Defiance
R1 - America - Paramount Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Jeremiah Chin (24th July 2009).
The Film

Films ‘based on a true story’ with huge Hollywood budgets run into problems with breaking the wall between the story itself and the actor. Justin Theroux pointed it out best when he said that Tom Hanks’ celebrity has corrupted his art form, making it harder or impossible to believe him as a character in different roles rather than just the actor himself. Historical, dramatic true-story stories make that impossibility even farther away as “Defiance” (2008) is trying to make me believe that not only are James Bond and Sabretooth are brothers, but they are Belarusian Jews from the mid 20th century. When Daniel Craig signed on to be James Bond, he signed away his credibility as a dramatic actor for the time being; now he gets hired as a face rather than purely based off of his talent. Sure he’s a good actor, but slapping Daniel Craig’s face all over the film is trying to capitalize on his fame and success, rather than just trying to tell you a fairly interesting story. Instead “Defiance” comes off as too Hollywood to be as engaging a story as it should, because I just keep thinking about all of the speech coaches working with Craig and Liev Schreiber to get their accents down for the film.

In terms of story though, it’s an interesting historical situation set in World War II as the Nazi’s are clearing out the countryside as a part of their expansion of power, killing families and placing Jews in ghettos. The Bielski brothers manage to evade one of the raids on their family home, though the rest of their families are killed. Escaping into the forest, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George MacKay) start to establish a community as they are joined by hundreds of other refugees in the middle of the forest. Low on supplies, the brothers and others who have joined them begin to raid local farmers who are working with or giving supplies to the Nazis in order to support their band of resistance. As winter approaches, Zus and Tuvia continue to disagree on the primary focus of their camp, Zus favors a more strict and violent approach to dealing with the Nazis and maintaing order, while Tuvia sees that as a last resort. Zus decides to leave and join the Soviet partisans to actively fight against Nazis moving throughout the country, while Tuvia stays behind to try and keep the camp running smoothly.

The synopsis on the case leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it talks about how moving or powerful the story is all over the place, but never really talks about the real survival, but just focusing on some serious anti-Nazi violence (but not in a fun way like “Inglorious Basterds” (2009) will be). It still just fronts Craig and Schreiber (even crediting them as Bond and Sabretooth on the back, it’s a bad way to add weight to their performances). Their acting is fairly unbalanced as well, as Craig, who is in the more legitimate film series, brings an off-accent and a range that just wavers between stony and melodramatic. Schreiber on the other hand, who made bad movie history with his turn as Sabretooth, brings a smoother performance that is similarly stone faced but it feels more natural to the way his character is set up.

My biggest surprise was from the female supporting cast performers, notably bringing in Iben Hjejle of “High Fidelity” (2000) back to the United States screen after sticking mostly to Denmark. Plus it’s good to see that Alexa Davalos is still working after her great runs in “The Mist” (2007) and the TV series “Angel” (1999-2004). Their roles are fairly small compared with the two main male actors, but they give fair turns in the film and provide the necessary drama to each of their scenes while managing to blend in far easier than Craig or Schreiber.

Above all, the movie seemed to be a big hopeful “hey, me again?” from Edward Zwick who seems to pop up every few years with a heartfelt true story that has something to do with conflict. “Glory” (1989) was amazing, but it also had Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman doing fantastic acting with less fake European accents. The speeches have the same sort of melodramatic cadence that comes from this genre of film, and Zwik makes sure to hit classic clichés, like the deafening the audience with ringing in the ears after the main character is in an explosion all in slow motion. After “Tropic Thunder” (2008), its hard to take this overused move seriously anymore.

Despite an interesting historical story, “Defiance” is an overall failure, and not just because it barely made it’s money back at the box office. In trying to dramatize this story of survival it becomes far more superficial to see Craig trying to do a fairly unknown character with a thick non-british accent. With only a few bright spots of acting and an incredible amount of CG for a film that essentially takes place entirely in a forest, “Defiance” is time better served with something to read up on the interest in the true story, even a quick Wikipedia reference is far more worth your time. Plus it won’t take more than 2 hours to read.

Video

Presented in a 1.79:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, the film’s colors and clarity show up suprisingly nicely for a DVD, which makes sense considering the film’s budget and techniques. There are still a few problems in some of the scenes in the forest where the image will become grainer than it should be and can get muddied at times. Still, at it’s best the DVD manages to look incredibly clear and well put together technically, with only a couple moments of decreased quality which makes me think they were reshoots or re-added scenes rather than properly integrated into the film.

Audio

There is audio in English, French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks, the 5.1 track comes through clearly and features a score by James Newton Howard. Both of these come across as very typical for their genre, down to the explosion and gun noises and the big dramatic score that tries to milk emotion for every last moment. It irks me a little, but technically it comes through clearly and cleanly with no real problems other than feeling moderately downgraded from a more high-definition setup and having a more impressive sound mix.
Subtitles are in English, French and Spanish.

Extras

The single disc comes with a small amount of extras, but hitting the essentials including an audio commentary, three featurettes and bonus trailers.

The audio commentary with writer/director Edward Zwick takes itself about as seriously as you would expect who seems to focus only on slow moving drama about wars. He does a good job of talking through the commentary, integrating both stories about the creation and filming of the movie along with technical aspects like the necessary equipment to move a camera in and out of a barn at night. At the same time, even though it’s a lot of good information, Zwick’s tone is fairly monotonous and sounds like a stereotypical history professor, keeping an even tone loaded with facts and information, but has trouble keeping my attention.

“Return to the Forest: The Making of ‘Defiance’” featurette runs for 26 minutes and 4 seconds, Zwick, Craig, Schreiber and the rest of the major cast and crew get together to talk about the film. Moving from the history of the creation of the film and the defining points of the different characters, it covers many of the same points as the commentary but in a shorter run with some good behind-the-scenes footage. The production is covered from top to bottom, which is impressive the amount of work that went in behind-the-scenes, but doesn’t help to make the movie greater or make Craig’s accent any less flawed.

“Children of the Otriad” featurette runs for 13 minutes and 41 seconds and looks more at the history of the Bielski brothers, using actual photos and artifacts, speaking with the children of Tuvia and Zus about their interaction with the film and stories about their parents. This featurette was much more engaging than the movie itself to hear from the family, as well as watching them retrace their family footsteps through the countryside and seeing the sets.

“Bielski Partisan Survivors” featurette runs for 1 minute and 59 seconds, working as a slideshow of different photographs of survivors from the Bielski Otriad, it’s a nice touch but I really wanted to hear some interviews with them and hear what they had to say about the film in reaction. However it’s short length makes me wonder about the actual effort that was put into this release as all these photo sessions and all of these people are ripe to be interviewed, at least for historical purposes, yet this is the last featurette on the disc.

Bonus trailers on the disc are:

- “Transformers: Rise of the Fallen” which runs for 2 minutes and 17 seconds.
- “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” runs for 2 minutes and 41 seconds.
- “Revolutionary Road” runs for 40 seconds.

Overall

The Film: D+ Video: B+ Audio: A- Extras: C+ Overall: C-

 


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