Wednesday, December 19, 2012

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY: Blu-ray (WB 2005, '08, '12) Warner Home Video

Having endured the almost interminable legacy of Hollywood’s undernourished attempts to revisit Batman on film, not to mention the brutally campy Adam West TV serial from the 1960s, I must admit that when Warner Brothers announced a rebooted trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan I experienced everything from minor grunts and major groans to that panged ‘not again’ expression with the rolling eyes that generally spells imminent prejudice for anything I might see on the big screen. However, Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is the exception to that rule; a stunningly handsome, narratively complex and visually engrossing masterpiece that puts all other woefully bad installments to rest. In hindsight, always 20/20, these aforementioned disasters – beginning with Michael Keaton’s 1989 debut and concluded by the resounding thud when George Clooney donned the cape in 1997 – now appear as something of the cinematic equivalent to foreplay, whetting the public’s appetite for the real deal that is Nolan’s tri-picture excursion into the decidedly darker and more realistic expressionism of a world gone mad. Bottom line: Nolan’s movies are about as far removed from the original DC comic books as one can hope, but remarkably faithful to the graphic novels that inspired them, and this is all to the good.
My admiration for Christopher Nolan extends beyond The Dark Knight Trilogy. Yet these three movies so completely exemplify Nolan’s creative agility as a filmmaker and storyteller that I suspect they will long be dissected by critics and fans alike as a textbook example of his prowess. The Dark Knight Trilogy is blessed by the luxury of time; Nolan pre-planning on Batman Begins (2005) for nearly two years, removed by eight from the very bad taste left in everyone’s mouth after 1997’s Batman and Robin.  During this interim the Batman has evolved from cult superhero into a more realistic crusading vigilante. Bruce Wayne is still the fictional Gotham City’s man of the hour with enough disposable cash to fund a small revolution. But his motives are more questionable, his personal sacrifices and moral ambiguities more central to the narrative and perhaps best epitomized by the Biblical quotation “for what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
Indeed, as The Dark Knight Trilogy embarks into a very bleak immediacy of adventure with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) forced to endure many trials by fire, his self-discovery (and rediscovery in the last film) is guided by men who continue to ground him in the reality of his times; ever loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), devoted business manager, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Batman’s greatest champion by day, Sgt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman). The figure of ‘the dark knight’ is mostly misunderstood by the residents of Gotham who simultaneously admire yet fear his presence. Nolan explores this duality through Bruce Wayne’s chivalry. It is far more complex than being the mere protector of the city. Rather, it is rooted in painful childhood memories that have all but emotionally crippled the man and reduced his importance to that of a conflicted symbol. A social creature by forced necessity, Bruce keeps up appearances as one of Gotham’s high profile movers and shakers. Yet he experiences almost excruciating discomfort at playing this part; disassociated from the sycophantic and the wealthy, while realizing he can never entirely assimilate into their world.
Batman Begins (2005) is a compendium of themes and narratives gleaned from three separate classic comic books: Batman – Year One, The Long Halloween, and The Man Who Falls, superbly reconstituted as one cohesive story in a screenplay by Nolan and David S. Goyer. We are given the childhood backstory necessary to explain the man; something none – except for 1989’s Batman - superficially attempted to gloss over with only the briefest of flashbacks.   But in Batman Begins we learn that as a child Bruce Wayne fell into a well where he was terrorized by a swarm of bats, thereupon developing an extreme phobia to these winged creatures.  After witnessing the murder of his parents by mugger Joe Chill (Richard Brake) the heir to Wayne Enterprises is placed in the care of the family’s devoted butler, Alfred Pennyworth who emotionally adopts the forlorn and introspective child, rearing Bruce with great care, honesty and forthrightness.
Fast track fourteen years into the future. Chill is granted parole in exchange for his testimony against crime kingpin Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson).  Bruce’s intent is to murder Chill at trial, a vengeance narrowly averted when one of Falcone’s hired guns finishes the job instead to ensure Chill’s silence. Bruce’s childhood friend, now assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) chides him for his impulsiveness, a wound compounded when Falcone berates Bruce for his lack of comprehension towards the criminal element. Bruce decides to learn all he can about crime first hand. He makes pilgrimage to the Bhutanese prison where Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) offers to train him in the art of stealth and fear as a member of The League of Shadows organized by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). However, when Bruce learns the League’s true intent is to end crime in Gotham he burns down their temple. Ghul dies but Ducard is saved by Bruce and left in the care of local villagers.
Returning to Gotham, Bruce takes an immediate proactive interest in his own company as well as a rival defense conglomerate run by the corrupt William Earle (Rutger Hauer). Confronting his fear of bats, Bruce adopts their predatory nature for his own and the Batman is born. He engages Wayne Enterprise’s leading scientist Lucius Fox who reveals the arsenal of prototype artillery and body armor that his own company has been developing over the years. Taking advantage of this special equipment, Bruce adopts the devil-may-care persona of a rakish playboy by day and the caped crusader known as Batman by night, instilling fear in Gotham’s rampant criminal underworld. Batman’s interception of a drug shipment provides Rachel with enough evidence to indict Falcone while Sgt. James Gordon embarks upon a litany of arrests that strike deep into the heart of organized crime.  
Unfortunately Falcone and his mob are declared mentally incompetent by Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy); a ruse to mask Crane’s involvement in their drug trade. To ensure his own safety Crane exposes Falcone to a powerful hallucinogenic that makes him insane. Crane also tries out the drug on Batman. But Bruce is spared Falcone’s demise after being rescued by Alfred and given an antidote concocted by Fox. Instead Batman exposes Crane to his own toxin, whereupon Crane confesses that he has been dumping vast quantities into Gotham’s water supply. However, Crane also confides that the toxin is only harmful if inhaled.  
The narrative becomes a tad spotty as we jump forward to Bruce’s lavish birthday celebration at Wayne Manor. Ducard interrupts the festivities with a small army of men and reveals to Bruce that he is the real Ra’s al Ghul. Now this motley crew has come to destroy Gotham by vaporizing its water supply, already saturated with Crane’s madness inducing toxin, employing a microwave emitter stolen from one of Wayne Enterprise’s cargo ships. To spare his guests, Bruce feigns drunkenness. Wayne Manor is torched by Ducard’s men and the toxin is vaporized, unleashing mass hysteria and violence upon the city. Bruce escapes this deluge with Alfred’s help and later drops hints to Rachel, whom he loves, about his true identity. But there is little time for such revelations. Batman confronts and kills Ducard aboard the city’s central train used to disseminate the toxin. In the film’s extended epilogue Batman becomes a public hero but loses Rachel in the process – unable to sacrifice his alter ego for his own happiness with her.   
In retrospect Batman Begins seems much more the setup for the last two movies in the trilogy than its own standalone creation; the film’s ending already hinting at the emergence of The Joker (Heath Ledger) who comes to dominate the central narrative of The Dark Knight (2008). Indeed, the screenplay for this second installment (also written by Nolan and Goyer) manages to offset the importance of Batman. Christian Bale spends a fair portion of its story out of his black armor, entertaining notions of winning Rachel back as Bruce Wayne while the narrative evolves into a showcase for Ledger’s self-destructive haunting performance as the demented and terrorizing madman. The Dark Knight opens with a superb bank heist in which each of the robbers sporting clown masks has been instructed to kill his accomplices once their portion of the theft has been achieved. This leaves but one robber in control of the loot, The Joker who wastes no time fleeing the scene.  
