Valkyrie (2008)

2015 #41
Bryan Singer | 108 mins* | TV | 16:9 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / PG-13

On the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death, the true story of some people who tried to kill him…

ValkyrieAfter abandoning the X-Men franchise for a Superman reboot/continuation that was retrospectively branded a commercial and critical flop (it actually grossed $391 million worldwide (more than Batman Begins, for example) and has a fairly strong Rotten Tomatoes score of 76%), director Bryan Singer returned to more traditionally dramatic fare — and Nazis — with this true-story war movie about a German plot to assassinate Hitler.

Tom Cruise is Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, an army officer who believes Hitler needs to be removed for the sake of Germany’s future. Invalided home after an RAF raid, he discovers he’s far from alone in his beliefs when he’s recruited into a conspiratorial group who have already failed to assassinate Hitler several times. There he concocts a plan to take out Hitler with a bomb during his weekly briefing at the Wolf’s Lair, blame it on the SS, and use the Führer’s own Operation Valkyrie contingency plan to seize control before any of his cronies can do it first.

There’s no point beating about the bush: they don’t succeed. We all know that. The film’s marvel, really, is in making us believe they might. Well, not believe it — we’re not stupid, are we? — but invest in it. It’s also a revelation how far they got. No, Hitler isn’t killed, but the associated confusion engineered by the plan (they cut off communications from the remote Wolf’s Lair, meaning the news that Hitler survived takes a long time to come out) means an awful lot of Valkyrie is enacted. In the end, they’re done for by bad luck — some people make some decisions which undermine the plan, whereas if they’d gone the other way it might have succeeded even with the Fuhrer still alive. What might have been…

Edge-of-your-seat tensionOne of the stated aims of the conspiracy is to show the rest of the world that not everyone in Germany believed in what Hitler and his inner circle were doing. It may have taken us a long time to realise that, for fairly understandable reasons, but quality films like this help get the message out. Singer has crafted a proper thriller here, replete with scenes of edge-of-your-seat tension. Many a filmmaker can’t manage that with a fictional storyline, never mind one where we know exactly how it turns out.

A top-drawer cast help keep the drama ticking over too. Complaints that accompanied the theatrical release, about the German characters all speaking English, feel thoroughly bizarre. How many movies in history have foreigners all speaking English? I mean, what about Schindler’s List, for just one broadly-related broadly-recent example. Have we really reached a point where everyone is so accepting of subtitles? No, of course we haven’t. I think it’s a baseless criticism to latch on to; one that misses the point so severely it’s difficult to think how to rationally argue against. It’s just wrong. Anyway, most of the cast are British thesps — Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin McNally, David Schofield, Tom Hollander, even Eddie Izzard — so you’re guaranteed quality. Even Terence Stamp proves that he can act, in spite of what some other performances would have me believe. Cruise is a suitable leading man. This isn’t one of his greater acting performances, Brave men who tried to do the right thingbut nor is he in simplistic action hero mode.

Elucidating a sometimes-overlooked aspect of an over-covered era of history, managing to tell its story with all the thrills and tension of a narrative where we don’t know the outcome, Valkyrie is a film to be commended. It’s also a fitting tribute to very brave men on the ‘other side’ who tried to do the right thing.

4 out of 5

* I always try to list the running time of the version I watched, but I feel this one needs a quick explanation, because it’s a full 13 minutes less than the listed running time. Was it cut? Probably not. I watched it on TV, with PAL speed-up and end credits almost entirely shorn. PAL gets you down to 115 minutes; I can well believe there were seven minutes more to the full credits. So there you go. ^

Rage (2009)

2009 #81
Sally Potter | 98 mins | streaming | 15

RageI really didn’t expect to like this: a series of straight-to-camera monologues, performed in front of just plain-coloured backgrounds, about the fashion industry, written and directed by the writer/director of Orlando, which I thoroughly disliked. But I watched because it was going free and, despite the concept’s innate pretentiousness, it’s an intriguing one. Once Rage settled into its stride (or, perhaps, I settled into its stride), however, I loved it.

