Monday, January 26, 2009


This is kind of a Saving Private Ryan/Schlinder's List in the Russian countryside. The action involves maintaining a community of Jewish ghetto refugees in a deep forest amid the constant threat of discovery by the German army. Two Russian Jewish brothers, played with exquisite machismo by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, create an ad hoc civilization borne of a loyal necessity. While the brothers have their unique sibling backstory rich with unarticulated resentment and competitiveness, they forge a working solution to their personal history: one brother stays with the community and the other brother signs on with the insurgent Russian army to protect the borders of the forest.

There's no sentimental brother love at work here. Both men begrudge each other's leadership attempts, yet their separate paths allow each to take equally important roles in the community's survival. The brother who stays with the refugees learns how a society, even one in peril, has archetypes that need expression. At the same time, the soldier brother lives and fights in an army alongside comrades whose history included pogroms of hatred against Jews. With a subtle irony, the film traverses both brothers' experiences, underscoring how courage in war evolves within an individual's particular set of circumstances.

All high-mindedness aside, this is a slow-moving film that pretty much leans on Craig and Schreiber to deliver the bulk of its power. They do. With a few highlighted actors, notably a younger brother played by Jamie Bell, Defiance doesn't achieve the epic quality it seems to be striving toward. Still, it's an interesting story and should definitely be seen by any lover of movies about defying the hell-on-earth wrought by World War II Nazi power.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Revolutionary Road

This is a wonderful movie. The acting is superb; I have never seen Kate Winslet so amazingly complex and approachable at the same time. Leonardo DiCaprio positively morphs into a 1950's archetype of suburban businessman; his performance is rich and layered and sympathetic -- he's not just 'playing' this husband, he seems to become him. If you didn't read the book, you don't have to in order to appreciate the subtleties of character evoked. The two main characters inhabit the characters so completely and satisfyingly that it's pretty close to a live-action reading experience.

Revolutionary Road is the name of the actual street in a suburban tract where the family lives. For this couple, their roles are thrust upon them -- moving to the suburbs, husband the breadwinner who commutes to a lifeless job in Manhattan, wife the homemaker who gets involved in a community theater. Their average life is not what they were dreaming about when they first came together as a couple. Like all new couples, they felt special, different, meant for great achievements in an alternative lifestyle. However, through marriage and parenting, they become, in a word, ordinary. This sense of themselves as cogs in the wheel of their particular American dream propels them to imagine themselves making a tremendous change in their lives by moving to Paris. Paris? Yes, as this is the 1950's, Paris is the metaphor for revolutionary thinking and artistic individualism. The whole idea of it, and the wonder of themselves as again being special, ignites their relationship and brings them closer, sexier, lovingly together.

Until the reality of their lives -- an unplanned pregnancy, an unexpected promotion -- brings the whole plan crashing down.

What is so compelling about this story is how much sense it makes. Who hasn't wanted to shed their regular, workaday lives and reach for something else? But, in their reaching, in their desperation to be special and set themselves apart, they become something foreign to themselves. Their fantasies weigh heavily on them, suffocating the life they already have. Ultimately, these dreams leave no room for the very thing they seem to want -- that is, a flexible, breathable life that allows them to feel good about themselves. At the end of the day, that really is all that remains.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Why doesn't anybody like Tom Cruise anymore? Even the Germans gave him a hard time during the making of this movie. That's all I remember about it, but obviously it all worked out -- the movie's out, right?

Here's the first surprise of the film: nobody attempts an accent other than their own. So, there's Tom's American; lots of British accents, notably Kenneth Branagh's (looking a little beefy, by the way), and the 2009 version of a studio contract player in the ubiquitous Tom Wilkinson; an occasional Australian accent (yes, I can tell the difference; so what if I'm from Brooklyn?), with a few genuine German accents thrown into the mix. Guess what? You get over it. It's like punctuation -- it either allows for smooth reading, or constantly calls attention to itself !! See?

After the initial opening sequences -- great war location shots, Tom in a fit to kill Hitler (oh, I mean Colonel Stauffenberg - uh, played by Tom Cruise), and a confab of meetings where earnest-looking men are plotting against die Fuhrer, the movie settles itself into the thriller spy movie it promised to be.

Here's what I liked about Valkyrie:

  1. Tom Cruise. He's great. Get over it.

  2. How the story didn't attempt to show the all-encompassing effect of Hitler's influence. We know, and the filmmakers didn't feel pressed to give us another lesson on Hitler. Thanks.

  3. The precise movements from scene to scene -- while we didn't have accents, we had the famous German precision. It was a good effect.

  4. What a surprise that, given how we know the ending, we still worried that a.) Stauffenberg was going to get caught; b.) someone was going to stop him; c.) Hitler wouldn't die in the blast.

  5. The movie worked because disbelief was utterly suspended, and even a kind of crazy rooting for them to succeed was evident in the audience.

A few things about the film irritated, but not enough to change the overall enjoyment. One thing I took away from Valkyrie was an admiration for the high-ranking officers of World War II Germany who tried to ovetake the despot's command. Whether it's historically accurate or not, it was a story about how a country achieves redemption not through history, but through the courageous actions of its people.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gran Torino

I'm worried.
If Theresa told me to jump off a bridge, would I do it?

Five minutes ago, she told me I should write a blog on movies. Now, here I am, five minutes later. About to write a blog on movies.

Ok, let's go.

Last movie seen: Gran Torino
This may seem grouchy because I genuinely like Clint Eastwood -- good director, all that. But this movie blows. Sorry.
Narratively, it doesn't make sense.
Mise-en-scene is straight out of a back-alley scriptwriter's imagination.
Shots of Clint Eastwood's face going from grrr to arrrggh.
Shots of Clint Eastwood's body going from crick to slick.
Random nice girl Asian who somehow sees beyond the incorrigibility of her next door neighbor.
Asian-on-Asian crime, like you've never seen it before.
Random red-haired priest, with no role, but several scenes.
Lovely looking Asian mother who doesn't do anything but gesticulate and moan.
Unexplained family separation between Eastwood and his two grown sons, and their families.
A car. Called a Gran Torino. It is apparently important. Clint Eastwood cleans it a lot.
Nothing different from the commercials of this film on TV. No, really. Nothing.