Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"DEFIANCE" (2008) Review

"DEFIANCE" (2008) Review

After watching Edward Zwick’s latest film, ”DEFIANCE”, I am finally beginning to realize that it does not pay to make assumptions about a movie, based upon a theater trailer. I have already made this mistake several times throughout my life and it irks me that I am still making it. I certainly made this mistake when I saw the trailer for ”DEFIANCE”, a World War II drama that told the story of the war experiences of four Polish-Jewish brothers who ended up forming a partisan resistance group against the occupying Nazis between 1941 and 1942. 

Based upon the book, ”Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec, ”DEFIANCE” centered around the Bielski brothers – Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay – who had escaped their Nazi-occupied of Eastern Poland/West Belarus and joined the Soviet partisans to combat the Nazis. The brothers eventually rescued roughly 1,200 Jews. The film tracked their struggle to evade invading German forces, while still maintaining their mission to save Jewish lives. When I had first learned about this film, I had assumed this would be some rousing World War II tale about a brave resistance against the Nazi horde. I really should have known better. I should have taken into account the film’s director – namely Edward Zwick. 

The first Zwick film I had ever seen was the 1989 Civil War drama, ”GLORY”. In that movie and other movies directed by him, most of the characters are never presented as one-dimensional, black-and-white characters. Shades of gray permeated most, if not all of his characters, including most memorably – Denzel Washington in ”GLORY”, Annette Bening in ”SIEGE”, Tom Cruise in ”THE LAST SAMURAI” and both Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou. Zwick continued his tradition of presenting ambiguous characters and morally conflicting issues in ”DEFIANCE”. Moral ambiguity seemed to be the hallmark in the portrayal of at least two of the Bielski brothers. Both Tuvial and Zus Bielski (Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber) are strong-willed and ruthless men, willing to kill anyone who crossed them. And both seemed willing to enact vengeance against anyone have harmed their loved ones. But they had their differences.

Daniel Craig had the job of portraying Tuvial Bielski, the oldest sibling who decides to create a community and a brigade with the Jewish refugees hiding from the Nazis and their Polish allies. His Tuvial seemed a little reluctant to take on this task – at least at first. And he also seemed unsure whether he could be a competent leader. Thanks to Craig’s performance, this insecurity of Tuvial’s seemed to slowly grow more apparent by the movie’s second half. Being the more-than-competent actor that he is, Craig also managed to portray other aspects of Tuvial’s nature – his ruthlessness, tenderness and sardonic sense of humor (which seemed to be apparent in the Bielski family overall). And like any good actor, he does not try to hog the limelight at the expense of his co-stars. Craig created sizzling on-screen chemistry with Schreiber, Bell and the actress who portrayed Tuvial’s future wife, Alexa Davalos.

Liev Schreiber portrayed Zus, the second oldest Bielski brother. And being the charismatic actor that he is, Schreiber did an excellent job of portraying the volatile second brother, Zus. Upon learning the deaths of his wife and child, Schreiber’s Zus seemed determined to exact revenge upon the Nazis for their deaths. Even if it meant walking away from his brothers and joining the Soviet partisans. Another aspect of Zus’ character that Schreiber made so memorable was the intense sibling rivalry he injected into his relationship with Craig’s Tuvial. Unlike his older brother, Zus’s volatile nature made him more inclined to exact revenge against the Nazis and other enemies. Also, Schreiber perfectly brought out Zus’ contempt and dislike toward those Jewish refugees who came from a higher social class than his family’s.

Portraying the third Bielski brother is Jamie Bell, a young English actor who had also appeared in movies such as ”KING KONG” (2005) and ”JUMPER” (2008). Bell did an excellent job of portraying the young and slightly naïve Asael, the third Bielski brother who experiences as a partisan with Tuvial enabled him to mature as a fighter and a man. His Asael does not seem to possess his older brothers’ ruthlessness . . . on the surface. But as the refugees struggle to survive their first winter together and evade the Nazis in the movie’s last half hour, Bell brought out Asael’s toughness that had been hidden by a reserved and slightly shy nature.

”DEFIANCE” also included an additional cast that greatly supported the three leads. There were at least three that caught my interest. Alexa Davalos expertly portrayed Lilka Ticktin, an aristocratic Polish Jew, whose delicate looks and quiet personality hid a strong will and warmly supportive nature. Both Mark Feuerstein as the intellectual Isaac Malbin and Allan Corduner as a professor named Shamon Haretz humorously provided comic relief in their never-ending philosophical debates that seemed to elude the less intellectual Bielskis. The rest of the cast featured supporting players and local Lithuanians portraying the refugees. Basically, they did a pretty good job in conveying the refugees’ plight. There were moments when their acting seemed like one, long running cliché. And there were moments – like the sequence featuring their fatal beating of the captured German soldier – in which they seemed very effective.

