2 01 2009


“To understand National Socialism,” Adolf Hitler (David Bamber) confides to Col. Klaus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) midway through Valkyrie, “One must know one’s Wagner.  Do you know your Wagner?”  Yes, says our hero, but Bryan Singer, who filmed all this, doesn’t.  Nothing about the culture of Nazism as portrayed here suggests Die Walküre, in fact, except that Von Stauffenberg’s kids like to play it on the phonograph while pretending to fight epic battles in the living room with stick swords.  This is a movie about military tactics, political intrigue, and Tom Cruise using the telephone to create an empire.  He is watchable here–moreso, I would say, than he was in Tropic Thunder, and he knows how to keep an erect posture, avert his gaze, be calm under pressure, and generally command the attention of the camera.  We might expect all this, to be sure, but also much more, given that he is in the presence of some of the great character actors of our time, including the stellar Bill Nighy, the perfectly controlled Tom Wilkinson, the deliciously weasly Tom Hollander, the buttery Terence Stamp, and the corpulently flamboyant Kenneth Branagh.  Cruise can match them only because the script puts him in a position to bark orders in their direction.  That pretty face, counted upon to sell millions of tickets, can never let go of itself to get lost in a character.

As to the story, it should make sense but the filmmaker hasn’t put the camera where it should be and so it doesn’t.  Stauffenberg, after a number of mistrials, finally manages to put a bomb under Hitler who is standing at a briefing table, and to make an exit.  Behind him, the bomb goes off.  We see the smoke.  No one in that room should be alive.  But somehow Hitler is.  That all this is historically true may be interesting, but it doesn’t help the moviegoer who is expecting either success or a reasonable explanation for why things go wrong.  Here we get neither.  The plotters are rounded up and summarily shot.  Closing credit cards inform us what happened later to other characters, including Hitler himself, who suicided in 1945.

The film is larded–pardon me–with Hollywood Nazi conventions:  the open-roofed field cars, the uncountable identity checks, the “Sieg Heil”s, the unctuous “Mein Führer”s, Hitler’s haircut, the scurrying messengers with sealed orders on yellow paper, and so on.  Only one thing drifts out of this chaos and takes form, and that is Nighy’s utterly sharp performance as a man whose habits are too meticulous, whose eyes keep fluttering around like a nervous egret’s, whose lips curl when we don’t expect them to, and who is ultimately a coward.  Every instant he is onscreen, the film comes alive.


Tropic Blunder

20 08 2008

Not long into Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, a thirtysomething British film director, whose incapacities shooting a Vietnam-war-style thriller with “big Hollywood talent” have driven the producer to the point of commanding a gaffer to punch him in the nose, and who has decided, thanks to the advice of the wartorn, bedraggled writer whose book the movie is based on, to haul a small team into the jungle for “realism,” happens to step on an ancient buried landmine and get blown to smithereens. The actors, principally Stiller, Jack Black, and a slightly minstrelized Robert Downey Jr., are stunned, thinking this one of the director’s weird special effects put in place to psych them up for the intensity of the shoot. We know better. And when one of them picks up the director’s head, thinking it a prop, we know better once again. He sticks his fingers up through what remains of the neck, so that cerebral material begins to drip out like tepid pasta, and only then does it dawn on our heroes that they are in deeper than they intended to be.

This film would be less execrable than it is (not to say that it isn’t funny, because often it is hilarious) if this scene had any connection at all to the action. But the director is in the picture only to donate his head for this sequence; he has no dramatic function, nor does the explosion—there are plenty of other reality/fiction gags. Nor does the scene work more powerfully than others do to establish the terminal stupidity of our three main characters.

There is another scene with even more painful imagery, involving Ben Stiller’s hands; and plenty of nicely framed shots of people getting hit bullets where nobody wants to get hit. As the old writer, Nick Nolte is precisely as effective as anyone would hope–he has learned to master this role, certainly since The Good Thief and Hulk, and here gives it precisely the right tone and a nice developmental arc. Stiller is predictably hilarious, his head seeming to be as stuffed as that of the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, yet with old newspaper in another language, not nourishing straw. Jack Black leaves something to be wished for, alas. And Downey is utterly symphonic, although to what end I cannot manage to discern—it’s all technique, and it’s superlative, yet somehow, and not because of him, there is no real performance.

Tom Cruise, who has convinced a large public that he is a bombastic, self-adoring, narcissistic cur is here cast in the role of a bombastic, self-adoring, narcissistic cur, with body padding, thick hair where no man has thick hair, and a potty mouth that could teach any rapper a thing or two. Ten seconds of this is quite enough, but we get whole scenes, building to whole other scenes. The final credit sequence, starring Cruise, makes any sensitive soul want to race out of the theater.