Am I the only person who wishes that Edward Zwick would go back to making sharp, bitchy comedies like his 1986 Rob Lowe-Demi Moore romance About Last Night...? The director's latest - the action drama Defiance - tells the astonishing, true-life story of the Bielski brothers, who hid hundreds of fellow Jews in a makeshift Lipicza?ska Forest camp during World War II, and who managed to fend off Russian officers and German armies through innovation, daring, incredible bravery, and a well-stocked supply of artillery. With Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber as the ideologically warring siblings Tuvia and Zus Bielski, Defiance is impassioned and serious and God knows it's sincere, and it wasn't until about 45 minutes had passed that I realized I no longer watch Edward Zwick movies; I endure them.
With credits including thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, and Once & Again, Zwick was the co-creator of some of TV's smartest serialized soap operas. But the majority of his feature films, though inarguably more violent than thirtysomething, are also soap operas - Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, The Siege, Legends of the Fall - only they're not as smart, or as subtle, and they seem to last a lifetime. (The grimly obvious, unimaginative Defiance has you praying for commercial breaks.) Ever since 1989's Glory, Zwick movies have come bathed in good intentions and empathy; I believe the director really, truly wants audiences to feel for his turn-of-the-century Montanans, South African diamond miners, and earnest white guy who thinks he's a Japanese warrior. But despite generally outstanding lighting and design, his deliberately paced, closeup-heavy works are most often plodding and derivative - Defiance finds Zwick shamelessly cribbing imagery and technique from Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan - and they're almost criminally lousy with clichés and bum dialogue.
Personally, I think Defiance hits its embarrassing low point when Zus, demanding that an aggressor drop his weapon, gives the guy an option: "Or perhaps you'd prefer I shoved it up your ass!" (Snap!) There is, however, plenty of competition for the film's most egregious bit of audience-pandering dopiness: The cackling Russian officer who sneers "Jews do not fight!" just so Tuvia can retort, with Bond-like suavity, "These Jews do." The Jewish matchmaker who sidles up to a shy young man and says, with aching coyness, "A little bird told me that a certain someone was hoping a certain someone would ask a certain question." (For a few minutes, Defiance turns into Fiddler on the Roof.) The running near-gags involving the whistling Russian and the squabbling chess players and the edgy guard who screams "Who goes there?!?" when he knows perfectly well who's going there. The laughably pastoral post-coitus when Bond's - er, Tuvia's - lover whispers, "You saved my life," and he retorts, "No. You saved mine." (Cue James Newton Howard's cloyingly sentimental music. For the millionth time.) Defiance is a big, stodgy, epic bore graced with random howlers; its intentions may be unassailable, but they're among the only elements here that I didn't want to assail.
LAST CHANCE HARVEY
Last Chance Harvey, which finds sad sacks Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson enjoying a tentative romance in London, is a sweet and surprisingly unsatisfying movie, as everything about it is terrific right until the stars begin falling in love. For the first couple of reels, writer/director Joel Hopkins offers acute, nuanced portraits of middle-aged (or, in Hoffman's case, late-middle-aged) loneliness and regret - he's expert with the excruciating politeness of social-gathering small talk - and his leads have some beautiful individual moments: Hoffman viewing his daughter's happiness alongside her kinder, better-looking stepfather; Thompson smiling through a humiliating blind date.
Once the two begin bantering, though, Hopkins' shrewdness and smarts seem to go out the window. As the film progresses, the stars' repartee grows increasingly tinny and synthetic, their lump-in-the-throat triumphs and setbacks arrive exactly on schedule, and these seemingly bright, mature characters are forced to behave according to the silly whims of the plot; we're even given one of those painful shopping montages in which the female lead, searching for a new dress, tries on a series of grotesquely frilly Halloween costumes before finally landing on a perfectly stylish, basic-black number. (And speaking of silly, what's with the bizarro subplot here in which Thompson's mom, played by Eileen Atkins, is convinced that her next-door-neighbor is a serial killer?) Hoffman and Thompson are such consummate pros that they damn near pull it all off, even though Thompson's role is badly underwritten, and Hoffman looks at his co-star with an intense gaze that suggests a stalker more than a suitor. But while I'm among the demographic that always appreciates a big-screen romance between two actors who were alive during the Bicentennial, we digital immigrants still deserve a little better than the likes of Last Chance Harvey.