”DEFIANCE” is not perfect. As I had stated earlier, the supporting and background characters tend to drift into cliché performances sometimes. The movie’s pacing threatened to drag in two places – when the Bielskis first began to gather the refugees that followed them; and later in the film when Tuvial’s camp suffer their first ”winter of discontent”. James Newton Howard’s score did not help matters. I found it slow and unoriginal and it threatened to bog down the film in certain scenes.

But the movie definitely had its moments – including the sequence featuring the lynching of the German soldier. It was one of many that accentuated the gray and complex nature of ”DEFIANCE”. On one hand, the audience could not help but empathize with the refugees’ anger at what the German soldier represented – the deaths of their loved ones and the dark turn their lives had taken. On the other hand, the entire sequence struck me as ugly and dark. Mob violence at its worse. Even Asael (Bell) seemed disgusted by the refugees’ lynching of the soldier . . . and Tuvial’s failure to stop them. Another ambiguous scene centered around one of the refugees – a rogue soldier of Tuvial’s brigade named Arkady Lubczanski – who tries to lead a rebellion against an ill Tuvial during a food shortage. Arkady is portrayed as an unpleasant man who lusts after Asael’s bride and believes that he and his fellow soldiers in the brigade are entitled to more food than the refugees. Tuvial ends the rebellion by killing Arkady. Granted, Arkady had not harmed anyone – aside from giving Asael a shiner. On the other hand, his practice of hoarding the food could have ended with death by starvation for most of the refugees. Had Tuvial been right to commit murder? Apparently, the refugees did not seem so. They did not protest against his act of murder.

This is what Edward Zwick is all about. This is why I am a major fan of many of his movies. Superficially, he presents his story in a black-and-white situation. The Nazis, their Polish allies, anti-Semitic Soviet troops and unpleasant refugees like Arkady are presented superficially as one-note villains. Yet, the people who oppose them – the Bielski brothers, their loved ones, their Polish and Soviet allies and the refugees – turn out not to be as “good” or perfect as many would believe. In Ed Zwick’s movies, the world is not as black and white as we might believe . . . or wish it would be.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

"Remembering Virgilia Hazard"

I wrote this article about one of the major characters in the "NORTH AND SOUTH" Trilogy, written by John Jakes and adapted for television by David Wolper: 


My recent viewing of my "NORTH AND SOUTH Trilogy" DVD set, led me to the "Special Feaures" section that featured a behind-the-scene look at the television miniseries trilogy. In it, Patrick Swayze (Orry Main), James Read (George Hazard), Lesley Anne-Down (Madeline Fabray) producer David Wolper and the trilogy's author, John Jakes discussed both the literary and television versions of the saga. I found their recollections of the trilogy's production very interesting and entertaining. But the actors' admissions that they regarded abolitionist Virgilia Hazard to be their favorite character took me by surprise. Even more surprising was my discovery that John Jakes shared similiar feelings.

In the saga, Virgilia Hazard (Kirstie Alley) was the only daughter of iron manufacturer William Hazard (John Anderson) and his wife, Maude (Inga Swenson) in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania. She had three brothers - the eldest sibling Stanley (Jonathan Frakes), the youngest Billy (John Stockwell/Parker Stevenson) and middle brother George. Unlike most of her family, Virgilia became a firm devotee of causes for women's rights, civil rights for free Northern blacks and especially the abolitionist cause in mid-19th century United States. In fact, one could honestly say that Virgilia's devotion to abolition eventually drifted into fanaticism.

Virgilia ended up being one of the most complex characters that author Jakes had ever created. On one hand, her fanaticism, tactless behavior, self-righteousness and bigotry toward all Southern-born whites made her a very unpleasant person. Just how unpleasant could Virgilia be? She had a tendency to air her beliefs to anyone within hearing range, regardless of whether they wanted to listen to her or not. She became so blind and bigoted in her self-righteousness toward Southern whites - especially those from the planter-class - that she failed to notice that despite her brother George's close friendship with South Carolinian Orry Main, he had also become a devoted abolitionist and civil rights advocate by the eve of the Civil War. If she had been willing to open herself more to the Mains, she would have discovered another potential abolitionist in their midst - namely Orry's younger cousin Charles.