The group of fourteen people who appear before the camera are almost entirely self-centred and/or not very nice, which you may guess from the outset considering their industry, though almost all still have something to reveal as the film progresses. It’s surprisingly funny too. The off-screen action is conveyed by a very effective sound mix — we see nothing but talking heads (until an incongruous final shot, at least), but there’s always background noise, however subtle, and the key action in the wider world is revealed to the viewer through this, plus comments from some of the talking heads. But time isn’t wasted spelling out what we can’t see; instead, a bit of the viewer’s own imagination is required in addition to the sound and dialogue clues to create a version of events.

A starry cast (Steve Buscemi, Lily Cole, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law, John Leguizamo, David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest… plus recognisable (depending on what you’ve seen, of course) faces like Simon Abkarian, Bob Balaban and Babel’s Adriana Barraza.) provide exemplary acting across the board, even if some of the accents (mainly Brits playing at yanks) are frequently dubious. It seems unfair to pick anyone out, but Lily Cole is perhaps the most surprising, her fragile character aided by her Pipling-esque eyes and pale skin, but it’s her actual performance that ultimately delivers more than her autobiographical-seeming first appearance would suggest. And one can’t ignore Jude Law playing a Russian/American female(?) fashion model — for once I actually thought he was quite good. Maybe this is his niche. The majority of the performances err toward the theatrical — something certain film viewers seem to struggle with — though the intercutting and passage of time, reflected in intertitles and costume changes, make the whole experience more suited to film; indeed, with the cameraperson being such a major character (as it turns out), it is technically unstageable. (It could be staged, of course, but it belongs as a film.)

And, talking of how things turns out, the most intriguing character of all is Michelangelo, the cameraman and only main character we never see on screen — indeed, it’s a considerable amount of time before we realise he’s a character at all and not just a filmmaking conceit. His presence and the filming style (supposedly shot on a mobile phone (or, I suppose, ‘cell phone’) camera) is not just a gimmick, but, as it turns out, vital to the story. It’s probably the only film ever made that perhaps works better viewed streaming online. All the characters are in some way unveiled throughout the film, but, almost without the viewer releasing it, so too is our supposedly-inconspicuous cameraman. By the end, what seemed to be a critique of the fashion industry — and a well-worn one at that — has something else to say too.

At least, one hopes this ‘critique’ of the fashion industry isn’t the main point, because it may be the film’s biggest problem. There’s very little, if anything, new to be found in the comments and criticisms made — we well know it’s a business filled with too-thin weight-obsessed diva-ish models, self-obsessed pretentious designers, money-grabbing moral-less Murdoch-alikes and no-hope fame-hungry wannabes, and Rage doesn’t have much more to say about it than this. Sure, no one sits around pontificating on why it’s all so evil, but it doesn’t take much to see the subtext. At least it’s often funny about it; though based on comments I’ve read online, it seems this humour may be too subtle for some. Perhaps they can’t see the inherent ludicrousness of it all, with the performances flying closer to realist than the My Family-level bluntness some require from their comedy.

It’s hard going at times, even if one is enjoying it — after all, it’s still just a succession of people talking to camera. Obviously what they say — and, indeed, don’t say — reveals things about themselves, others, and events off screen, but while I was never bored there were several occasions when my eyes strayed to the clock out of curiosity over how long was left. I’ve still seen much duller films.

I don’t doubt that Rage isn’t for everyone. Indeed, you only have to look at IMDb to see how many people loathe it with near-religious fervour. (Prepare yourself if you do, because some of the criticism is irritatingly brain dead. But hey, that’s IMDb!) Some people just won’t get on with its style, or find it too slow, and with 14 characters in 98 minutes, awarding them an average of under seven minutes each, you’re not going to get Alan Bennett-level character deconstruction. But Rage unapologetically is what it is, and I liked it.

5 out of 5

If you’re interested in an in-depth (and spoiler-filled) review of Rage which features phrases like “extraordinary testament to the mindbrain”, “Mugel and Potter use sound to build an entire lifeworld”, and “it enlivens, emboldens and enriches the film, engaging ear, heart, mind, memory, intelligence, even skin and senses as a brilliant texture”, try this one from Little White Lies.

