DVD reviews
June 2009



DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger


Stories about the Holocaust are uniformly depressing, even when they relate heroic acts. How can any positive feeling come from the slaughter of millions?

Defiance may be an exception to that rule, if only because it moves away from the ghettos and concentration camps and into a remote environment where Nazi atrocities aren’t portrayed every minute. It’s also based on a true story that had a generally happy ending, another rarity in Holocaust tales.

Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schrieber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George McKay) Bielski are Jewish brothers living in what is now Belarus. When the Germans invade and start rounding up or outright killing local Jews, the Bielskis hide out in a nearby forest. Before long, other refugees learn about the camp, and their makeshift village ends up sheltering hundreds of frightened people.

Director Edward Zwick has great raw material to work with, but he really only shines during the suspenseful action scenes. The brothers and their fellow survivors defend themselves against Nazi incursions, raid villages for supplies, fall in with Soviet partisans and deal with collaborators, and these passages have an urgency that disappears when the story gets more personal. The actors are all fine, but they never seem fully human, functioning more as archetypes than anything else (Tuvia is the humane leader, Zus is the hothead, etc.). It’s an inspiring story, but it needs to be told with a little more dramatic depth.

Extras: A commentary by Zwick; a making-of featurette; profiles of some of the real-life survivors; a photo gallery. (R) Rating: 3 –LL

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Maybe some books really are un-filmable. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s satirical short story has become a very long, very serious movie in the hands of director David Fincher. On every technical level, it’s brilliant, but ideas and emotions get lost in all the dazzle.

Brad Pitt is terrific in the title role, a man who is born at the end of World War I — as a tiny senior citizen. Abandoned by his horrified family on the steps of a nursing home, Benjamin is taken in by one of the employees (Taraji P. Henson) and raised as if nothing were amiss. As he slowly grows younger, Benjamin falls in love with Daisy (Cate Blanchett), and their brief period of happiness begins to fade as she reaches middle age and he continues aging backwards.

Everything about Benjamin Button is gorgeous, from the sets to the cinematography to the dig ital “de-aging” of Pitt. Fincher keeps the story moving without rushing it, and the cast is impeccable.

So why isn’t it a better film? There are too many grand themes that are never developed, as Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth play with the story’s mechanics on a purely superficial level. Roth also adapted Forrest Gump for the screen, and this movie has the same devotion to gimmickry and acting prowess at the expense of depth.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button can’t be faulted for its epic ambitions, and it looks fantastic. But it keeps a distance from the audience that ultimately makes it a respectable film, but nothing more.

Extras: A commentary by Fincher on Disc 1; on Disc 2, production features run longer than the movie itself (about 3 hours), covering every possible aspect of the film, along with sketches and photo galleries. (PG-13)  Rating: 3 –LL

The Hit

There’s an old Jewish saying that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. That’s the core idea for this 1984 gem that’s finally come out on DVD.

John Hurt (V for Vendetta) and Lie to Me’s Tim Roth (in an astonishing film debut) play a pair of hired guns named Mr. Braddock and Myron who’ve been sent from England to Spain to abduct a sly mob informant named Willie Parker (Terence Stamp) so that he can be executed in front of the boss he betrayed.

While the kidnapping would seem simple, Braddock and Myron make some small errors that soon have every Spanish law enforcement office on their tails. They also capture a young local woman (Laura del Sol) who appears to be smarter and tougher than any of the men in the party.

Peter Prince’s script is full of snappy dialogue and unpredictable plot twists. It also gives the great Stamp what is arguably his best role. Without every trying to escape, Willie torments his captors with his sanguine attitude and subtle mockery. Having waited a decade for his eventual punishment, Willie seems far better prepared to meet his maker than the heartless Braddock and the hotheaded Myron.

Stephen Frears, who would later direct Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen, demonstrates a remarkably sure hand, effortlessly switching from black comedy to chills. The Spanish setting is expectedly gorgeous, and the guitar-based score by Eric Clapton and flamenco specialist Paco de Lucía loads the film’s 97-minute running time with relentless tension.

Extras: A commentary track featuring Frears, Hurt and Prince; a 1988 interview with Stamp and an essay on the film. (R) Rating: 5 –DL

A Grin Without a Cat

French director Chris Marker made a 1962 movie La jetée, which was the basis for 12 Monkeys, that was based solely on still photographs and voiceover narration. Needless to say, he can also make a three-hour examination of the rise and fall of leftist movements in the 1960s and 70s, occasionally seem like more than a civics lesson.

Depending on your mood and your familiarity with international politics from 30 to 40 years ago, A Grin Without a Cat can be either talky and esoteric or haunting and prophetic. Marker’s astonishing creativity comes out during the film’s eerie opening passages. He cleverly crosscuts footage from the old silent movie Battleship Potemkin with the late ‘60s riots from Paris. The scenes from decades and miles apart are disturbingly similar.

What keeps the film from becoming a long collection of ideological speeches is that Marker continually asks some simple but urgent questions: “Why haven’t people been able to enjoy the prosperity that the future was supposed to offer?” and “Why do people continue to suffer despite protests and revolutions around the world?”

Marker examines how the Vietnam War and right-wing repression of dissent while at the same time noting how the Soviets repressed the Czechs when they tried to stand up for their rights in 1968.

Marker includes footage and speeches of everyone from Richard Nixon to Fidel Castro. While it takes some effort to keep up with the barrage of names and locales that Marker covers, there are enough gripping moments to reward the patient viewer.

A recounting of how a Japanese company polluted a local water system and poisoned both animals and people with mercury is both moving and appalling. The locals understandably rioted and brought down a shareholders meeting as a result.

The film was originally released in 1977, and Marker has periodically updated it since then. Still, in many ways, it’s fascinating how he was able to tragically read the discontent in Iran under the Shah before most western diplomats did.

Extras: The lone extra is a short booklet that includes comments by Marker and a review by Film Threat’s Phil Hall that help make some of the more arcane ideas clearer to a general audience. The film can be viewed in several different languages, and English listeners can hear Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent as one of the narrators. (N/R) Rating: 3.5 –DL


Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.


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