Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Review: Valkyrie
2 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Superheroes may have ruled the summer blockbusters, but Nazis are the suited figures dominating cinemas this winter. By year's end, more than five major films themed around some aspect of Nazi Germany will have been released, including “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “Adam Resurrected,” “The Reader,” “Defiance,” and “Good.” Bryan Singer, who's perhaps best known for helming the Oscar-winning cult classic “The Usual Suspects” but more recently notable for taking on projects like “X-Men” and “Superman Returns,” should have stuck with the warm weather pack. His Hitler-assassination thriller, “Valkyrie,” which has him directing Tom Cruise in the fading star's latest futile attempt at a comeback, is sure to be the worst of this Reich-ridden lineup. Burdened by Cruise's misguided, distractingly self-important performance, it's a shoddy, Hollywood-ized take on an otherwise fascinating true story.

Cruise is Nazi Colonel Clauss von Stauffenberg, a key player in the German Resistance movement and the key player in a film that's loaded with characters who have very German names but are portrayed by very not-German actors. In “Valkyrie”'s opening sequence, Stauffenberg, while on patrol in the deserts of Africa, is severely wounded in an aerial attack. The incident costs the colonel his right hand, a few fingers, and his left eye, forcing him to wear a pirate patch and giving Cruise the opportunity to once again pursue character depth via facial disfigurement (see “Minority Report,” “Vanilla Sky”). It also facilitates Stauffenberg's traitorous-but-noble desire to dethrone Hitler (played by relative unknown David Bamber), a man who, in July of 1944 when the film is set, had become “not only an enemy of the world, but an enemy of Germany.”

In Stauffenberg's corner is a handful of high-ranking military men, all of whom have similar minds for treason and most of whom are played by classically-trained Brits. There's Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), who takes an early crack at offing the Fuhrer with a killer Cointreau bottle; General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), who shapes up to be Stauffenberg's closest ally; General Ludwig Beck (Terrence Stamp), a behind-the-scenes asset with copious political influence; and General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), a shrewd coward playing both sides. With none of these men up to the task, Stauffenberg assumes the responsibility of taking out Hitler himself by hand-delivering plastic explosives to one of the dictator's wooded outposts. He code-names the mission Operation Valkyrie after Germany's Reserve Army, which is meant to be employed to intercept a rebellion against the government but is instead duped into expediting one.

The best thing about “Valkyrie” is that it gets right to the point. It wastes very little time with potentially taxing backstories and/or broad coverage of WWII and instead leaps right into the task at hand. Sadly, that's about as far the movie's observance of audience concerns goes. Stauffenberg's actual act of planting the bombs is the only portion that generates any real suspense. The remaining chunk is a by-the-numbers exercise in stale plotting and studio standards. The disappointingly stock script by Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”) and first-timer Nathan Alexander is peppered with flagrant foreshadowing and oh-no-they-didn't dialogue. In the first half especially, nearly every scene is capped off with an over-emphatic exit line plucked right out of Hollywood's bargain bin, such as, “Only God can judge us now,” and, “This is a military operation – nothing ever goes according to plan” (no need for the “duh-duh-duh” music; the actors have that area covered). Two of this year's best movies, “Man on Wire” and “Frost/Nixon,” also gave accounts of well-documented historic events, but did so with smart and breathless pacing that created tension despite viewers' knowledge of the outcomes. “Valkyrie” fails to achieve that same urgency because it's so clearly a commercial concoction, led by none other than Tom Cruise.

I imagine that this movie will infuriate many Germans, especially those few who survived and/or sympathized with the events depicted. With Cruise as the conductor, any cultural authenticity is hopelessly derailed. Speaking in his American-as-apple-pie-voice and sticking out like a sore thumb among a cast of Europeans (at least the Brits are from the right side of the pond), the former box-office king feels about as alien to this picture as his space-cadet religion must feel to his fans. His presence is hulking and bizarre, further stripping the film of its prestige and revealing it as a shameless star vehicle. If his involvement is not part of his own effort to revamp his waning career, then what is he doing here? Surely the director didn't take on a film about Nazi Germany and immediately think to call Tom Cruise. I've long prided myself in the ability to separate stars' public images from their work on screen but Cruise is my Kryptonite. His peculiar paparazzi persona now follows him into the film frame, irrevocably blurring the line between the personal and the professional. If he's ever able to reestablish that divide and make a triumphant return worth watching, I'll be there, but “Valkyrie” ain't it.

