Road Trip

WFTB Score: 5/20

The plot: Hapless Josh’s doubts about his long-distance relationship with girlfriend Tiffany are compounded when a videotape of a night spent with pretty student Beth is accidentally sent Tiffany’s way. Josh hares across country to Austin, Texas with friends E.L., Rubin and Kyle; but the sheer distance they have to cover in three days turns out to be the least of their worries.

Long-term student Barry (Tom Green) has an interesting tale to tell prospective inductees to New York’s Ithaca College. Once upon a time…Barry is room-mates with Josh (Breckin Meyer), a young man struggling to maintain a relationship with childhood sweetheart Tiffany (Rachel Blanchard), who’s studying 1,800 miles away in Austin. According to Josh’s brash friend E.L. (Seann William Scott), one or other of them is bound to be unfaithful, and it doesn’t take long for Josh to crack when Beth (Amy Smart) throws herself in his way whilst escaping the clutches of creepy teaching assistant Jacob (Anthony Rapp).

Amy kinkily videos their night – and morning – of passion, but Josh’s post-coital grin is soon wiped from his face when he discovers that his friend Rubin (Paulo Costanzo) has recklessly posted that tape instead of a harmless video message. Josh gathers E.L. and Rubin and leans on car-owning naïf Kyle (D.J. Qualls) to race to Austin to retrieve the tape before Tiffany returns from a relative’s funeral. However, the trip soon goes awry, an ill-advised bridge jump writing off Kyle’s car and forcing E.L. to ‘borrow’ a bus from a school for the blind.

As the boys make their eventful way across country, they encounter a fraternity house full of brothers and are forced to take extreme actions to raise cash. Meanwhile, Amy heads off to find Tiffany and Kyle’s dad (Fred Ward) searches for his son, presumed kidnapped or worse – though when they catch up, Kyle is more of a man than he used to be. And Barry? Well, he holds the fort back at Ithaca, which actually means cultivating his morbid interest in feeding live mice to Rubin’s pet snake. None of which will help Josh if he can’t get to Tiffany’s post in time; not to mention the fact that Jacob’s doing everything he can to get him chucked off his course back at Ithaca.

When American Pie brought the raunchy high school comedy back into fashion, it was inevitable that raunchy college films would follow soon after. Road Trip takes up the baton with Seann William Scott on board and an even more adult sensibility, but fails pretty dismally at everything it tries to do. The main problem is that the lead characters are an unappealing cocktail of blandness and unpleasantness, whether through deficiencies in the script, the actors, or both.

It’s worth taking each in turn: Breckin Meyer’s Josh is a rather runty lead, without charm or humour – yes, Jim Levenstein was a loser, but he was a lovable loser – and someone who has no compunction about cheating on Tiffany (he brags about it until he’s threatened with being found out); Rubin, for all his pot-smoking, is almost completely colourless; E.L. is merely a half-witted version of Stifler, if you can imagine such a thing; while gormless, lanky D.J. Qualls raises half a laugh as Kyle because he looks so wrong – it’s a shame the film looks for cheap laughs by pairing him up with the full-figured, rather lovely and sadly deceased Mia Amber Davis.

As for Tom Green’s Barry (surname Manilow, tee hee), there must be fans of Green’s scuzzy, deliberately dim comedy out there, but his performance here tells you everything you need to know about why he never became a mainstream film star (mind you, it may have more to do with Freddy Got Fingered, which I’ve somehow missed up to now).

Like the cast, the rest of Road Trip is a mixture of the wilfully freakish and terribly bland. Much of the story is dull, Beth and Jacob’s individual contributions doing little except padding out the running time (Fred Ward is also wasted); but these are infinitely preferable to the witless parade of coarse caricatures and interludes forced upon the actors as they limp towards Austin. Aside from Kyle’s encounter with Davis’ Rhonda, Todd Phillips brings out an eccentric, grubby motel manager, an unhygienic café cook and an unpleasant toe-sucker, played by the director himself. There’s also a wince-making visit to a sperm bank, a woman with a vibrator, and a dismal episode with Barry’s priapic grandfather and his talking dog, to go alongside gags at the expense of fat people, short people, the blind and so on.

