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WWII

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Rogers for Roosevelt | Cap v. NSA.

“Steve Rogers doesn’t represent a genericized America but rather a very specific time and place – 1930’s New York City. We know he was born July 4, 1920 (not kidding about the 4th of July) to a working-class family of Irish Catholic immigrants who lived in New York’s Lower East Side. This biographical detail has political meaning: given the era he was born in and his class and religious/ethnic background, there is no way in hell Steve Rogers didn’t grow up as a Democrat, and a New Deal Democrat at that, complete with a picture of FDR on the wall.”

At Lawyers, Guns, & Money, Steven Attewell reminds us that Captain America has always been an FDR progressive. “[U]nlike other patriotic superheroes (like Superman, for example), Captain America is meant to represent the America of the Four Freedoms, the Atlantic Charter, and the Second Bill of Rights – a particular progressive ideal.”

Which reminds me, I was glad to see Cap so obviously take arms against the post-9/11 GWOT surveillance/preemption apparatus in Captain America: The Winter Soldier a few weeks ago. CA:TWS is top-tier Marvel, right next to The Avengers and Iron Man, and an even better film than the quality first installment. I particularly enjoyed the second-act twists involving Operation Paperclip and a UNIVAC, and if nothing else, the movie has furnished us with another very funny meme in “Hail Hydra.”

That being said, the third act slips off the rails some — state-of-the-art aircraft carriers with easily penetrable overrides, ho-hum — and the death count here, while not as egregious as in Man of Steel, still veers well into the absurd. When it comes time to face Ultron, how ’bout going easy with those grenades, Cap.

Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

Lots of catch-up to do in the Trailer Bin…

Finally out of The Master‘s clutches, a lonely Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with, for all intent and purposes, Siri (Scarlett Johansson) in the first trailer for Spike Jonze’s Her, also with Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, and Rooney Mara. I believe this is called going the full-Lars. (Also, I’m never not going to hear the name of this film as “Her?”)

Alan Rickman and Donal Logue — now there’s one of the best buddy pairings on film since Ray Winstone and Brendan Gleeson in Beowulf — meet a lot of 24 Hour Party People American-style in our first look at CBGB’s, with Ashley Greene, Freddy Rodriguez, Johnny Galecki, Bradley Whitford, Rupert Grint, Justin Bartha, Stana Katic, and Malin Ackerman (as Debbie Harry?) I see Severus is now teaching young Mr. Weasley a completely different set of Dark Arts. Hrm, maybe.

Michael Fassbender finds he’s taken a wrong turn into Cormac McCarthy land in the newest trailer for Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, with Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Goran Visnjic, and Dean Norris. Looks very McCarthyish, and no mistake. The good news is Ridley Scott still owes Fassbender a solid film after Prometheus.

It belongs in a museum! WWII soldiers George Clooney and Matt Damon put together a crack team to save priceless art and artifacts in the first trailer for Clooney’s The Monuments Men, also with John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, and Cate Blanchett. As one wag aptly noted on Twitter, this is basically an Elseworlds Ocean’s movie, but I trust Clooney’s choices. Still, here’s hoping it works out better than Clooney & Blanchett’s last trip to Germany.

Over an unfortunately poppy soundtrack, Idris Elba and Naomie Harris channel Nelson and Winnie Mandela in the first trailer for Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. This looks a bit standard-issue-biopic-y, I’ll admit. But I’ll watch just to see Elba as Mandela — just no Henley poems, k?

Team Silver Linings Playbook joins forces with Team Fighter (sans Wahlberg) to dabble in the luxurious world of art forgery in this brief trailer for David O. Russell’s next, American Hustle, with Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Louis CK, Jack Huston, Alessandro Nivola, Michael Pena and Elizabeth Rohm.

Lowry? Has anybody seen Sam Lowry? Er, sorry, that would be Mitty, as in Ben Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt, and Shirley MacLaine. I have to admit, this looks much fresher than I anticipated. Definitely maybe.

A terrible accident, an unexpected boon, and A Simple Plan all add up to another bad day for Sam Rockwell in the trailer for David Rosenthal’s A Single Shot, also with William H. Macy, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly, Ted Levine, Melissa Leo, and W. Earl Brown. A great cast through and through, but you had me at Rockwell.

And if you need another reason to worry about Found Money, Alice Eve gets into trouble with the Russian mob, in the form of Bryan Cranston, in the trailer for Cold Comes the Night, also with Logan Marshall-Green. If nothing else, it’ll be good for Cranston to get some more menacing reps in before signing up with LexCorp (although, in that department, Mark Strong’s a solid choice as well.)

Where’s a mermaid when you need one? Tom Hanks is in considerable peril on the sea in our second look at Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, also with Catherine Keener, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Michael Chernus, Chris Mulkey, Corey Johnson, David Warshofsky, John Magaro and Angus MacInnes.

