Thursday, January 29, 2009


The President of the United States of America is perhaps the most important and influential occupation in the World. Along with the title comes a general sense of reverence and awe. You would think that this quality of inspiration there would be more films about American Presidents, but unfortunately it seems awe of position does not translate to quantity of film. Interestingly, the President with the most films about or related to his administration and legacy is the very same President who devalued the Presidency and disengaged many young Americans from politics. That President is Richard Milhous Nixon. And now we have the latest work in the medium to take a crack at exposing the man: Frost/Nixon.

Directed by Ron Howard and written for the screen by Peter Morgan, based on his own stage play, Frost/Nixon is a dramatization of the famous David Frost interviews. This is not a piece of history I am particularly familiar with, but I had known before seeing the film that the interviews had been the first time since leaving office that Nixon opened up publicly regarding Watergate. The film itself presents both the work that went into getting the interviews to happen as well as the taping of the interviews themselves. Unfortunately, only the latter section works as an intriguing look into the characters or the magnitude of the event.

The first half is defined by its monotonous march toward the interviews. It’s not clear why it takes so long to get to the part of the film the audience wants to see, but the film is not helped by the wait. Too much time is spent on British talk-show personality, David Frost, who, while well acted by Michael Sheen, is not given much depth aside from some extreme personal financial stakes in the endeavour. Too much time is also spent on redundant exposition told through artificially constructed talking-head segments featuring the supporting players. Ultimately Frost just isn’t that interesting as a character and the film does little to add any emotional weight to his situation.

Luckily the film begins to pick up speed when Frank Langella’s Richard Nixon shows up. Langella creates in Nixon a fully three-dimensional character. He is at once despicable and charming. He lives in his own world of anecdotal incidents that make up the good times of his Presidency, while blissfully ignoring the scandals that haunt him. You can see in Nixon’s eyes the deep sadness hidden so well behind his mask; it’s a testament to Langella that he was able to infuse Nixon with a soulful humanity, but never giving him vindication. Nixon is a man who knows he wronged the nation and witnessing a man dealing with a pain no other person in the world can know is beautiful.

Frost/Nixon truly picks up speed when the interviews get going. All we want to see is Nixon taken down a peg, but for the majority of the twelve interview sessions (only four are presented in the film) Nixon’s shell of old stories and rambling dialogue keeps him secure. It is only in the last interview that the shell begins to crack. He can no longer escape the truth of what occurred in the final months of his Presidency and his emotions begin to take over. He teadfastly maintains his innocence, but he lets his pain and sadness bubble to the surface. The film discusses the power of the close-up to see into the soul of a person, and this is put very well into practice in the final interview. The film’s process of recreating and adapting the interviews is an exercise well worth the time. We are able to gain an insight into what it must have been like in the room as the interviews were taking place. It really is electric.

The writing is generally quite good and the direction is acceptable. The conceit of documentary-like talking-heads never really feels natural and mostly does not work at all to enhance the film. Visually there is not much of interest going on, but the film really doesn’t need any great visual flares. Ron Howard once again proves himself to be the best competent-but-uninteresting director in Hollywood. He has no discernible style and his films don’t seem to have many thematic links, but like most of his filmography Frost/Nixon is generally well directed and constructed.

In the end Frost/Nixon, like its title, is two sided and maybe a little schizophrenic. When the film is focusing on David Frost it slows to a halt. When the focus is pulled to Richard Nixon the film is totally engaging. What this creates is really a film where the first half is merely fine, whereas the second half more often than not edges toward greatness. Did this film deserve the Best Picture nomination it got at the Oscars? Not at all. Is the film worth your time? I’d say so. It isn’t a bad film by any means, and the subject is certainly fascinating (though the historical importance of the interviews is exaggerated more than slightly,) but the film never achieves the greatness to so longs for. In the end Frost/Nixon is a decent showcase for the amazing acting talent of Frank Langella, as well as providing possibly the most insightful look into the psyche of the 37th President of the United States.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

My Bloody Valentine 3D!

Sometimes I go to movies to be transported. Sometimes I go to get a harsh dose of reality. And sometimes I go see a movie just to have a damn good time. These are the Pirates of the Caribbeans and Transformers of the world. These are the Troll 2s and Snakes on a Planes. These are the My Bloody Valentine 3Ds.

My Bloody Valentine 3D is a remake of an old low-budget Canadian horror film. I haven’t seen the original, though I have heard terrible things. But when I saw that a remake of a bad slasher flick was out - and in glorious 3D no less! – I knew I had to see it. I may be a bit of a movie snob, but I’m certainly not above the cheap thrills of a decent (or terrible) B-movie.

