Wednesday, December 31, 2008


The new Tom Cruise movie "Valkyrie," a dutiful but dreary reenactment of the 20th July 1944 Hitler bomb plot is no blast. Clocking in at a tedious two hours, this military procedural potboiler about the last of 15 flawed efforts to assassinate Adolf Hitler displays immaculate production values and a first-class cast. Nevertheless, "Superman Returns" director Bryan Singer serves up no thrills or chills. Further, "Valkyrie" provides no surprises or suspense, primarily because we know already that the pusillanimous generals botched the bomb plot.

Mind you, "Valkyrie" isn't the first movie about the fateful events leading up to another bungled German Army High Command conspiracy to kill Hitler and salvage the Third Reich. The Germans themselves produced an award-winning, made-for-TV movie "Stauffenberg" about the Hitler bomb attempt in 2004. Previously, CBS-TV aired "The Plot to Kill Hitler" with "Midnight Express" star Brad Davis playing Colonel von Stauffenberg in 1990. The bomb plot played a peripheral role in the Richard Burton World War II film "Breakthrough" (1978) with Robert Mitchum. The classic Peter O'Toole World War II thriller "The Night of the Generals" (1967) contained a subplot about von Stauffenberg's fiasco. Earlier, back in 1955, West German filmmakers unveiled the first theatrical version of the same events entitled "The Plot to Assassinate Hitler" with Wolfgang Priess starring as von Stauffenberg. Even if World War II film fanatics haven't heard of Priess, they have seen him in several W.W. II films, notably "The Longest Day," "A Bridge Too Far," "Raid on Rommel," and "Von Ryan's Express."

"Valkyrie" opens in Tunisia, North Africa 1943, with the German Army's 10th Panzer Division in the desert. Colonel von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) writes in his diary about his determination to kill Hitler and save lives. Later, he speaks with a Wehrmacht officer general who resembles Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, but this officer (Bernard Hill of "Titanic") clearly isn't the legendary Desert Fox. Moments later, British fighter planes swoop down to strafe and bomb the Germans. Explosions kill the Rommel looking general while von Stauffenberg loses his left eye, his right hand, and two fingers on his left hand. Miscast as he is, Tom Cruise earns some credit for playing a radically different type of hero than he usually plays. However, the top-notch British and German actors who surround him blow him off the screen with their heavyweight performances. Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and even comedian Eddie Izzard upstage him at every turn.

After von Stauffenberg recovers from his wounds, he joins the general staff of General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy of "Underworld") and fellow conspirators Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh of "Henry V") and General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp of "Yes Man") tap him to devise a better plan to kill Hitler. Ironically, von Stauffenberg concocts a new plan when he is reunited with his family on holiday. His children spin a copy of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" on their turntable. Allied bombers break up the reunion and the needle skips off the 78 RPM record. As he huddles in an air raid shelter, von Stauffenberg hears the tone arm skip back to play the Wagner opera and his eyes glitter. The generals approve of von Stauffenberg's plan to mobilize Hitler's reserve army--codenamed 'Valkyrie'--to help them take control of the Third Reich after they have killed the dastardly dictator. Our hero sets about the task of recruiting more members for the conspiracy and devising an explosive charge that will kill Hitler. Unfortunately, von Stauffenberg begins to see why all previous assassinate attempts failed. The political and military titans of the conspiracy lack conviction and quarrel about petty details. The indecision on the part of these conspirators and von Stauffenberg's own crusade to kill the little corporal seal their doom and safeguard Hitler.

Technically, while "Valkyrie" is correct in every respect with regard to history, Singer and writers Christopher McQuarrie of "The Usual Suspects" and newcomer Nathan Alexander have made a thriller than generates monotony more often than momentum. "Valkyrie" plays out in rooms and on roads. We watch German officers get out of either planes or cars, march into buildings, enter rooms, and talk, talk, talk. Afterward, we watch these same officers exit rooms, walk out of buildings, get into either cars or planes, and head off to other interiors where they babble some more. Incredibly, there are only two quotable lines in the entire movie! Singer and company provide a few scenes between our hero and his wife, but each lacks intimacy because they are either disrupted by a bombing raid or music drowns out their dialogue.

Worse, Adolf Hitler (David Bamber of "The Bourne Identity") spends most of his time on screen puttering about in a daze. Why would any filmmaker trot out the most maniacal villain in 20th century history and reduce him to a simpering sad sack? Indeed, "Valkyrie" arouses more sympathy for Hitler than the people who proved themselves too incompetent to eliminate him. Ultimately, "Valkyrie" isn't so much a tragedy of errors as it is a humdrum movie about a conspiracy of well-meaning imbeciles who wanted to strike a bargain with the Allies before the Allied armies trampled the Fatherland. Anybody who knows their history knows about the newsreel footage of der Fuehrer stomping happily about after the debacle of the bomb attempt. Hitler is never shown performing this shtick.

Suffice to say, avoid "Valkyrie!"