Batman and Lieutenant Gordon involve DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in their plan to eradicate mob rule from Gotham City. Bruce is impressed by Dent’s pure motives. Truly, Dent is a man ‘of’ and ‘for’ the people. So Bruce decides to throw him a fundraiser. In the meantime, Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), who has taken over Falcone’s mob, holds a videoconference with Lau (Chin Han), a Chinese accountant involved in the laundering of their money, but currently residing in Hong Kong. The Joker breaks into this meeting to forewarn that the dark knight knows no boundaries. He offers to assassinate Batman for half the mob’s loot. But the mob refuse these terms. Shortly thereafter, Batman skyhooks Lau from his Hong Kong penthouse, dragging him back to Gotham to face imprisonment.
The Joker publicly issues an ultimatum; that innocent people will die each day unless Batman reveals his true identity. To prove his point he murders Commissioner Gillian B. Loeb (Colin McFarlene) with a poisoned bottle of scotch and blows up Judge Surrillo (Nydia Rodriguez-Terracina) who had begun presiding over the mob trials. The Joker also targets Dent at Bruce’s fundraiser and Mayor Garcia (Nestor Carbonell) during the public funeral for Commissioner Loeb. Gordon takes the sniper’s bullet meant for Garcia and fakes his own death. The ruse flushes the Joker out of hiding. He is captured by Batman and taken to jail while Gordon is promoted to Commissioner. However, during his interrogation the Joker explains to Batman that he has deliberately allowed himself to be taken prisoner; a diversion while his men secure the imminent death of both Rachel and Dent in separate buildings rigged with explosives.
Forced to choose between Rachel and Dent, Batman races to the abandoned warehouse where Dent is bound to an oil drum. Gordon is too late to save Rachel and Dent is horribly scarred by the resultant explosion meant also to kill him. His disfigurement, coupled with a belief implanted in his mind by the Joker – that Gordon and Batman have both betrayed him – turns Dent toward the dark side. He becomes the vigilante, Two-Face. Meanwhile, the Joker has escaped from the police station with Lau, whom he later kills, taking hostages as he blows up the hospital where Dent has been recuperating.
Dent goes on a rampage, avenging Rachel’s death by murdering everyone he believes has been complicit in her kidnapping. To escalate the pandemonium, but also to prove his point, that people can be corrupted regardless of their social status in life, the Joker rigs two ferries with explosives; one full of ordinary citizens, the other containing Arkham Asylum inmates and prison guards. The Joker gives each ferry a detonator belonging to the other and suggests that if one of them makes the choice to blow up the other before midnight, he will let the survivors go unharmed. Otherwise everyone will die. After some harrowing debate amongst the passengers, both ferries refuse to partake in the Joker’s experiment. 
Batman exploits a technology developed by Lucius Fox to create a city-wide tracking prototype to help find the Joker. Fox, who is reticent about using this technology as a tool to spy on ordinary individuals, reluctantly agrees to monitor all incoming calls, but tells Bruce he will resign once the Joker is apprehended. The Joker dresses up hostages to resemble his men, thereby luring Gordon's SWAT team to assassinate them. But Batman uncovers this ploy and thwarts their annihilation, capturing the Joker instead. Dent takes Gordon’s wife (Melinda McGraw) and young son (Nathan Gamble) hostage inside the building where Rachel died, intent on murdering all of them once Gordon arrives. But Batman confronts Dent, the latter using a coin toss to decide their fates. Dent shoots Batman and then attempts to kill Gordon’s son. But Batman’s protective armor has shielded him from the blast. He tosses Dent to his death off the top of the building instead. To ensure that all of Dent’s previous good works – including the passing of the new crime bill legislation – endure, Batman tells Gordon that he cannot allow the public to ever know Dent was swayed to evil by The Joker. Instead Batman proposes that Gordon publicly blame him for the murders, thereby giving the citizens of Gotham a symbol to hate while the good in Dent’s master plan is allowed to proliferate. 
The Dark Knight Rises (2012) picks up our story eight years later, but not in an altogether successful way. Unable to accept Rachel’s death and still believing that she would have eventually left Dent to be with him, Bruce has become a recluse inside Wayne Manor. The years have been unkind to both him and his crumbling empire. Wayne Enterprises is on the verge of bankruptcy following a botched investment in Miranda Tate’s (Marion Cotillard) fusion reactor project that was supposed to provide Gotham with a new and cheaper energy source. But Bruce’s financial woes are the least of his worries. He is a shell of his former self, with a body rapidly deteriorating from the various internal wounds sustained during his crime fighting days.
Alfred confides in Bruce that his one lifelong hope has always been that Bruce would find personal contentment in the love of a good woman. In fact, Alfred confesses that for the past eleven years he has taken his holidays in Italy he has often imagined seeing Bruce with wife and child happily lazing about the piazza. Bruce tells Alfred that it is too late for such daydreams to take hold and Alfred, believing he has failed his master once too often, decides to leave his employ for good.
Meanwhile, guilt has overtaken Commissioner Gordon. He drafts a resignation letter confessing his complicity in covering up the truth about Harvey Dent. At a fundraiser inside Wayne Manor cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) masquerades as a maid to gain access to the upper floors where she steals a string of pearls belonging to Bruce’s late mother from his safe. The real prize, however, is a set of Bruce’s fingerprints that Selina uses to kidnap a congressman on behalf of Phillip Stryver (Burn Gorman) who is working for Brue’s business rival, John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn). Stryver attempts to double-cross Selina who, in turn, alerts the police to their whereabouts while she gets off Scott-free. In an unrelated incident Commissioner Gordon is captured by Bane (Tom Hardy); a mercenary excommunicated from The League of Shadows. Rescued by rookie patrolman, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), long an admirer of Bruce Wayne, Gordon confides the truth to Blake about Batman.
Connecting Daggett to Bane, Bruce asks Miranda to take over the daily management of his company to ensure its protection and Bane retaliates by killing Daggett. In an agreement to obtain some computer software that will effectively erase her criminal past so that she can start anew, Selina lures Batman to Bane’s lair where both his spirit and body are mercilessly broken, presumably beyond repair. Bane exiles Bruce to Ra’s a Ghul’s Bhutanese dungeon where he once endured unspeakable torture at the League of Shadows behest. One of the current inmates takes pity on Bruce, healing his cracked and protruding spine and telling him about Ra's al Ghul's love child, born inside the prison walls many years ago. As told, Bruce’s natural assumption is that the child became Bane.