Naturally, there’s nudity too: some of it is male, but they’re clearly not as much fun as naked women, as shown by entirely gratuitous shower scene which is as unsexy as it is unfunny – at least American Pie’s Nadia could claim a modicum of plot relevance. And the gag about the black frat house? No, really, it’s fine, because whereas the black students look mean and scary, they’re actually pussycats who enjoy a good practical joke about the Klan.

I’ve not seen either of the Hangover movies, and it would be wrong of me to judge them with only posters and other people’s reviews as evidence. On the other hand, nothing about Road Trip makes me think that Phillips’ massively successful recent movies operate on anything but the level of the lowest and blokiest common denominator. This one occasionally forces an appalled guffaw, but more often caused me to either yawn, wince or roll my eyes in despair that it’s quite so nasty and yet so stodgy. It’s not rancid on the level of a Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, though it’s not all that far off. Luckily, none of the writers were on board for the superior, if still distinctly mediocre, Euro Trip.

Advertisements

Girl Model

WFTB Score:12/20

The plot: Documentary following 13-year-old Nadya Vall as she travels from Siberia to Tokyo with the promise of lucrative modelling jobs, only to find the truth is far less glamorous. We also follow scout Ashley, a former model who reflects on her work as she seeks new girls to supply to her Japanese clients.

The backwoods of Siberia aren’t famed for their glamour or opportunities for personal development, so why wouldn’t the local teenage girls jump at the chance of modelling abroad, especially when they are promised two jobs and $8,000? Model-turned-scout Ashley Arbaugh picks out long-limbed, blonde thirteen-year-old Nadya Vall to sign up to Noah Models under the aegis of unusual “saviour” Tigran, and despite the pain of leaving her family Nadya travels to Tokyo on her own to begin her career.

Unfortunately, on arriving in Japan Nadya is largely left to her own devices, and far from being guaranteed work she is sent with her flatmate Madlen on an endless round of casting, labouring under an incredibly restrictive contract; even when she does get a photoshoot, she doesn’t see any money from the job. Meanwhile, Ashley returns from Siberia to her comfortable home in Connecticut and reveals a number of startling surprises: she shares the house with a pair of baby dolls and hundreds of illicit photos of models’ feet. More disturbingly, she reveals that during her deeply unhappy time as a model in Tokyo, she was aware of models going into prostitution; and as Nadya faces up to being broke, confused and homesick, Ashley has to face up to a different kind of sickness when she has to have a cyst and fibroids removed.

There’s a very clear, and very persuasive, argument running through Girl Model, designed expressly to engender liberal outrage: naïve, innocent young girls are being lured from their poor-but-happy homes under false pretences to be exploited abroad, and everybody is making money from them but the girls themselves. Nadya and Madlen are no more than children, strangers in a strange land, yet are left to fend almost completely for themselves; and the film suggests that there’s a continual, mechanistic process ensuring hundreds of girls every year are funnelled towards the likes of Tigran and the ill-named ‘Messiah’ in Japan.

If that’s what you want to see, Girl Model will rile you up a treat. The endless queue of half-naked girls being assessed like cattle, the sound of announcers informing parents that their kids should be modelling from the age of five, the weird declarations from Tigran about how he cares for his girls by showing them corpses of druggies, and the strange, self-obsessed behaviour of Ashley in her lovely (if lonely) house while Nadya and Madlen suffer in a poky flat; all these things are guaranteed to provoke a strong reaction. Redmon and Sabin expertly piece together a picture of the soulless misery of modelling; Nadya sets out happy and fresh-faced, playing with her beloved grandmother and talking about inner beauty, but ends the film tired and jaded. The film also uses music and the bleak imagery of Siberia (Nadya leaves home during a thunderstorm) to create a profoundly melancholy atmosphere.

To its credit, Girl Model is much less black-and-white than it could be. While Ashley is the chief villain of the piece, the inclusion of footage from her own mentally-disorientating time in Japan and her less-than-happy health situation paints a complex picture of a troubled woman; you wouldn’t call her a victim, necessarily, but she’s more a lost soul than she is actively malicious, conditioned into viewing girls as objects rather than fellow humans. Tigran, meanwhile, is certainly bizarre, yet the film doesn’t cast unnecessary aspersions on his motives. The tragedy of Girl Model is not that its protagonists are immoral, but that their moral compasses are skewed from “normality” by an industry that is odd at the lowest end of the scale and – if Ashley is right – little more than sex trafficking at the other end.

