31 08 2009

Director: Edward Zwick

Starring: Daniel Craig, Leiv Schreiber, Jamie Bell, George McKay

Released: Jan 16, 2009

When the four Bielski brothers escaped from the Nazis in Belarus in 1941, it’s unlikely that any of them ever thought the subsequent four years of their lives would be made into a major motion picture 68 years later. But that’s exactly what Defiance is – only problem is, it’s just a bad major motion picture.

Looking at trailers for the movie, one would think they were going to see an action-adventure movie complete with Daniel Craig (a.k.a. the current James Bond) as Tuvia Bielski, blowing stuff up, shooting people, dodging bombs and bullets from the Nazis and grittily leading a group of exiled Jews in a foreign forest.

Apparently, the viewer is supposed to not remember that a blond-haired, blue-eyed actor is playing someone who’s Jewish. The filmmakers tried to keep Craig’s hair filled with dirt for most of Defiance – which makes sense, as the film is set in a forest – but it’s clear that he remains a blond for unknown reasons. Plus, there’s no covering up those electric blues.

If you can get past the fact that Craig is probably one of the most Aryan looking Jews in film history, you won’t be disappointed. Viewers can watch Tuvia stoically face whatever is thrown his way with his brothers Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliott) and Aaron (George MacKay, Peter Pan).

The film follows the trials facing the Bielski brothers as they work to keep their camp of Jews hidden from the ensuing political turmoil. The camp needs protection, food, shelter and religion, and the Bielskis manage to provide it all, giving the Jews a sense of community and family.

While Craig does well with what the script gives him, Schreiber deserves the most praise for managing at least one laugh-free take during one of the film’s more absurd scenes.

At one point, his girlfriend, Bella – who largely disappears after this scene, only to reappear at a much later point – is discussing “protection” with him. She wants to know why the women don’t have guns, and Schreiber says the men will protect the women. In one of the many awkward displays of affection that abound in Defiance, Bella then tells him she needs his protection while ungracefully moving his hand to her breast.

The viewer is seemingly supposed to assume that this gesture implies the two are in love or a relationship, or that he is her “forest husband.” The “forest husband” concept pops up repeatedly throughout the film, as those living in the forest community substitute a “forest relationship” for what they left behind in the city.

While it is obvious within the first five minutes that Craig and Schreiber are the stars of the movie, Bell holds his own alongside the two with a secondary plot of finding love in the Bielski camp. He meets and marries Chaya Dziencielsky, played by the largely unknown Mia Wasikowska.

Bell plays the levelheaded brother who keeps the hotheaded Craig and Schreiber in line. Other than getting married, and preventing the two main characters from killing each other, he isn’t given much to do.

Don’t feel bad for Bell, though. At least he has more of a role than MacKay, whose character goes mute after seeing the atrocity of his parents’ murder by the Nazis. He has exactly one line in the entire film.

Granted, when your only previous acting experience peaked with playing one of the lost boys in Peter Pan, audiences shouldn’t expect too much. However, the actor does an admirable job of simultaneously looking horrified, miserable and cold.

While Defiance tries to do the Bielski history justice, any film about the Holocaust will undoubtedly be compared to the titans that came before it, particularly Schindler’s List and The Pianist.

While it touches on the same subjects as those films, Defiance fails to pack the same emotional punch of those movies. It introduces too many minor characters that somehow prove to be important, no matter how small their roles.

The film also clocks in at an unnecessary 137 minutes. The humor is awkward, and the relationships aren’t developed enough to be maintained throughout the running time.

Had the director, Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond), cut out half of the characters and an extraneous 30 minutes, Defiance would have been far more watchable.

Overall rating: Unintentional comedy lets this move clock in as bad, but in a kitschy way

– Post first appeared in The Observer, the daily newspaper serving the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College on 2/2/09


Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

26 08 2009

Author: Sean Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen

Released: 2009

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Anyone who was forced to read (and actually managed to get as far as the first sentence on the first page) Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in high school should recognize the similarity between the above sentence and Austen’s “truth universally acknowledged” about undead men being in want of wives.

