Nostalgic for the days of W.? Well, Oliver Stone’s biopic of the man born on third base who thought he hit a triple, and partied his way from frat boy to Governor to the only leader of the free world nearly assassinated by a pretzel, will give you a sympathetic picture of the man and a critical one of the President. Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Banks both do incredible jobs portraying the first couple, and the rest of the cast varies from James Cromwell’s solid Daddy Bush and Geoffrey Wright’s fantastic Colin Powell to Richard Dreyfuss, who managed to become Dick Cheney through some pact with Satan.
Oliver Stone sees the Bush story sympathetically because there are similarities in their pasts, and perhaps he tells the tale so well because he understands him. Both were born to powerful fathers who were hard to please and perhaps impossible to live up to. George W. Bush had the added burden of a successful brother Jeb, and the film posits he was driven to ambition while seeking his father’s approval. We see everything from Dubya’s perspective, and Stone wisely avoids any “Mr X” characters or revisionism. W. tells a tale with things we may already know, together gives us a view with much greater depth.
We meet George when he’s being hazed as a frat pledge; follow him through myriad disappointments of his father, and his famous failures. Daddy (played to perfection by James Cromwell as the New England aristocrat) is always there to bail him out, but also tear him down for needing it. When Dubya sees how much approval Jeb gets for following Dad into politics, he tries his hand at it as well- but gets torn apart as a carpetbagger, “out-Texaned and out-Jesused,” as he puts it. And he vows that will never happen again. Enter Karl Rove (the always terrific Toby Jones, of The Mist and Infamous) to help with the a-Texanin’ and a-Jesusin’.

From here we see the crafting of a figurehead. He crafts the easy Texan, the guy you’d wanna have a beer with. But you can’t have a beer with W.; you’ve got to have an O’Doul’s. His hard-drinking days are well recounted, but we see little struggle with overcoming it. He shows up at A.A. one day, and after a moving speech by the preacher (Stacy Keach) he stays after. From then on he is born again, and the only ribbing comes from his father. It’s a decision that in the end, helped catapult him to the Presidency on the votes of evangelicals, who abandoned his father for apparent “neglect.” His father’s failure to be re-elected is shown with pathos, but W. blames his father for not listening to him and appealing to the religious right.
His father’s loss and decision to not invade Baghdad weighed heavily on W.’s shoulders, and the real meat of the movie involves the decision to invade Iraq, with Colin Powell arguing for U.N. action and Cheney continually repeating the threat WMD’s and trying to link them to Nigerian yellowcake. The only scenes we see without W. are of the first Iraq War- after the blitzkrieg strike, we see Cheney, Powell and the first President Bush agreeing that pushing on to Baghdad is a bad idea. Ten years later, Cheney has changed his mind, and Bush 2 wants to finish what Daddy couldn’t do. The pressure on CIA director George Tenet to produce U.S.-based human intel to prove what Cheney already believed- that foreign intel on the yellowcake and WMDs was irrefutable- was enormous, and while it is beyond the scope of the film, he resigned in 2004 when no such WMDs were found.
A recurring image in the film is of George W. Bush alone in the outfield, the sun in his eyes, as a fly ball soars toward his glove. He was a son who grew up in a competitive and aristocratic family with a father who was both a war hero and a successful politician, when he only had a history of failures- as an oil man, a financier, manager of a baseball team. When he got into Harvard and Yale, his mother congratulates him but his father sneers, “who do you think pulled the strings to get him in?” The pressure to show up Jeb, and even his own father was enormous- and when he became President, it was something he could be easily talked into. In the beginning, I wanted to have a beer with W.; I voted for him. In the end, his personal failings- his deep need to both impress and surpass his father- led him to drag the country into a nation-building exercise in the Middle East at the cost of trillions, countless Iraqi lives, and over 4,000 American ones so far.
If you hate the man, the movie gives you plenty of flubs to enjoy. If you loved him, this is the most sympathetic portrayal you’re likely to get anytime soon. Josh Brolin gives an excellent, nuanced performance that is no caricature. While it is still too soon for me to feel true sympathy for the President who took us from worldwide success in taming Afghanistan and then blinked when capturing Osama bin Laden seemed in sight, I did feel some for the boy who grew up in the shadow of a demanding patriarch. Or maybe it’s because I just watched The Lord of the Rings with Milky, and we were talking about Denethor, Faramir and Boromir a lot.