On the other hand, the film does contain a number of internal contradictions, made more pressing by the protagonists’ subsequent reaction (Nadya, though who knows how freely, has expressed dismay at being cast as a victim): if Nadya’s time in Japan is so fruitless, why – as we’re told briefly at the conclusion – does she go back to Tokyo and work elsewhere in Asia? And if modelling is quite so exploitative, how come Ashley has managed to carve out such a financially successful path?

Besides, I’m unsure what to make of the concentration placed on Ashley’s unfortunate health problems, which Ashley herself contrasts with her desire for a baby. The filmmakers seem to draw a murky parallel between the moral decay of Ashley’s profession and the physical decay in her body, and therefore imply that it somehow serves her right.

Finally, while I’m sure it’s common practice, some scenes have almost certainly been placed out of sequence and/or manipulated to create a specific narrative drive: I’m thinking of the phone Nadya’s given to make an emotional call home, and the way she just happens to come across a magazine with her photo in it. It’s not what you’d call ‘fly on the wall’ documentary filming, that’s for sure.

If you are a parent – or have any sort of human feeling, in fact – Girl Model will probably depress and infuriate you in equal measure, and urge you to keep children away from the cynical adult world until their mid-20s at the earliest. To that end, the film does a really good job, and even taken unemotionally this is a fascinating insight into a deeply strange industry and a look at at least one deeply damaged personality. You really couldn’t make it up, though I’m not convinced that this is the whole truth and nothing but.

Cloverfield

WFTB Score: 14/20

The plot: A surprise party for Rob Hawkins – leaving New York for Japan with a heavy heart for the girl he let go – is broken up by the uninvited appearance of a huge, destructive alien in Manhattan. A small band takes to the streets, best friend ‘Hud’ filming their panic-filled steps as they seek safety and friendly faces; but both are incredibly hard to find.

Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is something of a troubled soul; for while he’s all set to take up a new job in Japan, he’s leaving behind more than friends and family. At a party organised by Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel), and filmed by their friend Hudson Platt (T.J. Miller) – aka ‘Hud’ – it emerges that Rob slept with his friend Beth (Odette Yustman), but that nothing came of the relationship because of Rob’s impending departure.

Suddenly, the awkward atmosphere is interrupted by a series of explosions outside and the head of the Statue of Liberty landing in a nearby street, sending the population outside to see what has happened. Hud keeps filming as the group, including Jason’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) and depressed partygoer Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), tries to escape Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge. The monster that has invaded Manhattan makes this impossible, with tragic consequences; and as Rob works out what’s truly important to him, the ever-dwindling group heads across the city with the monster and its agile offshoots fighting a pitched battle with the armed forces.

On the face of it, Cloverfield isn’t out to win any friends. It could easily be summarised as King Kong meets Godzilla through the post 9/11 filter of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, only without a complete story arc (nothing about the alien is explained) or any star names, just a bunch of unknowns enacting a trite ‘all for love’ tale through the irritatingly shaky camerawork of the distinctly unlovable Hud, complete with aggressive, splattery monsters in the style of a twitchy first-person shooter.

However, Cloverfield turns all these potential disadvantages to its benefit. The unknown faces, and the use of the single camera, lend a realism and immediacy to the action that blockbuster films, with their big-budget sheen, nearly always lose. We experience the terror of the protagonists as if we were by their sides, especially as the film is shot in something approaching real-time – though cleverly, and movingly, the film intersperses snatches of Rob and Beth’s happy day at Coney Island into the drama.

The awkward pre-attack whisperings of the party are perhaps overly extended, but they feel absolutely authentic and establish characters before the whole thing goes haywire. The film also achieves technical marvels on a small budget; Reeves, superbly using night-time New York as a backdrop, manages to capture the feel of a much more expensive film, teasing the viewer with incomplete glances at the big monster, snippets of battles and occasional disturbing glimpses of the fast-moving smaller beasties.

It would be remiss not to bring up the inspiration – if that’s the word – provided to Cloverfield by the terrorist attacks on New York on September 11th, 2001. The often-panicky hand-held camera creates images unnervingly similar to TV footage of 9/11 – the smoke and dust, billowing through the streets – but I didn’t feel that the film was simply appropriating those images for entertainment purposes. Rather, Cloverfield has to be seen as (at least partially) a metaphorical exploration of how the events of that day felt to those on the ground; and as such, it does a pretty extraordinary job of showing not the whole world coming to an end, but the world of a specific group at a specific time.