The first sentence of any novel is meant to draw the reader in. It is the first sip  of a long, tall glass of lemonade that could prove to be perfect or too sour. It is what makes you want to continue reading or push the book away with disgust.

The first sentence of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies proves to be just right. Any Austen fan not fickle enough to be concerned when someone meddles with a classic and anyone interested in cult classics would be intrigued by it, especially when coupled with the photo of “Elizabeth Bennet”* as a zombie on the cover.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book fails to deliver the satirical punch of the first line as it falls flat and oftentimes feels lazy for a grand total of 319 pages – which, fortunately, clocks in below the original’s 360 (according to the Barnes & Noble “Classics” edition).

The first few chapters, much like the first sentence, are written brilliantly. The mixture of Austen’s classical prose and Grahame-Smith’s ideas is comical and relatively seamless. Anyone unfamiliar with the original may find themselves pleasantly surprised to happen upon Mr. and Mrs. Bennet discussing a neighboring estate. Mrs. Bennet is as pluckish as ever and Mr. Bennet seems to have become outspoken enough to tell his wife what he really thinks of her in ways which she would understand – even if she often chooses to gloss over his comments. Lizzie is as even-headed as ever – though now she has kick-ass physical prowess to boot. Jane is just as much Elizabeth’s confidante. And Lydia and Kitty are as officer-crazed as ever, while Mary gets lost in the fold.

The zombie back story is also set in these chapters, albeit it falls short of the seamless integration that the characters have in Grahame-Smith’s writing – as it does for much of the novel. It’s to be understood that some sort of plague has hit London whose ill-effects include the transformation into zombies with a lust for brains. This illness is transmitted – much like any other type of zombie plot – through a bite. For some unexplained reason, the Bennet sisters have been charged by the King to protect their town through the use of martial arts, in which they were trained in Japan.

The zombies are an important part of the story for a few chapters. Travelers and couriers often don’t arrive at their destination as they have run into these “unmentionables,” the Bennet sisters judge men on how well they appear to be able to fight off a zombie attack and the Netherfield Ball is ruined when a group of zombies kills and eats the waitstaff.

However, it is about that time where the zombies disappear for chapters on end. The book becomes a pared down version of Austen’s original with some scenes and dialogue cut out, but little added in terms of new ideas. It seems as though Grahame-Smith was diligently writing a book report on Pride and Prejudice when he suddenly remembered he was supposed to be writing about zombies so every 20 or so pages he would reference Elizabeth’s katana skills or kill off an unimportant character.

It isn’t until Elizabeth travels to see her friend Charlotte after her marriage to Mr. Collins that the zombies reappear in-depth. Charlotte has been afflicted with the sickness and the description of her transformation (which is apparently a long and slow process) is delightfully disgusting. Charlotte has become somewhat of a simpleton and her mental capacities and her physical health deteriorate further as time goes on. Once Lizzie leaves Charlotte, though, the zombies disappear again.

Aside from a carriage fight and mentions when Lizzie visits Pemberley, the zombies are hardly seen until the end of the novel.

While the zombies – which seem as though they should be an integral part of the novel as they are referenced in the title – don’t provide much to hold a reader’s interest, the new, more vulgar personalities of Lizzie and Darcy do.

While Austen had Elizabeth and Darcy verbally spar in a demure fashion appropriate for the 1800s, Grahame-Smith brings their flirtation into the open. Elizabeth frequently colors at the double entendre Darcy drops into conversation, and towards the end of the novel Elizabeth, herself, hints at some brazen “skills” she might have. The impropriety of their conversation is well worth reading.

George Wickham also provides a reason to continue muddling through the zombie-less pages. While he could be used much more to add to the plot – he seems to be thrown in as an afterthought in many scenes – the new circumstances surrounding his marriage to Lydia are enjoyable enough to discover on your own.

All in all, the book seems ill-suited to carry the “& Zombies” part of the title. Their sparse inclusion seems lazy and ill-conceived, but the more modern personalities of Austen’s timeless characters are what really makes Grahame-Smith’s adaptation shine.

The real question is if it can be pulled off once again with the next classical satire “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” which is slated for a Sept. 15, 2009 release. One hopes that Ben H. Winters manages to find a balance between Austen’s prose and his own additions that Grahame-Smith failed to do.

