21 January 2009

Defiance, Doubt, Gran Torino

Directed by Edward Zwick
Screenplay by Clayton Frohman & Edward Zwick
Starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos
137 mins., R

** (out of ****)

After the sorta ishy-but-still-good Valkyrie, I was hoping Edward Zwick, the director of The Last Samurai (one of my all-time favorite movies, and I seem to be the only person in the galaxy who holds this opinion), would bring us a damn good World War II movie that would leave me exiting the theater thinking about it then and even a few days from then. Aside from writing this review, I have not thought about Defiance, and for a movie that I've been anticipating for quite a while (it feels like a year and a half since publicity starting coming out), that's a bit of a disappointment. Overall, the movie is good - it just falls into the same trap that befell Valkyrie: not enough of an emotional pull and inability to truly connect and/or understand the characters without them blatantly telling us, the audience, what's on their minds.

Based on real events (and the book Defiance: the Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec), Defiance tells of the harrowing journey of three Jewish brothers (Craig, Schreiber, Bell) who hide in the Belorussian forests to evade death by the Germans. The brothers gradually house more and more wanderers, sheltering them and feeding them, creating a community where all help and participate in its continued preservation. As the amount of people grows, the ability to stay hidden becomes more difficult. And since this story is being made into a big budget motion picture, you can safely bet that everything doesn't ride all that smoothly.

To get right down to it, the first 20 minutes lacked the transition point, the point when Tuvia (Craig) decides what he needs to do, and we understand why he needs to do it. It felt more like a plot contrivance than a character making a choice, and these type of movies live or die by that moment. And secondly, the Belski characters aren't drawn out enough; I can't relate to them on a human level (crazy situations aside) and that's a big error. Responsibility for these grievances lie solely on Zwick, who also worked on the screenplay. And with this flick being delayed a gazillion times over, he had more then sufficient time to edit in a few more character scenes to develop them a little bit more before delving into the plot immediately. Actually, even over two plus hours, I would like a bit more meat put on the movie.

Performances-wise, I got no problems, not even with the accents which everyone else seems to be so obsessed about. They may not be perfect, but I sorta kinda didn't expect 'em to be anyhow. Craig oozes his awesomness just by standing around and looking "Grr"; Jamie Bell (King Kong) is immediately likable and surprisingly given much more to do then expected; Alexa Davalos (also from a movie I love and everyone hates: The Chronicles of Riddick) is given plenty of screentime once she shows up, which is strange because she really doesn't offer anything to the story other than being a lustful object of Craig's desire. Though, she does handle well. The best performance comes from Cotton Weary - er, Liev Scheriber (he'll always be Cotton Weary to me, even after his gig in X-Men Origins: Wolverine no doubt), but I think that's due because I was most invested in his conflicted, torn character arc. But dude, you gotta shave. Oh, and concerning the brothers, I recall during the first hour there was a 13-year old or around that age kid, and then he sorta vanished. Maybe he died or something when I got a refill of popcorn, but I'm confused about his arc.

Defiance isn't bad, not by a bloody long shot. It is surprising, however, that with all the delays, Zwick didn't spend more time in the editing room, nor get the group together to do a small unit of reshoots (though I imagine after the company moved the date from pre-Christmastime to post-New Year's, they wouldn't give a damn anymore). But as it is, Defiance pales in comparison to his masterpieces Last Samurai or Glory, but it also shouldn't be overlooked. At the very least, you're going to experience a movie about hope, resistance and persistence.

Written & Directed by John Patrick Shanley
Starring Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

*1/2 (out of ****)

I couldn't stop glancing at my watch as Doubt continued on and on and on. It's actually rather funny, in my opinion, that the film with the shortest running time on this list felt the bloody longest. Now, I'm not saying it's a bad movie; on the contrary, it's very well made, and - if you had any doubts - expertly acted. The sad part of it is that I was simply bored. Yes, I said it: bored. A rather teenagery response, is it not? Well, a movie likes this thrives on a single direction - tension. The entire thing is pretty much a "Did he or didn't he?" Unfortunately, it's quite tension less, and the only thing left is watching Streep and Hoffman go at each other, and that really only happens at the film's conclusion.

Normally, I'd be all over something like this - aside from the cliched plotline - the story is very engaging: one member of the church going after one of the Big Kahoonas with some serious allegations, and it becomes a 'Who can out-wit who?' game. For those unfamiliar with Shanley's play (which he took it upon himself to adapt to the big screen): Sister Beauvier (Streep) is the menacing principal of St. Nicholas School - she's the one woman you don't want to cross paths with, 'cuz with a single glance, let alone a word, she will turn your heart ice cold and kil you. Her old fashioned ways are challenged by Father Flynn (Hoffman), a caring, idealistic man who wants to bring the school from its traditions and incorporate a bit more modern elements into the mix. Sister Beauvier doesn't much like Father Flynn, so when the innocent and quite naive Sister James (Adams) confides in her that Father Flynn might have acted inappropriately to the school's first black student, Donald Miller, she takes this opportunity to get him to vacate house by utilizing her seemingly unyielding certainty

Me, hoping that they wouldn't go the cliched route of a priest molesting his 'flock', optimistically hoping that wasn't the case. Of course, I ended up being wrong. Oh well. However, I did enjoy the very last scene with Streep and Adams that takes some time after the events transpired, and Streep has a breakdown of faith. It was a very real, very human moment - almost a completely different character from the stern, I-know-all-I-see-all person she was during most of the flick.

