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by Bill Gibron

29 Jan 2009

The Holocaust remains, for all intents and purposes, the ultimate expression of evil in our lifetime. Outside the obvious elements of genocide and the organized political support for same, the inherent concept that human beings could actually do something like this to each other resonates as the most shocking sentiment of all. So naturally, any story about the struggle against such unfathomable wickedness immediately gets out attention. We don’t really care about the details or the factual fallacies. We just want vengeance, and it better be more than a mere ‘eye for an eye’. When he stumbled upon the story of the Bielski Brothers, Jewish rebels that saved thousand of their fellow persecuted peoples in 1940s Belarus, filmmaker Edward Zwick must have realized he had the makings of one of the most important World War II films ever. Unfortunately, Defiance misses its major opportunities, focusing instead on ancillary issues unimportant to the final cause.

It’s 1941, and in Eastern Europe, German forces are moving toward Russia and its surrounding territories. Upon returning home, the four Bielski Brothers - Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron - discover that their parents (and most of the surrounding townsfolk) have been slaughtered by local police working under direct Nazi orders. Fearing for their lives, they head to the local woods to hide out and make plans. There, they run into other refugees, Jews also driven out of their houses by the current purge. Together, they join forces and begin forging a life in the wilderness.

Conflict erupts between the oldest, Tuvia, and his brash and more brazen younger brother Zus. The former wants to find a way to simply survive. The latter seeks justice for what has happened to his people. When he can’t find what he’s looking for among the exiles, he joins up to fight with the Russians. This leaves Tuvia and Asael to hold the fragile balance within the camp together, even as winter approaches and the constant threat of attack looms over them.

Defiance wants to be an epic. It certainly has a larger than life storyline (albeit one based on the true story of the Bielski brothers and their exploits during the war) and pushes all the right buttons for maximizing cinematic manipulation. Director Edward Zwick is famous for such fancy pantsing, having made his mark with such examples of celluloid showboating as Glory, Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire, and The Last Samurai. Here, he wisely keeps the narrative locked into the struggles of the Belarus Jews and their freedom fighter watchdogs. We don’t get unnecessary Nazi shenanigans, no Swastika symbolism meant to mean more than just an inherent cloud of evil. Instead, there’s a moment when some survivors leave a local ghetto and toss off their yellow patchwork Stars of David, as if Zwick is purposefully arguing that this is a movie about people, not emblematic punditry.

And at first, we buy the ruse. Daniel Craig (Tuvia) and Liev Schreiber (Zus) are mesmerizing as two sides of the same scattered coin, a pair of bickering partisans looking to merge their misspent youth with a chance to play hero. They are joined by Jamie Bell (Asael) who, while given little to do, maximizing his moments as the sometimes skylarking brother. By placing this trio into the middle of 20th Century’s greatest heart of darkness - ie, the Final Solution and its victims - their own nationalism is reduced to a remembrance. Even when they meet up with a Russian company desperate for supplies, their agreement to help doesn’t overcome an intrinsic anti-Semitism bubbling under the surface. As such, Zwick tends to hedge his bets, adding unnecessary tangents to remind us that the Children of Israel are at risk.

It’s at this point where Defiance bogs down. We spend way too much time in the middle of the handmade housing development, concentrating on sequences that have nothing to do with how this group managed to survive for so long. In their place, we get an overly long build up toward the creation of a roguish, crude villain, one too many dialectic debates, and romance where realism would work better. There are hints at something called a “forest wife”, but Bell’s Asael has to take his intended bride in full blown celebratory fashion, complete with dancing and jubilation. It’s clear that Zwick caters to this material in an obvious attempt to argue that, even in the face of almost certain death, life - or something remotely similar to same - endures.

But that’s not what we want from a movie where Jews kill Nazis and their lunk-headed sympathizers with action sequence like satisfaction. We want Craig, Schreiber and Bell to pack heat and take names. We want more scenes like the one where a random German solider is brought into the camp and literally beaten to death by an angry mob. We’ve had enough nobility and non-violence. We’ve already seen the films where, in the name of what’s fair and what’s right, the Jews are given over to the implication of “God’s Will”. If the Bielskis managed to find a way to keep things in control for nearly four years, wouldn’t that story be much more satisfying than occasional character touches. The legacy suggests something a bit more bravura.

Still, in the moments where Tuvia and Zus take charge, in the montages when the rampant disease of a horrid Eastern European winter dissipates into a far more fiery and desperate spring, in the suspense-filled sequence where German planes bomb the refugee camp back to the Stone Age, Defiance finds its voice. It’s clear that Zwick is more adept at handling fire and brimstone than interpersonal problems. We never buy the relationships present, never feel that people this hopeless would de-evolve into the standard Moon/June love lines. Still, there’s enough power and emotion within the primary narrative to carry us across the weaker bits. Defiance is without a doubt the best of the Holocaust themed films from 2008. Unfortunately, that may be faint praise indeed.

by Bill Gibron

29 Jan 2009

It’s an exercise in memory, an attempt to recall the unfathomable and unimaginable. It’s animation taking the place of atrocity, the literal spoils of war witnessed in stylized, striking visuals. It’s the story of men who would rather forget, of a time two decades before when the Middle East was measured by chest-pumping challenges and baffling back and forth advances. It’s a documentary and a denouncement, an explanation and an exaggeration - and in the end, it’s one of 2008’s best films, a wildly inventive and shockingly effective cartoon trance that takes us deep into the heart of human darkness and then delves even deeper.