AND WHAT CHEAP THRILLS! There are gallons of fake blood, body parts severed in ever-imaginative ways, numerous skulls impaled on pickaxes, ridiculous writing, over-the-top acting, about two or three different prologue sequences and what is likely the longest, most gratuitous nude scene ever in a horror movie. Did I mention that the movie is in fancy new digital 3D? Well… IT IS! Really, what more could a movie-lover ask for?

The movie is about a town where a miner, named Harry Warden, who had been accused of killing all of his fellow workers in a cave-in, woke up from a comma and killed scores of people and teenagers. Now, ten years later, on the anniversary of the killings and on Valentines Day, the killer is back. Oh, what fun! There is killing and mystery and what seems to be an unnatural number of scorned lovers. It all adds up to one of the best times I’ve had in the cinema in a while.

Very little about My Bloody Valentine 3D is scary. Actually, none of it is really all that scary. There were one or two jump-out-of-the-dark moments, that were less than well earned, and a couple of times the 3D is used to elicit a healthy flinch, but mostly this is a movie to go to for a good laugh. And what a laugh I had! It helped that the whole theatre, and even the movie itself, seemed in on the joke. Coming out of the theatre I knew I had seen a terrible movie; I also knew it was totally worth the price of admission.

Here’s the point: If you don’t mind a lot of gore, and even more cheesy plotting and dialogue, then My Bloody Valentine 3D warrants a recommendation. If you are a fan of early 80s slasher films then you’ll probably love this film. This is the B-movie at it’s best and I’m not ashamed to say that I loved every second of it. Did I mention that the 3D is really damn cool? Well… IT IS! My Bloody Valentine 3D is really just a damn good time at the movies.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Hamster-Approved Top 10 Films of 2008!

So it has come to this. I have seen most of the noteworthy films of 2008 and it is time to formulate a list and rank them to reveal which films stand above the rest as the best of 2008. Click "Read More" to... read more.

10. JCVD

JCVD brings "meta" to a whole new glorious level, with perhaps the most surprising performance of the year. Jean-Claude Van Damme is superb playing himself and the film itself is well directed. Van Damme is never the butt of a joke, except to the other characters in the film. He is a real man with real problems. A great examination of the potential pitfalls of stardom, and a fun film to boot.

9. Synecdoche, New York

Did I say that JCVD brings "meta" to a whole new level? Well, I must have meant Synecdoche, New York. This film practically gives "meta" a whole new meaning. Hoffman is fantastic as a man so obsessed with himself and his own impending death that he creates several real-time plays within plays to recreate his life. It's a difficult film to wrap your mind around, but if you at least try to I believe you'll be greatly rewarded.

8. Rachel Getting Married

A film of fantastic performances and realistic family drama. Rachel Getting Married is painful to watch, but it's also real and hopeful and probably the best representation of actual family dynamics I've ever seen on film. These are people who have profound issues communicating with each other, and they often do or say horrible things to one another, but they are family, and seeing a family attempt to pull through their issues with each other is fascinating to watch. It's also quite emotional. Bring Kleenex.

7. My Winnipeg

Guy Maddin: Canadian auteur. It isn't enough for him to play with antiquated silent film style; he has to go a invent a whole new genre of film. And thus we have the "docu-fantasia." My Winnipeg is an ode to a hometown, albeit a strange one in which Maddin tries to find out why he can seem to escape its grasp. I don't know how much of the film's "facts" are actually true, but I just imagine they are both all true and all made up at the same time. The film is delightful and truly brings to mind the love/hate relationship most people have with the city or town they grew up in.

6. In Bruges

A hitman film with heart. In Bruges is riotously funny and also deeply moving; often at the same time. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson share the best screen-chemistry of the year and the script by writer-director Martin McDonagh is fantastic. When a movie that can make jokes about "racist midgets" can also have you on the verge of tears you know you're seeing one of the best films of the year.

5. Wall-E

I think Wall-E is absolutely brilliant. It suffers a bit in the second half, but it remains great and the first half more than makes up the difference anyway. Andrew Stanton shows he is not a director to be taken lightly with this film. He also weaves together the best love story of the year. And you thought a robot romance couldn't make you tear up! Add to that some amazing visuals, and great slapstick comedy in the vein of Keaton and Chaplin and you've got the makings of an animated masterpiece. I don't think it's Pixar's best, but it's definitely up there.