Her tactless behavior nearly cost George's friendship with Orry, when she helped Grady (Georg Sandford Brown), the slave of the Mains' neighbor, James Huntoon (Jim Metzler), escape from slavery during the Hazards' visit to South Carolina. That same tactless behavior led her to take part in John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry and expose herself needlessly to the local militia. And because of this, Grady - who had become her husband - rushed forward to save her ended up dead, instead. Virgilia's worst act - at least to me - was her decision to toss away her convictions and self-esteem to become Congressman Sam Greene's (David Odgen Stiers) mistress, following her confrontation with a hospital administrator (Olivia DeHavilland) over a Confederate officer's accidental death. In order to avoid being arrested for murder. She had no problem with confronting her family and neighbors' scorn over her devotion to abolition. She had no problem with confronting the Mains in her complicity to help Grady escape. But when she faced a murder investigation, she threw her self-esteem to wind and lowered herself to the level of a prostitue in order to stay out of prison.

But for all of her faults, Virgilia also possessed a great deal of virtues. Why else would the likes of Swayze and Read declare that she was their favorite character? One cannot help but admire her resilient devotion to the abolitionist cause, which was not very popular with most of her family and fellow Northerners. She was open-minded enough to look past Grady's skin color and view him as an attractive man, worthy for her hand in marriage. Many, including most of the Hazards, had dismissed her marriage to Grady as a political statement. Only one member of the Hazard family suspected the truth - George's Irish-born wife, Constance Flynn Hazard (Wendy Kilbourne).

And while many "NORTH AND SOUTH" fans may have abhorred Virgilia's habit of speaking her mind, I cannot help but admired it. If I must be honest, I almost envy her willingness to do so. I really enjoyed Virgilia's confrontations with her family and the Main family about slavery and reminders of the institution's horrors. I believe it took a lot of guts on her part and I admire her for this. Virgilia's practice of "telling it like it is" seemed very apparent in three scenes:

*Philadelphia Abolitionist Meeting - in which she gave a speech about the practices of slave breeding on Southern plantations. Despite Orry's outraged reaction to her speech, it turns out that Virgilia had spoken the truth. Due to the United States' official banning of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808, many Southern planters were forced to resort to the deliberate breeding of their female slaves to either maintain the number of slaves in the South or to make a fortune in selling such slaves when the value of their land depleted.

*Opposition to the Mexican-American War - during Orry's first meeting with the Hazard family, Virgilia made her disgust and opposition to the United States' threat to wage war against Mexico very clear, claiming that many of the war's supporters saw it as an opportunity to conquer Mexican territory and use it for the expansion of slavery. I hate to say this, but slavery's expansion had been a strong reason for those who supported the idea of war.

*Confrontation Over Grady's Escape - this is without a doubt, my favorite scene in which Virgilia confronted her family and the Mains over her disgust with slavery. Hell, I had practically cheered the woman as she made it clear that not only the South, but the entire country will eventually pay a price for its complicity in the institution of slavery. And she had been right.

It took a brave woman to willingly pursue a cause that many found unpopular . . . and make her convictions to others, quite clear. Hell, I think that she had more balls than all of the men in her family. Even more so, she did not hide her beliefs and convictions behind a personable veneer in order to soothe the sociabilities of her family and their friends.

I also discovered that both Lesley Anne Down (Madeline Fabray) and David Carridine (Justin LaMotte) had received Golden Globe nominations for their performances in the first miniseries. Frankly, I find this appalling for I believe that Kirstie had deserved a nomination, as well. Probably even more so, considering that she had a more difficult role. I wonder if both any of the other cast members felt the same.

Monday, August 19, 2013

"AVATAR" (2009) Photo Gallery

Below is a gallery featuring images from James Cameron's 2009 fantasy epic called "AVATAR". The movie starred Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez:

"AVATAR" (2009) Photo Gallery

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"MIDNIGHT" (1939) Review

"MIDNIGHT" (1939) Review

I believe that I can say in all honesty that I have been a major fan of some of Billy Wilder's work for years. Movies like "SUNSET BOULEVARD""SOME LIKE IT HOT" and "DOUBLE INDEMNITY" have been among my top favorite movies of all time. But all of these movies have not only been written or co-written by Wilder, but also directed by him. It is rare for me to say the same about any of the movies he had written before he had become a director. Rare, but not completely impossible. One such movie is the 1939 comedy classic, "MIDNIGHT"

Directed by Mitchell Leisen (whom Wilder detested), "MIDNIGHT" told the story of an American showgirl named Eve Peabody, who finds herself stranded in Paris during a rainstorm. Tibor Czerny, a Hungarian taxi driver, takes pity on her and drives her around Paris in a fruitless attempt to help her find a new job as a singer at a nightclub. When Tibor offers Eve refuge at his apartment, she decides to give him the slip - despite her attraction to him. Eve manages to crash a Parisian socialite’s late night party, where she meets Georges Flammarion, a wealthy industrialist who is desperate to end his wife Helene’s affair with a wealthy playboy named Jacques Picot. Georges hires Eve to pose as Baroness Czerny, an American married to a wealthy Hungarian aristocrat, in order for her to seduce and lure Jacques away from Helene’s arms. Unfortunately for Eve, one of Tibor’s taxi colleagues discover her whereabouts and the Hungarian appears at the Flammarions’ estate as Eve’s husband, the Baron Czerny.