Rage placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

2009 #56
E. Elias Merhige | 81 mins | TV | 15 / R

Shadow of the Vampire“What if Max Schreck really was a vampire?” is the simple, thoroughly daft, and equally promising, premise of this low-budget horror/drama/comedy.

Having the advantage of such a good concept to kick things off, all starts well, but the longer it runs the more it loses it. Screenwriter Steven A. Katz seems unsure of what Shreck/Orlok actually wants or what the rules governing his existence are, leaving him little more than a threat for the sake of a threat. Still, Willem Dafoe’s performance in the role is brilliant, reveling in the chance to overact — and yet, somehow, subtly overact — as a silent movie vampire. The rest of the cast are fine; in particular, the obsessive and mildly unhinged Murnau seems to suit Malkovich down to the ground. It’s also scary in places, as it should be, because it’s a vampire horror movie that just happens to take the making of another real one as its starting point. Unfortunately, as the plot becomes confusing and ill explained towards the end, so the scares dissipate alongside the viewer’s understanding.

My confusion over the film’s third act may have an external explanation, however. The BBFC list the PAL running time as 88 minutes, but BBC Four’s showing only just hit 81. It certainly felt like there was a chunk missing somewhere in the middle — a slew of characters just disappear and there’s an unexplained leap in the plot — but I can’t think of a reasonable explanation for why or how the BBC would cut seven minutes out of the middle of a film, and the only detailed plot descriptions I can find don’t describe anything I missed.

Nonetheless, even allowing for omissions Katz gives up on any semblance of following the facts toward the end (and throughout, apparently): almost everyone involved is slaughtered, even when they clearly survived in reality, while one character is driven out of his mind, even when he clearly wasn’t… well, presumably. That said, we all know Schreck wasn’t a vampire — his life isn’t nearly mysterious enough to allow for the possibility, should you even believe in such a possibility being possible — so with that leap already taken, why not take as many others as you fancy? Perhaps because it’s not as clever, and not nearly as much fun, as fitting the preposterous tale around the known facts.

Merhige’s direction is occasionally very interesting, such as a couple of grand shots early on, but at other times is perfunctory. To be kind, one might say he goes too far in the aim of replicating silent film style — certainly the intertitles that needlessly replace chunks of the plot are a step beyond. He does manage to create and maintain a weird, unsettling atmosphere, which remains even when all sense disappears.

It’s difficult to accurately assess a film when it appears a good chunk has been lost somewhere in the middle, especially when one suspects some of its major flaws — namely, a lack of coherence at the end — may be due to this omission. On the other hand, I can’t find any evidence that something has been cut, so maybe it just doesn’t make sense? Either way, even on the evidence of what I’ve seen it feels like Shadow of the Vampire takes a good idea, runs well for a while, but winds up uncertain of what to do with it. Though it remains interesting, I won’t be rushing to see any fuller form.

3 out of 5

The Aristocrats (2005)

2008 #87
Paul Provenza | 85 mins | TV | 18

The AristocratsIt’s not unusual for films showing on TV to be prefaced with content warnings about language, sex or violence, but I don’t think I’ve ever previously seen one that feels the need to place such a warning after every single ad break. But if there’s one film that needs that treatment — or, rather, one film they could actually show on TV that needs that treatment — it’s The Aristocrats.

The Aristocrats is, apparently, an incredibly famous joke, well known to all comedians — and, generally, only told to each other, not to audiences — that is flexible enough for anyone to tell in their own way and still have it work. It’s also incredibly vulgar; in fact, the point is often to make it as vulgar as humanly possible. To explain much more would ruin the point of the film, which aims to expose and explain this cultish joke to the masses. Personally I’ve never heard of the thing, and for all I know The Aristocrats could be an elaborate Blair Witch-esque hoax — “oh yeah, all comedians know it”. Note this: the only people you’ll see throughout are comedians, and they all seem to know each other too.