4. Paranoid Park

Gus Van Sant is getting a lot of love for his biopic, Milk, but for my money Paranoid Park is his better film. It's the story of a skater kid who gets involved in the murder of a security guard. It is also so much more. The film is beautifully realized both visually and through the acting efforts by a cast of mostly non-actors an unknowns. The pace is languid and dreamy and the narration is actually one of the better aspects of the film. Few films are able to capture the alienation many kids feel during high-school, but Paranoid Park gets it exactly right. It's not your average film and likely wouldn't appeal to most, but if you can stomach the pacing and don't need much plot in your films you should give Paranoid Park a shot.

3. The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan's sequel to Batman Begins is both an incredible achievement and a damn fine film. The film is an epic crime saga that attempts to subvert, but never ignore, it's humble comic book roots. The acting is great, with Heath Ledger as The Joker stealing the show. The cinematography, including sections filmed on IMAX cameras, is often stunning. But where the film really shines is the depth of the themes it explores. Never has a comic book film delved so deeply into the metaphysical implications of the superhero. It does help that The Dark Knight is extremely entertaining; how about that 18-wheeler flipping!

2. Slumdog Millionaire

I saw Slumdog Millionaire at the Toronto International Film Festival and I've been singing its praises ever since. This hyper-real Dickensian fairy tale is exciting, adventurous, dark, loud, funny, heart-wrenching, lovely and romantic and all in just over two hours. It seems Danny Boyle had to go to the streets of Mumbai to make his best, most personal film. It is full of style, wit and charm and never has a problem following standard convention to suit its needs. Slumdog Millionaire is what going to the movies is all about: transporting us to another world.

1. The Wrestler

What can I really say that I haven't already? The Wrestler is perfection. If Slumdog Millionaire is a demonstration of cinema's ability to transport then The Wrestler is a demonstration in its ability to present raw reality. The Wrestler is an extreme emotional experience and is like shocking jolt to the system. It is real and heartbreaking, but also hopeful and redemptive. I believe that if you take my top three films you can get a good idea of the state of the human consciousness in the year 2008. It is a dark and uncertain time, but there is undeniable hope and The Wrestler presents both sides of that coin to perfection.

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The Wrestler

I remember the first time I saw No Country for Old Men: I came out of the theatre knowing I’d seen something, but I did not know exactly what that something was. I ended up seeing the film a further four times in the theatre and named it the best film of 2007. Watching Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, The Wrestler, provided what was essentially the opposite experience: I left the theatre with the very clear knowledge that I had just witnessed a masterpiece. The Wrestler is film at its finest.

The Wrestler tells the story of Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Twenty years ago he was a superstar in the world of pro-wrestling, but now he is resigned to living in a trailer, working at a grocery store, and exploiting his former fame to make money wherever he can. After a particularly brutal match, Randy suffers a heart attack and is told to give up wrestling. Now, merely a shadow of his former self, Randy begins a search for the human connection he has craved for years. The film follows this journey as he attempts to both romance a stripper at the club he frequents, and form a bond with his estranged daughter.

In Randy, we find a deeply conflicted man who cannot seem to reconcile his former life with his present reality. He holds on to memories of the past as closely as possible; in one scene, he dusts off his old Nintendo system and plays a game starring his wrestling persona The Ram against a kid from his trailer park. When the kid makes a comment about the latest video games on the market, Randy is at a loss. He is stuck in the 80s, right down to his hair and the music he loves: few people other than Randy would ever say that music from the 80s was “the best.”

The centrepiece of The Wrestler is Mickey Rourke’s gut-wrenching performance as Randy. The praise being heaped upon him is more than warranted. Rourke imbues every expression and movement with life. Many viewers and critics familiar with Rourke’s personal life have drawn parallels between Rourke and Randy, inferring that he was practically playing himself. The character’s situation may bear similarities to that of Rourke’s, but to say that the actor is merely playing himself denies him the credit that he deserves. In Randy Robinson, Rourke has created a complete person, and there is no other way to describe this accomplishment. Randy is not a mere character in a film: he is a flesh and blood person; teeming with emotion and sincerity and true humanity. Through Rourke, we are allowed to witness a real person searching for redemption and his place in the world. Some others have said it before me, but I will say it again: Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler is very easily one of the greatest performances ever captured on film.

