Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Valkyrie's premise – the plot to kill Hitler – was practically scripted for a movie. Preparing for my Delta Green role-playing game campaign meant researching Nazis and Project Valkyrie, a major historical but oft-ignored event by the American public. Until now.

Because the movie is based on a historical account, typical models of assessing a film – like a twist ending, for example – aren't possible. We know how things turned out. In fact, doing research on how Valkyrie came about and ended somewhat tarnished the movie for me. Valkyrie's not bad, but it wasn't the great drama I hoped it would be.

Tom Cruise is perfectly serviceable as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, and the surrounding cast does an excellent job of showing what amounts to a typical bureaucracy. The more apparent it becomes that Germany might lose the war, the more urgent the plans to overthrow him.

But there were other factors motivating these desperate men, factors that are somewhat lost in the film. My understanding – and I admit this is limited, as I'm no WWII scholar – is that the nobility that led warfare in olden times, and specifically World War I, felt that there was a "wrong" and "right" way to conduct a war. Hitler didn't so much offend this old guard's sense of moral responsibility as it did their sense of following the rules according to an educated upper class. In a sense, Hitler's war was a peoples' war, waged at whatever cost and using whatever resources necessary and, at times, ignoring the right of the nobility to determine how a conflict was conducted.

This is important because Stauffenberg, and some of the elites involved in the attempted coup, were members of this aggrieved ruling class. This isn't to say that Stauffenberg didn't find Hitler's policies reprehensible, but as a large group, it helps explain the framework for why a coup would even be conceived. This entire thrust seems to be deemphasized in the film. It's almost as if Singer was concerned that playing up Stauffenberg's nobility might be a comment on Cruise himself.

The other part that seems to be lacking from the film is the miserable ending for the conspirators. Stulpnagel, the German commander in France, tried to shoot himself several times before being captured by the Gestapo. There is a brief scene where the surviving conspirators are put on a mock trial and holding their pants up; this is because they weren't given belts, to humiliate them more. The scene flashes by so fast that, to a viewer who is unaware of those circumstances, it just seems like the defendants lost a lot of weight and are holding up their pants.

And that sums up the problems I had with the movie. The tension is ratcheted up, there are little known scenes drawn from actual history that further enhance the film, but it all seems to be disconnected from the greater war. It's like Valkyrie took place in a hermetically sealed film universe. This adds to the claustrophobia of the conspiracy, but doesn't quite satisfy those looking for a historical context.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Splinter is an indie horror movie inspired by John Carpenter's The Thing and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II. Like any good horror film, Splinter achieves the right balance to terrify its protagonists: 1) psychological tension between the characters, 2) isolation, and 3) a creature. This review contains minor splinters—I mean spoilers.

On the surface, our happy couple and soon-to-be-victims Seth Belzer (Paulo Costanzo, last seen on the failed Friends spin-off Joey) and Polly Watt (Jill Wagner, who took Jessica Biel's place in the Blade television series) plan to camp out in the woods for a romantic evening. The in-joke is that they are the reverse of a typical horror couple: Seth is a wussy botany student and Polly is a rugged outdoorswoman. Unfortunately, this difference is a little too extreme – Polly seems too sexy for a guy like Seth.

Another couple is thrown into the mix, and this is where the parallels between Evil Dead and Splinter begin. Dennis Farrell (Shea Wigham) is a convict on the run with his junkie girlfriend Lacey Belisle (Rachel Kerbs). They hijack Seth and Polly's car, ratcheting up the tension. We're never quite sure how trigger-happy Dennis is or how crazy Lacey will get in need of her fix.

The quartet runs over an oddly infected raccoon, which blows a tire. Seth pricks his finger on a strange splinter while changing it out and Lacey goes nuts when the dead raccoon she confuses with her long lost cat begins to move. The car repaired, they tear off, only to have the vehicle overheat. Polly stops at the nearest gas station, which just happens to contain an infected gas station attendant. We now have our isolated location.

All that's missing is our monster, a plant-thing that co-opts its host's body. The monster has a very specific biology that's integral to the plot; it's up to the survivors to figure out how the creature works. Which is why, when you're being attacked by a plant monster, it's good to have a botanist on your side.

Splinter never moves beyond the gas station and doesn't need to. The characters make dumb decisions, but they do so for good reasons – the convict and his junkie girlfriend are unstable enough to begin with. There are plenty of other parallels to Evil dead, which similarly confined the action to a handful of characters in an isolated location with killer plants (among other horrors), but that's a good thing.

There are some weeds in the plot. It takes awhile before the action really gets started as Splinter struggles mightily to convince us that Polly and Seth are a real couple. Wigham mumbles all of his lines, making some of his delivery impossible to understand. And the ending, while satisfying, is a bit off in its timing.

Still, Splinter shouldn't be missed by monster horror aficionados. It has all the ingredients of a great horror film – and a great salad.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


The beginning of Wanted plays out a lot like a scene from the Matrix, with a dangerous-looking man in a suit tracking down the source of a special bullet. What ensues is an over-the-top special-effects laden battle in which said man launches himself out of a skyscraper to engage snipers on an adjacent building and manages to kill them all, only to himself be taken out by a sniper's bullet in glorious and disgusting 3-D. Then we're back to a narrative by office drone Wesley Gibson's (James McAvoy), prone to panic attacks and harangued by his overweight boss. Warning: this review contains mild spoilers.

It's easy to make the parallels between The Matrix and Wanted, given the opening scene, but it's the second scene in the office that really gives the film its heart. This is Fight Club by way of Equilibrium, amping up the fisticuffs in the former with the gunplay of the latter.

Gibson suffers frequent panic attacks and medicates himself heavily in an effort to cope with the insults of everyday life: the stupid job, the unfaithful girlfriend, the backstabbing coworker. He is destined for something better, something that involves the sexiest mentor a man could ask for: a woman named Fox (Angelina Jolie). Jolie looks a little too gaunt here, but she hasn't lost her aura of dangerous cool and she uses it in spades to bring poor Gibson into his own as an assassin.

Gibson is, in fact, a member of a secret society known as The Fraternity, who in turn are descended from a medieval order dedicated to interpreting God's will via a loom – that's right, a loom. After translating the threads into binary coded orders, The Fraternity kills people who might alter the world's destiny for the worse.

Once Gibson transitions from office worker to gun-fu martial artist, complete with curving bullets and hyper-time senses, the movie really takes off: Gibson is out to kill Cross, the man who, Sloan (Morgan Freeman) tells him, killed his father.

Unlike say, The Transporter series, which started out semi-realistic and slowly devolved into action parody, Wanted grounds us in a completely altered reality from the start. It makes some of the gun-ballet and insane acrobatics performed by the characters easier to swallow, in the same way we accepted Neo's superheroic feats in the Matrix.

What's surprising is that Wanted is committed to its tale of revenge and betrayal, willing to sacrifice a potential franchise to tell a good story. It asks the question asked of all religions: how long before the speakers of God's will begin twisting it to their own ends? And what is God's will anyway? Heavy stuff, considering the premise involves shooting lots and lots of people.

Wanted is a surprisingly good action movie that transcends the bullet-time genre without seeming too derivative. Along the way, it tells a tight little story that leaves just about everyone dead. And that's not such a bad thing.