Man, what is up with all the Nazi movies this holiday season?
We've already had the Holocaust from the kiddie perspective in "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." Next, we will have Kate Winslet as a former SS prison camp guard seducing a teenage boy in "The Reader" -- or, as I like to call it, "Illiterate Nazi Cougar." And we'll watch Daniel Craig, James Bond himself, leading a bunch of Jews out of Nazi-occupied Poland in the upcoming "Defiance."
Even though this is the most wonderful time of the year, I'm not sure audiences will want to spend their Christmas being taken back to one of the most horrific periods in history. On the other hand, making a movie about Nazis is often a sure way to get some Academy Awards. Just ask Steven Spielberg and Roberto Benigni.
"Valkyrie" probably won't be on Oscar's shortlist. A big-budget (estimated at $95 million) studio thriller, it uses Hitler's reign more for populist thrills than award-worthy insights.
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And while "Valkyrie" appears to be the most irrelevant of the Nazi-movie pack, as it chronicles the plan hatched by German Nazi officers during World War II to assassinate Hitler and remove the Nazi Party from power, it is the most watchable.
Sure, "The Reader" has a nekkid Kate Winslet. But, unlike her movie, "Valkyrie" keeps you invested all the way through. (Why did she have to keep her clothes on in the second hour?).
At this point, I should mention that this movie mostly revolves around Tom Cruise's portrayal of German Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, the central figure in the assassination plot.
Like most Tom Cruise performances, this one teeters somewhere between intensely reserved and bombastically self-righteous. You gotta enjoy the man when he's like this: When he gets a role like the freedom fighter Stauffenberg, he wants it known that he is the only actor who can pull off such a performance.
I love it when Cruise gets this entertainingly self-deluded.
Anyway, after losing a left eye, a right hand and some fingers on his left hand during an Allied attack in Tunisia, the Hitler-despising Stauffenberg is ready to join the Resistance, a crew that includes Kenneth Branagh's twitchy major general, Bill Nighy's morally conflicted general and Terence Stamp's former German army chief of staff.
Together they decide to use Operation Valkyrie, Hitler's emergency plan to stabilize the government in the event of his demise, to take control of Germany and make peace with the Allies -- after Stauffenberg executes Der Führer (played by David Bamber), of course.
It's a shame you kind of know already how it ends. (If you don't know, and I won't spoil it for you, where did you go to school? And don't you think it's time you went back?)
But "Superman Returns" director Bryan Singer, working from a screenplay by Nathan Alexander and Singer's "The Usual Suspects" collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, keeps things stylishly, suspiciously compelling right up to the movie's inevitable conclusion.
I kept getting the feeling that Singer was trying to do his own "Paths of Glory," what with the casting of non-German actors (including Tom Wilkinson and Eddie Izzard) as German officers speaking entirely in English, and doing a war movie that is as much about choices, morality and common decency as it is about action. (Singer takes care of the whole English dialogue thing by having Cruise go from German to English in an opening-scene voice-over.)
But "Valkyrie" is much too conventional -- and, unfortunately, too easily disposable -- to be in the same company as Kubrick's bold war classic.
What Cruise and Singer have made is a popcorn flick that youngsters and their grandparents (especially those who still have issues with the Germans) can watch for a couple of hours.
And if illiterate Nazi cougars were in it as well, it would truly be the bomb!