Subject matter aside, there’s not much of a structure to the material presented. Mostly compiled from dozens of interviews, the resultant piece is a jumbled mix of comedians telling their version of the joke, comedians explaining variations on it (those whose telling completely changes it are the ones who succeed), comedians explaining why it’s funny, comedians explaining how it works, comedians explaining how and why it varies, comedians musing on the differences between male and female tellings of the joke…

On the other hand, even though there is a degree of repetition, there’s also a surprising amount to say about it — even by the end, when yet another comedian launching into their version has you reaching for the remote, there’s often another little titbit around the corner. In other notes: for British viewers, the biggest and most widely known names — Billy Connolly, Eddie Izzard — barely feature; for everyone, it features one of the worst ventriloquists I’ve ever seen; and a mime artist who singlehandedly makes the entire thing worthwhile.

The biggest problem with The Aristocrats — the film, not the joke — is quite a simple one: it’s about a single joke. Even the most meandering comedians tell several of those in an hour and a half. To compound the issue, said joke can vary so much as to defy a lot of comedy-killing “why’s it funny?” analysis. What you’re left with is repetitive retellings of a joke that, to be blunt, is rarely funny whatever you shove in the middle. It’s an insider’s film about an insider’s joke; for the rest of us, it rather over eggs the point.

3 out of 5

The BAFTAs 2008

British film’s big night has been and gone. I won’t offer a comprehensive list of winners, or even many thoughts on them — such things are easily found elsewhere — but I will instead offer my thoughts on one of the few ceremonies this year to be presented in full (well, relatively speaking), and the only film awards ceremony that receives a terrestrial television airing in the UK.

The first thought that comes to mind is, “oh dear”. Anyone would think the writers’ strike was affecting the UK too, if this was the evidence they had to go on. Jonathan Ross’s jokes were few and far between, and rarely gained much reaction from his audience. To be fair to Ross, Stephen Fry had a good deal of excellent material when he used to host the BAFTAs and he was often met with silence too… but not as often, and it tended to be the silence of “that went over the heads of the yanks in the audience” rather than of “it wasn’t that funny…”

I like Ross as a presenter, generally speaking — I enjoy his Friday night show, and while I rarely catch his radio show (I’m rather lax about listening to anything on the radio) I enjoy that even more; and I liked Film 2000-whatever, because I often find I agree with his views and have some broadly similar tastes. But he’s no BAFTA host. He’s just not funny enough… oddly, because his work at the Comedy Awards is usually hilariously good.

The opening, with a troop of 300-style Spartans, was by far the most interesting bit. It all seemed quite incongruous for an awards show, but through this it suggested a show with some flair and excitement. Sadly it just remained incongruous, with nothing else even vaguely close amongst the endless troop of fairly famous people reading poorly from an autocue. Even that Spartan-packed opening was flawed, missing out on the apparently obvious joke of having someone enter and yell, “THIS. IS. BAFTA!”, which would’ve been a far stronger opening than… whatever Jonathan Ross said. I can’t remember now…

It’s a shame we couldn’t make a better fist of it for a year when more eyes than ever were on the BAFTAs, thanks to the faltering performance of US awards shows under the strike. A new host would help. Eddie Izzard, maybe — he got laughs. So did Ricky Gervais, not that he’d do it. But when even Hugh Laurie can’t bridge the cultural divide of British and American humour, you have to wonder if the host is doomed to failure from the start. At least the awards themselves threw up some surprises, with enough nods to the American films (and a consequent shunning of British talent) to keep them interested — I do wonder if the BAFTAs pander to trying to gain an American audience too much, but one could probably debate that for hours.

There’s one thing we do better though: fewer awards, and we don’t even screen them all. It makes for a much less tiring experience.

The Cat’s Meow (2001)

2007 #92
Peter Bogdanovich | 109 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

The Cat's MeowPossibly-true ‘murder mystery’ set in 1920s Hollywood.

As with the similar Gosford Park, the point lies less in plot and more in characterisation — there are some good performances, especially from Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley and Edward Herrmann, though Kirsten Dunst seems a bit flat in comparison. The era’s style suits her though, and the whole period is beautifully evoked; for my money the prettiest scenes are the black & white bookends.

Sadly the similarity to Gosford Park is the film’s main shortcoming: once realised, it’s clear that The Cat’s Meow doesn’t have the same subtle complexity in its story or performances. In its own right, though, there’s much to like.

3 out of 5