- The Washington Times - Friday, May 29, 2009

Defiance (Paramount, $19.99 for DVD, $29.99 for Blu-ray) — Ricky Gervais might have joked at the Golden Globes that Holocaust movies are Oscar gold, but it didn’t turn out that way for “Defiance.” The movie has all the hallmarks of an award-winning film: It’s based on a true story, centered on the Holocaust, directed by an Oscar winner and stars a trio of formidably talented men. Yet “Defiance” garnered only a single Oscar nod, for the James Newton Howard score, which is beautifully anchored by violinist Joshua Bell.

It’s not that “Defiance” was a bad movie — it just wasn’t a great one. The film is simply a conventional action drama, well-executed but neither thought-provoking nor emotionally cathartic.

Daniel Craig (the current James Bond), Liev Schreiber (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) and Jamie Bell (“Billy Elliot”) play the real-life Bielski brothers, a family of farmers who helped save many more than 1,000 of their fellow Jews. “Jews don’t fight,” a Russian commander says dismissively. “These Jews do,” Mr. Craig’s character replies. From their hidden-in-a-forest base in what was then Poland and is now Belarus, the brothers and their growing group of followers keep themselves — and women, children and the elderly — alive by launching attacks on Nazis and stealing supplies from Nazi collaborators.

Mr. Craig is the mature brother, Mr. Schreiber the passionate one, and sibling rivalry threatens to do more damage than the Germans, while the love of good women goes far in redeeming the men. These are all familiar themes, and director Edward Zwick (who won his Oscar for co-producing “Shakespeare in Love”) doesn’t bother to make them new. The director of “The Last Samurai” and “Glory” knows how to stage a fight, though.

Extras include an audio commentary with Mr. Zwick, a making-of featurette, a tour of the film’s set with the Bielskis’ descendants and a gallery of photographs taken by Mr. Zwick of the filming and the surviving freedom fighters. The Blu-ray edition also includes a discussion with Mr. Howard and Mr. Bell about the film’s score.

Revolutionary Road (Paramount, $19.99 for DVD, $29.99 for Blu-ray) — Here is another film that might have expected more from the Oscars. Director Sam Mendes’ similarly themed “American Beauty,” after all, won five Oscars — best picture, director, screenplay, actor and cinematography. “Revolutionary Road” got just three nominations, none of them in the big categories — its nods were for art direction, costume design and supporting actor Michael Shannon. Even star Kate Winslet, who won a Golden Globe for the film, was ignored for her work here. The Academy chose to honor her role in “The Reader” instead. Perhaps Academy voters kept in mind what the critics didn’t — that this film seemed rather a rehash of the earlier one.

For the first half-hour or so, it’s just about impossible to take this film seriously. The arguments between Leonardo DiCaprio and Miss Winslet are so over-the-top and filled with cliched ideas about the ‘50s that they seem like parody. It doesn’t help that the boyish Mr. DiCaprio looks like a youth playing dress-up — he simply isn’t believable as a scotch-swilling man quickly becoming jaded with his paper-pushing life. Miss Winslet is likelier as his wife, a woman with no artistic talent who nevertheless wants to live the artist’s life. The plot, hinging on dissatisfaction, has all the makings of a tragedy — the film is based on the much-heralded 1961 novel by Richard Yates.

The film was shot in sequence, and it shows, as the actors visibly become more comfortable with their parts. Then the viewer becomes emotionally engaged, only to find the vision is relentlessly dark; it’s bleakness for bleakness’ sake.

Extras include a commentary with Mr. Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe (a novelist himself), deleted scenes with commentary by the pair and a making-of featurette. The Blu-ray edition also includes a look at author Mr. Yates.