Luckily, I am able to say that Rourke is not the only incredible thing about The Wrestler: Darren Aronofsky is just as much of a star. I haven’t really liked Aronofsky’s work in the past, mostly because I’ve found his films to be messy and seriously lacking emotion, but with The Wrestler, I feel he has found the perfect balance between his gritty realist style and the emotion inherent in the story and the lead performance. The cinematography is mostly handheld and the film is shot on grainy 16mm stock, which really helps to ground the film in reality. The editing is simple and never calls attention to itself, but is also extremely effective and powerful in many instances. There are a lot of shots from behind following Randy - and occasionally other characters - which help to give the impression of a star entering a room or an athlete entering a stadium. Through these shots, which are quite frequent, we see from the characters’ point of view while also delving into the deeper psyche of their relations to those around them. These kinds of stylistic touches are ever-present in The Wrestler and are beautiful to look at, yet add real substance to the film.

The Wrestler wouldn’t be a Darren Aronofsky film without some truly disturbing scenes and images. In The Wrestler, one particular scene comes to mind. Before the halfway mark of the film, Randy takes part in a wrestling match in which dangerous objects like a staple gun and barbed wire are used. The very gory bout is inter-cut with scenes from the dressing room after the fight in which the doctors aid with the clean up. The scene is not disturbing due to the violence, but the physicality of the images makes it difficult to sit through. We are essentially seeing a man torture himself through sport and every shot of the damage is painful and haunting. This is the scene that leads Randy to have a heart attack, and it’s really no wonder: by the end of it, I felt as though I was about to have one as well.

Randy’s love interest throughout the film is a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). He continuously makes advances toward her, but she brushes them aside because she can’t be involved with a customer. Over the course of the film, their connection deepens and the characters grow to support each other as human beings. Tomei is excellent in this role and allows the character to rise above the cliché of the “stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold.” Her performance does not show the depth of Rourke’s, but it really doesn’t need to. She is there to play off of Rourke and to allow Rourke to play off of her, and at this, she is successful. At first, it might seem that making her character a stripper was unnecessary, but for this film, this aspect of her character is requisite for the connection between her and Randy: for both of them, there is a serious disconnect between life within their work and the stark reality of the world outside of it.

The other relationship that Randy pursues in the film is one with his daughter, Stephanie, who is in her twenties. Randy is not looking for forgiveness for his failings as a father, as he knows he won’t receive it, but he wants to move beyond their history and become a part of her life again. Evan Rachel Wood plays Stephanie and, unfortunately, she is the only weak link in the film. Her acting is rarely natural, relying too heavily on crutches such as nervous tics, and she doesn’t play well off of Rourke. Luckily for her (and for the film), those scenes still work incredibly well because of Rourke, who practically does the acting for the both of them. Because of this, the importance of her character and her scenes are felt very strongly. In one noteworthy moment, Rourke bares his soul to her, asking her simply not to hate him. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone in the audience to hate Randy, but we can easily see why Stephanie would and are left to hope that she can learn not to.

The last aspect of the film worth mentioning is Robert Siegel’s fantastic screenplay. The writing here is pitch-perfect; characters who would otherwise come off as two-dimensional are written with care and given humanity. The structure of the film is also magnificent: it may be simple, but it gives us a journey to redemption that is realistic and extremely rewarding. In certain ways, Randy even serves as a Christ-like figure. This is cleverly referenced in one scene in the film. There is an economy to Siegel’s writing that Aronofsky clearly understood and this comprehension translated very well into both the visual style and the editing of the film; the true greatness of The Wrestler may be that it finds such depth in realistic simplicity.

The Wrestler is a film layered deep in pain and emotion. It features a performance that will go down as one of the best in history, as well as confident direction and keen visual style. The film follows a very simple plot with few characters and a slow pace, but it delivers in a big way when it comes to character and theme. It is a powerful film in which every scene and almost every shot is filled with layers of meaning and subtext. I’ve only had the pleasure of viewing it once as of this writing, but I can’t wait to revisit it and see what I may have missed the first time around. The Wrestler is a must-see film and one of the best films of 2008.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was one of my most anticipated releases of 2008 due to one simple factor: David Fincher. The man is a master of the art of direction and two of his films (Se7en and Zodiac) place among my favourite films of all time. When I heard that Fincher was going to be directing the big-screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, I knew instantly that it would have to be amazing. Well, I was mistaken.

Button stars Brad Pitt as the titular Benjamin, a man who is born old and ages backwards. He is born on the day that the Great War ends. His mother passes away during his birth, and his father - angered by his wife’s death by a baby who looks like something of a monstrosity - drops the baby boy off on the stoop of a retirement home. Here, a black woman named Queenie takes him in, names him Benjamin, and raises him in the old folks’ home.