While Bruce continues his recovery, Bane traps most of Gotham's police inside the city’s subway by detonating various explosions that transform the tunnels into their underground tomb. He blows up Mayor Garcia inside his private box at the stadium during a scheduled sporting event and forces physicist, Dr. Leonid Pavel (Alon Aboutboul), to convert Wayne Enterprises’ reactor core into a nuclear bomb. Bane then exploits Gordon’s resignation letter to reveal to the citizens the cover up about Harvey Dent, suggesting that the institutions they have placed their faith in for so many years have betrayed them. In response to this declaration anarchy breaks out and a new warped sense of justice prevails. Dr. Crane becomes the city’s magistrate, releasing the convicted from their prison cells while exiling the wealthy and once powerful to certain death.
From here on in the film’s timeline and various plot elements become increasingly problematic and fanciful. After months of recuperation a penniless, but miraculously restored Bruce Wayne escapes. Without passport or funds for that matter, Bruce somehow manages to return to Gotham City where he employs Selina, Officer Blake, Miranda, Gordon, and Lucius in a counterplot to stop Bane from detonating the bomb. However, the overall arc in Bane’s master plan is never entirely or satisfactorily fleshed out. Having brought about the dissolution of Gotham’s core values and transformed its citizenry into a fairly obvious facsimile of Nazi Germany, he has decided to decimate everyone with a cataclysmic nuclear explosion. Only he is also trapped in Gotham!
After subduing Bane, Batman is wounded by Miranda who reveals herself as Talia, Ra's al Ghul's love child that escaped the Bhutanese prison aided by her protector, Bane. Fortunately, Gotham’s demise is delayed yet again when Talia’s remote detonation of the megaton bomb is thwarted by Gordon who manages to block her signal. Talia departs in search of the bomb and Bane, already weakened by his assault on Batman, is murdered by Selina instead who has turned coat and come to Bruce’s aid. Batman intercepts Talia but not before she manages to destroy the reactor moments before dying. Unable to stabilize the bomb by reattaching it to the reactor, Batman flies it out to sea where it explodes far away from the city limits, but presumably kills him in the process.
Alfred and Lucius mourn Bruce in private and Batman is given a monument inside Gotham’s city hall. Wayne Manor is transformed into a home for orphaned children. However, not long afterward, while on a tour of Italy, Alfred sees Bruce and Selina together at a fashionable outdoor tratoria. Bruce regards Alfred with a nod, thus restoring his faith in the man who used to be his employer. Blake resigns from the police force and inherits the Bat-cave as Robyn.
The Dark Knight Rises is an imperfect last hurrah on several levels. Firstly, during the two previous installments the fictional city of Gotham was cleverly photographed in and around New York to conceal that city’s more obvious landmarks. But in The Dark Knight Rises we see New York in all its glory, with obvious glimpses of Wall Street and the Freedom Tower and a pivotal plot point played out atop the George Washington Bridge. So either the U.S. has renamed New York, Gotham City or the entire story has always been taking place in New York. We can’t have it both ways!
This will be a minor quibbling for some. But more disconcerting is the way certain time honored characters from the first two films have been allowed to aimlessly float in and out of the narrative structure of this third installment; particularly Michael Caine’s Alfred, who merely serves as emotional bookends to The Dark Knight Rises. Also, we are introduced to Selina ‘Cat Woman’ Kyle during the first third of the story. But after her double cross of Batman we see very little of her, a curiosity further exacerbated by the fact that, after professing a strong desire to run away and start a brand new life obscurely elsewhere, we find her still skulking about Gotham’s back alleys and stone and concrete byways, awaiting Bruce’s return in the third act; ready and willing to defy Bane at his request.
The Dark Knight Rises timeline is all over the place, particularly after Batman’s initial confrontation with Bane. Just how Bane manages to exile Bruce to the Bhutanese prison thereafter remains a mystery. How Bruce gets back to America without money or a passport is an even greater curiosity. But perhaps the most problematic element in this final chapter is Bruce Wayne himself. When first seen he is wrecked man, so crippled by paralytic arthritis that Selina is able to knock him to the ground simply by kicking out the cane he uses for a crutch from under him. It’s only been eight years since Bruce’s retirement. Is he as physically destroyed as he pretends to be? A cursory doctor’s examination suggests as much.  So how does he manage to don the Bat suit in time to confront Bane with all the agility of a jungle cat? And what of Bruce’s miraculous resurrection after having his spine broken and reset by blunt force trauma? We are given a montage of highlights showing Bruce working out in preparation for his escape from the Bhutanese stronghold. Just how he has managed to rebuild himself into a muscled machine under the most primitive of circumstances, despite being ravaged by life-threatening injuries is perhaps the greatest daydream of them all.  
Finally, there is the movie’s finale to contend with; too contrived and much too convenient to be appreciated. How does Batman escape nuclear annihilation, or at the very least, exposure to massive amounts of radiation poisoning? Not sure. Never explained. How and why should Bruce come to trust Selina and vice versa? Arguably, each gets what they wanted all along by their association – total anonymity from their former lives and a chance to restart a life shared together. But how does Bruce know where to take Selina so that Alfred can observe their serene happiness together?
There will be those who poo-poo my deconstruction of these various dangling threads as nitpicking tomfoolery at best. But they speak to a level of narrative construction, or absence thereof that leaves the movie to cling together in spite of itself. Does The Dark Knight Rises work. As pure entertainment, the answer is ‘yes’. It will most definitely amuse and distract. But is it solid storytelling? Hardly, and that’s my chief problem with it.
Warner Home Video’s Dark Knight Trilogy is impressive on Blu-ray, though not perfect. I will assume that the transfers included in this gift set of the first two movies are identical in quality to their standalone counterparts released individually several years before – particularly since I detected the same edge effects on The Dark Knight in exactly the same scenes. Overall, the image on all three films will surely not disappoint. These are 1080p hi-def masters and the results speak for themselves: refined colors, natural flesh tones, superior contrast and deep saturated blacks that never look crushed. Film grain has been accurately reproduced. Contrast is bang on perfect. If it weren’t for the edge effects scattered here and there the ‘wow’ factor on these transfers would rate a perfect 5 score from yours truly. The 5.1 DTS audio is explosive, although I detected a more aggressive bass in the last two films. I still can’t make out all of Bane’s dialogue in The Dark Knight Rises, an auditory problem I remember having during my theatrical viewing experience too. In some scenes he’s clean and articulate; others, just a garbled mess of syllables that I remain unable to decipher in any meaningful way.
Extras are plentiful. Batman Begins gives us an in-picture commentary, an IMAX prologue, a spoof called ‘Tankman’ and various extensive featurettes charting the making of the film. The Dark Knight offers more involved featurettes, including a psychological evaluation of Bruce Wayne – odd, but cool. We also get featurettes dedicated to the film’s gadgets and a deconstruction of shooting live action sequences with minimal CGI technologies applied. The Dark Knight Rises plumps out the goodies, including a minute long bio on the Batmobile with all five prototypes shown together for the first time, plus the extensive documentary on the making of the trilogy that covers the films from every conceivable angle. Each disc of extras also includes behind the scenes galleries with hundreds of photos and theatrical trailers.  Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Batman Begins 3.5
The Dark Knight 4
The Dark Knight Rises 3

4 overall

Sunday, December 16, 2012


With its uncompromising frankness about the world of professional boxing and magnetic central performance from Paul Newman, then Hollywood’s young Turk, Robert Wise’s Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) comes out swinging; a two fisted tale of hard-knocks and seemingly insurmountable odds unable to break the indomitable spirit of a very stubborn-willed reprobate: Rocky Graziano. Based on Graziano’s no holds barred biography (co-written by Rowland Barber) the screenplay by Ernest Lehman remains utterly faithful to that unvarnished truth about this Hell’s Kitchen scrapper who squandered his rebellious youth in and out of reformatories, prisons and a very brief stint in the army, only to emerge from the fray as one of the most beloved sport’s celebrities. 