The Visitor

The Station Agent was one of the best indies to surface in the last decade, and now director Thomas McCarthy returns with The Visitor, about a widowered professor who finds himself involved in the lives of an immigrant couple who was squatting in his Manhattan apartment. Just as Agent introduced us to Peter Dinklage, now character Richard Jenkins- the fitness club manager in Burn After Reading, and countless other roles- nabbed an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Walter Vale, a man so withdrawn that he seems to be just going through the motions of life itself.
That all changes when he’s forced to leave the university to speak at a conference, reading a paper he “co-authored” with a younger college who is indisposed. He valiantly tries to put it off, but in the end has no choice. When he returns to his abandoned Manhattan apartment after years of hiding in Connecticut, he frightens an African woman in the bathtub. Soon her husband has him up against the wall. But it is all a misunderstanding; someone rented them the unused apartment and said it was his brother-in-law’s. When Walter sees that they will be out on the street that night, he invites them to stay.
They are Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), immigrants from Syria and Senegal; he is a musician, a drummer, and she sells jewelry from a street table. Familiar types to New Yorkers. At first we think Walter is simply moved by pity and by his penchant for going with the flow, but there’s something else at work here. When we first meet him, he is giving his third piano teacher the boot. His wife was a concert pianist; he is obviously seeking something. And the next day, at a lunch break from his conference, he finds it. He sees two buskers in Washington Square drumming away at up-ended buckets. And he finds his head tilting, and maybe even the tiniest hint of a smile creeping at the corner of his face.

Tarek practices his djembe– an African drum- in the apartment while Walter is away, and when he returns he is intrigued. Tarek is a friendly, smiling sort who insists on giving him a brief lesson, and from then on Walter is hooked. He practices on a spare while Tarek plays nightly at a club; Zainab is both grateful and wary of Walter, perhaps shy from their first meeting, or thinking he must want something for all his generosity. There is an amusing comic energy between Walter’s constant meek surprise and her suspicion, with innocent Tarek in between. This is a movie about characters, and we are given three interesting ones to watch bounce off each other.
The movie shifts when Tarek is arrested and put in an immigrant detention facility. A stark, plain building that looks like any office box in Queens. Zainab can’t visit him unless she wants a room in the place herself, so Walter volunteers. He passes notes to him, pressing them up to the glass. They try to make sense of the labyrinthine bureaucracy, and the brick wall of administrative unaccountability. Soon Tarek’s mother arrives from Michigan, a professional, intelligent woman played by Hiam Abbass (Munich). Her stoic attitude, and helplessness in the face of the government juggernaut, eventually drive Walter to something he hasn’t done in years: feeling. And it is Jenkins’ portrayal of this awakening of a wounded shell of a man to demand basic human decency that is the crux of the film, that turns it from a cute New York story into a gripping drama that puts a face to the absurd bureaucracy of our immigration system, where following the rules is nearly impossible.
It is definitely a drama that demands your attention to its subtlety, but it is very rewarding. Richard Jenkins is up against tough competition this year, but his nomination is well deserved. The new actors who play Tarek and Zainab prove their chops and hopefully will get to play more than terrorists on “24” from now on. And if you don’t want to walk to the park and happen upon a drum circle after seeing this, you don’t love music. The soundtrack is available on Amazon.