Moreover, given the continuing uncertainty of the modern world, I found the downbeat ending effective and entirely appropriate, reminiscent of the pessimistic science fiction of the 70s (The Stepford Wives, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Soylent Green); for my tastes, it certainly improved on the sudden ending of War of the Worlds or the daft, impromptu conclusions of blockbusters such as The Day After Tomorrow.

Of course, there are elements that exist by virtue of being horror staples, such as the underground attack on the group by the nasty little critters and the unpleasant consequences thereof; these tense, gory, gripping scenes are handled with the maximum of realism, and they are ultimately far more memorable than Rob’s action-based quest to rescue Beth, which doesn’t feel entirely logical or noteworthy in the grand scheme of things.

I have a feeling that many people really dislike Cloverfield for very good reasons that I’m ignorant of. For example, the deliberately amateurish camerawork may have done horrendous things to the eyes of cinemagoers (I watched the film on a modest-sized TV); or the film might too closely follow the path laid down by The Blair Witch Project (which I’ve not seen). And I’d admit that having seen it once, I don’t feel any great urge to watch it again in the near future. However, I was very impressed with what I saw and would urge any first-timers to catch this uncomfortable, claustrophobic monster movie.

Carry On Henry

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: The tale of two of Henry VIII’s lesser-known wives. French bride Marie’s nightly ritual of eating garlic before bedtime has an adverse effect on the King’s ardour, so the news that she is pregnant seems like a blessing; if she’s been unfaithful, he can dispose of her and chase women such as the bounteous Bettina. The only trouble is, the King of France is keen to reward Henry for his happy marriage – and itching for war at the first sign of any trouble.

Of all the Kings and Queens of England, Henry VIII is among the most colourful, remembered chiefly for his stout frame, red beard and Eight Wives. Eight? Oh yes. For, as Carry On Henry details, the King (Sid James) is most keen never to be without a wife, so as soon as the last one’s dispatched he moves straight on to Marie of France (Joan Sims). Marie is fair of face and figure, but not sweet of breath: she insists on eating garlic every night, putting Henry right off his stroke.

She refuses to stop eating the bulbs, he refuses to consummate the marriage, so each takes matters into their own hands: Henry tries to get the marriage annulled with the help of Chancellor Thomas Cromwell (Kenneth Williams) and Cardinal Wolsey (Terry Scott), while Marie takes a lover in the foppish shape of Sir Roger de Lodgerly (Charles Hawtrey). When Marie falls pregnant, it appears to offer Henry a way out – if Cromwell can torture a confession out of Roger, he’ll be free. However, King Francis of France offers to bless the new arrival with 50,000 gold crowns, an offer too good for Henry to refuse; and when a kidnap plot by Lord Hampton of Wick (Kenneth Connor) and an ever-so-slightly anachronistic Guy Fawkes (Bill Maynard) goes awry, it looks as though he’s stuck with his malodorous missus. But then Henry claps eyes on Bettina (Barbara Windsor), the Earl of Bristol’s daughter – and suddenly the hunt is on again!

The popular wisdom (as I may have said before) about Carry On films is that they start off black and white and twee, get into their swing along with the sixties, and start to decay with the new decade. This is undoubtedly true, but Henry at least represents a brief upswing in an otherwise downwards trend. It’s not that the film relies any less on innuendo than those released immediately before or after it, far from it; however, the ripeness of the subject and the lustiness of the King are a good fit for the Carry On team, whose historical parodies always brought out the best in both scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell and the dependable troupe of actors.

But as I say, the innuendo is there. While Henry still contains a decent smattering of really good lines – I particularly like Henry’s explanation of why he needs France’s money: ‘My mint has a hole in it’ – the clever bits of the script are possibly outweighed by the crass: boob jokes, bum jokes, the Sex Enjoyment Tax and the decidedly off-colour ‘hunting’ of Margaret Nolan’s buxom maid (Guy Fawkes is only roped because his name sounds slightly rude). And whilst the repeated sequences of Hawtrey being stretched on the rack, then put in the Iron Maiden, are paid off with funny physical gags, other repetitions are less welcome; Marie endlessly trots to and from the tower, and to be blunt, the idea of Terry Scott sticking a big scroll up his arse is only vaguely amusing the first time it happens.