Wise, who previously directed The Set-Up (1949), a story about a fictional, but nevertheless recalcitrant prize fighter defying the underworld mafia graft, was initially reticent about doing this film. But his interests were sparked when MGM promised a week-long location shoot in New York’s Little Italy, thereby adding the necessarily verisimilitude that Wise then worked diligently to recreate back in Hollywood on MGM’s back lot – mostly for interiors. Wise, an editor long before becoming a director, shot minimum coverage to maximum effect on Somebody Up There Likes Me, generating a taut realism that manages to capture all of the gutsy chaos and social unpleasantness of New York’s lower east side.
Paul Newman, justly regarded as one of the last truly great Hollywood stars today, had yet to prove himself in the movies at the time Somebody Up There Likes Me went before the cameras. Indeed, he was not the first choice for the part and had suffered a terrible flop with 1954’s The Silver Chalice – a debut that all but ruined his chances of becoming a star. Relegated to walk on bits in television (then considered an inferior entertainment), Newman was not enough of a heavyweight. But when James Dean died in a car accident Wise ‘wisely’ turned to Newman almost immediately, thereafter appreciative of the formidable intensity the actor brought to the role.
Somebody Up There Likes Me is immeasurably blessed by its stellar supporting cast – each delivering their own knockout to compliment Newman’s bravado as the loudmouthed fisticuffs pug-ugly. The film would have degenerated into a one man show without their pivotal contributions. Who can forget Eileen Heckart’s Ma Barbella, the put-upon frump, nerves frayed by a lifetime of compromise, worry, self-loathing and pity; or Everett Sloane as the crusty boxing manager, Irving Cohen; or Pier Angeli’s Norma – the proud, though never demanding woman who helps reshape Rocky’s appreciation for home and family; creating that stable center to see him through long after the cheers from adoring – though fickle – fans has dimmed in his ears?
Our story begins with its own ‘set-up’; one of childhood abuse as eight year old Rocky (Terry Rangno) is being playfully pummeled by his step father, Nick Barbella (Harold J. Stone) for the singular amusement of his fair-weather rummies. The boy is humiliated and runs away. Nick, who ought to have been a prize fighter of some merit himself, gave up the sport at the behest of his wife (Heckart) long ago, turning to self-pity and drink instead.
Rocky rebels by becoming the neighborhood punk – stealing everything from tires to fur coats with his gang that includes knife-happy Fidel (Steve McQueen) and baby-faced Romolo (Sal Mineo).  The boys unload their stuff to a wily Fence (George Cisar) who basically takes advantage of them, resulting in more theft and eventual incarceration. The District Attorney Hogan (Robert Lieb) sends Rocky to the reformatory where, while digging ditches on a work detail he promptly beats up, and almost kills one of the guards (Don Haggerty).  From here the picture only seems to get bleaker for Rocky with stints at Leavenworth and Riker’s Island. There, he inadvertently meets boxing racketeer Frankie Peppo (Robert Loggia). Rocky is not particularly interested in making friends, but takes Peppo’s advice about boxing as a profession once he gets out of jail seems to stick in Rocky’s craw.
Hard time has had no effect on Rocky. He’s looking forward to getting out and doing some celebrating with his old gang members. But the reunion is a shay premature. For upon his release Rocky is immediately drafted into the U.S. army, making a damn nuisance of himself with Corporal Quinbury (Robert Easton) and knocking his superior, Captain Grifton (Russ Conway) unconscious. Going A-wall, Rocky decides to look up Peppo on the outside at Stillman’s Gym. Instead he meets Lou Stillman (Matt Crowley), the owner, and fight promoter, Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane); the latter amused by Rocky’s total lack of refinement but just as impressed by his fighting spirit.
Rocky’s sister, Yolanda (Donna Jo Gribble) introduces him to her best friend, Norma (Pier Angeli); a principled wallflower who nevertheless finds Rocky’s brute exterior exciting. From the beginning there is something very nurturing about their relationship, with Rocky becoming protective of Norma. She, however, does not want to date a prize fighter; regarding the profession as dangerous and distasteful. Ma Barbella encourages prudence and patience, telling Norma that she once made the same mistake with Nick, blaming herself for ruining the life he might have had if she had encouraged, rather than dissuaded him from his true calling.
Norma rethinks her stance and patiently supports Rocky through his many bouts. The two are married and have a child. Rocky is a bull in the ring. But his winning streak is interrupted by a painful defeat against reigning champion Tony Zale (Court Shepard), leaving Rocky shaken at his very core with a gnawing insecurity about his own future in the sport. Norma and Irving quietly stand by while Rocky’s inner confidence crumbles. His pride is further wounded when Peppo resurfaces, suggesting that Rocky take a bribe or face some trumped up sanctions by the Boxing Commission. Rocky rejects Peppo outright. But he also refuses to name name’s when confronted by the Commissioner (Billy Wilson), resulting in a brief suspension of his license.
Eventually reinstated, but fearing that reputation has been irreversibly damaged, Rocky stumbles and struggles. Norma is not about to let her husband throw in the towel. Believing she can do more for Rocky by admonishing him for his cowardice, their marital confrontation leads to a bittersweet reunion between Rocky and his father. After Rocky calls Nick out as a coward, blaming him for all the years of abuse, Nick makes a half-hearted attempt to strike Rocky, only to have his own punch blocked. Reduced to drunken tears, Nick and Rocky reach a very painful reconciliation and Rocky – reinvigorated with confidence – charges into the ring and defeats Tony Zale in their rematch. Basking in his penultimate moment of glory while being driven through the streets in a ticker-take parade in his honor, Rocky hugs Norma, proudly declaring “Somebody up there likes me!”
Somebody Up There Likes Me is an exceptional sports movie – one rarely listed on critic’s top ten lists, but just as deserving of that honor as Pride of The Yankees or Raging Bull. Paul Newman’s performance is perfection itself. With minimal prosthetics effectively transforming his startling good looks into the more roughhewn Graziano, and a maximum amount of acting talent to boot, Newman becomes his alter ego. Apart from his physical appeal Newman’s most saleable asset has always been his brain. One can sense the intellect behind the eyes, in this instance evoking Graziano’s painful childhood and troubled youth, projecting that inner turmoil of a man who clearly views himself as something of a caged animal yearning to break free. It’s a powerful, glaring and mostly unflattering reflection; and it is to Newman’s credit that although he spends the bulk of the movie involved in rather unscrupulous behavior and activities we acquire a haunting sense of empathy for this brutish bully who could so easily have fallen through the cracks and become just another career criminal.  