4 doner kebab out of 5

Tell No One

If you don’t mind subtitles, this is one of the best thrillers of 2008. If you mind subtitles, learn how to fucking read. Tell No One is based on the novel by Harlan Coben, a Jersey boy who won’t make Dennis LeHane lose any sleep soon, but who writes solid thrillers about ordinary people thrust into frightening and realistic situations when something from their past rises from the muck and comes out swinging.
Alexandre Beck is a reserved and friendly doctor working at a Paris clinic. We meet him one morning when a brash, thuggish man brings in his child and demands that Dr. Alex see him. We see his calm in dealing with the violent man, and the sadness in his eyes. Through flashbacks, we learn that Dr. Alex’s wife was brutally murdered 8 years ago, as they swam in a lake near a country cabin. He heard her scream, and when he climbed onto the dock he was knocked unconscious. Eventually her murder was blamed on a serial killer operating at the time, but he never confessed. Alex himself was suspected, because he could never explain why he was pulled from the water.
Now eight years later, two more bodies have been unearthed in the same area. The police begin sniffing around again. And on the anniversary of her death, Alex receives a cryptic e-mail he believes to be from his dead wife. How can this be? Is she still alive? He never got to identify the body. Her ex-cop father had that unfortunate task, and he describes the brutality vaguely, with obvious pain. So we have a set up similar to The Fugitive, but instead of fleeing the cops and hunting the one-armed man, Alex finds himself hunted by vicious, powerful men intent on destroying the life he’s managed to cobble together after Margot’s murder.

As he awaits the instructions in the e-mail, he finds that he is being watched. And as he reaches out to friends, they become targets. The pincers of the police digging through the old case begin to close, and Alex has no choice but to go on the run, for his own safety, that of his few friends, and possibly for Margot’s, if she really is alive. Director Guillaume Canet keeps the tension pegged for much of the movie. The nameless thugs are led by a bearded man who kills as if he’s swatting a fly. His consort is a silent woman with ripped muscles who seems to have studied massage therapy for the ability to cause pain instead of relief. Played by Mika’ela Fisher, she’s one scary bitch.
Alex gets stuck between them and the police, with only his lawyer friend on his side. Even Margot’s father turns against him. The film is Hitchcockian in how things close in on Alex, but without the master’s dark humor. Here we are kept in Alex’s shoes for the entire film, and we feel his fear. When he finally runs from the police, there’s a fantastic foot chase through Paris, with none of the usual cliches. When he comes up against a busy highway he can’t just dash across, flip over a windshield and keep going. There’s also no booming chase music, we get to hear his breath, his footsteps, and the sounds of the city around him as he dives through alleyways, the backs of shops, and through street fairs. And unlike most wrongfully accused men, Alex actually gets tired.
The film is taut as a drum, and while we meet many colorful characters- sleazy lawyers to street thugs, senators obsessed with steeplechase horse races- they all matter. The ending is a little too long, and maybe a little too neat, but we get there it’s quite satisfying. Alex is played by François Cluzet perfectly, as a man who dearly loved his wife and is not granted superhuman powers through his righteous anger at her murder. Dustin Hoffman can play him in the inevitable remake. But see it before then, it’s worth a little subtitle-readin’. Even if your lips move while doing it. Then go read the book, too.

4 croque monsieurs out of 5


Best Animated Feature

This is part of The LAMB Devours the Oscars.

The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature is only as old as 2001. Ten years prior, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast broke out of the animation ghetto and was nominated for Best Picture. In the next decade, Pixar would explode onto the scene with Toy Story, a technical breakthrough that ironically brought us back to animation’s sentimental, universal roots. The sequel Toy Story 2 came in 1999, and surpassed the original in both visual and emotional achievements, and in my mind, should have been nominated for Best Picture. It won the Golden Globe that year for Best Comedy/Musical, and I have a niggling feeling that the Academy recognized that animation just ain’t for kids anymore, and that influenced their decision to give them a separate but equal category.
And yes, I chose words with bad connotations for a reason. For while it is nice for animated film to be recognized at the Oscars, it is unfortunate, especially now that CG has become so prevalent, to be shuffled off into their own little category. Is 300 an animated film? Is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Should Persepolis be forced to compete with Ratatouille? Both are excellent films, but one chose a simple visual style over Pixar’s insanely detailed character designs, where you can count rodent hairs, if you want a future job as an FDA food inspector. By pigeon-holing them in the same category, Persepolis is at a distinct disadvantage. Perhaps it’s no different than comparing Frost/Nixon‘s simplicity with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button‘s visual excess, and giving Animated Features their own category helps raise awareness for them.
However, the rules for the category seem to favor the big 3. The rules state:

In any year in which 8 to 15 animated features are released in Los Angeles County, a maximum of 3 motion pictures may be nominated. In any year in which 16 or more animated features are submitted and accepted in the category, a maximum of 5 motion pictures may be nominated.