But there is more to Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir than the story of middle aged men confused by their turn in the Israeli army circa the early ‘80s. This is not just some explanation of how war is insane, allies are untrustworthy, and if one event can change an entire human being’s perspective on life. But Folman does fashion the kind of collective grieving process that puts us smack dab in the middle of an incongruous catharsis. On the one hand, our main character (the director himself), wants to uncover the meaning behind his frequent daydreams and half-hallucinations - the main one centering on a 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. But this is not just an investigative journey into truth. Thanks to the artistic approach Folman decides to take, the true nature of conflict is unmasked.

The narrative is fairly straightforward given the almost 3D nature of the animation. This is a talking head experience taken to indescribably new levels. Folman decides to question everyone he can about the Israeli invasion, concentrating on those who, like him, were scared, wide-eyed teenagers at the time. His travels take him to Belgium, where one former friend immediately shoots down his version of events. Another colleague describes the initial invasion, including an argument over a gun that gives the movie its unusual name. Finally, Folman finds a kind of consensus, and moves on to interview those people - officials, officers, reporters - who had first hand knowledge of the horrific events at Sabra and Shatila. In combination, Waltz with Bashir becomes the best of all possible documentaries - wildly entertaining, keenly informative, and wholly unforgettable.

Folman’s choice of mediums is part of the film’s inherent magic. The use of stylized images helps amplify the horrors these young men had to face. An opening dream involving ravenous, rabid dogs leads to a highly disturbing admission, while a later sequence involving an orchard, a division on alert, and a small boy carrying an RPG is particularly memorable. All throughout Waltz with Bashir, the use of animation takes the filmmaking to a whole new level, one that not even the most meticulous, visionary director could have achieved with an unlimited budget and a studio with the patience of Job. Certainly there are risks here. The concept of a cartoon taking on the terrible events in Lebanon during the early ‘80s may reek of blasphemy, but Folman makes it all work almost effortlessly. In fact, within minutes, we couldn’t imagine the movie any other way.

The results are so powerful that it’s hard to argue with anything done here. In fact, it all gives Waltz with Bashir a unique brand of tension, one that juxtaposes a kind of implied innocence with the true, terrifying vision of death and destruction. The work here is stellar, existing somewhere between the old rotoscoping process of the past and the deranged digital enhancement of films like Waking Life. Yet Folman doesn’t try to make the movements fluid. Instead, it’s as if every action in Waltz is accented with a deliberate, almost direct sense of static purpose. The backdrops, on the other hand, are just breathtaking. There is an intricacy and detail behind the design that recalls the best of anime in conjunction with an attempted neo-realism. The combination is cutting edge and very effective.

Indeed, all of Waltz with Bashir plays in such potent forms. We accept the animation element as novelty, initially, only to again learn it’s the only way this story could be told. We see the searching of our main character as an indirect symbol of the scars left by all conflict. The dreams definitely anchor the dichotomy between fact and fiction, and the final shots, coming at us suddenly and without warning, bring the horrors home in a way that no other format could fathom. Indeed, it’s safe to say that the success of Ari Folman’s artistic decisions here have as much to do with the inherent enchantment of the approach he takes with the intense and often unpleasant imagery he forces us to endure.

This duality is the final thematic statement made by Waltz with Bashir. It argues that all boys go into war innocent and come out corrupted. It points to the fact that both sides, heroes and enemy, leave with loses and a sense of purposeless destruction that can never be absolved. It suggests that all armed conflict derives from unclear policies with no predetermined end game or exit strategy, and that when push comes to shove, aggression is not about sovereignty. Sometimes, it’s merely a matter of blood justice - and the stains from said vengeance can linger long after the satisfaction has passed. And just like in animation, such righteousness is painting in radiant, rotting primary colors.

by Sarah Zupko

29 Jan 2009

Staff Benda Bilili croon beautiful harmonies accompanied by spare but perfectly suited instrumentation. This Congolese group of street musicians is comprised four elderly singer/guitarists and a young rhythm section, highlighted by a 17-year-old player of the one-string electric lute that he constructed himself from a tin can. These are musicians of extremely humble means who create startling warm and vital music from the barest of resources. Making their story even more poignant is that these artists are paraplegics and polio victims. It’s a compelling story for sure, but the music is superb enough to speak for itself. Crammed Discs will release Staff Benda Bilili’s debut in the US on April 7th. In the meantime, check out the first video, “Polio”, and a short documentary about the group.

by Alan Ranta

29 Jan 2009

Asthmatic Kitty can do no wrong.  Watch for Fol Chen’s Part I: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made when it drops on February 17th, 2009. This is already the second video for the album, directed by one Nancy Jean Tucker.

Fol Chen
The Believers (Clifford Lidell Remix) [MP3]
     

by PopMatters Staff

29 Jan 2009

J. Tillman
James Blues [MP3] from Vacilando Territory Blues [20 January]
     

Steel on Steel [MP3]  from Vacilando Territory Blues [20 January]
     

Buy at iTunes Music Store

Youth Group
All This Will Pass [MP3] from This Night Is Ours [7 April]
     

Mazes
I Have Laid in the Darkness of Doubt [MP3] from Mazes [3 March]
     

Ra Ra Riot
Ghost Under Sun (Passion Pit remix) [MP3]
     

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