Thanks to Billy Wilder and Preston Surges, Mitchell Leisen had an undeserved reputation as a hack director with a penchant for set décor, due to his homosexuality. In other words, they saw him as nothing more than a window dresser. This opinion of Leisen remained fixed by film critics for years, until recently. Perhaps these same critics had finally remembered that Leisen had directed movies such as "EASY LIVING""HOLD BACK THE DAWN" and especially "MIDNIGHT", which I believe is one of the funniest screwball comedies from the 1930s. How could film critics ignore this elegant and hilarious tale of love, adultery and deception in pre-World War II France? Did they believe that someone other than Leisen had directed it? I do have to give kudos to Wilder and partner Charles Brackett for concocting this sharply funny tale of love and deception. But c'mon! Their script alone did not make this movie the classic it is today. Leisen deserved a great deal of the credit.

First of all, Leisen found himself with a first-rate cast for "MIDNIGHT" and created magic with them. Claudette Colbert brought great wit and charm to the role of the stranded Eve Peabody. As her performances in both "MIDNIGHT" and 1942’s "THE PALM BEACH STORY" attested, Colbert seemed to have a talent for portraying witty and charming golddiggers. Don Ameche portrayed Hungarian Tibor Czerny, Eve’s would-be suitor with an earnest aggressiveness that I found charming and occasionally disturbing. Ameche gave Tibor a tenacious air that struck me as slightly intense. Portraying Eve’s wealthy benefactor was the legendary John Barrymore in what was probably his last great role on film. He was very witty and effective as the manipulative, yet unhappy Georges Flammarion, who recruits Eve into a deception to win back his wife’s affections from her playboy lover. Mary Astor, who would reunite with Colbert in "THE PALM BEACH STORY", did a fabulous job as the jealous and acid-minded Helene Flammarion. Francis Lederer gave a charming, yet competent performance as Helene’s lover, but I did not find him particularly impressive. Also included in the cast was Rex O’Malley, who deliciously portrayed Helene’s faithful and witty companion, Marcel Renaud. O’Malley’s character struck me as a more comic version of a similar character he had portrayed in 1936’s "CAMILLE", starring Greta Garbo. Last but not least, the cast included famous columnist Hedda Hopper portraying a French socialite, whose late night party that Eve crashes. 

"MIDNIGHT" has a lot to offer – even for today’s viewers. It had a competent director in Mitchell Leisen (despite his past reputation with critics), a first-rate cast led by Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche and a sharp and funny screenplay written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. But what I really love about this movie is its setting – Parisian high society in the late 1930s. Thanks to certain contract directors like Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch, Paramount Studios had developed a reputation for possessing an European infliction in its house style by the 1930s. And "MIDNIGHT" possessed this infliction in droves, thanks to Leisen's talent for creating an atmosphere. The movie also benefited from scenes that featured Eve crashing Madame Stephanie’s late night party, Tibor and his fellow taxi drivers’ search for Eve through the streets of Paris, Eve waking up in her new hotel suite in the nude, her meeting with Helene at a Parisian couture house and the dazzling party held by the Flammarions’ country estate, which included an entertaining Latin band. All of these scenes would strike any viewer as examples of the Lubitsch "touch". Yet these scenes and many others were photographed by the Utah-born Charles Lang and directed by Leisen, who was born in Michigan.

For a movie that is seventy-four years old, "MIDNIGHT" has not really aged one bit. It is still a very entertaining film filled with superb comic acting and razor sharp wit. I certainly had fun watching it and I suspect that many others would feel the same.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

"WESTWARD HO!": Part Three - "CENTENNIAL" (1978-79)

centennial 3.1

Below is Part Three to my article about Hollywood's depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon "", the third episode of the 1978-79 television miniseries, "CENTENNIAL"

"WESTWARD HO!": Part Three - "CENTENNIAL" (1978-79)

I. Introduction

Between the fall of 1978 and the winter of 1979, NBC aired an adaptation of James Michner's 1973 novel, "Centennial". The twelve-part miniseries spanned 180 years in the history of a fictional town in Northern Colorado called Centennial. Episode Three, titled "The Wagon and the Elephant", revealed the experiences of a Pennsylvania Mennonite from Lancaster named Levi Zendt and his bride, Elly, during their overland journey to the west.