So if fewer than 16 animated films are released in L.A. County, the Academy only nominates 3 films. And if fewer than 8 are released, there’s no category that year. There have not been 5 nominees since 2002, when Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away won.

This year it’s just the big three: WALL-E (Pixar), Bolt (Disney) and Kung Fu Panda (Dreamworks). The rules are why the excellent Horton Hears a Who! was overlooked, and I found it to be one of the most beautiful films of the year, and certainly better than Bolt and Kung Fu Panda for storyline. And I really liked Panda! Blue Sky Studios, who made the Ice Age movies, did a great job adapting Horton to the big screen and expanding it to feature length. It’s a shame it couldn’t be nominated. Waltz with Bashir, an Israeli soldier’s nightmares after the first Lebanon war, sidesteps the animation cubbyhole by being in a foreign language; Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea didn’t get a U.S. release, so it’s out.

But let’s get on to the Big Three.

1. Bolt
Bolt is the story of the star of a TV show I can summarize as “24 meets Inspector Gadget– he’s a super-powered cyborg canine protecting Penny, a kidnapped scientist’s daughter from the maniacal clutches of Doctor Calico and his Cackling Kitty Accomplice. The show depends on him thinking everything is real, so one day after a cliffhanger episode, he thinks he really needs to rescue Penny- and gets shipped in a packing crate to New York. Having lost his powers, he takes a street cat hostage, thinking she’s the cat from the show, hooks up with a fanboy fuzzball in a hamsterball, has harrowing adventures, and learns the power of love, friendship and perseverance.

I enjoyed Bolt, but don’t think it deserves nomination over Horton Hears a Who!– it’s good fun, and has an emotional ending, but you can still see the Disney formula from stinkers like Home on the Range affecting it. For example, superstar Miley Cyrus voices Penny, but her character is given no real depth. She’s there to get Hannah Montana fans into seats. In fact, according to IMDb, Chloe Moretz (Dirty Sexy Money) had already voiced the role of Penny before Cyrus was brought in to overdub it. They should have stuck with a real actress. John Travolta voices Bolt and does a fine job disappearing into the part. Susie Essman- the foul-mouthed wife of Jeff Garlin from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” steals the show as Mittens the New Yawk street cat who shakes down pigeons and teaches Bolt how easily humans throw away their pets like so much garbage. She’s nearly upstaged by the crazy TV fanboy hamster Rhino (Mark Walton), who was just a little too crazy for me. I’m sure the kids loved him.

The humans are all Hollywood caricatures, meant to make us feel like little Hollywood insiders. Part of me wanted the whole “He’s a TV star who thinks it’s real!” gimmick to go away, and actually watch Penny and Bolt escape from endless attack helicopters, but kids have to get their dose of vitamins and irony these days. I can see Disney not wanting to tread on Pixar’s toes when Lasseter & co. have had a lock on the classic sentimental cartoon for decades, but this story feels a little too much like a Hollywood pitch. There’s a hilarious and exciting sequence where Bolt & co. escape from a shelter, and I found the ending genuinely touching, but there was just a little too much cliche here and there for me to consider this great instead of good, even in the small pond of Best Animated Features of 2008. Horton got robbed. TraBolta!!!!

Disney has gotten a lot better. Despite dropping their classic animation department for 3-D after the spectacular micro-managerial bungling of the otherwise good Treasure Planet, they’ve finally managed to claw a toe-hold and stand with the big boys in CG. Bolt may not be great, but it’s a big move in the right direction. Maybe one day they will continue where Lilo & Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove left off.

2. Kung Fu Panda

I reviewed this in great detail here. I loved Kung Fu Panda, despite it being another Dreamworks film chock full of celebrity voices, because it has heart. It takes a standard kung fu story that could be a Sammo Hung movie, with a fat panda who works in his father’s noodle shop, but wants to be a Shaolin warrior. When he tries to spy on the choosing of the legendary Dragon Warrior at the Temple, he gets inadvertently chosen by the Master for training, and hilarity ensues. Can a clumsy, goofy fat glutton save the village from Tai Lung, the sinister snow leopard?

