Though the second Holocaust-themed film to come out this Oscar season, and by no means the last, Defiance has the distinction of being one of the only films of this or any other year to allow Jews to be fighters in the Second World War, and not just nobly suffering prisoners.
It recounts the true story of Tuvia Bielski, a farmer's son who set up camp in a Belorussian forest in 1942. At first, his only companions were his brothers, but more and more refugees joined them until they'd established their own secret village, a base from which to strike back at the Nazis and their collaborators.
Daniel Craig stars as Tuvia Bielski. Craig might not be Jewish, but after his role in Munich, he's obviously the man who pops into casting directors' heads when they need a burly Jewish sharp-shooter. Tuvia's priority is to welcome as many people as possible into the enclave, and to build workshops and schools for them. But his younger brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) argues that every new arrival in the forest endangers those who are already there. He thinks they should concentrate on attacking Germans, even if that means teaming up with a squad of Russian soldiers who aren't much less anti-Semitic themselves. (Distractingly, the Jews speak accented English, while the Russian troops speak sub-titled Russian.) Jamie Bell plays a third Bielski brother, Asael, who has to choose between the agendas of survival and revenge set by his older siblings.
Defiance plunges into the action without any preamble, as the Bielskis' parents are dragged away by the SS. Impressively terse and unsentimental, the script mentions the wives and children the brothers had in peace time, but it doesn't slow things down by showing them. And once the Bielskis have become partisans, it doesn't shy away from the brutal choices Tuvia has to make if he's to keep his ill and undernourished followers together through an icy winter.
A substantial, stirring war film, Defiance might have been a classic, but Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond) can't resist padding out its later stretches with fluff. He softens the initial toughness with some cutesy scenes of Bell plucking up the courage to talk to his love interest, and with a pair of comic-relief philosophers who must have wandered in from Fiddler On The Roof. Craig makes a few too many quasi-Shakespearean inspirational speeches to his comrades, too. The most incongruous of these is delivered astride a white steed. Whether or not Tuvia did anything of the sort in real life, it's the kind of scene that is only permissible in a film if the Sheriff of Nottingham appears in the scene before.
Kate Hudson is so unerring in her selection of dreadful film roles that she makes Jennifer Lopez look like Meryl Streep, but not even she has been in anything as unbearable as Bride Wars, which she also produces.
Feminists should be picketing it for presenting women, without exception, as self-serving, back-stabbing airheads. A watch-between-splayed-fingers "comedy", it pairs Hudson with Anne Hathaway as two supposed best friends who want to get married in the same New York hotel on the same day. Neither of them will budge – or acknowledge the lesbian attraction that is the palpable subtext – so they set about sabotaging each other's weddings in ways that aren't nasty enough to make Bride Wars a black comedy, but are just nasty enough to make you wish that both heroines would choke on their bouquets. The sickly icing on this poisonous, five-tier cake is that after 90 minutes of psychotic obnoxiousness, Bride Wars concludes with a bizarrely inappropriate sermon about how valuable it is to have a loyal friend. We could already have the worst film of 2009.
Also showing: 11/01/2009
Sex Drive (105 mins, 15)
Equal parts 'The Sure Thing', 'American Pie', 'Road Trips' and 'Superbad', 'Sex Drive' is a teen comedy about a virginal geek (albeit a handsome one) who crosses the mid-West with two friends in a 'Dukes Of Hazzard' car to meet the wet-dream girl he's been flirting with on the net. Once you get past the notion that every woman in America is a nubile nymphomaniac, there are some inspired set pieces, and excellent cameos from Seth Green and James Marsden. It's also well structured. File under: Guilty Pleasure.
Role Models (98 mins, 15)
And in case one crude, breast-fixated comedy isn't enough for you ... Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott avoid a prison sentence by agreeing to mentor two children, a trash-talking hooligan and a nerdy live action role-player. It's not bad, mainly because Rudd and Scott have so much slouchy charisma that you forget that they're not saying anything very funny.
Hannah Takes The Stairs (83 mins, tbc)
Zero-budget indie movie populated by neurotic twenty-somethings who could be Woody Allen's offspring. The central love quadrangle is more realistic than that in most relationship comedies, although the halting, vapid, improvised dialogue is a little too realistic for its own good.
Stuck (85 mins, 15)
Mena Suvari is a care-home nurse who drives into Stephen Rea, and then locks the car in her garage, leaving him embedded in her windscreen. Thin, bloody exploitation thriller.