History has proven Robert Wise to be one of the most diverse directors of his or any other generation. Comfortable working in virtually any genre, Wise’s prowess as an editor greatly benefits his equally formidable talents as a director. He seems particularly engaged herein, his staging of the action and drama intricately balanced and very in tune with his subject matter. Wise and Newman both met the real Graziano prior to starting the picture, with the retired champion’s input beneficial to both men in their pursuit of authenticity. Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography is also a winner – literally – taking home the Oscar for his realistic B&W re-interpretation of the lower east side. In the final analysis, Somebody Up There Likes Me is a powerful drama: a superior ‘true to life’ human interest story and a hell of a good flick about the underside of professional pugilism.  
Warner Home Video’s DVD is adequate but not astounding. It’s about time Warner became more focused on releasing - perhaps less catalogue titles but in - better quality transfers. Somebody Up There Likes Me is definitely worthy of a hi-def 1080p blu-ray. I will digress for just a moment to champion a cause for more classics on Blu-ray before concluding this review.
A while ago I contributed an article about all of the major studios’ increasing disinterest to revisit classics in hi-def. Their reticence has been chiefly predicated on what the powers that be suggest is a lack of interest on the part of the public to embrace such releases and an equal shortage of funds necessary to do justice to all but a handful of timeless classics like The Wizard of Oz or Lawrence of Arabia. True enough, Blu-ray’s high resolution reveals the startling ravages of time. Older movies require more restoration and preservation (and hence, more money) to make them acceptable in hi-def. But it was the studios that made us this promise in the first place. Had home video remained in the doldrums of VHS or stayed in the advanced capabilities of DVD we, the public, might never have known just how good any movie could look on our television screens.
But now that the studios have made this promise – and shown by example what the future for movies at home can hold - I am very much afraid that they are stuck with this vision. But rather than face that challenge squarely the executive mindset has been appallingly shortsighted. We either get transfers like Von Ryan’s Express (with its obvious vinegar syndrome glaringly preserved) or flawed, faded transfers slapped out through third party distribution. The most recent and glaring example is Paramount Home Video selling off its remaining catalogue rights to Warner Home Video.  Warner’s earliest efforts in hi-def were commendable. But more recently they too have slipped into giving us less than perfect renderings of movies like Dead Ringer and The Postman Always Rings Twice; classics that ought to have sparkled and popped in 1080p but instead continue to look only ‘marginally’ better than their DVD counterparts. That isn’t what Blu-ray technology promised and it is certainly NOT what the format is capable of!
Somebody Up There Likes Me is a movie desperately crying out for a concerted restoration/preservation and hi-def release. The film elements are not in particularly terrible shape, but do exhibit some minor softness, as well as a modicum of age related artifacts that crop up with infrequency, but obviously distract throughout this DVD. On the whole contrast is solid and fine detail nicely represented. Film grain can look just a tad clumpy at times, an inherent shortcoming of DVD that has become more unacceptable and obvious since the debut of Blu-ray. Like so many classics currently available on DVD, this one will satisfy the casual viewer, though it will hardly impress. The audio is mono as originally recorded but accurately represented.  The only extra is an audio commentary by Wise that tends to occasionally meander and suffers from long bouts of silence. Bottom line: recommended for content.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

TED: Blu-ray (Universal 2012) Universal Home Video

I suppose I should start off by informing the reader that I'm not going to spend too much time on this one. I've already wasted 107 minutes of my life that I can never get back. But Seth MacFarlane’s debut comedy, Ted (2012) is a pretty abysmal affair. Buried somewhere beneath all the truly unsavory sexual profanity and infantile bathroom humor is a quirky, but not terribly convincing message picture about delayed adolescences infringing on the moral, social and sexual ambiguity facing a frustrated middle-aged male. Well, sort of. Ted is the story of John Bennett (Mark Walberg); an emotionally stunted adult who cannot get past his childhood fear of thunderstorms and whose best friend just happens to be his favorite play toy from childhood – Ted, a stuffed bear that came to life because of a wish John made when he was five.  
It’s been 24 years since that miracle occurred. Since then, Ted and John have been inseparable.  But their friendship isn’t the warm and cuddly kind. In fact, Ted’s a street savvy, bong smoking, horny little bugger who takes considerable delight in ripping on John’s various romantic disasters, inviting trailer trash hookers over to his apartment and generally mucking around with John’s current involvement with Lori Collins (Mila Kunis). John and Lori met at a nightclub after he accidentally belted her in the forehead with his flailing arms, attempting to impress another potential date by bustin’ a pretty pathetic move on the dance floor. 
Lori’s a grown up, something John is not. This doesn’t seem to bother Lori at first, presumably because like all women of her ilk she sees John as a fixer-upper who just needs her love and understanding to mature him into the sort of guy she wants him to become. But Ted is not about to let go of John so easily. And so the struggle for John’s ultimate future happiness begins.
It’s hard to take Mark Walberg seriously in this regurgitated Failure to Launch (2006) premised R-rated movie, designed to appeal to some niche market who enjoy snorting “Snuggle” fabric softener; more difficult still to accept him as the emotionally retarded thirty-something boy in a man’s body, perhaps because at 41 Walberg is well past his prime to partake in this sort of clueless badinage. Walberg is trying way too hard to channel his own youth from the ‘Funky Bunch’ days and be the ‘cool’ cute dude that once made him the envy of underwear models with their dangling participles all buff and larger than life in Time Square. But that ship has sailed and Walberg isn’t on it anymore.
Walberg’s pedestrian performance alone is enough to sink the film. But the comedy simply isn’t funny – just crude; as in the scene where Ted, who works part time, performs simulated sex acts on a bar code scanner behind the register to impress fellow cashier, Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). She’s modestly amused until Ted attempts fallacio on a chocolate bar. Really? That’s what passes for comedy these days? How sad – and raunchy – and raunchily sad!
MacFarlane who, in addition to writing and directing the movie provides the voice for Ted fails to grasp the concept of good humor – odd, because his Family Guy TV series is a potpourri of risqué and raucous repartee that never veers into the ‘gross out’ tastelessness that fills the bulk of Ted’s run time. I can still hear that damn ‘Thunder’ song Walberg and Ted sing to alleviate John’s angst over thunderstorms. I can’t repeat the lyrics herein, and frankly, they’re not really worth repeating anyway. But they stick in the mind like candy between one’s teeth and just as corrosive to one’s I.Q. as creating a cavity elsewhere that, no doubt, Ted and McFarlene would be more than happy to fill.
Nearly three decades ago comedian Eddie Murphy (no stranger to profanity), while addressing his audience during his standup in the film Raw astutely pointed out to his audience that he could not simply come on stage and perform “a curse show” – spewing four letter words with no context and expect to get the prerequisite laugh while garnering their respect for his performance. Point taken.  