Just say NO to the new Jim Carrey comedy “Yes Man” (** out of ****), a frivolous exercise in high-concept celluloid that co-stars dishy Zooey Deschanel and grim-faced Terence Stamp. This one-note nonsense about a negative-minded man who realizes the affirmative power of the word ‘yes’ recalls an earlier Carrey epic “Liar, Liar” (1997) about an unprincipled lawyer who prevaricated at the least provocation. The gimmick in “Liar Liar” was his son’s birthday wish that his father couldn’t fib. Consequently, the reformed attorney had to tell the truth no matter what the situation.

In “Yes Man,” the rubber-faced funny man must say ‘yes’ to everybody with a request. Inevitably, our hero’s life takes some hallowing turns, but nothing really surprising happens. Well, perhaps something surprising occurs in one scene where dentures in a glass of water on a night stand figures prominently. Mind you, moviegoers who appreciate risqué humor will split their sides laughing. Fastidious folks, on the contrary, may grimace with horror and feel offended by this salacious twist.

Along with its single usage of the F-word as prescribed by the Motion Picture Association of America in all PG-13 flicks, “Break Up” director Peyton Reed’s “Yes Man” recycles the typical boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl back tale. Audiences that adore Carrey’s elastic-cheeked clowning no matter what he does may find this far-fetched foolishness farcical. Discriminating audiences will feel like they’ve been cheated, even at matinee prices. At 104 minutes, “Yes Man” qualifies as more mess than merriment.

Carl Allen (Jim Carrey) loves to say ‘no.’ As a bank loan officer, nay saying is second nature to him. As it turns out, our pitiful protagonist lost his wife, Stephanie (Molly Sims of “Starsky & Hutch”), after six months of marriage because she felt Carl was too dull for her own good. Since their divorce three years ago, Carl has shunned his friends, particularly Peter (Bradley Cooper of “The Comebacks”) and Rooney (Danny Masterson of “Face/Off”), and confined himself to his apartment watching Blockbuster DVDs. At work, Carl tolerates his goofy boss, Norm (a hilarious Rhys Darby of “"The Flight of the Conchords"), who keeps inviting him to his masquerade parties. Speaking of product placement, this Warner Brothers release shamelessly touts its own movies, such as the “Harry Potter” franchise and “300” for Norm’s parties.

One day while he is relaxing outside the bank, Carl meets a former bank colleague, Nick (John Michael Higgins of “Evan Almighty”), who lives life to the hilt and shows no ill effects for all his reckless indulgence. So impressed by Nick’s carefree attitude is Carl that he attends a self-help seminar hosted by charismatic Dale Carnegie-type counselor Terrence Bundley (Terence Stamp of “Superman”) who preaches about the positive power of saying ‘yes.’ Appropriately enough, Carl resists the urge to say yes, but the crowd around him changes his mind.

No sooner has our hero left the seminar than a shrewd homeless man, who has been taking advantage of Bundley’s converts, hits up Carl for a free ride to a far-off park, the use of his cell phone, and every dollar in his wallet. Not only does Carl run out of gas by the time he reaches the park, but also the homeless guy (Brent Briscoe of “Mr. Woodcock”) has depleted Carl’s cell phone battery. Carl traipses several miles back into town to fill up his gas container. At the gas station, he meets free-spirited, non-conformist Allison (Zooey Deschanel of “The Happening”) who is gassing up her motor scooter. She sports a helmet with Tweety Bird eyes painted on it so you know she is a little wacky, too. Anyway, Allison offers Carl a ride, and he says ‘yes’ to a new relationship. At the same time, Carl decides to take flying lessons, guitar lessons, learns to speak Korean, and searches for a spouse at the website Eventually, things sour for our love birds because Allison learns that Carl has programmed himself to say yes to everybody.

Watching Jim Carrey is always a treat because he is so spontaneous. His physical humor and his facial antics are as infectiously funny as ever. The contrived screenplay by “Fun with Dick & Jane” scribe Nicholas Stoller as well as newcomers Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogol, however, runs out of comic momentum about 45 minutes and becomes hopelessly predictable. One amusing moment occurs when our hero saves a suicidal man (Luis Guzmán of “School for Scoundrels”) by using his newly acquired guitar playing skills and getting the man as well as a crowd of spectators to join him in a sing-along.

Carl’s love interest is flaky as all get-out; she teaches a photography class where students jog around Griffith Park and snap photos. You’d think Allison would have noticed how Carl always blurts out ‘yes’ to anybody. She decides to dump our hero because she feels that he isn’t so much attracted to her ridiculous life-style as he is committed to the ‘yes’ covenant he made with Bundley. Meanwhile, Rhys Darby matches Carrey’s maniac comic energy with his use of childish nicknames and nerdy parties. Terence Stamp, who played General Zod in the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movie, makes a great comic foil as the harried guru who bullied Carl into taking his covenant and regrets having done so during our hero’s fourth-quarter meltdown.

Indeed, the “Yes Man” trailer makes this movie look far better than it is. Aside from the possibly objectionable scene with an elderly, sex-starved neighbor who promises to relieve our hero’s anxieties, “Yes Man” amounts to a made-to-order, upbeat date movie. Nevertheless, compared with Carrey’s funnier films, especially his “Ace Ventura” movies, “Yes Man” is one big No-No.