PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Bryan Singer, 2008, United Artists
As history, this film account of the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler by Col. Claus von Stauffenberg and his conspirators on July 20, 1944, may be deficient. Nor, despite an excellent cast and general fidelity to the facts, does it score very high marks as a realistic psychological/historical drama. But, as a high-gloss, high-powered, high-tech (World War II era) thriller, with real-life overtones, it's often hell on wheels -- and I enjoyed it more than director Singer's vaunted (and somewhat overrated) X-Men series.
It's slick; it's fast, and Tom Cruise is not bad casting. He plays Stauffenberg garbed in Nazi regalia he makes look as spiffy as Armani, and with his chiseled chin slicing forward and one piercing dark eye covered by a patch worthy of Raoul Walsh or Andre De Toth, he's at least as interesting as he was in his recent ferocious comic turn as a sybarite film producer in Tropic Thunder. Here, Cruise plays an unambiguous hero thrust into a super-noir nightmare packed with fascists, bombs, revolutionaries and conspirators.
The movie is a nightmare, and Stauffenberg and his cohorts (including Kenneth Branagh as Major-General Henning von Tresckow, Terence Stamp as Beck, Bill Nighy as Gen. Olbricht, and Tom Wilkinson, in the film's best performance, as sly double turncoat Gen Fromm) are a group partly quixotic, somewhat crazy and, in Fromm's case, really slimy. (The movie doesn't spend much time characterizing their motives; politically, many were conservatives and even royalists.) Hitler himself comes on (played by David Amber) as a cold, silent ghoul -- reminding you a bit of Singer's Nazi horror movie Apt Pupil from Stephen King. (Actually, what was really scary about the real-life Hitler, besides the magnitude of his crimes, was his flirtatiousness and temper tantrums.)
As the plot unwinds, you're both engrossed and amazed by the sheer complexity of the scheme, the way the Army Reserve is hoodwinked into taking over after Hitler is killed, supposedly by a bomb set by the one-armed, three-fingered Stauffenberg. (You can check the real-life facts in the insider's book To the Bitter End, retitled Valkyrie, by conspirator Hans Bernd Gisevius.) But the narrative hooks don't really dig in until the assassination day commences. Audience-wise, it might have been better to start the plot up immediately and cover the earlier stuff in flashbacks.
That said, Christopher McQuarrie's script (his first collaboration with Singer since their best movie, The Usual Suspects) is a model of obsessive forward motion and knife-edge clarity. There's nothing boring about Valkyrie. It just doesn't leave you with enough. It's at the end, and afterwards, that you feel history, and Stauffenberg, are being short-changed.
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
Tarkovsky Rediscovered (Two discs) (B+)
Russia, Italy; Andrei Tarkovsky, 1960-1983, Facets
One of the world's greatest filmmakers, Andrei Tarkovsky, joins forces with his two favorite screenwriters, Andrei Konchalovsky and Tonino Guerra, in two lesser-seen, short, but still impressive smaller works. The earliest is his film school diploma movie, The Steamroller and the Violin, Tarkovsky's most accessible film and a beauty. The second is a documentary/journal about Guerra, Tarkovsky, landscapes and cinema. Both are occasionally sublime testaments of a major artist and of a spirit breaking chains.
The Steamroller and the Violin (B+)
A boy violinist, ridiculed by street kids, strikes up a friendship with a good-hearted steamroller operator. This poetic little gem, filled with imagery of water, reflections, the sky and the city, has a mood reminiscent of Lamorisse's The Red Balloon. Co-scripted by Konchalovsky. In Russian, with English subtitles.
Voyage in Time (B)
Against stunning exteriors and interior shots, Tarkovsky and Guerra (also a frequent screenwriter for Antonioni and Angelopoulos) talk together about life, movies and art. Fittingly, since this is an Italian film made (around the time of Nostalghia) in the land of neo-realism and Post-Synch, Tarkovsky is dubbed. In Italian, with English subtitles.
Pig, Pimps and Battleships: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura (A)
Japan; Shohei Imamura, 1961-4, Criterion
Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura is an absolute master at psychology, and showing the dark side of Japanese life and society, the danger zone of sexuality and evil we often see or glimpse in Kurosawa, but rarely in Ozu or Mizoguchi.
The '60s films in this excellent set are rightly regarded as Imamura's first masterpieces, and their subjects and themes are as candid, lacerating and as unsparing as they came in that era: crime and corruption in a postwar port city in the great dark comedy Pigs and Battleships, and the abuse and mistreatment of Japanese women in the classics The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder. All films are Japanese productions, in Japanese, with English subtitles. (Extras: Interviews with Imamura and critic Tony Rayns, documentary, booklets with essays by Rayns, James Quandt and Audie Bock.)
Includes:Pigs and Battleships (1961, A); The Insect Woman (1963, A); and, Intentions of Murder (1964, A).
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Paul Blart: Mall Cop (D)
U.S.; Steve Carr, 2008, Sony
Devotees of shopping malls, bad jokes and movie catastrophes might find some amusement in Kevin James' mind-boggling new star vehicle Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But the movie lost me somewhere between Blart's drunken barf-fest at the mall employee's karaoke party and the chubby mall cop's heroic battle with a bad-ass gang of nasty free runners, vicious BMX bike riders and brutal skateboarders: speedy hooligans who take over Blart's mall (a real one, in Birmingham, Mass.), drive out all the customers for a heist, led by Kier O'Donnell as the evil, wisecracking Veck. (What, no Dawn of the Dead zombies?)