Unfortunately, MacFarlane’s sense of humor in Ted never goes beyond such obligatory and obvious verbal perversities. We aren’t entertained, simply indoctrinated with a slew of ‘T’ and ‘A’ stupidity run amuck that most sitting in the audience probably haven’t found quite as amusing since puberty hit. Yet, if Ted’s R-rating is any indication, then kids are decidedly not the film’s target audience. Too bad Ted talks down to adults as well; anyone who hasn’t been educated with an air hose and inner tube will not be amused. Ted will undoubtedly find its appeal among those who secretly wish they could behave as irresponsibly as John or as badly as his alter ego.
But Ted isn’t a movie you’ll want to ever see again, if, in fact, you choose to see it at all. Its ‘kick in the crotch’ comedy isn’t even trying to be clever; just woefully debauched, making it a genuine turn off. Comedy doesn’t have to be ‘clean’ per say, as long as it makes us feel good. This one just made me want to take a very cold shower. Overall, I give Ted a solid ‘F’ – and it doesn’t stand for fantastic or that other ‘F’ word!
Ted hits hi-def in an adequate looking transfer from Universal. Colors are subdued but accurately rendered and fine detail is as it should be. A lot of the scenes take place in dimly lit hotel rooms and smoky nightclubs, accurately reproduced without impacting contrast levels. I detected no ‘hot’ whites or crushed blacks. Fine detail is pretty startling throughout and the CGI Ted is exceptionally integrated into his human surroundings. Ergo, visual believability is preserved. The DTS 5.1 is extremely frontal sounding, very much like a TV sitcom and less of a movie experience. Is this deliberate on McFarlene’s part or just sloppy remixing? Can’t say. But the sound field didn’t do it for me or my surrounds.
Universal gives us a ‘gag’ reel as part of the extras. Why? The whole film is a joke! We also get McFarlene’s audio commentary and a 25 minute making of in which we learn that McFarlene interacted with his human counterparts on the set so the ‘comedy’ would be more spontaneous. Deleted scenes and alternate takes round out the fun pack. Bottom line: I can’t imagine Ted as a holiday offering. It does for the intellect what errant dog crap does for one’s shoes. Don’t step in this one. It stinks!  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT: Blu-ray (Embassy 1962) Olive Films

Based on Eugene O’Neill’s semi-biographical play about insidiously destructive family ties, Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) is a mostly compelling – occasionally tedious – but remarkably faithful adaptation of the original stagecraft. Infrequently, the director’s devotion to his source material results in some cumbersome camera set ups. Lumet, who began his career working on a shoestring budget in fast paced TV serials with even more limiting camera techniques, exploits the economy of that small screen medium for the movies. He staves off the temptation to ‘open up’ the play, relying on the briefest of exterior location work for his first act, but then isolating virtually all of subsequent scenes inside a single studio bound set.
This visualized claustrophobia doesn’t particularly hamper the production, although Lumet’s prevalent usage of extreme close ups to punctuate a line or elevate the dramatic mood of a particular moment arguably seems a much better fit for the television screen than the movies. It might have all turned to gumbo, except that Lumet is working with an exceptional cast teetering on the verge of some sublime brilliance in this ensemble piece; Katherine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, Dean Stockwell and Jeanne Barr.
Katherine Hepburn had officially entered the ‘crazy lady’ phase of her career in 1959 with a riveting portrait of the mad matriarch in Suddenly Last Summer. Many a great female star from the 1930s and ‘40s wound up in similar fare throughout the 1960s. And yet, racing through the annals of great literature one is immediately struck by the regularity of this oft conjured middle-aged woman, unflatteringly drawn as a maniacal, injurious creature devoured by her own inconsolable whims. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night Hepburn is Mary Tyrone; a careworn harpy who drowns contempt for her miserly husband and shiftless sons, and her more intimate sorrows with a reoccurring morphine addiction.
Mary was a promising young lass once. But that was a very long time ago; before she met James Tyrone (Ralph Richardson), the clever ham who turned a one hit wonder into his career. The perversity in Mary and James’ relationship is that it ping-pongs between a mutual regard and devotion and a seething repugnance that frequently rears its ugly head. The couple’s inability to keep this more unhealthy aspect of their relationship a secret has contaminated their sons; eldest Jamie (Jason Robards) and the baby of the family, Edmund (Dean Stockwell). Jamie is a boozehound who frequents bars and brothels with an unquenchable thirst to lose and/or destroy himself. Edmund, on the other hand, is a bittersweet realist, currently struggling with a diagnosis of consumption that has intruded on his limited aspirations to become a writer and poet.
Following Mary’s release from a state sanctioned recovery program for drug addiction the family has retreated to their summer home on the Connecticut coast; a large but slightly dilapidated farm house with a spacious garage where it is hoped everyone can rest, recuperate and reconcile their differences while facing their greatest challenge yet; the very real prospect that Edmund will die. Although never seen, the Tyrones readily reference Doctor Hardy – a quack who James discovered in a tavern during his own drinking days and made his family’s physician, moreover because he was cheap rather than skilled in his profession.
Indeed, as the narrative unravels, one of the irksome general complaints the family has is that James is a skinflint for just about everything except his own desire to acquire more land and real estate. Having grown up dirt poor James harbors a poor man’s angst over the possibility of slipping into poverty once again and has repeatedly refused his wife and children creature comforts they believe they deserve. He has even cheated them out of an elegant summer home. The house is a decaying ramshackle of worn knickknacks, its wallpaper peeling; its’ carpets threadbare: a very concrete manifestation for their individual illnesses of the heart and mind; hardly a home and barely homey, but a necessary evil: the one place they can hide from the world, though arguably never from themselves or each other.   
As in the play, the movie is all about revealing truth behind the collusions of this devastatingly flawed family unit: a father’s diseased and deliberate cruelty toward the woman he supposedly loves; sibling rivalry compounded by pity, disdain and fear of one’s own mortality; marital indiscretions – and the jealousy, angst, hurt and emotional chaos and baggage it has brought upon the family – and, a lost woman’s incapacity to accept her own failings as wife and mother without reverting to drugs as a crutch. Each dysfunction is explored through confrontation. What makes O’Neill’s words particularly engrossing is that there is no resolution forthcoming from this conflict.
All of O’Neill’s characters are iron-willed to the point of absurdity, ensconced in all their misguided ennui and regrets. Mary finds a scapegoat in her husband so she does not have to face the truth. But is her chiding truly heartfelt or merely a mask so that the rest of the family will ignore her renewed indulgences without having to feel ashamed?  James remains an unrepentant cheapskate – less effective in his manipulations of the family now that the boys have grown up, yet maintaining his blamelessness, even as Mary relapses into her escapist nightmare of morphine abuse and the family unit continues to crumble beyond repair all around him.
Jamie is Edmund’s rival. Despite his heartfelt and frankly bitter confession - that he has deliberately done everything in his power to corrupt his younger brother with his own vices of wine and women - Edmund cannot bring himself to truly hate his own brother. The fraternal tragedy herein is that Jamie loves Edmund. In fact, one can argue that Jamie has merely deflected his own self-loathing and resentment towards his parents, their inability to love each other or him in any sort of meaningful way, onto Edmund. But this only makes him hate himself more – the cyclical nature of his own abhorrence devouring his self-respect. The complexities of this fraternal bond create an undertow that threatens to ruin the one chance either brother has at remaining friends. Arguably, this bond will never entirely severe unless Edmund dies.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is destructively poetic. It finds artistic measure in its weighty subject matter and manages to draw out the audience’s empathy for characters that are largely unsympathetic of their own accord. The film is slightly unbalanced by Lumet’s faithfulness to the text. His use of the long take allows for the actors to explore their characters and find the spark of electricity through raw performance. But the lack of cuts also anchors the movie more concretely to performance, as in viewing a moving tableau of live theater rather than experiencing a cinematic interpretation of the stage show.