Dreamworks learned that you don’t need to recognize the voice actors to get asses in seats. Jack Black does his Jack Black thing, but everyone else blends into their character and doesn’t go all Robin Williams wacky on us. Seth Rogen and David Cross are delightfully amusing as Mantis and Crane; Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu have understated spots as Tigress, Monkey and Viper. As you can see from the animal choices, they did some kung fu movie research before they made this, as the “Furious Five” are modeled after the 5 Animal Styles of Shaolin Kung Fu. And while much of the gags are on panda’s big belly and goofy nature, when Master Shifu- played perfectly by Dustin Hoffman- decides to train the big galoot, the fantastic “chase the dumpling” sequence is as exciting as any such “battle” from a real kung fu film.

They even inject some emotion into the tale with Mr. Ping (the always-excellent James Hong), Panda’s unlikely father, who is a duck. I expected this to be forgettable but fun, and it ended up surprising me. I would not mind being forced to watch this a dozen times with kids, and while Jack Black may grate on my nerves on the sixth viewing, Dustin Hoffman’s wizened red panda and James Hong’s hilarious duck characters will keep endearing the story to me. And the tragic character of Tai Lung, voiced by Ian McShane, is not your typical villain. It also helps that the animation is gorgeous; if this is the first kung fu film you’ve seen since critics told you to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

My full review has plenty of gushing, so I’ll try to hold back. Imagine a simple story about a trash-compacting robot in the far future, the last of his kind still dutifully cleaning up our mess on Earth. His only friend is a cockroach, until one day he gets a visitor from above. And for the entire first act of the movie there is no real dialogue. Now imagine being in a theater full of kids watching this first act, with few if any big splashes or booms to keep them occupied. I thought it would be a nightmare of squalling and kicking and whining. But when I saw WALL-E at an early show, the kids were silent. It was as gripping for them as it was for me, watching this comical little robot go through his daily routine of crushing junk, saving little doodads that caught one of his mechanical eyes, finding Twinkies for his cockroach pal to sleep in, and watching a battered VHS tape of Hello Dolly. When Eva, a flying robot seemingly designed by Apple’s SETI division arrives, we get a touching cybernetic love story that brought tears to my cynical old peepers.

It’s so damn effective that you almost don’t want WALL-E to have his adventure, where he meets the apex of human consumerism on a space ark where they await Earth’s renewal. This was a terrific gamble, sticking such an obvious jab of social commentary in such a sentimental film. Chaplin did it, but he was Chaplin. Well, Pixar got away with it because they’re Pixar- I think they only people who complained were Fox News and the Fat Acceptance wackos who envied the Buy-n-Large hoverchairs. The movie doesn’t give us easy solutions or perfect endings, which is even braver. It says that fixing things will be hard work, but we can do it. It speaks volumes more than the insipid Oscar-bait of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and if I had my druthers it would be competing there instead of this category.

So, my conclusion?

This year Pixar has it cinched- WALL-E is not only a new masterpiece on a visual and technical level, but simply one of the best stories this year, animated or not. If people think The Dark Knight got screwed out of a Best Picture nomination, WALL-E fans should be even angrier at the Animated Feature category. At least the Globes separate Comedy/Musical from Drama, which seems a bit more fair. I think as more movies like Beowulf, 300, and Sin City blur the lines between animated and traditional film, this category may disappear, or perhaps used for only traditional hand-drawn animation. Time and technology will tell. Disney is returning to traditional feature animation with The Princess and the Frog this year, and both Kung Fu Panda and Ratatouille have credit sequences that seem to yearn for the old days of hand-drawn. Let’s hope we see more of it, and this category can get more than 3 nominees in the years to come.


Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog is one of my favorite film makers. This may seem like damning with faint praise, but when he makes a documentary, it’s like a Bruce Springsteen song. He just sort of starts talking about what he’s up to, and at first you smirk, but soon you’re tapping your foot and involved in it, and not surprised when it’s a theme song for a movie or an inauguration.
Encounters at the End of the World is like that. Herzog visits Antarctica, well, because he wants to. He is adamant that he won’t be making another movie about damn penguins, and he concentrates on what interests him. First it’s the dreamers, wanderers and adventurers who people MacMurdo Research Station. John Carpenter wasn’t that far off with the quirky characters in The Thing, mind you. There’s a strange, homey atmosphere in the lonely places of the world, and we meet a woman who’s been all over the world, in dangerous places, and here she entertains her comrades by contorting herself so she can be placed in a duffel bag. We meet those brave souls who’ll dive among leopard seals under ice sheets to film the gorgeous formations or collect microscopic organisms, and the scientists who catalog the new species, and seek the origins of life on Earth.
He comments on how banal exploration has become, and we briefly meet a man who holds Guinness World Records for traveling in somersaults, on pogo sticks, and so on. He’s going to Antarctica to skip across it, or something. The point is that we’ve not only mapped the world, but hacky-sacked across it. But at MacMurdo, the spirit of Shackleton is still alive, and you see respect and perhaps envy for men such as him, who braved a new world, in their lives.
But perhaps to Herzog’s chagrin, the most arresting image is in fact, of a penguin who may have read Hemingway’s story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” As the little explore stares out over the ice, we know that his journey may only be caused by a fault in his little brain, but who’s to say our own desires to conquer the unknown are so different? The footage is beautiful, and Herzog has once again made a masterful documentary. Get it on Blu-Ray, the DVD is a bit soft.

The Reader

This is a fine drama but I’m not sure it deserves a best picture nomination. Like Frost/Nixon it is held together by performances, like Rachel Getting Married it has some flaws. Kate Winslet is 99% fantastic, channeling Marlene Dietrich as a German woman named Hannah nearing 40, and still working as a ticket taker on a tram. One day a young man named Michael (David Kross) is sick on her trolley and she helps him; later his mother urges him to go thank her, and a spontaneous affair begins when he peeks at her putting on her stockings.
The first act of the movie is Summer of ’42 and the lovers spent a great deal of time naked. Some complain, but this feels and looks natural. It doesn’t stand out as gratuitous, but shows how prudish most movies actually are these days. As the physical relationship softens and becomes an emotional one, young Michael begins to read to her. It becomes obvious to us watching that Hannah cannot read, but the movie treats this as a surprise later. Perhaps if the movie wasn’t called “The Reader,” and I didn’t immediately think “who’d need a reader? a blind person, or an illiterate?” it could have been a surprise. But it is not, and the movie feels clumsy when it tries to make it so. As Michael ignores the beautiful young girls flowering around him at school, Hannah one day disappears, breaking his heart but freeing him to live a normal life.
We see Michael go to university, years later, where he is studying law. His ethics teacher wants his students to know the difference between law and morality; he takes them to the trial of SS guards charged with the murder of Jews. And Michael sees Hannah again, and she’s not a member of the jury. The “secret” of her illiteracy becomes the linchpin of who is the guiltiest person on trial, and she is too ashamed to admit it. And it becomes obvious that her shame of illiteracy led her to become a guard during the war, and “sign” a statement she could not know the contents of. At first this seems like a clever construct- what if someone ended up a monster through no motive of their own? But it is not. Does redemption exist for ordinary people who followed the rules and abetted atrocities? Or are they just scapegoats for the entire country?
Soon it is Michael’s turn to stand up to the unstoppable engines of the government, justice, and the country’s demand for absolution. Like Hannah, he has a shameful secret he is loathe to reveal, and makes a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. For every whistleblower, for every man who stands up to the tanks at Tienanmen Square, for every Oskar Schindler there were a million people who just went along. The Reader is about those people.
Michael’s shame weighs down on him throughout his life and makes him distant from his nonexistent wife and neglected daughter. Played by Ralph Fiennes, he manages to be quiet yet expressive, a shadow of the passionate young man he once was. The third act is his attempt at redemption with Hannah, his daughter, and a survivor, and the weakest part of the film. There are plenty of good scenes, but the pacing is languid and the editing awkward. Like The Return of the King, it doesn’t know when it’s ending, and we get several denouements. We get a clumsy and unnecessary flashback structure with bookends, and it weakens the film.