The few German actors who do appear in this film are given blink-and-miss bit parts. The lovely and talented Carice Van Houten (“Black Book”), who plays Stauffenberg's wife, Nina, has about eight lines and is assigned such not-so-subtle actions as gripping her belly to let us know she's pregnant. Another is East Germany-born Thomas Kretschmann (Peter Jackson's “King Kong”), who's cast as Reserve Army leader, Major Otto Ernst Remer, and handed some of the screenplay's more priceless gems. Take this beaut, which he barks at a courier who's repeatedly brought him false alarms: “In ancient Greece, you would have been killed for this,” he says. “Lucky for you, we've evolved.” Yeah, thanks. It's a good thing the brains behind “Valkyrie” never lived in ancient Greece.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Review: Doubt
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

A telltale sign of a great film is the desire – no, the need – to see it again with the prescient knowledge that the second viewing will lead to the third and, eventually, the twenty-third. Such a feeling bubbles up after watching John Patrick Shanley's big screen rendering of his Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning morality play, “Doubt,” but not immediately. The hunger for another go-round doesn't hit you until the trip home. What comes first at the end of this enigmatic stunner is the overwhelming gratification of its performances. Headlined by the incomparable Meryl Streep, the movie is a showcase of magnificent acting. It's the hottest ticket in town for those who, like me, prefer their drama in big, thunderous portions and served to them by actors whose intensity of talent damn-near shakes the theater floor.

Set in 1964 (which we learn from cleverly planted dialogue rather than intertitles), “Doubt” takes place entirely in and around St. Nicholas, a Catholic school in the Bronx overseen with ironclad scrutiny by its dreaded principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep). Recently, St. Nicholas has seen two new arrivals: Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a progressive and liberal priest aiming to make the school more user-friendly, and 12-year-old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), its first black student. Uniformly shunned by his peers, Donald forms a bond with Flynn, a fellow misfit whose methods and ideas are met with great disdain from Sister Aloysius. When the meek Sister James (Amy Adams) is given an inkling that Flynn's and Donald's association goes beyond mere friendship, she informs Sister Aloysius and unwittingly sets off an electrifying chain of events. Armed with all the proof she needs (which is none), the headstrong headmistress is instantly and utterly convinced of Flynn's guilt. She takes Sister James' subtle tip-off and initiates a one-woman quest for justice, focusing all of her steely resolve on ejecting Flynn from the school for good.

Housed within “Doubt”'s simple and straightforward infrastructure is a wellspring of densely layered themes and ingenious ambiguities. These days, a story about priesthood pedophilia is, unfortunately, nothing new, but the way this one is told will challenge, rattle, and, ultimately, floor you. An equal case is made for both Flynn and Sister Aloysius, and the questions of who is innocent and who is guilty are in a constant tug-of-war. Shanley's words, which are written like velvet and spat out like fire, are so cunning and duplicitous, they, along with the characters' actions, are intended to polarize the audience. I saw this film with an intelligent person whose opinion I respect. The two of us emerged from it with opposite interpretations of the outcome, neither of them incorrect. Both morally conflicted characters are drawn with balanced cause for sympathy and suspicion and who you are will determine your reaction. Every point has a counterpoint, every unturned stone another beneath it. Nestled in there, too, believe it or not, is a surprising abundance of gallows humor, making the movie not only thought-provoking but amusing as well.

While “Milk,” “The Dark Knight,” “Burn After Reading,” and “Rachel Getting Married” all featured stellar ensembles, when it comes to colossal acting across the board, there's no better one-stop shop this year than “Doubt.” Adams, who's perfectly cast, channels her inherent smarts and sweetness into her best role since “Junebug,” embodying the story's minimal purity and providing a glimmer of hope. Viola Davis (“Nights in Rodanthe”), who plays Donald's desperate mother and delivers some of the film's most shocking revelations, is so devastating, she will blow you away. Hoffman, who has yet to give a less-than-excellent performance, claims the part of Father Flynn with a commanding authority. Streep, who surely needs no introduction, does the same with Sister Aloysius, and with even greater impact. If Cherry Jones' Tony-winning take on this character is indeed better, as many say, then I'm gonna need a seatbelt if and when I see it because Streep nearly takes the house down. Icy-cold but passionately driven, her work here is even more intimidating than her editrix in “The Devil Wears Prada” due to Sister Aloysious' unswerving purpose. If there's any actor working today who's more innately gifted than Streep, he or she has never crossed my path. Aside from her dramatic ardor, she has a way of interacting with people and things within in a scene that's so natural, it would go virtually unnoticed if it wasn't so rare. You can expect her, Adams, Davis, and Hoffman to all be up for Oscars come January.