Katherine Hepburn is particularly grand in all her halcyon madness; inspired even, while mussing her disheveled locks or stumbling about the halls, dragging a crumpled wedding dress behind her. It’s a showy part – one for which Ms. Hepburn is immensely suited. Regrettably, she is absent from almost the entire last act – a void not entirely filled by the confrontational dialogue between Ralph Richardson and Dean Stockwell. But Stockwell and Richard Robards have exceptional on screen chemistry during their bittersweet repartee; unexpected and electrifying – conveying the breadth of what must have been a severely flawed childhood that both their characters have tried so desperately since to forget. The one disappointment herein is Richardson – a gifted actor who fleetingly breathes life into his misguided patriarch, but on the whole reverts to the more epic gesturing of a stage actor that seems out of place amongst the rest of the performances.
I’ll just go on record stating that Long Day’s Journey Into Night won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. In an era when family dysfunctions were rarely discussed – and arguably never even suggested in public – O’Neill’s probing deconstruction of this atypical middleclass family had exculpatory value. In today’s social climate where everyone cannot wait to divulge their own family secrets – increasingly even to total strangers (as on reality TV shows) the play and the movie’s impact have undeniably been blunted. And the film is very much a time capsule of its vintage: further trapped by Lumet’s very obvious staging that owes more to serialized TV than a cinematic experience. Is it a good movie? Let’s just say, it has its place. Will it entertain? Mostly – yes. Is it a classic? No. But Long Day’s Journey Into Night is still a fairly fascinating way to spend a rainy afternoon.
Olive Film’s Blu-ray is an improvement on previous DVD incarnations, chiefly its overall clarity that yields a remarkable amount of fine detail in Boris Kaufman’s B&W cinematography. Close ups in particular reveal startling specifics and imperfections in hair, fabric and flesh. Location photography seems to suffer from slightly boosted contrast while interior shots look fairly accurate. A smattering of film grain is accurately represented throughout. Age related artifacts crop up now and then and are obvious, though arguably never distracting. Overall, the print elements used in this transfer are solid. The audio is DTS mono and adequately represented. Olive gives us zero extras and a very scant selection of chapter stops to choose from. Ten chapters for a 174 min. movie is unacceptable!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

VALKYRIE: Blu-ray (MGM/UA 2009) MGM/Fox Home Video

No home video review should begin by claiming that the best thing about the viewing experience is an extra feature – but there it is. I really did not care for Bryan Singers’ Valkyrie (2009); a perfunctory thriller at best that does about as much for the WWII history buff or war aficionado as discovering a maggot-coated Hersey bar wrapped in cellophane on a piece of Weimar Republic fine bone china. It’s hard to imagine any movie about 1944’s insiders’ plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler as boring. But Valkyrie unequivocally proves that you can make a sow’s ear from a silk purse, even with everybody’s universally ‘loved to be hated’ villain at the crux of the conspiracy.
Difficult to assess where the blame should go; to Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s rather droll, mostly factually, but completely unimaginative and lugubrious screenplay, or to Tom Cruise and the rest of the cast who do their utmost to reset our impressions of the ‘good German’ by revamping the byplay between characters so that it sounds more like cordial repartee over a game of cricket than the taut unraveling of a web of high stakes political intrigue amongst high ranking coconspirators. Has anyone in this cast ever heard a person of Germanic origin speak English before?!? No one herein even attempts an accent – not even an affected one – particularly Cruise, who compounds this glaring oversight by playing charismatic Col. Claus von Stauffenberg as though one end of a very long flagpole flying the swastika had suddenly been inserted into his rectum.
Bryan Singer should also pony up for this misfire – his pacing too pedestrian and sluggish, lacking a sense of immediacy. It’s a genuine shame none of the aforementioned live up to Bernhard Heinrich’s brilliant production design (mostly, redecorating existing locations with Nazi insignia), Cornelia Ott’s costumes and Newton Thomas Sigel’s luminous cinematography that, combined, capture the total essence of Hitler’s Germany – albeit without its throngs of sycophantic worshippers lining the streets of Berlin. It should be noted that Germany under the Fuhrer was hardly united in its praise. In fact, Valkyrie goes to great pains to dispel the myth that every soldier in the Germany army was an unrepentant Nazi stooge or gargoyle; bloodthirsty, soulless and cruel.   
At the time Valkyrie was announced for pre-production Germany’s Finance Ministry denied filmmakers access to the various locations necessary to shoot the movie; publicly citing Tom Cruise’s devotion to scientology (regarded in Germany as a cult rather than a religion) as the reason, but perhaps privately more than a little concerned to see yet another depiction of this most unflattering chapter in their country’s history gruesomely resurrected with American stereotypes to boot. Singer appealed this ruling and, after his script was reviewed, was given carte blanche and his pick of locations.
The initial appeal to do the film for Christopher McQuarrie had been a casual tour of Berlin and the Bendlerblock where a plaque is dedicated to the real von Stauffenberg and others who defied Hitler and paid the ultimate price. Knowing absolutely nothing about Stauffenberg or the 1944 plot, McQuarrie took his own crash course in wartime history before co-writing the script and then approached Singer to direct.  But perhaps Singer bit off a tad more than he could chew, certainly much more than the film’s scant 124 min. can sustain without becoming bluntly episodic in spots, and grossly glossed over it totem.
We open on a battlefield in Tunisia where Wehmacht Col. Claus von Staffenberg (Cruise) is encouraging his superior to evacuate. It is a bitter pill to swallow. Regrettably too, time has run out. Stauffenberg and the rest of his forces are attacked by RAF flyers that bomb and riddle the basecamp. Stauffenberg barely escapes this assault, losing two fingers, a hand and an eye in the process. We digress from this prologue to the first attempt on Adolph Hitler’s (David Bamber) life; a bomb implanted inside a carefully packaged cognac and ushered aboard Hitler’s private plane by Maj. Gen. Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh). Unfortunately, the bomb proves a dud and Tresckow must do some quick finagling to reacquire the liquor once the plane has landed in Berlin. After the SS arrest Maj. Gen. Hans Oster, Tresckow orders Gen. Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy) to find a suitable ‘replacement’ – meaning another conspirator who can become complicit in their espionage. Stauffenberg fits the bill.