I think it is still worth seeing, and the performances of Winslet, Kross and Fiennes hold together the director’s clumsy web. If you want to see Kate’s nipples, they’re like the double crimson sunsets on Tatooine in Star Wars on the big screen. Her make-up is excellent and while not as creepy as Benjamin Button’s, she ages convincingly. With her accent and severe expressions, Winslet proves that she can transform into a character- even if that character is eerily reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair. Only once, when she smiles up at us, did she remind me who she was. It wouldn’t be an outrage if she got the Oscar for it.
4 big red Nazi nipples out of 5


I love a good World War 2 movie. The problem is we’ve heard so many of the stories from that war. Well now Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Glory) and Daniel Craig (James Bond) are telling us one we haven’t heard before about the Bielski Partisans, Polish Jews who fought back against the Germans and saved 1200 people by camping in the forest. It’s an amazing tale and makes you wonder if the city folk of the ghettos were as well armed as their country cousins, if they could have fought back the onslaught of Hitler’s blitzkrieg. But that’s something for writers of Alternative History fantasy books and nerds rolling dice in their basements to decide.

Defiance is the tale of Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and his brothers, who come home to find their mother and father murdered by German soldiers. When they find out that a local constable has been pointing out the Jews for the invading Germans, Tuvia takes a pistol and goes to the man’s house for revenge. From then on they are fugitives, hiding with friendlies and making quick raids for food and to kill soldiers when they can. But other Jews who escaped the trains to the camps begin to find them. Not all can fight. And those aiding them are murdered. So Tuvia and his brothers Zus (Liev Schrieber), Asael and Aron take to the woods with them.
The forests are deep. They begin with simple lean-tos, but eventually have a huge camp with small cabins, soup lines, and scheduled food raids. The locals don’t take too kindly to being raided, and Tuvia tries to spread the pain around so no one suffers too much. Some give freely, but others need the persuasion of gunpoint. Survival is survival; the thefts are not glossed over. The camp grows and grows, and everyone brings sad news of towns emptied of Jews- either killed or herded to the trains. Zus wants to be true partisans, to fight the Germans, but Tuvia would rather “save one old Jewish woman than kill ten Germans.” And this brings the film its only real conflict.

This is what gives the film a bit of depth, because when your enemy is the Nazis, there is little ambiguity. Instead, we get to think about whether it is more noble to save the innocent, or fight evil. In the end we need to do both, but it is not always an easy choice. The movie does not dwell too long on these tough choices, but does not ignore them. It is not an easy task for Tuvia to lead his people. Some fight, and all work. The fighters want a bigger share of their meager meals. They bring a German soldier prisoner, and Tuvia’s declaration that they will not behave as animals is put to the test.
But in the end this is a war movie, and the action is excellent. As partisans they fight with ambushes and guerrilla tactics, and Zwick does not gloss over the violence. A car full of German officers and their dates are ambushed on the way to a party. There is no hesitation. The Jewish women fight as well, for guns are the great equalizer; and they die, in numbers, without sentiment. They are women fighting for their lives, not Ewoks. Their lives and honor are just as important as the men’s. Zus fights with the Russian partisans and learns that “comrade” be damned, they have no love of Jews either; Stalin’s “socialist principles” are only enforced when it serves the right purposes.
I enjoyed Defiance, but like Zwick’s other epic films- Legends of the Fall, Glory, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond it has an old-fashioned Hollywood quality with broad appeal and background characters drawn in stereotype. The smaller characters seem like functions of the plot and filler for color- we have an apolitical teacher and an intellectual hashing out whether Stalin will be any better than Hitler, which is ironic to us with 20/20 hindsight. The women and younger brothers fade into the landscape. The women take up with the men without the usual courtship and call themselves “forest wives,” but most of them blend in with the trees. But like Glory, Zwick once again tells us a tale we did not know before, and puts a face to history. He does a fine job, and made another memorable film here.

3.5 Schmeissers out of 5