Weeds: Season 4 ($39.98 for DVD or Blu-ray) — For viewers who don’t get Showtime or who just want to catch up before the fifth season begins June 8, the cable network’s dark suburban comedy brings its fourth season to DVD. Mary-Louise Parker stars as widow Nancy Botwin, who becomes a drug dealer to keep her family in the lifestyle to which it has become accustomed. A lot happened in the fourth-season finale — Nancy was questioned by the Drug Enforcement Administration and revealed she was pregnant. There’s a lot more to tell, but we wouldn’t want to ruin the surprises if you haven’t already seen these episodes — and there’s a reason this series doesn’t run on the regulated broadcast channels.

The 13 episodes come with extras including cast commentaries and a gag reel.

Kelly Jane Torrance

The Fox and the Child (Warner Home Videos, $27.95 for DVD) — No wonder this beautiful but incredibly slow-paced children’s nature film, directed by Luc Jacquet (“March of the Penguins”), didn’t get a theatrical release in the U.S.

Not only does it take half of this French movie for the two protagonists (fox and girl child) to connect, but the 10-year-old girl doesn’t have a single costume change for the entire length of the film — 92 minutes! (Compare that to Hannah Montana or any other tween fave). Narrated by Kate Winslet, the film is annoyingly and unnecessarily dubbed.

Part fairy tale (the girl spends way too much time in the woods and away from home for it to be believable), this story of adventure and friendship between a fox and a girl is really a tribute to the natural world; the endless, sweeping shots of French mountain chains and tree-covered hills are lovely and light-years removed from most children’s experience — and patience.

However, give this film a chance, and you and your child might make a few natural discoveries that lead to bigger-picture conversations on the natural world and our role as humans within it.

That’s how it works best — as a nature film; the narrative and the interaction between girl and fox lack dramatic arcs and chemistry.

Gabriella Boston

Fillmore: The Last Days (Rhino Records, $14.99 for DVD) — The rough-and-tumble business of rock ‘n’ roll isn’t for the faint of heart — a proposition confirmed by this fly-on-the-wall-style documentary of the final five days of concerts in 1971 at the legendary Fillmore West auditorium, the epicenter of the San Francisco underground rock renaissance of the late 1960s.

The Fillmore was promoter Bill Graham’s baby, but he had pretty well fallen out of love with the music scene by 1971. As this film makes abundantly clear, the headaches of the business clearly had taken a toll on even this street-wise, in-your-face concert promoter. Most of the non-concert portions of the film are devoted to Mr. Graham, telephone glued to one ear, arguing with crybaby band managers and musicians upset about their band’s place on the bill, the choice of light-show operators or the need to move equipment offstage by a certain time.

Indeed, at one point, Mr. Graham says a major reason he has become disillusioned with the business is that the flower children, having failed in their quest to change the world, have become a bunch of selfish brats.

The headliner bands that did make the cut include the Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. After that, we dip pretty quickly into still-good but second-drawer acts: It’s a Beautiful Day, Hot Tuna, Elvin Bishop, Lamb and Cold Blood (the latter two featuring Janis Joplin-wannabe female singers).

Sound and image quality — often employing Woodstock-style split-screen images — are excellent. Dead Heads especially will find this DVD to be a slice of rock ‘n’ roll heaven, as the still-in-its-prime Dead performs the stoned-hippie classic “Casey Jones,” followed by a smoking version of “Johnny B. Goode,” on which Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir do everything but duckwalk as they trade guitar licks and vocals on Chuck Berry’s classic. There also is footage of Mr. Garcia jamming on steel guitar with the New Riders of the Purple Sage.

Jefferson Airplane fans are warned that the band’s only number, “We Can Be Together,” is largely obscured by supposedly evocative film clips of flower children cavorting in the grass. Quicksilver also disappoints, as it regrettably was fronted at this time by Dino Valenti, whose schlocky, melodramatic vocals represented a big comedown for this once-fine psychedelic jam band.

The DVD lacks bonus features, which is a real pity because a highlight of the original three-record boxed-set album was an excellent booklet with many examples of the famed Fillmore concert posters and a listing of the often wildly eclectic lineups of every concert held in the hall. These easily could have been added as still-image extras.

Dan Campbell


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