DEFIANCE (2008). The 1970s TV miniseries Holocaust and the 2002 theatrical release The Grey Zone touched upon the topic, but Defiance might be the first celluloid outing to focus exclusively on the efforts of Jews to violently oppose their Nazi oppressors during World War II. Certainly, it's an overdue entry in the long history of Hollywood Holocaust flicks, but it's a shame that such an intriguing story didn't receive a more distinguished rendering. Adapted by director Edward Zwick and co-scripter Clayton Frohman from Nechama Tec's nonfiction book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, this centers on three siblings who battle the German threat from within the Belarus Forest. The eldest, Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), is the tentative leader; middle son Zus (Liev Schreiber) is far more tempestuous; and youngest lad Asael (Jamie Bell) is a greenhorn who quickly receives his initiation under fire. The Bielskis soon earn a reputation for their guerilla tactics that keep the Nazis off balance, and before long, scores of other Jews join them in their forest sanctuary. Zwick's epics (Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai) have never lacked for propulsive power, but Defiance is the first to constantly stumble over itself even as it tries to get its tale in gear. Episodic in nature, it places stock characters (fresh-faced intellectual, gently questioning rabbi, vicious troublemaker, foxy lady to frolic in the forest with the leading man) in stock situations that require characters to spout off inspirational clichés every few scenes. Still, Craig and Schreiber make for interesting contrasts in masculinity, and it's commendable that somebody finally got around to paying tribute to these woodland warriors.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Zwick; a 26-minute making-of featurette; modern-day interviews with Bielski descendants; and photographs (taken by Zwick of survivors of the Bielski Partisan Group.
THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973). There's sharp dialogue to spare in Paul Monash's script for The Friends of Eddie Coyle, yet the best line in the Criterion edition of the film arguably can be found not in the picture itself but in the booklet included in the package. "You know what the 2001 theme is?" asks co-star Peter Boyle in the 1973 Rolling Stone article reprinted here. "That's the sound of Mitchum waking up." Certainly, Robert Mitchum's status as a tough guy – both on-screen and off – reached legendary proportion decades ago, and even years after his death, it shows no signs of wavering. (Although my all-time favorite Mitchum line is a self-effacing one that came from the man himself: "People think I have an interesting walk. Hell, I'm just trying to hold my gut in.") What's interesting about this movie (based on George V. Higgins' novel) is that Mitchum manages to retain his rough-n-tumble persona while playing one of life's losers: a smalltime criminal who just maybe isn't smart enough to survive in such a hostile environment as the Boston underworld of the 1970s. Mitchum's cast as Eddie Coyle, an ex-con who's facing the prospect of being sent up the river yet again. Worried for the well-being of his family as well as himself, he has to decide whether it's in his best interest to serve as a stool pigeon for a smooth-talking detective (Richard Jordan), a decision that would put him at odds with various members of the criminal community – including ones played by Boyle, Alex Rocco and, most memorably, Steven Keats as guns dealer Jackie Brown (and now you know where Tarantino "borrowed" that name). Gritty, minimalist and fatalistic as only '70s flicks can be, this solid drama revolves squarely around Mitchum's perceptive performance as a weary, wary man caught in an impossible situation.
DVD extras include audio commentary by director Peter Yates and a stills gallery that includes photos from several scenes that were filmed but cut before the movie's release (too bad the sequences themselves weren't included here as deleted scenes).
GRAN TORINO (2008). It's not necessary to be familiar with Clint Eastwood's career arc to enjoy Gran Torino, but it does amplify the appreciation for the manner in which the topic of violence is approached. From the glorified gun battles in the Dirty Harry franchise to the ruminations about the impact of taking a man's life in Unforgiven, Eastwood has clearly given much thought to the subject. To describe how he has continued to modify his beliefs would spoil the film's ending, but suffice to say that his character, Walt Kowalski, is no stranger to killing. A Korean War vet, Walt lives in a Detroit neighborhood in which he's clearly in the minority. Surrounded by Asians, African-Americans and Latinos, he's an unrepentant racist, although he doesn't have much use for his own kind, either: Caring little for his two grown sons and their families, he prefers the company of his faithful dog and his prized 1972 Gran Torino. But his shell of indifference begins to crack once he comes into reluctant contact with the two Hmong teens (appealing newcomers Bee Vang and Ahney Her) who live next door. Dismissed in some camps as merely a simplistic rift on racism, this is far more complicated than that, not only in its aforementioned exploration of violence but also in its affecting look at a rigid individual who comes to realize that the world has moved on without him. The picture does have its weak spots (for starters, Walt's family members are cartoonish in the extreme), but there's no quibbling over Eastwood's performance, which ranks as one of the finest of his career. If this marks his final acting turn (as he's hinted), he's managed to go out with, appropriately enough, a bang.
DVD extras consist of a 10-minute piece examining the American male's infatuation with cars, and a 4-minute short about an annual vintage car event.
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (2008). Revolutionary Road reunites Titanic stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and they're both exceptional in this adaptation of Richard Yates' novel. But those expecting to see the pair again in the throes of starry-eyed passion will be disappointed, since romance is kept at a minimum in this edgy drama, a must-see for adults who don't mind getting their hands dirty on messy emotions. Sam Mendes, the Oscar-winning director of American Beauty, has made another American beauty, this one a powerful examination of a young couple trying to deal with the plasticity of 1950s suburbia. Set in Connecticut, the story (adapted by Justin Haythe) concerns itself with Frank and April Wheeler, who view themselves as being different from everyone else in their pristine neighborhood. But time spent toiling away within the boundaries of the so-called American dream quickly takes its toll, so in an effort to revitalize their dreams as well as salvage their marriage, April suggests that they move to Paris and start a new life. Flush with excitement, the couple start to make plans, only to find that old routines – no matter how detested – die hard. Those with a willingness for navel-gazing will be receptive to this material far more than those who prefer to keep blinders fully attached, but there's no denying that Mendes and company have created an unsettling piece that gets under the skin. "You jump, I jump," the lovers in Titanic told each other. Here, the two aren't as united, each standing on the brink of uncertainty, peering into the dark abyss of an unknown future, and trying not to tumble into the chilly depths of American ennui. Too subtle for Academy tastes, this managed to score only three Oscar nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Michael Shannon), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Costume Design; besides the major players (Mendes, DiCaprio, Winslet and Haythe), also unfairly overlooked were Roger Deakins for his shimmering cinematography and Thomas Newman for his evocative score.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Mendes and Haythe; five deleted scenes (one of which absolutely should have remained in the theatrical cut); and a half-hour making-of piece.