The other elitists in this complicated plot include retired Gen. Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), Dr. Carl Goerdeler (Kevin R. McNally) and Erwin von Witzleben (David Shofield). But a second bite at the same apple is not going to be easy. The Nazis are no fools and with the tide of victory already turning against Hitler’s armed forces, treachery is suspected and investigated by the Gestapo everywhere. In the meantime, Stauffenberg accepts his commission behind a desk in the Defense Ministry, returning home to his wife, Nina (Carice van Houten) and their two children. During a bombing raid, Stauffenberg comes up with the concept of using Hitler’s own plan of deployment for the Reserve Army against the Nazi regime. There’s just one problem. Well, alright…actually two. First, Gen. Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) must approve of the plan, as he is in control of the reserves. But Fromm is a wily sort, refusing to partake in Operation Valkyrie directly, but seemingly willing to observe it as a grand – if extremely dangerous – experiment from a distance. The other difficulty is that the orders, rewritten by Stauffenberg, must receive a signature from Hitler himself for authenticity’s sake.  
Staffenberg attends Hitler in Bavaria in the presence of his trusted council, including Joseph Goebbels (Harvey Friedman), Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel (Kenneth Cranham), Reichfuhrer Heinrich Himmler (Matthias Friehof), Reich Marshal Hermann Goring (Gerhard Haase-Hindenberg) and Albert Speer (Manfred-Aton Algrang). Before these men, Hitler praises Stauffenberg’s heroism, and after a few tense moments of perusing the new orders, signs them without fail or suspicion.   
Returning to Berlin, Stauffenberg is promoted by Fromm to secure him access to ‘the Wolf’s Lair’ – Hitler’s private bunker hidden deep in the Black Forest. The plan now is to detonate a small explosive device inside this cement compound that will exude the maximum damage, killing everyone inside.  Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim (Christian Berkel) devises the use of a pencil as the bomb’s detonator while Stauffenberg persuades Gen. Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) to terminate all communications immediately following the bomb blast – thereby preventing the outside world from learning the truth until Operation Valkyrie can be properly executed.
On July 15, 1944 the plot is set in motion. But Himmler is not present at the bunker meeting and Stauffenberg is told to abort the mission. Despite these orders, Stauffenberg and Olbricht set the first part of Valkyrie – the mobilization of the reserves - into effect, a move that infuriates Fromm who threatens to expose them if they ever go over his head again. Later that evening Stauffenberg protests the indecisiveness of his coconspirators. In the resulting confrontation Goerdeler demands that Stauffenberg be relieved of his command. Instead, Goerdeler is informed by Beck that the SS have been tipped off and are presently seeking his arrest.
On July 20 Stauffenberg and his adjutant Lt. Werner von Haeften (Jamie Parker) make their second attempt on Hitler’s life. Too late Stauffenberg learns that the conference is being conducted in the summer barrack instead of the bunker because of the extreme summer heat. While Haeften nervously waits in the car Stauffenberg smuggles his briefcase with the bomb already armed into the meeting. He has Fellgiebel call him away at a moment’s notice, presumably with a phone call, and is barely outside the barracks when the bomb explodes. In the ensuing panic Stauffenberg assumes Hitler is dead and orders his driver to whisk him and Haeften to safety. Regrettably, Olbricht refuses to mobilize the reserves until concrete proof of Hitler’s death can be established. This oversight squanders valuable time for the plotters.
Mertz forges Olbricht’s signature, putting Operation Valkyrie into effect. The reserves descend on the party and the SS, making their arrests on masse at Stauffenberg’s command. Goebbels, who has foreseen their arrival, tucks a cyanide capsule between his teeth, telephoning the Wolf’s Lair only to learn that Hitler is still very much alive. Thus when Maj. Otto Ernst Remer (Thomas Kretschmann) arrives to seize Goebbels he is instead met with a phone call from Hitler who assures him the assassination plot has failed. Back at the Defense Ministry Strauffenberg realizes how badly he has bungled the mission. He and his coconspirators are taken by the SS to the Bendlerblock and shot for treason one at a time. A brief epilogue explains that Hitler committed suicide nine months later and that Nina and Stauffenberg’s children survived the ordeal.
Valkyrie is problematic on several levels. First and foremost is its downtrodden central narrative – the failed assassination of a universally despised historical figure – that leaves the viewer with a very hollow resolution at the end. But even without this somber scenario and its penultimate melancholy, Singer and his script have managed to diffuse and distill much of the real Stauffenberg’s heroic defiance into the pathetically bitter machinations of a disgruntled/disfigured soldier; the heroism itself becoming lost in Tom Cruise’s stoic and sullen portrayal of Stauffenberg as a man more out for personal revenge than the liberation of Germany from an unjust and utterly mad tyrant.
The second major hurdle never entirely overcome is Bryan Singer’s directorial inability to make the complex simple or even moderately fascinating. In an era where most directors would have staged the whole story in choppy edits from footage shot with a very unstable ‘steady-cam’ I really do have to commend Singer for going the old-fashioned route, employing stylish camera setups and cuts that have meaning. But he takes great pains to establish all of the players in some detail, then seems to get lost in the variables of the espionage, moving his characters around like exceptionally well-timed chess pieces that have about as much spark-generating interaction as a pile of wet kindling. The film does, in fact, briefly spring to life during the second, full blown execution of Operation Valkyrie, but by then we’ve become so bored with the previous mismanaged attempts on Hitler’s life that this latest seems foregone at the very least and very apropos.
I won’t go into the specifics of why casting doesn’t work. But apart from the general lack of attempt by anyone to even mimic a German accent we have some very fine thespians barely committed to some very inferior work. Most, if not all, have slept-walked their way through these performances – particularly Kenneth Branagh, whom I have pictured on set as giving his lines the thirty second once over before rattling them off and then making a B-line to cash in his paycheck. If that sounds glib or condescending, I’ll simply apologize herein and now. But I really don’t see a commitment on anyone’s part to ‘become’ their characters.
MGM/Fox Home Entertainment have given us Valkyrie in a breathtaking 1080p transfer. Yes, there are hints of digital noise scattered about, but on the whole the stylized image is very film-like with robust color, particularly the predominant ‘red’ in the Nazi flags. Fine detail is exceptionally realized and contrast levels are bang on. Shadow detail seems a tad crushed but there’s been no undue DNR compression applied so we won’t complain. The DTS 5.1 audio will rock the house during action sequences – with explosive bass and good separation – but sounds strangely muffled or too soft at normal listening levels during dialogue sequences. I suppose you can keep your hand on the remote and toggle back and forth between SFX laden sequences and talking scenes but why?
Extras include a pair of audio commentaries; the first from Singer, Cruise and McQuarrie, the second from McQuarrie and Alexander, a few very brief featurettes on the making of the film and behind the scenes devising of several key sequences. But without a doubt, the highlight of this disc is the 114 min. documentary The Legacy of Valkyrie’ – a thorough and comprehensive documentary in HD produced by Kevin Burns with invaluable historical merit and a phenomenal amount of Kodachrome color footage showing Hilter’s Reich at the peak of its powers. This was the best part of my personal viewing experience. As Valkyrie can readily be found at Best Buy and elsewhere for less than $10, I would strongly recommend this disc to history buffs for this extra feature alone.  Otherwise, Valkyrie is unconvincing entertainment with a very small ‘e’: two hours of my life that I can never get back. It was a waste of my time. Don’t let it waste yours.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)