Shallow script, stock dialogue hold film back

Posted Jan. 15, 2009, at 6:44 p.m.

DEFIANCE, directed by Edward Zwick, written by Clayton Frohman and Zwick, 136 minutes, rated R.

The new Edward Zwick movie, “Defiance,” is based on the true story of a group of Jewish brothers who witnessed the murder of their family and friends at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. They fled Poland, escaped to the woods of Belarus, and decided to fight back when their numbers grew to more than a thousand as other Jews took to the woods in an effort to save their lives.

Based on Zwick and Clayton Frohman’s screenplay by way of Nechama Tec’s 1993 book, “Defiance” sometimes is so subtle and well-done, you admire Zwick for his reserve and tact.

Unfortunately, at other times the movie is so heavy-handed, it can leach into parody, especially

in those scenes where food is spare and a piece of bread or a spot of soup is ravaged by the film’s overly eager cast of extras. These folks obviously came from the shoot-for-the-moon-or-bust school of acting, because their performances are so overcooked, they can be distracting and unintentionally humorous during moments when they should be anything but.

This never is true for the leads. The film stars Daniel Craig as Tuvia, Liev Schreiber as Zus and Jamie Bell as the boyish Asael, all brothers who at first planned to escape into the woods alone. Their strategy was simple — wait out the Nazis by surviving in a dense thick of forest. It wouldn’t be easy, but if they banded together, there was a chance they could survive.

Trouble is, hundreds of others literally trickled out of the woodwork (all of whom would eventually form the Bielski Ostriad resistance). With them came promise in numbers but also complications, not the least of which was how the brothers would feed so many people as winter settled in, and also how they could keep so many in hiding, particularly since the Nazis were busy patrolling the areas nearby.

With tensions rising between the more passive Tuvia and the headstrong Zus — Tuvia believes their revenge should be to live while Zus would prefer to kill those who murdered their family — the movie manages a few solid scenes between Craig and Schreiber, with each actor happy to take on the other while ambushing their share of Nazi troops until the plot works to separate them. As Zwick chafes between Tuvia and Zus, what’s left to hold our interest is Bell’s Asael, who apparently is here to flirt with a pretty girl and have a chance at a first kiss.

In the right hands, such a situation could have been profound given the grim circumstances at hand. But Zwick is too unfocused to ground it with weight and meaning. His talented cast came to act and they find pockets to do so amid Eduardo Serra’s fine cinematography and Dan Weil’s beautifully realized production design, but the shallow script proves too sight, the dialogue is stock, and the characters are only casually interesting at best. Worse for the movie? Too many moments of lax direction keep the proceedings from revealing another corner of the Holocaust that deserved excellence in the telling.

Grade: C+

New on DVD and Blu-ray disc

SAW V, directed by David Hackle, written by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, 99 minutes, rated R.

Spooling from Hollywood’s seemingly bottomless well of entrails is “Saw V,” which not only belongs in the business end of “Woodchipper Massacre,” but also deserves to be lifted up as one of the worst horror shows ever.

And we’ve endured the Bush administration, so you can imagine how bad it is.

Working from Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan’s Crayon-colored script, director David Hackle puts his audience’s necks on the chopping block and shows them no mercy for just under 100 minutes. He wastes no time in getting to the gore. As with all of the “Saw” movies, the gutting is the real star here, and it starts from the get-go.

Stretched out on a slab is a young man who must “learn his lesson” and “atone for his sins” because Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), who is dead but still an aggressive moral activist in this movie (don’t ask), has another chip on his shoulder and wants to make a point by taking a human life. What this means to the man in question, a murderer named Seth (Joris Jarsky), is that he willingly crushes his fingers into bloody stumps in an effort to stop a swinging pendulum from slicing him in half. Who wants to bet things don’t go Seth’s way? Can I see a show of hands? Anyone? I didn’t think so.

This middling mediocrity then collapses into a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, the lot of which are so dizzying, you might want to bring your favorite MENSA member to see if they can make sense of it. That is, of course, assuming they can meet the film’s real challenge by staying awake. If they do, they’ll see a movie that follows Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) as he comes to question Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who fans (or victims — you choose!) of the last movie will recall has taken over Jigsaw’s dirty work. A boring police procedural ensues.

Torture is a mainstay in this movie (you know, like sitting through it), which apparently is its appeal as the filmmakers continue to focus less on character and more on how many ways one can meet their grisly end. But what’s happening to the torture-porn genre — what’s ruining it, really — is that none of the presumably disgusting scenes creates the desired effect of absolute revulsion.

After being exposed to so many similar movies for so long now, we are immune to it. At my packed screening last October, people were so silent throughout the movie, you’d swear they were watching some unpopular, grim foreign film, complete with subtitles, by some nameless, third-rate hack who rejoices in the hum-drum breaking of bones, the gushing of fake blood and all those empty screams.

Grade: BOMB

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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