The Week in Film by Robert Mann – Week Starting 23/1/09

Valkyrie ****

Coming just two weeks after the Daniel Craig starrer ‘Defiance’, ‘Valkyrie’ is the second World War Two set film to be released this year, albeit much later than it was intended to be. The journey towards this film’s release has not been an easy one with its release date being postponed multiple times, significant re-shoots allegedly being carried out and also rumours that the Golden Raspberry Awards had shown an interest. Fortunately, however, despite a lot of negative omens, this film has actually turned out ok, receiving decent reviews on its release across the pond, and also performing well at the box office there.

Based on actual events, the film sees Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), a soldier in the German army during the Second World War, attempt to build support against Adolf Hitler (David Bamber) and his regime. Initially, he is unsuccessful but following an attack on him and his men in Africa, in which he loses his left eye, he catches the attention of a group of politicians and Generals who are plotting to overthrow Hitler and whose previous assassination attempts have all failed. Stauffenberg’s plan is to use Operation Valkyrie, a contingency plan designed to take effect in the case of an uprising, against Hitler’s regime. However, first Stauffenberg must successfully assassinate Hitler and so without getting caught and that is where the problem lies.

One of the major causes for concern that has been expressed regarding ‘Valkyrie’ is the casting of Tom Cruise in the lead role. Cruise is generally regarded to not be that great an actor, essentially playing a version of himself in most of the roles he takes on, and his role in this film is no different. While he does deliver a decent performance, it is certainly not one that differs much from many of the roles he has played in other movies. Also, with the exception of the opening scene where he actually speaks in German, there is no attempt made by Cruise to put on a German accent. However, this is not exclusive to Cruise’s performance as none of the actors in this film attempt the accent either. Apparently, however, this is due to a conscious decision made by the filmmakers. In a recent interview Cruise actually said that if an actor is going to do a German accent they may as well just speak in German, so the absence of accents for the most part could be considered quite a smart move. The majority of the other cast members deliver strong performances and an extremely impressive ensemble has been assembled for the film. The fine cast includes Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard and Kevin McNally among many others, and virtually all deliver good performances. The one disappointment comes from David Bamber whose performance as Adolf Hitler fails to make much of an impact. The film is almost wholly successful in all the other areas. Director Bryan Singer delivers plenty of well-executed tension and drama, even though the film does suffer a bit from the knowledge that the plot was a failure, and is aided by a solid storyline that does an effective job at telling the story of the bravery of all those involved in the plot. On occasion, the film also provides a few thrills, with the opening sequence in which Stauffenberg’s men are attacked by the Allies being a good example of this. Overall, ‘Valkyrie’ is unlikely to win any awards but if you want to see a good, solid historical drama, and a tense and gripping suspense drama, you won’t be disappointed.


Frost/Nixon ****

In the week where he can be seen playing a werewolf in the action horror ‘Underworld: Rise of the Lycans’, British actor Michael Sheen can also be seen playing a role that couldn’t be much more different, that of British talk show host turned reporter David Frost. Based on the stage play of the same name by writer Peter Morgan, which itself was based on the real-life tapes of David Frost including former US President Richard Nixon, ‘Frost/Nixon’ doesn’t exactly sound like the most cinematic of movie-going experiences with the source material suggesting a potentially dull film, but this couldn’t be much less the case.

In 1974 following the Watergate scandal President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) resigned his post as commander-in-chief of the US. Three years later, Nixon was approached by talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen), a jet-setting television personality with a name to make. In summer 1977, the steely, cunning former President agreed to sit for one all-inclusive interview with Frost, to confront the questions of his time in office and the Watergate scandal that ended his presidency. Nixon intended to easily outfox the breezy British showman and secure a place in the hearts and minds of Americans (as well as a $600,000 fee). Likewise, Frost’s team, consisting of producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), investigators James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), and girlfriend Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall), harboured doubts about their boss’ ability to hold his own. But as cameras rolled, a charged battle of wits resulted.