Finally, while there are some lovely sparks of invention – the name Roger de Lodgerly is brilliant – the template for the film is ultimately one viewers were already used to: lecherous Sid is knocked out by voluptuous Babs, but his desires are ultimately thwarted.

Apart from the script, the other yardstick I always measure Carry Ons by is the quality of the cast and the uses they’re put to. By this reckoning, Henry does pretty well: Sid, Ken and Charles are really good, Joan (for once!) has a major role worthy of her talents, Babs does what Babs does, and others such as Kenneth Connor and Peter Butterworth, thankfully, have smaller parts*. I get a sense that Terry Scott isn’t greatly loved amongst Carry On fans, but while his big-boned bluster is undoubtedly a riff on Frankie Howerd’s act, I like him, largely (I admit) on the basis of his subsequent work in Danger Mouse. Jacques is inevitably missed, Bresslaw less so, and – because rejoicing in the fact has become a noble WFTB tradition – there’s no Jack Douglas. Hurrah!

I’ve seen the majority of the Carry On films at least once now, and although I wouldn’t describe Carry On Henry as anything more than a middling effort – it’s not up with Cleo, Cowboy, Khyber or (controversially, I know) Teacher – I certainly wouldn’t lump it in with the dreck (Girls, Behind, England, Emmannuelle). Rothwell and the team ride a fine line between sauce and smut, and whenever the film veers towards the latter it’s kept on path by a viable plot and capable performances. Regrettably, it wouldn’t stay that way for long.

NOTES: No sniggering at the back. It is an occupational hazard reviewing Carry On films that anything you say can be…er…taken the wrong way.

The Boat that Rocked

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Packed off to his godfather to experience a bit of life, callow teenager Carl becomes part of the furniture at Radio Rock, the swingingest ship in British waters. Life on board has its ups and downs – not all of the variety Carl would like – but if the government has its way, the ship’s boisterous roster of DJs are about to be silenced forever.

Being sent off to your godfather’s workplace might sound like purgatory to most young men, but if the godfather is the rather groovy Quentin (Bill Nighy), and the workplace the (in)famous pirate radio ship Radio Rock, there are benefits. Firstly, Carl (Tom Sturridge) gets the chance to put faces to the beloved voices that run the station: ‘Doctor’ Dave (Nick Frost), ‘simple’ Simon (Chris O’Dowd), top dog ‘The Count’ (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and, later, his uber-confident rival Gavin (Rhys Ifans), amongst others.

Secondly, the lure of the station and its wonderful music brings on board a bevy of lovely ladies, not least Quentin’s niece Marianne (Talulah Riley) who immediately takes – and breaks – Carl’s heart, and Elenore (January Jones) who does much the same as Simon’s bride.

Carl also gets wind that someone on board may be his hitherto-unidentified father, but the crew have bigger problems in the shape of utterly square government minister Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) and his dogged underling Twatt (Jack Davenport); they’re driven by a hatred of Radio Rock and everything it represents, and are determined to take it and its like off the airwaves. Quentin ensures that they won’t go down without a fight, but – one way or another – it seems Radio Rock is going down.

There’s a message that (almost) literally sings out from The Boat that Rocked, one that’s broadcast (to employ the obvious metaphor) loud and clear for all to hear: Richard Curtis really loved Pirate radio. And to give the film its due, the warmth of feeling it displays towards the brief period when rock and pop emanated mainly from these anarchic vessels comes over in spades. The DJs, to a man, have a heart of gold and if they’re a bit loose with each other’s women, hey, it’s the time of Free Love, isn’t it? The records they play provide a perfect soundtrack – however much it’s due to the classic tracks surviving and the naff ones being forgotten, it seems harder to pick a poor 60s record than a great one.

Unfortunately, while Curtis has oodles of love for his subject, what he doesn’t have is even the vaguest story to tell, two overarching tales notwithstanding. The first, the government cracking down on pirate radio, is based in some truth but presented in such cartoonish terms that you feel faintly patronised as an adult viewer. Branagh’s Dormandy is a typical little Hitler (by way of Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mainwaring), the uptight upper-class stiff who can’t abide what the youth are doing. He – and Davenport’s oh-so-hysterically named Twatt (why not, the Darling joke worked so well in Blackadder Goes Forth) – are both ‘The Man’, so to speak, but the conflict between the government and the station is mostly indirect, and the antagonists are drawn in such broad strokes that you can’t get angry about them.