The film follows Benjamin’s entire life as he ‘grows down’ from elderly child to infant senior. He goes out to sea, gets caught up in World War II, and eventually comes back home to New Orleans, and this is where the first real problem of the film begins to show: There just isn’t much to the story. It is in no way epic, no matter how much Fincher or its screenwriter, Eric Roth, would like to think so. There are many gorgeous panoramic shots of the setting, sunsets, and the sea, all meant to enhance the perceived scope of the film. Ultimately, though, a majestic vista is no surrogate for a strong plot, and there is not enough storyline here to warrant such treatment.

I place much of the blame for the film’s failure on Roth’s screenplay. Fitzgerald’s original story is light, satirical, and tends to play off of the absurdity of the circumstances; conversely, the film removes much of the story’s humour, which to me seemed quite odd. I don’t necessarily need a film to adhere to its source material for me to enjoy it, but in this case, the film seems to excise the very element that made the short story so enjoyable, the result of which is a ploddingly-paced film with a microscopic plot that is somehow stretched to a 2 hour, 40 minute run time. Eric Roth is famous for writing Forrest Gump (a film to which the press have compared Button), but that film was often light-hearted, certainly adventurous and ostensibly filled with a great variety of episodic events; it is surprising, then, that this film lacks all of the whimsy and wonder present in Gump, especially considering the rich potential of its premise.

Obviously, the other culprit is Fincher; as much as I love his work, I see now that he does not possess the same ability to convey sentimentality and emotion that a director like Spielberg does. Fincher’s films have been dark, bleak affairs, examining the more unpleasant aspects of human nature. While it’s nice to see him attempt to branch out and test his abilities, this film clearly required something too different of him. The visuals by themselves are spot-on and the special effects are extremely impressive, but without substance or purpose they are meaningless eye-candy. Fincher never finds the proper emotional tone; it is often too pensive or quiet and, save for a few moments, the film takes itself far too seriously in justifying its premise. Also, Fincher should have had the good sense to cut the unnecessary framing device from the story: It may have been in the screenplay, but it didn’t need to be in the film. Without it, the film would likely have benefited from a quicker pace and a shorter run time.

The aforementioned framing device takes place in New Orleans, 2005, just as Hurricane Katrina is approaching the coast. It is centered on a character named Caroline reading the diary of Benjamin Button to her dying mother, Daisy. Daisy is Benjamin’s main love-interest throughout the film. They cross paths numerous times and are in love with each other from a very young age. Their love story is meant to be the glue that holds the film together, much like the Forrest/Jenny relationship in Forrest Gump, but due to poor scripting and direction, their love never hits home quite like it should. As I see it, the problem with their love story stems from the biggest failure of the film: Benjamin simply isn’t an interesting character.

Really. The only thing that differentiates Benjamin from the other characters in the film is the way he looks. Though he ages backwards on the outside, this doesn’t really make him much different on the inside, although he does seem to be wiser than most are at an earlier age, which is likely due to his growing up around octogenarians. Mostly, Benjamin’s depth of expression is relegated to longing stares and inane conversations with others, revealing little space for the audience to connect with him as a human being. He is a good person, but outside of his strange deformity, not of much note. When the arc involving Daisy comes into play, it holds very little weight because it is hard to see what about Benjamin she is so drawn to.

The acting in the film is fine; Pitt is more than acceptable as Benjamin Button, but his performance never touches upon the same level of inspiration he found in either Se7en or Fight Club. Cate Blanchett is quite good and completely seductive in many scenes; if it is hard to wonder why Daisy is attracted to Benjamin, it is easy to see why he might be attracted to her. However, the most interesting character in the film is Elizabeth Abbot, portrayed by Tilda Swinton; her and Benjamin have an affair in Russia and their relationship appears to be built on a dynamic of mutual understanding which Benjamin does not appear to share with anyone else, including Daisy. Swinton is fantastic in the role and if it wasn’t for her and her character, that section of the film would have likely been an arduous experience. Another notable cast member is Taraji P. Henson, who plays Benjamin’s adoptive mother, Queenie. She expertly brings great warmth as well as endless compassion for Ben and everyone else around her to her role; she comes across as so authentically sweet and kind that I almost wish she was my own mother. I last saw Henson in Hustle & Flow, wherein she brought the same soothing energy to the screen. Current rumblings about a possible Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress are certainly not uncalled for and I can’t wait to see the next film whose screen she graces.