Having received several Oscar nominations, there is understandably a high level of anticipation for ‘Frost/Nixon’, anticipation which the film successfully delivers upon. Much of the reason for this is the strength of acting that is on show. Michael Sheen is very good as David Frost, doing a job of capturing the mannerisms of the man himself, but the film really belongs to Frank Langella who has been nominated for a much deserved Oscar for his portrayal of Richard Nixon. He perfectly captures all the facets of Nixon’s complex personality and truly makes us believe in his character. At times charming and others self-important and arrogant, often confident but sometimes a broken man, Langella’s performance rings about as true to life as one could possibly get unless they were really Richard Nixon. There is also strong support from the rest of the cast with Rebecca Hall delivering a fantastic performance, although she is under-used, and Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt and Toby Jones all being strong performers too. It isn’t merely the acting that makes this film work though. While certainly not standing out as an obvious choice for director (his past films including ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘The Grinch’, neither of which managed to wow the critics or win any awards), Ron Howard delivers a very well executed piece that manages to take a concept that could have made for a very boring film and turn it into an extremely compelling viewing experience. It really is quite gripping stuff and with some humour thrown in also, the film proves to be pretty entertaining as well as interesting. The interviews themselves are particularly well done with them coming across like, as Langella’s Nixon says, duels, rather then mere interviews, with Frost and Nixon bouncing off each other with an air of electricity. These sequences really give Langella the opportunity to show why Richard Nixon got the name ‘Tricky Dicky’. The documentary style presentation of the film in parts, along with the use of some real news footage, helps to heighten the reality of the film, although it should be remembered that the story is INSPIRED by true events, and is not meant to accurately reflect them. As such, not everything that happens should be taken to be true. However, while it may not be a completely truthful film, it is hard to deny that it is an engaging one, and while it certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes, this is certainly a film that is worth checking out.


Underworld: Rise of the Lycans **

The first two ‘Underworld’ movies proved popular with moviegoers due to their mix vampire vs. werewolf conflict with modern day settings and gunplay, not to mention showcasing Kate Beckinsale in a skin-tight leather outfit. This third entry into the franchise, however, ditches a lot of what made those films successful. Going the prequel route this film is a period rather than contemporary piece so gone are the modern environments, as are the gun based action sequences. Also, with star Kate Beckinsale passing on this latest instalment (as well as director Len Wiseman and co-star Scott Speedman), the question is raised as to whether ‘Underworld: Rise of the Lycans’ can possibly live up to expectations set by its predecessors. The answer is sadly no.

An origins story centered on the centuries-old feud between the race of aristocratic vampires and their onetime slaves, the Lycans (werewolves), this film charts the rise of Lucian (Michael Sheen), the first of the Lycan race, as he transforms from slave to powerful leader who rallies the werewolves to rise up against Viktor (Bill Nighy), the cruel vampire king who has enslaved them. Lucian is joined by his secret lover, Sonja (Rhona Mitra), in his battle against the Vampire army and his struggle for Lycan freedom.

While it is indeed disappointing that Kate Beckinsale chose not to return for a third film, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to the return of Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen, as well as the fact that Beckinsale has been replaced by fellow British actress Rhona Mitra, who has shown herself to be a decent actress in her previous acting roles. Bill Nighy is perfectly chilling as Viktor, delivering the same standard of performance that he did in the first two films, and Michael Sheen is also pretty decent, even though he is somewhat wasted and his performance is hardly one of the best of his acting career. Sadly, however, Rhona Mitra doesn’t deliver as much here as she has in past acting roles, coming across as quite cold and emotionless, and not being much of a replacement for Beckinsale. Also, there is little chemistry between her and Michael Sheen, resulting in an on-screen relationship that doesn’t seem very convincing. The film also fails to recreate the impact of its predecessors in terms of the action sequences. Much of the action is pretty mediocre, failing to provide the necessary level of thrills, and this isn’t helped by poor editing, weak framing or effects that are competent at best. Only one sequence toward the end of the film really provides in the way of spectacle and even this is not very well executed. The blame for this falls squarely at the feet of director Patrick Tatopoulos, who may be great at special effects and creature design, having worked on numerous big effects blockbusters, but here shows that he doesn’t have much talent as a director. The other fatal flaw of the film is the plot, which adds nothing to the story or mythos of the franchise, merely retelling a story that anyone who has seen the first two films will already be familiar with, and also has few merits in its own right. Overall, ‘Underworld: Rise of the Lycans’ just seems like a pointless and unnecessary prequel and it is a film that will likely only be fully enjoyed by those who are not already familiar with the ‘Underworld’ movies.


Reviews by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

© BRWC 2010.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.



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