Neither do they get any comeuppance to speak of, so the story forgets about them as it drifts towards an anachronistic Titanic parody whose tone is so uncertain that the putative comedy and potential for tragedy cancel each other out. Oh, there’s some wartime stuff chucked in too, as the layabouts dedicated solely to having a good time suddenly adopt salutes and camaraderie and the music comes over all military (the stirring strings of Elgar and the Dambusters march) before Dunkirk is evoked. It’s all a bit of a mess, as well as faintly insulting to people who actually fought in real wars.

The second major thread, Carl’s coming of age and search for a father (figure), is played out in similarly broad fashion. Carl himself is really a nothing character, our mopey means of introduction to the gods of Pirate radio, so you’re never really concerned about his Confessions of…-level scrapes where he’s introduced to a young lady under false pretenses, his disastrous search for a condom, or whether he’ll either lose his cherry or find his father on board. Handled differently, Carl and Marianne’s relationship might have been touching: but she’s so easy, and he’s so wet, that its consummation feels neither here nor there. The film certainly doesn’t earn its kissy-kissy, happy-ever-afters-for everyone ending.

While on the subject, it chimes in with the period to some extent but the portrayal of women in TBTR is pretty horrible, the young ladies all being sex-mad groupies. Mind you, this is hardly new: Curtis is admirably right-on in many respects, but never appears to have overcome his boyish over-excitement about sex and the female form, or his thing about nympho/psycho Americans. Sex magnet Mark’s tableau vivant of nudes is another, rather strange, case in point.

Because neither of these storylines are a) particularly interesting or b) can sustain themselves for long, TBTR fills up its inexcusably protracted running time with sketch material (that is, when we’re not clumsily cutting to the groovy people of Britain, endlessly dancing and reacting to Radio Rock’s every sound). Chief filler is the prelude and aftermath of Simon’s wedding, which goes on for way too long, with little that’s amusing and nothing of any consequence to plot (either of them) or character development. Okay, the Count (defending Simon’s honour) and Gavin ramp up their rivalry, but their underlying respect is never in doubt.

Actually, while I didn’t much care for Evans’ aggressive personality, he and the effectively sincere Seymour Hoffman are two of the brighter spots in the movie (O’Dowd is always personable, of course, and Nighy’s always pretty good value). The action, such as it is, is shot effectively enough as well. But there’s just not enough story, enough drive, enough proper stuff to fill 135 minutes, and plenty of missed opportunities: Emma Thompson is utterly wasted in a three-minute cameo where she nonchalantly solves a mystery we didn’t much care about in the first place. The set-ups, pay-offs and characters all feel like sitcom cast-offs: the wonderful Katherine Parkinson as a lesbian tea-lady, Tom Brooke’s Thick Kevin.

Richard Curtis may think he’s made a film about the best time there’s ever been, a time when a lovable bunch of potent, renegade DJs ruled the airwaves, broadcasting a heady, magical mix of mayhem and music. To be fair, The Boat that Rocked brings a bit of that to life. What it doesn’t do is present a story capable of holding the viewer’s attention for half as long as one of the classic 60s tracks featured in the soundtrack.

Valkyrie

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: 1943: The war is turning against the Third Reich, but Hitler and those closest to him press on with fighting on several fronts and their ‘Final Solution’ against the Jews. Convinced that Hitler’s plans will lead to Germany’s ruin, high-ranking members of the army devise a plan to assassinate the Fuhrer and use the reserve army to prevent the SS from seizing control of the country.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) doesn’t much like the way World War II is going. Losing his right hand and left eye in North Africa, he despairs of Hitler’s strategies; so when he’s approached by Major-General Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) to join in a top-secret plan to kill Hitler and establish a government with General Beck (Terence Stamp) as President and Kevin McNally’s Dr Carl Goerdeler, he’s interested.

Working with overly cautious General Olbricht (Bill Nighy), Stauffenberg concludes that the best way of taking power is by subtly amending ‘Operation Valkyrie’, which would mobilise the reserve Army in the event of the Fuhrer’s death and prevent Goebbels from taking power. The only sticking point is the ambivalence of General Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), whose signature is required to begin Valkyrie in the first place. Stauffenberg himself is tasked with disposing of Hitler and he travels to the Wolf’s Lair in Rastenburg, with explosives to complete the task and inside man General Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) ready to pull the plug on all communications. Stauffenberg plants the explosives but flees without knowing for sure whether Hitler has survived, an uncertainty which causes delays and ultimately dooms the plot to failure.