You can also expect people to tell you that “Doubt” suffers from “staginess.” You can expect them to say that its look is too bland and that its sometimes blatantly metaphorical speech is too Broadway for the screen. But I say, when the material is this provocative and the talent this explosive, a stage is all that's needed. “Doubt” needs no garnishes. Shanley – who also directed – called in ace cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo”) to make his sequences picture-perfect, but what's depicted is appropriately free of showy embellishments. What you get is hallways, classrooms, offices, pathways, and chapels, all of them impeccably composed. If you require more than that, you've missed the point.

“Doubt” is a film I can't wait to own on DVD. Its lingering power not only bears repeating in its entirety but also warrants the point-and-select enjoyment of its many compulsively watchable scenes. Before that, I'll be back to the theater to feed the hunger and see it again. “Doubt” is one of the best movies of the year and of that there is no – oh, you know.


Review: Australia
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

for Your Movie Buddy's "Australia" Review

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Review: Frost/Nixon
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The title sums it up: “Frost/Nixon” is a face-off. Adapted by playwright-turned-screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen”) from his own Tony Award-winning Broadway smash, it's a whip-smart dramatization of the interview sessions between British journalist David Frost and former president Richard Nixon that rocked the television airwaves in 1977. An inside look behind the scenes of the the events leading up to the battle-of-wits broadcast, the film is deftly directed by Ron Howard and enthralling from start to finish. Its pace is breathless because it has a clear, pressing objective to which it builds from minute one: Nixon's eventual on-air confession of guilt regarding the Watergate scandal.

As the movie begins, those viewers who remember Tricky Dick's 1974 impeachment-impending resignation are invited to relive it while the rest of us get a history lesson in the form of high-brow entertainment. In character, key members of the supporting cast – which include Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, and Matthew MacFadyen – recall the pivotal moment and its aftermath in documentary-style confessionals that are intercut with actual news footage of the era. Save Bacon, who plays Nixon's right-hand man, Jack Brenner, everyone seems to agree on one thing: the ex-president, pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford, would never be given the trial he deserves for perhaps the most infamous political crime in US history. Enter Frost (Michael Sheen), a peppy Regis Philbin-type headlining a talk show in Australia at the time of Nixon's departure. Yearning to take on a project with far more prestige than a sit-down with the BeeGees, Frost informs his skeptical producer, John Birt (MacFadyen), that he's interested in interviewing the disgraced head of state. Enter Nixon (Frank Langella), a smug and greedy shell of a man who accepts the invitation and agrees to break three years of silence with the promise of a hefty check and with every intention of outmaneuvering his neophyte host.

No one believes that Frost can produce a legitimate segment; not the networks (they all turn him down), not Brenner (he's highly protective of his boss), and, initially, not American collaborators Bob Zelnick and James Reston, Jr. (Platt and Rockwell – they both know what's at stake far more than the out-of-his-league Frost). In fact, the only other person who's gung-ho about the show is Nixon, whose self-importance is well intact despite his public humiliation. A fight for the spotlight and the upper hand kicks off between the two determined men as the interviews – paid for, essentially, out of Frost's pocket – are taped over a period of five days. And they are hypnotic to watch.

Langella and Sheen, both reprising their roles from the play, deliver their lines like shotgun blasts. I have to admit, going into this film, I had my doubts about Langella, his Tony win notwithstanding. Too many actors have already impersonated Nixon – Dan Hedaya, Beau Bridges, Anthony Hopkins – and too many of them unconvincingly. Langella sent my trepidations right out the window. He turns Nixon into something we haven't seen before: a complex cinematic character. He transcends the obligatory prosthetic nose and peace signs in the air and makes the man his own, humanizing him while still playing him as despicable. Destined to be nominated for an Oscar, it's a towering and spellbinding performance. In the other corner is Sheen, a can't-miss actor who re-teams with Morgan after delicately portraying Tony Blair in “The Queen.” Outshined by Langella's powerhouse but more than capable of holding his ground, Sheen gives another seemingly effortless turn. Together, the two stars spin Morgan's material into pure dramatic gold.

“Frost/Nixon” is Ron Howard's best-directed film since 1995's “Apollo 13.” Naysayers may argue the validity of 2001's multiple Oscar-winner “A Beautiful Mind” but, seven years later, who but cinemaniacs like me even remember it? Howard's newest title ranks among the great movies about broadcast journalism, where it will remain for years to come. It also affords the filmmaker the get-out-of-jail-free-card he'll probably need when “The Da Vinci Code” prequel, “Angels & Demons,” drops with a thud in 2009. Though it criminally sidelines some great actors to highlight its titular match-up, “Frost/Nixon” is a seat-pinning locomotive of a movie. It barrels toward its destination, reaches it, and comes to a smooth, graceful stop. I was thrilled to be on board.