Rating: It’s hard to classify this book as Good or Bad. It has it’s bad parts and it’s really crappy parts, but any true Austen fan with a flair for the original would enjoy it. It could have been done better, though which leaves us with a final rating that leans towards Bad.

*The cover photo is actually a take on a portrait of Marcia Fox by William Beechey

Post Grad

25 08 2009

Director: Vicky Jenson

Starring: Alexis Bledel, Zach Gilford, Michael Keaton, Jane Lynch, Carol Burnett, Rodrigo Santoro and Bobby Coleman

Released: Aug. 21, 2009

Vicky Jenson’s Post Grad, a story following Ryden Malby (Bledel) as she graduates from college and is forced to move back to her childhood home when she can’t find a job, held a lot of promise in a time with a statistic like only 20% of 2009 graduates had a job upon graduation.

Unfortunately, the plot, acting and overall feeling of the movie let down those 80% of graduates who found themselves in the same place as Ryden in May.

Bledel never fully embraces Ryden, or maybe its the fact that Ryden seems so much like the girl Bledel is known for playing – Rory Gilmore. Whatever the case may be, Ryden lacks spark and spunk, instead coming off as an impulsive, ill-informed, ill-prepared job seeker that makes it seem natural that she isn’t getting a job. She sinks her first interview with her dream job at a prestigious publishing house, bombs another by asking the “VP if she was pregnant” (how many entry-level job seekers interview directly with a VP?) but she was just fat, quits part-time job working in her father’s luggage shop after one day because a rival classmate irks her by talking up her job (which just happens to be Ryden’s dream job) and runs from another part-time position because her hot Brazilian neighbor who hired her decided that her first day was a great day for him to quit his life of directing infomercials and she needed to come to the beach with him. Ryden seems like Rory-light. She has the same insecurities as Rory, without the zingy one-liners and the ability to play off Lauren Graham’s comedic timing.

The job search that seemed so central to the film’s marketing is really portrayed as a means to an end. The writer needed some reason to make this 22 year old move back home to deal with her family, neighbor and best friend so what better way than to include a four minute montage of  Ryden going to job interviews and looking stressed. That’s the perfect way to deliver any and all backstory.

Ryden’s family would have been better promotional material. Keaton and Lynch deliver wonderful performances as Ryden’s parents with what little screen time they are given. Keaton is very convincing as a Dad with a penchant for impulsive career changes (maybe that’s where Ryden gets it) as he manages the luggage shop but decides to peddle tacky belt buckles on the side. Lynch, as in many of her other roles, plays a woman who seems to find it normal that her family is a little on the strange side. Her straight-faced delivery of seemingly mundane lines gives a good chuckle, but she isn’t given enough material to truly shine.

Burnett and Coleman are also underutilized. Burnett’s character – the grandmother – never seems to really connect with the family. She’s less of a relative and more of the strange neighbor who always seems to show up and never leave. She’s offered a couple of witty lines, but she could have been cut from the plot entirely without leaving anything to be desired. Coleman is much of the same as the little brother. There are a few references to the fact that he licks things – most notably his classmates heads (but, wait, this is the summer, why is his mother getting calls from his teacher) – and is weird, but neither is fleshed out enough to make any sense. Instead, the viewer is left wondering if this kid has some undiagnosed mental problems. The only time he’s given to shine is during a superfluous boxcar derby race – which adds nothing to the main story except give the family a time to interact with each other, which they do rather poorly with the script they are given.

Really, though, the entire movie could have been about this kooky family getting ready for the boxcar derby. It would have been a feel good movie and Ryden could have been shuttered away as the older sister just passing through.

Another underutilized character, Zach Gilford’s Adam, could also be the focus of a decent movie. Adam has been best friends with Ryden for years. He also comes from a dysfunctional family, though his deals more with an absentee father and less with a head-licking little brother, and is also in the transition between college and life. Gilford, best known for playing quarterback Matt Saracen in Friday Night Lights, does wonderfully in this role as it is an extension of Saracen without the football. He is innocent enough to be believable as the boy who sticks around for years even though Ryden is uninterested in anything more than friendship, and Gilford slips into these types of roles seamlessly. The major drama in his personal life – the decision to go to law school or pursue a music career – could have easily filled the entire movie, but we are instead subjected to him referencing his displeasure with their completely platonic relationship while giving Ryden a foot rub, and getting angsty when Ryden forgets to show up to one of his gigs.