If you’re determined not to go with it, there’s much about Valkyrie that you can pull up as incongruous. The film begins in German and continues just long enough for the audience to wonder if it’s going to continue that way, à la The Passion of the Christ. But no, the dialogue melts into Cruise’s American accent and the German characters begin to speak English in their own voices, and this does something strange to the film. Although we can see that Cruise, Nighy, Branagh, Wilkinson, Izzard etc. are dressed as Nazi – sorry, Wehrmacht* – troops, Valkyrie doesn’t feel like a tale of internal betrayal but a story of Allied Forces somehow infiltrating the higher ranks of the Third Reich.

This is not to criticise Cruise, who is as good here as anything I’ve seen him in, or the dependable Brits (I’m excluding Izzard from this definition, but he’s fine in a smallish role); the trouble is, because of the point we come into the story, the protagonists are never established as faithful Germans, so they can’t help but come over as British or American. The problem is compounded by David Bamber’s skulking Hitler, who has to speak English with a German accent. It’s as if someone in the production – Cruise, Singer, whoever – couldn’t countenance the ‘good’ characters even pretending to support Hitler, which results in a disappointingly simple and less credible – ie. typically Hollywoodised – narrative. In the same way, the scene where a Wagner record suggests the plot to Stauffenberg feels like exactly what it is, a movie device without any bearing on reality.

Fortunately, the film compensates for these deficiencies by delivering on dramatic thrills. If you have any grasp of recent European history, you will know before the film even starts that the plot doesn’t come off; however, unless you’re very well read-up on the subject, that’s about as much as you know, so there’s still plenty of tension left as to how the plan pans out and how close it comes to succeeding. Singer is more than capable of handling the action sequences, and there is plenty of drama as crucial decisions are made (or not made) in the absence of certainty about Hitler surviving the blast (or not).

The film also amplifies Stauffenberg’s concern for his country with a convincing concern for his dear wife Nina (Carice van Houten, the star of Black Book, who seems suited to World War II) and their children, making the viewer feel the tragedy of how it all turns out – late on, there’s a brief but fascinating glimpse of the lunatic Judge Freisler (Helmut Strauss) at the so-called “People’s Court”. Throughout, the competent staging of the action is matched by decent acting, from Cruise** and the British talent I’ve already mentioned; also from Tom Hollander, who with David Schofield makes up a mini-Pirates (II) reunion, and others: the cast does feature a number of German actors, though for the most part they regrettably play those in Hitler’s inner circle.

Whether or not his films have succeeded, Bryan Singer has always been a well-intentioned director; and Valkyrie is a well-intentioned film with an interesting history lesson to impart, an authentic look (locations include Berlin’s Bendlerblock, the building where Olbricht and Stauffenberg were stationed) and a more-than-decent quota of involving action. Unfortunately, the problem of casting well-known English-speaking actors is pretty much insurmountable; so while the film works as a wartime thriller, it doesn’t convince as a story of German resistance to Hitler’s evil.

NOTES: 1This is, no doubt, exactly the point the filmmakers would say they are trying to make: all Nazis were German, but not all the Germans fighting the war were Nazis. Valkyrie never quite reconciles this with the problem of casting Anglo-American actors, even if most of the baddies are also Anglophones.

2The film’s detractors all seem to centre on the opinion that Cruise is miscast and, moreover, ‘can’t act’. This is nonsense. He’s been less than sparkling in other movies and here, as already explained, his accent is an issue; but to say he cannot act is surely the viewer not being able to look past Cruise the headline-grabbing personality, rather than Tom’s perfectly decent performance.

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Elizabeth Bennet, the second of five daughters, finds herself the object of more than one man’s attentions when the dashing Mr Bingley takes residence in the house near to their humble dwelling. Although Bingley only has eyes for her elder sister Jane, his friend Darcy is captivated by Lizzie, although his haughty demeanour tries to tell a different story. Lizzie, trying to keep a check on her unruly family, must also decide what she wants to believe about this infuriating but very, very rich man.

I’m sorry, but I’m going to be terribly unfair to this film. Whilst there is no law whatsoever governing a mandatory gap of time between the filming of Jane Austen novels, and whilst it is unreasonable for a two-hour theatrical film to cover the same ground as a five-hour-plus television serialisation, I am going to criticise Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice on both grounds anyway.