While I did not care for the framing device used by the film, I did like one part of it: The film begins with a story that, seemingly, is unrelated to the main plot. It tells of a clockmaker (played by Elias Koteas) whose son is sent off to fight in World War I. While making a clock for the train station, he learns of his son’s death in Europe. At the clock’s unveiling, it is revealed that its hands have been engineered to turn backwards, the symbolism of which is meant to represent the wish of that generation to turn back time and reclaim the lives of the many young men who were lost in the war. The scene is short and beautifully poignant; it is the only time I felt that the film addressed death powerfully and realistically through the eyes of the living. The sequence is also beautifully shot and realized and is one of the few points in the film where the cinematography truly works to add depth and compliment the substance present. It’s unfortunate that the film never again matches the beauty and magical realism of this opening scene.

Benjamin Button will go down as one of my most disappointing films of the year alongside Burn After Reading and Quantum of Solace. The performances are fine and the film is superficially attractive, but aside from some early hints of brilliance and a few wonderful scenes scattered throughout, the film does not deliver; it has a high gloss that that creates the illusion of substance, but when the layers are peeled back, there is little in the way of meat to find. For those hoping that Fincher would follow up Zodiac with yet another masterpiece, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is truly a sad sight to see. It had all the components in place to be the best film of the year, but instead, it is a film that probably doesn’t even warrant a viewing.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009


To say that Tom Cruise has been the subject of a huge popular backlash would be a severe understatement, but should an artist’s public antics and religious (cultist?) beliefs colour the perception of their art? I know many people (particularly Jews) who refused to see Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto due to his alleged bigotry. Gibson might be a bigot, a sexist and an anti-Semite, but I could care less about this; it doesn’t change the fact that Apocalypto is a great action film with possibly the best foot-chase I’ve ever seen. By the same token, Cruise’s couch jumping and Scientological rantings do not change the fact that his new film, Valkyrie, was the best thriller of the past year.

Valkyrie is the story of the July 20th plot by senior military and political officials within the Nazi fold to assassinate Adolf Hitler and seize control of Germany. The plot itself is quite elaborate (involving the forced order of a contingency plan called Operation Valkyrie), and seeing how far it was able to go before ultimately being crushed is stunning. If only a few small things had not gone wrong, the war would have ended sooner and millions of lives could potentially have been spared.

I would hope that everyone knows enough history to realize the plot fails, so in a way, the ending of the film is already spoiled; luckily, this film is in Bryan Singer’s hands. Coming off of the mostly disappointing Superman Returns, the director has crafted a thriller based on the conceit that everybody knows the ending. As such, the suspense must come from the dreaded anticipation of the inevitable outcome; it is a gutsy move that few directors would likely attempt. In Valkyrie, Singer combines the tone and conventions of classic war thrillers such as The Dirty Dozen with the contemporary style and sleek effectiveness of modern thrillers. Once the assassination plot begins rolling, the suspense builds and builds with the audience picking apart the plan like a puzzle, trying to find all the areas where it crumbles apart. The ending of the film also strikes a powerful chord that sells home the moral substance of the film: there were good people within Germany at the time, and - more importantly - many of those people did stand up for what was right, risking (and losing) everything in the process.

Valkyrie is filled with an almost sickening number of amazing actors. Tom Ctruise heads the cast as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the mastermind behind the plot to kill Hitler. His performance has come under attack for many reasons, namely his lack of accent and even his star-power being a distraction. These reasons are silly and miss the mark. Though his performance is not necessarily on the level it was in Magnolia, Cruise is very good here and provides a kind of detached relatability that only a true movie star can. Supplementing Cruise here are Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard and Tom Wilkinson. All notable British character actors who do a marvelous job of selling the additional characters and their motivations.

The only weak element I can find with the film is Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay. It isn’t a bad screenplay by any means, but it isn’t amazing, and it is certainly not on par with The Usual Suspects, McQuarrie’s previous collaboration with Singer. The dialogue is the real culprit here, but luckily the direction and acting are good enough to overcome the writing and even make lines as ridiculous as, “You cannot understand National Socialism if you do not understand Wagner,” simply delicious.

It is often hyperbolic to say “I was glued to my seat,” but in the case of Valkyrie, I truly was. Valkyrie is dreadfully suspenseful and is the most effective thriller of 2008. It is filled with great performances, fantastic direction, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone willing to overlook Cruise’s public persona in order to enjoy a taut thriller that tells one of the more fascinating stories of World War II. Plus: a movie about a guy with an eye-patch trying to kill Hitler? Can you ask for more?

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