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3-5Recommendation: Only Lovers Left Alive is a film not just for the fang-toothed. I just checked in the mirror; I am sadly (fortunately?) without any. It needs to be said I’m not really faithful to vampire films. In fact, I have a great distaste for them. I find the genre more cliched than romance and action films combined, yet I now find a soft spot for this one. As The National’s very own Matt Berninger sings, I’m on a blood buzz. Yes I am. I’m on a blood buzz. Don’t worry, that’s not supposed to mean anything. I just wanted an excuse to include those awesome lyrics.

Rated: R

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “Please, feel free to piss in my garden.”

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