DVD Corner: “Valkyrie”

Posted May 15, 2009, at 6:26 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

“Valkyrie” DVD, Blu-ray: Bryan Singer’s slick, engrossing thriller finds Tom Cruise acquitting himself nicely in a buckled-down performance that’s more restrained than anything the actor has offered in recent memory. Cruise is Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, the real-life German officer who joined others in World War II in a daring July 1944 plot to get close to Hitler (David Bamber) and blow him up. Among those assisting him were Gen. Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), Maj. Gen. Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), and other officers played by Tom Wilkinson, Terrence Stamp and Eddie Izzard, all of whom deepen their underwritten characters with more interest than they might have had otherwise. Since anyone with a passing knowledge of history knows that Hitler ended his life by suicide, the amount of suspense Singer wrings from the failed plot to kill him is impressive. He does so by relying on the suspense inherent in how everything went wrong. Those are the details some won’t know, and Singer places his bets on them and builds upon them. He pays particular attention to how the plot was executed, how some on the inside questioned whether it could succeed, and also on the group’s tense efforts to alter Operation Valkyrie. If Hitler agreed with the desired changes — and he had to agree in order for them to go into effect — they would unleash Germany’s reserve army upon Berlin in ways that would assist the Resistance in the wake of the Fuhrer’s death. From this, the movie brews at a nice clip, with Cruise (who looks uncannily like the real Stauffenberg) carrying his share of the action amid a top-notch cast game to carry the rest of it. Especially good is Wilkinson as Gen. Friedrich Fromm, who saw in this plot a way to advance himself or, if the plan collapsed, an unfortunate way to end his life. As such, he wavers on the sidelines, publicly pledging his allegiance to Hitler while waiting for his opportunity either to rise into a better position if the coup succeeded or, if it failed, to call out all of those who tried to kill Hitler. By far, he’s the most nuanced character in a worthwhile movie further heightened by Newton Thomas Sigel’s sterling cinematography. Rated R. Grade: B+

“American Dad, Vol. 4”: The CIA under direct fire. The fourth season of “American Dad” follows CIA agent Stan Smith, whose life continues to be unconventional in ways that perhaps only animation can best underscore — the medium finds truth in the abstract, and this show is all about the abstract. In this season, the James Bond franchise is skewered, with highlights including the episodes “Oedipal Panties,” “Tearjerker,” “Pulling Double Booty” and the funny “Choosy Wives Choose Smith.” Developed by the creators of “The Family Guy,” the show has yet to mine its predecessor’s potential, but with this season improving over what came before it, there’s every indication it will. Grade: B

“Boston Legal: Season Five”: Before it ended its run with its final season, this marvelous show featured one of the best casts working on television. Dialogue, characters and story came together seamlessly in this jaunty legal dramedy, with James Spader and William Shatner tapping into a chemistry that continued to thrive straight through to the end. The ending of each show is the mint on the pillow, with these two cutting loose over brandy and a cigar in ways that nicely loosened up network TV. Add the acidity of Candice Bergen, who found a career high point here, and you have what once was one of the better series on television. Grade: A

“The Grudge” Blu-ray: This 2004 horror bust begins with heady news: “When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, a curse is left behind. Those who encounter it die, and a new curse is born.” Here’s hoping they’re wrong, because should someone kick the can after seeing this beauty on Blu-ray, curses will descend everywhere. Shot in the washed-out blues of a corpse, the film stars Sarah Michelle Gellar as Karen, an American nurse living in Tokyo with her boyfriend (Jason Behr). When Karen volunteers to tend to a mentally unstable American woman at a nearby house, she finds it haunted by a little boy who shrieks like a cat and his mother, who makes a corrosive, gargling noise whenever she appears onscreen. Each died brutally. Since Karen has entered the house, she is in danger of also dying because the curse now infects her. Bill Pullman and Clea DuVall appear in sketchy flashbacks, but how they’re introduced to the story is so muddled, it kills the fun. In the end, “The Grudge” is sludge, with time fragmented so completely, it generates a train wreck of confusion onscreen. Rated PG-13. Grade: D-

“Last Chance Harvey” DVD, Blu-ray: Some movies you want to hang for their contrivances; others you’re able to overlook in spite of them. Joel Hopkins’ “Last Chance Harvey” is the latter. With one exception —and it’s the exception that matters — there isn’t one element in this movie that hasn’t been painstakingly manufactured, sometimes to the point of inducing nausea given the gross run of sentiment the script courts. But if you have a cast that can approach the material straight and balance it with real emotion, little miracles can happen onscreen that otherwise wouldn’t have happened at all. “Harvey” is that movie. It’s the story of two lonely, single adults of a certain age and from different continents who are on the cusp of resigning themselves to living the rest of their lives without a significant other. There’s Harvey (Dustin Hoffman), a musician whose marriage ended in failure, and there’s Kate (Emma Thompson), who has a neurotic mother to contend with while her co-workers set her up on blind dates. Then fate strikes — and strikes, and strikes — when she meets Harvey, who arrives in London for his estranged daughter’s wedding. Harvey and Kate meet at the airport, where she works. Then they sort of meet much later when he’s getting out of the cab she’s getting into. Finally, they meet for real at a bar and have a conversation about who had the worst day. That would be Harvey, who just was fired from his job on the very day his daughter’s wealthy stepfather (James Brolin) was chosen to walk her down the aisle. He also missed his flight back to New York, but as the conversation bubbles up between him and Kate, it becomes clear that missing the flight may have been a blessing. Obviously, these two were made for each other. So, yes, all of it is contrived, but it’s also charming, endearing and well-acted. Hoffman and Thompson have the sort of believable and necessary chemistry this sort of movie needs if it’s to succeed. Since they do, it does. “Last Chance Harvey” is a date movie for adults who can brush aside the cliches in favor of watching two pros make acting look far easier than it is. Rated PG-13. Grade: B

“Mission Impossible: Sixth TV Season”: Well, not impossible, though each mission certainly is a challenge. Since each show begins with the lighting of a fuse, it’s up to the writers, the director and the cast to sustain the excitement and tension inherent within. In the sixth season of this influential espionage show, that proves true once again, with the writing as tight and inventive as ever. Here, the world is reduced to the size of a postage stamp and we’re all over it, with Peter Graves, Martin Landau, Greg Morris, Barbara Bain and Peter Lupus smoothly washing their hands of their share of criminals. Entertainment is key here — gadgets abound — but so is credibility. The show embraces each. Grade: B+

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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