In the early spring of 1845 (1844 in the novel), Levi found himself shunned by his conservative family after being falsely accused of attempted rape by a local Mennonite girl named . Apparently, Miss Stoltzfus did not want the community to know about her attempts to tease Levi. Only two other people knew the truth, two 17 year-olds at the local orphanage - Elly Zahm and Laura Lou Booker. Levi eventually befriends Elly. And when he decides to leave Lancaster, he asks Elly to accompany him to Oregon as his bride.

Since "CENTENNIAL" was about the history of a Northern Colorado town, one would easily assume that Levi and Elly never made it to Oregon. Instead, a few mishaps that included Elly nearly being raped by their wagon master named Sam Purchas and a bad wagon wheel, convinced the Zendts to turn around and return to Fort Laramie. There, they teamed with former mountain man Alexander McKeag and his family to head toward Northern Colorado and establish a trading post.

"The Wagon and the Elephant" is my favorite episode of "CENTENNIAL". One of the reasons I love it so much is well . . . I love the story. And aside from one of two quibbles, I believe the episode gave a very effective portrayal of life for an emigrant traveling by wagon train.

II. History vs. Hollywood

From a historical perspective, I believe producer John Wilder made only one major blooper in the production. The fault may have originated with writer James Michner's novel. Before leaving Lancaster, Levi Zendt purchased a large Conestoga wagon from a teamster named Amos Boemer. As I have stated in the Introduction, a Conestoga wagon was a heavy, large wagon used for hauling freight along the East Coast. It was considered too big for mules or oxen to be hauling across the continent. Which meant that the Zendts' Conestoga was too heavy for their journey to Oregon.

The wagon eventually proved to be troublesome for Levi and Elly. Yet, according to the episode's transcript and Michner's novel, the fault laid with a faulty left wheel, not the wagon's impact upon the animals hauling it. In St. Louis, both Army captain Maxwell Mercy and wagonmaster Sam Purchas had advised Levi to get rid of his teams of gray horses, claiming they would not survive the journey west. Levi refused to heed their warning and Purchase swapped the horses for oxen behind his back. This was a smart move by Purchas. Unfortunately, neither the wagonmaster or Captain Mercy bothered to suggest that Levi rid himself of the Conestoga wagon. Since the miniseries said nothing about the size of the Zendts' wagon, it did not comment on the amount of contents carried by the couple and other emigrants in the wagon party.

But I must congratulate both Michner and the episode's writer, Jerry Ziegman, for at least pointing out the disadvantages of using horses to pull a wagon across the continent. "The Wagon and the Elephant" also made it clear that the Zendts were traveling along the Oregon Trail, by allowing their wagon party to stop at Fort Laramie. The miniseries called it Fort John, which was another name for the establishment. Before it became a military outpost, the fort was known officially as "Fort John on the Laramie". 

The miniseries' depiction of the emigrants' encounter with Native Americans was not exaggerated for the sake of Hollywood drama . . . thank goodness. The Zendts, Oliver Seccombe and other emigrants encountered a small band of Arapahos led by the mixed-blood sons of a French-Canadian trapper named Pasquinel. Levi, who was on guard at the time, became aware of Jacques and Michel Pasquinel's presence and immediately alerted his fellow emigrants. A great deal about this encounter reeked with realism. The emigrants were obviously well armed. The Pasquinels and the other Arapaho only consisted of a small band of riders. More importantly, no violence erupted between the two parties, despite Sam Purchas' obvious hostility. Due to Paul Krasny's direction, the entire encounter was tense, brief and polite. The miniseries also conveyed a realistic depiction of whites like Purchas who liked to randomly murder an individual brave or two out of sheer spite or hatred. 

Thanks to the episode, "The Wagon and the Elephant""CENTENNIAL" provided a brief, yet realistic portrait of westward emigration in the mid 19th century. The miniseries was historically inaccurate in one regard - the Conestoga wagon that Levi and Elly Zendt used for their journey west. But in the end, this episode provided a injection of history, without allowing Hollywood exaggeration to get in the way.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE" (1963) Photo Gallery

Below are images from "FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE", the 1963 adaptation of Ian Fleming's 1957 novel.  Directed by Terence Young, the movie starred Sean Connery as James Bond:

"FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE" (1963) Photo Gallery