But all these in-disgustingly-good-shape bad guys prove no match for ton-of-fun hero Blart, who -- inspired by his love for comely Amy (Jayma Mays), who is being held hostage, along with a rancid pen salesman Casanova (Stephen Rannazzisi), by the Veck mob -- races to the rescue on his PT (Personal Transporter), braving everything, to get a date. As Blart goes from a polyester Fatty Arbuckle to a kill-the-creeps Arnold Schwarzenegger type, the movie easily cops the "I Lost My Heart at Taco Bell" prize, trouncing Mall Rats, Scenes from a Mall and that Dawn of the Dead remake to become the worst shopping mall movie in living memory.
James is a pretty funny actor. But this movie is beyond resuscitation. I wonder if anyone suggested to him that he might have had a much better show by forgetting that siege, concentrating on character gags and letting Blart chase around the skateboard-BMX-free running crew and best the Casanova, without everything escalating into a "hard-boiled"-style action movie wingding fiasco? (But of course, Observe and Report, with Seth Rogen as an even crazier mall cop, was just down the pipe.)
U.S.; Howard McCain, 2008, Weinstein Company
Outlander is a visually spectacular but dramatically cheesy sci-fi gorefest with a surprisingly good cast -- headed by Jim Caviezel, Sophia Myles, John Hurt and Ron Perlman -- trapped in an oddball story that dubiously tries to mix up The War of the Worlds-style alien invasion shockers with heroic literary sagas like the Icelandic and Norse epics and Beowulf.
Aaargh! Rothgar! What a concept! Monsters from outer space vs. lusty Viking warriors! Fire-breathing extraterrestrials attack carousing, battle-hardened, mead-quaffing sword-slingers! "Predator" vs. "The Vikings"! The fort burns up! Wenches scream! Adorable kids hide! Brave Kainan (Caviezel) flirts with feisty wench-princess Freya (Miles), while fighting the blazing outer-space marauder, with the aid of hot-tempered Wulfric (Jack Huston, grandson of John), reckless Gunnar (Perlman) and wise old Rothgar (John Hurt, for God's sake).
Isn't that the kind of picture you've been dying to see? Probably only in a moviemaking world where marketing hooks can be more important than scripts would we end up with something like this. But give writer-director Howard McCain some credit. McCain does most of Outlander with a straight face and he's even had Icelandic scholars translate part of his dialogue into old Norse (a movie first), and had the actors sometimes speak it. With a straight face.
Yet, though Outlander isn't exactly Plan Viking from Outer Space, it might be more entertaining if it were. I wouldn't have minded a cheapo-nutso movie that blended Ed Wood's honest-to gosh flying saucers with dippy Scandinavian heroes out of some Guy Maddin pastiche. Unfortunately there's a loony sobriety to Outlander that tends to kill any real chance for subversive laughs. And it's positively, uh, hurtful to see a consummate actor like Hurt -- whom I recently re-watched, with much delight, doing his great mad performance as Caligula in I Claudius -- wandering around in animal skins trying to duck alien flames and match-make between Kainan and Freya, while Wulfric burns. Aaargh! Rothgar!
U.S.; Kyle Newman, 2008, Weinstein Company
Sometimes, things can look bleak these days. The economy. The climate. The tax accountants. Blimp Rushbomb, launching into another ditto-headed tirade. There's Barack Obama to brighten your day, but.... Remember only yesterday? Back in 1999, when you had something in movies to look forward to? When George W. Bush was still partying in Texas? When Dick Cheney hadn't yet morphed into Darth Vader? The dear dead time when Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace was being prepped for its epochal opening?
That great cultural landmark is memorialized in Fanboys, which is about four (no, make that five) wildly obsessed Star Wars fans who have decided to travel to California and find the new print of George Lucas's eagerly awaited prequel before it opens. One of them is dying of cancer (Chris Marquette as Linus). One of hem is his best buddy, trying to give him one last laser-jolt (Sam Huntington as Eric). One of them is your average pop culture schlemiel (Jay Baruchel as Windows). One of them is trying so hard to be Jack Black, the fur on his chest is almost frying (Dan Fogler as Hutch). One of them is a fangirl, who seems to be around so we won't muse about veiled homoeroticism (Kristen Bell as Zoe). Their goal: to steal that new print of Phantom Menace, not as movie pirates, but as dedicated movie geeks. Hey, I would have thought just seeing it would be enough.
Waiting in the wings, for one of the most movie-in-groupy set of cameos this side of The Player, are Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Seth Rogen, Jay and Silent Bob, William Shatner (who might consider suing himself for libel) and some guy who looks like Harry (Ain't It Cool) Knowles, but is actually Ethan Suplee. The movie follows baldly in the footsteps of Robert Zemeckis' 1978 I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which was about Beatles fandom, but keeps stumbling and screaming. The gags involve the boys doing a striptease at a biker bar, tons of Star Wars references, a feud between these Star Warriors, and the Trekkies (or Trekkers or, possibly, Trekkums), a raid on the Skywalker Ranch and other improbable japes and scrapes. My prediction? You won't laugh too much. You won't cry. But you may develop an allergy to R2-D2 costumes. And, by the way, why did Shatner cameo-appear here and not in Star Trek?