Eventually, like any good formula movie, Ryden does land her dream job. In about four weeks – because, yeah. That’s believable. After spending about another week at the job she realizes that she feels more for Adam than she previously thought, probably because he moved across the country. And, in the biggest lapse of judgment ever, decides to quit her job to move to New York to be with him.

Wait, didn’t she have to move home because she didn’t have an income? How is she going to live in New York?

But she got the guy. And that’s all that matters in this day and age, apparently.

The movie wasn’t as unbearable (albeit it was very choppy and didn’t seem to tie anything together) until they set up the idea that Ryden could chose the guy or her job. There was no in between. No talk of a long-distance relationship.  Just the impulsive move to New York to be with him. I, for one, thought we were past those rules governing women, but apparently not in Ryden’s world.

Well, ladies and gentlemen I have to say, I didn’t think it would come this soon. But, we have just achieved our first rating of: Really Crappy.

(500) Days of Summer

21 08 2009

Director: Mark Webb

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel


Boy meets girl. Boy falls for girl. Boy and Girl live happily ever after.

The tried and true Romantic-comedy formula at play in nearly every Romcom in theaters today is simple, predictable and noticeably not at play in Marc Webb’s feature-length debut, (500) Days of Summer. And the movie makes no qualms about that fact. From it’s promotional materials (one tagline reads: Boy meets Girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t.) to the first five minutes of the story, it is not hidden that this movie will grate against the norm of every blockbuster Romcom in the past few years.

First, there’s the (500). The parentheses are included in many promotional pieces (though absent from the poster used here – credit goes to Google images) and in the movie’s official title screen. They represent a ticker. A representation of all the days which Summer – played by the ever off-beat Deschanel in cleverly kooky way (it helps that we haven’t seen her drunk and disorderly outside of a club or had her name plastered across tabloids as a horrible co-star) – and Tom – the perpetually fresh-faced Gordon-Levitt whom is most well-remembered as the boy flapping his arms in 1994’s Angels in the Outfield, a lead in 3rd Rock from the Sun and opposite Heath Ledger in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You – have a relationship.

Such is the first anomaly. This movie is non-linear. Meaning we find out at the beginning of the movie what happens at the end of Summer and Tom’s relationship and then find out in bits and pieces blended together just how in fact they ended up there. However, while the relationship itself is non-linear, the movie does in fact start on day (1) and end on day (500) … or is it a new (1)?

Summer and Tom are not the perfect cookie-cutter little girlfriend and boyfriend. No, these characters have faults – and not the kind of faults that make them into pompous asses, but rather the kind of faults that real people have. Tom’s career path seems lackluster as he wastes away at a greeting card company, while Summer chose to move to L.A. to become the assistant to the greeting card company’s owner because of “boredom.” The stars seem brilliantly aligned when these two souls without a lot of direction find each other, however, as the days in the relationship progresses it’s discovered that these two characters are moving in two opposite paths that seem to converge for a short period of time.

The movie is a seemingly true representation of relationships in today’s day and age. Summer tells Tom that she doesn’t want anything serious at the beginning and avoids labels in the relationship. Tom, on the other hand, is craving a definition but at the same time taking what Summer gives him. He’s thinking soul-mate, she’s thinking short term and throw a bit of sex, angst, confusion and bitterness in the mix and you get any number of the relationships you see in your everyday life.

Aside from the main characters and their relationship (or lack thereof?) the movie is rounded out by an excellent cast of supporters. Chloe Moretz, who appears to have only been in 2005’s The Amityville Horror and a freakish amount of Winnie the Pooh movies, portrays a girl well beyond her years as her character coaches Tom, her older brother, through the break-up (days), and Geoffrey Arend (Garden State, The Ringer) is a convincing comic playing off of Gordon-Levitt’s straight man.

Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt have a lot of chemistry as well. Gordon-Levitt is completely believable as the man pining away for this exotic girl with a mind of her own. And their playful romp through Ikea is delightful and makes you wish you and your partner could do the same.

The movie seems to be one of the last vestiges of times gone by, though we can only hope that they’re on their way back in. In a summer where robots and bad acting seem to be the norm, (500) Days of Summer is a breathe of much needed fresh air. It’s romantic and it’s a comedy, but not a Romcom. It reminds me of John Hughes’ cult classics – Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, etc. It has quirky characters highlighted as everyday people which is unusual today. Not to mention, it has a killer dance sequence that both makes fun of Enchanted’s “How Does She Know” number and pays homage to it at the same time. Plus, it’s entertaining.

Overall, this movie definitely receives a rating of: Good.

Edison Force

20 08 2009

Director: David J. Burke

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Morgan Freeman, Dylan McDermott, Justin Timberlake

Released: Direct to DVD (2005)

I recently discovered Edison Force on I knew that Justin Timberlake had been working on a movie with Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman a few years ago (when you’re an *NSYNC fan you know these types of things) but had never heard anything about it after it was filmed.

It didn’t take long to find out why.

The plot, about an elite team of special forces police officers – who just happen to be corrupt – in the city of Edison who are discovered and exposed by a crack journalist, is decent, and probably could have done fairly well, had it not been coupled with the script which Freeman, McDermott, LL Cool J and Timberlake have to muddle through.

The opening scenes of the movie place you directly in the field with McDermott and Cool J who are officers on the F.R.A.T. task force. Suspense is high as cross-fire interrupts an Irish Dance competition and one of the dancers faces a scary reality. Cut to (presumably) that night and McDermott and Cool J are again after criminals, this time druggies in the underdeveloped side of Edison. Once again, camera angles, music and lighting place a heavy emphasis on suspense and drama as these two officers bust the two dealers in an abandoned house. The viewer knows that the movie can’t continue choppily jumping around with the two officers saving the day in different scenarios so it’s obvious that something will happen. It’s also obvious what that something is – the two are corrupt. And even more predictably, one is questioning his conscience as he goes through the motions.

Enter Justin Timberlake’s character: Josh Pollack, a fresh-faced young journalist at the hometown newspaper. He’s the one assigned to cover the court case of one of the drug dealers and he’s crack reporter that uncovers the internal corruption rotting Edison from the inside out just by noticing that the dealer says “thank you” to LL Cool J.

Makes sense, right? Well, no, not really if you look at everything else Timberlake’s character does. Disregards his editor to write a full article when the paper only has space for a brief? Check. Editorializes a hard news piece? Check. Tries to circumvent the PR process at the local police to get the story? Check. Doesn’t understand Federal Freedom of Information Act basics? Check.

Full disclosure: I worked as a journalist for the past four years.

There are certain things you learn in that time and there is NO way that any hometown newspaper would hire a reporter, especially a court reporter, without that experience. This character, however, knows next to nothing about channels of communication in print media. FOIA, Public records laws are a non-entity for him and allegations are a completely acceptable form of journalism.

I literally laughed out loud at how clueless this journalist was.

If you look past that, however, and suspend your disbelief that a journalist knows none of these things and that A-list actors decided this was a good choice in their careers, the movie is enjoyable. It’s very compelling when you see how F.R.A.T. is trying to intimidate Pollack, as that does, in fact, happen in the journalism world. It’s also entertaining to watch Morgan Freeman, Pollack’s editor, try to teach this horrible reporter how to break a story.

The movie tires itself out, though. By the end there are only two things that can happen: Timberlake dies, or Timberlake’s story gets published. Publishing the story, however, wasn’t enough for writers. Instead, everything had to come up smelling like roses. The story gets published, F.R.A.T. goes down, the cop with a conscience finds a way to get out of the business and everyone ends up living Happily Ever After. It’s a contrived ending to a contrived story.

If you like watching Justin Timberlake, this movie is pleasant. If you like corrupt cop vs. journalist movies, it’s intriguing. If you like good, believable movies? Ones in which the actors disappear and take on the persona of their characters? In which you take the time to learn the characters names? It’s not for you.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s really crappy, but the final vote on this one: BAD