Acting wise, it's about what you'd expect: awesomeness. However, in the same way as the trailer for The Soloist screams "Gimmie Oscar!", they're performances here pretty much does that. As I mentioned above, the tension is void, so all we're left with is these guys; and luckily, they're captivating, if there was any doubt (get it? doubt? I made a funny!). Whereas it's obvious Streep is on her A game, Hoffman doesn't really seem to be trying all that much; in fact, I'd rather nominate his performance in Mission: Impossible III over this. But the bestest, jaw-dropping and gut-wrenching (not to mention surprising) performance here was Viola Davis. She has only one scene in the entire movie, and I felt and understood her character more than anyone else. It was riveting and touching, and I can honestly say her one scene is almost worth the price of admission alone.

Looking at the technical side of things, Doubt is amazingly acted, lazily shot, and tightly scripted, but overall, it was just boring. It could have been riveting, hands-on-your-seat 'What the hell is going to happen next?', but it just fell flat - but just barely. But don't underestimate the star power of Streep and Hoffman; they are 'da bomb in the flick.

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Nick Schenk & Dave Johannson
Starring Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her
116 mins., R,

*** (out of ****)

Walking into Gran Torino, I had no idea I'd like the movie as much as I do, much less see it again a week later. I'm going to be up-front with yah: I had very little interest - er, scratch that, I had zero interest in seeing a Eastwood movie; I think the dude's over-rated, and the idea of watching a near two-hour movie about a racist prick who had a unhealthy love for his car didn't so much sound appealing. I mostly went because I was dragged, and I'm pretty glad I was, 'cuz I woulda missed out on a good, overly enjoyable flick.

Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) has just lost his wife. His two sons, who he doesn't really connect with, try to help him but he doesn't want anything from them to leave him alone. In fact, that applies to everyone. Refusing to move from his property, Walt resides on a street primarily occupied by the Hmong population, who he wants nothing to do with and couldn't give less of a shit about. His next door neighbors kid Thao (Vang) is coerced into stealing Walt's car by his cousin's gang to prove himself worthy, but his attempt is thwarted by Walt and his giant-friggin' gun. Thao's mother forces her sons services on Walt as payment for the dishonor he's caused the family; Walt begrudgingly complies. Over a while, Walt begins to develop a relationship between Thao and his sister Sue (Her). But the local gang sets their sight on Thao again, and despite Walt's warnings, Thao wants to handle things on his own and learn how to fight back, and this leaves Walt with limited options.

It's an average movie done right. Seriously, it's quite the average plot, and if it wasn't for the screenplay being lively with great but bad dialogue (if you get my drift), it probably wouldn't be as good as it is. My only grudge with the script is that the relationship between Walt, Sue and Thao happens a bit too quickly. For the majority of the first portion of the movie, he wants zilch to do with anyone, even threatening to open fire if Thao ever steps on his lawn again. And after a car ride with Sue - after stopping an attempted assault - they become buddies? (though, the conversation between Sue and Walt in the truck is truly the highlight of this movie; Walt attempting to pronounce Hmong was very funny, as was Sue not taking his crap - definitely awesomeness there) On the bright side, the interactions between Walt and his barber (two scenes in all) were brilliant, terrific fun; watching and listening to these guys have "guy talk", as defined by Walt, and then having Thao attempt it to disastrous and hilarious results - priceless.

Additionally, the flick works as a study of characters, of society, of revenge and guilt. The most prominent and obvious being its commentary on society, specifically the younger generation. Completely devoid of respect for their superiors, the movie depicts teens with little patience of older people and with no interest in them unless there's a reward involved (e.g., Walt's grandchild eagerly hoping his Gran Torino will go to her). Essentially, this is one messed up generation of youngsters, and to quote Giles from Buffy, "the earth is doomed." Revenge and guilt represent Thao and Walt; Thao is overcome with the lust for revenge after certain incidents drive him off the deep end, but Walt, filled with guilt and remorse for what he did back in Korea - killing people who didn't wan't to be there just like him - attempts to reason with him. It brings up justification of revenge, whether it's right or wrong; it showcases the differences of the old and new worlds. Or else I'm just looking too far into this.

And one final comment: I implore Clint to never, ever sig again. The final credits song, apparently titled "Gran Torino" and was apparently nominated by the Golden Globes (perhaps they were on some pineapple express when they nominated it?), was horrible. Pain and agony. Wanna tell Jack Bauer a new way of breaking terrorists without physical coercion? Put this 'song' on his phone, and play it for the terrorists a few times over - they'll spill everything.

Gran Torino, I think, is getting it's major Oscar buzz not because of the movie itself, but because this is rumored (?) to be Eastwood's final acting gig. Overall, it's not nomination-worhty, but if this were to be Eastwood's goodbye film, it's a damn good one. If you don't mind vulgarities, you'll enjoy this film even more. But if you're easily offended, stay away, 'cuz you most likely will be asking for your money back and writing a heartfelt, cuss-filled letter to the company concerning emotional distress. Anyhow, like I said: I initially didn't want to see it, and now I can safely say it will be sitting on my DVD shelf when it hits stores. Check it out, it's worth a watch.

1 comment:

thebonebreaker said...

I'm glad to hear Gran Torino is worthwhile! [I've gone ahead and placed it in my Netflix Queue]

Good Reviews Andrew!