For, the simple fact is, this film version comes too close to the BBC’s 1995 version of Austen’s popular work for there not to be comparisons, especially since Colin Firth’s portrayal of Darcy has passed into legend. To start with the positives, the film doesn’t actually miss out anything really important from the plot, and the evocation of the period is very convincing – everything is clean, but not overly so. In general, the director has a good eye for what will look good on a cinema screen, the Peak District (initially as part of a dream?) and Darcy’s enormous manor looking gorgeous. Elsewhere, the camera lingers over statues and roams through balls, in search of our heroine, or captures Lizzie regarding the passage of time on a swing. Indeed, there is so much lingering camerawork that you do wonder if some of it might not have been sacrificed to get a bit more plot in.

And this is the main issue. Although, as I say, the big story points are present and correct, telling the tale in just two hours leads to a lot of shortcuts (Jane arrives at Bingley’s Netherfield and sneezes: she has flu!), and there is unintentional comedy to be had from the characters speaking very quickly to move the plot along.

Chief victim of the cuts is Wickham, and as he is the story’s villain, the fact that he doesn’t get to show much of his duplicitous nature really detracts from the film. There was not enough of Wickham for Lizzie to form an attachment to him and for him to feed her prejudice against Darcy, which is surely one of the most important aspects of the story.

It should also be said that as played by Rupert Friend, Wickham is arrogant and effete, and it is unclear why any of the Bennet family, or Georgiana Darcy, would be drawn to him. Furthermore, the younger daughters and their infatuation with the military are only sketched out; so when Lydia runs off with Wickham, the audience doesn’t really take in the gravity of the situation.

In the role of Elizabeth Bennet, Keira Knightley laughs, sighs, and delivers her lines very quickly, but she does not have the calm presence Jennifer Ehle imbued in the role in the BBC series. Ehle’s Elizabeth had a dignified bearing, conveying sadness, passion, authority and intelligence behind her eyes. In contrast, but I suspect also objectively, Knightley is a giggly kid.

It is almost impossible to think of Knightley’s Lizzie as the sensible one in the family; and although she shows a passionate side well enough when she turns down Darcy’s proposal in the rain, I never felt she was particularly struggling with her feelings for him. Knightley does possess some of the character’s wilfulness, but that vital spark between Elizabeth and Darcy is not nearly as lively as it needs to be. And when the happy event finally comes, Elizabeth’s toothy gushing in front of her father drives me spare (the special bond between Lizzie and Mr Bennet also seems to be missing).

Not that all the blame should go to Keira. In attempting to capture Darcy’s haughtiness, Matthew MacFadyen constantly looks as though he has a cold and is about to sneeze (caught off Jane, perhaps). I couldn’t tell you whether he is attractive or not, but (in contrast to Knightley’s slender frame) he looks like a bit of a lump; he certainly lacks the lively fire in the eyes that Firth brought to the role, and when he comes to propose for a second time, his early-morning trudge through the field takes an eternity. Just to mention also (not MacFadyen’s fault, of course), when Darcy bursts into the room at the Collins house, there is a horrifically clumsy zoom which, if deliberate, was a terrible idea.

The supporting roles all suffer from not having the time to become rounded. Brenda Blethyn actually does very well as Mrs Bennet, but is undermined by Donald Sutherland’s patently Canadian Mr Bennet – could he not at least have tried? Sutherland is poor and his voice is totally out of keeping with the rest of the cast. Rosamund Pike, as Jane, is not quite a doll, but her emotions at being misused by Bingley are not given the space they deserve, whilst Simon Woods’ Bingley is foolish and foppish, making his friendship with Darcy a curiosity.

Mr Collins is not given the time to be obsequious, so Tom Hollander presents him as a pushy, short man; and Judi Dench, as Lady Catherine de Burgh, displays all the haughtiness she brought to the role of Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, but was rather too spritely for my liking.

For all these criticisms, Pride and Prejudice is still a fine film. As a ramble through Austen’s story it serves its purpose adequately, and although I was not enamoured with all the cast they act out the story well enough. As cinema it looks and sounds great, with the pacing of (what’s left of) the story having its ups and downs and coming to its happy result at just the right times. But if you have the time, you should try to see Andrew Davies’ adaptation again – that is great television. Better still, read the book.