I thought Greengrass’ most recent film, 2010′s Green Zone, was an overly preachy dud — I get annoyed with edutainment that aggressively berates me to endorse opinions I already hold. (I’m looking at you, Aaron Sorkin.) But Greengrass has a lifetime pass after United 93, Bloody Sunday, and the Bournes, so hopefully this is a return to form.

Thor Odinson, meet Clarice Starling: In a tight spot with a new Big Bad, Earth’s mightiest Asgardian (Chris Hemsworth) is forced to enlist help from his brother in the joint in the second trailer for Thor: The Dark World, also with Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Christopher Eccleston, Idris Elba, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, and Ray Stevenson.

After The Dark Knight, Skyfall, and ST:ID, I’m not sure we need any more villains unfolding their master plans from behind prison bars this decade — Heck, even Loki himself was doing this same shebang in The Avengers last year. Still, the first Thor was better than expected, and Marvel’s on a pretty consistent streak at the moment. I’m in.

I also thought the Nick Stoller’s 2011 reboot of The Muppets was decent enough, but I’m not getting good vibes at all from this first teaser for James Bobin’s Muppets: Most Wanted, with Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Salma Hayek, Frank Langella, Till Schweiger, Debby Ryan, Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta, and Christoph Waltz. Early yet, and I do like Stoller and Bobin’s prior output, but right now this looks like it’ll hit at about Smurfs 2 level.

So, yeah, Harrison Ford hasn’t gotten all that much better at voiceovers since Blade Runner, has he? Anyway, there’s also a new trailer for Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game, also with Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, and a ridiculous number of clichés (the Inception BWOMP, “We’re running out of time,” etc.) Everyone wants a Ford comeback, but it’s hard to imagine this one getting my money, even if Orson Scott Card wasn’t a jackass. Oh well.

“Only Nein Neinty-Nine.”

If you thought JCPenney was having problems at the top — or if pressure cookers were posing problems for the tea-kettle industry — look no further than 405 freeway near Culver City in Southern California, where an innocent stainless steel pot is drawing comparisons to perhaps the least innocent person of all time, spigot salute and all.”

Don’t turn around, uh oh. Der Kettle Fuhrer’s in town, uh oh. If I remember correctly, this teapot with an ill-favored look is an exact replica of the one once used in a small boarding house in Minehead, Somerset. “Sorry Mein Dickey Old Chum!”

The Axes of Evil.

“This series is an experiment where a dictator, a psycho, a murderer (sometimes they are the whole package) or even a suspicious figure from real life is mashed with a comics bad guy – strangely related some way or the other with his counterpart.” Brazilian artist Butcher Billy’s Legion of Doom, by way of Normative.

Farewell to Company B.


“Like her older sisters, Patty learned to love music as a child (she also became a good tap dancer), and she did not have to be persuaded when Maxene suggested that the sisters form a trio in 1932. She was 14 when they began to perform in public.” Patty Andrews, last of the Andrews Sisters, 1918-2013. “‘I was listening to Benny Goodman and to all the bands,’ Patty once remarked. ‘I was into the feel, so that would go into my own musical ability. I was into swing. I loved the brass section.’

Darkness Over Oahu.

“For the first time, I felt that numb terror that all of London has known for months. It is the terror of not being able to do anything but fall on your stomach and hope the bomb won’t land on you. It’s the helplessness and terror of sudden visions of a ripping sensation in your back, shrapnel coursing through your chest, total blackness, maybe death.”

71 years after the day of infamy, the WP publishes a graphic first-hand account of the Pearl Harbor attack by journalist Betty McIntosh, now a hale and hearty 97.

The Enemy of my Enemy.

But returning to their POW camps, the Americans carried a conviction that they had just witnessed overwhelming proof of Soviet guilt. The corpses’ advanced state of decay told them the killings took place much earlier in the war, when the Soviets still controlled the area…The evidence that did the most to convince them was the good state of the men’s boots and clothing: That told them the men had not lived long after being captured.

Newly-released documents tell of how America learned of the 1940 Katyn Massacre seventy-two years ago, and worked to keep it quiet. “The directive was to ‘never to speak about a secret message on Katyn.’ During the 1951-52 Congressional hearings, for example, no material was presented to demonstrate that Washington knew about Katyn as early as it did.

We Need a Hero.


When Hal Jordan took a bullet for Steve Rogers by being the inevitable middling comic book movie of the season, the path was open for Marvel to go three-for-three this year. And, hey, they pulled it off! Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class is still the most fun and self-assured of this year’s comic book crop, but Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger is another solidly entertaining summer outing, and as good a Cap movie as Thor was a Thor movie. In the end, I probably preferred this film of the latter two, both for its four-color propaganda poster flavor and because I just prefer Cap to the Asgardian — but it’s really a toss-up.

If anything, The First Avenger is more faithful to its titular character, since Johnston, unlike Branagh in Thor, plays this period piece straight, without the likes of Kat Dennings and Clark Gregg providing a security blanket of 21st century irony. Speaking of which, Chris Evans has already shown he exudes star presence in movies like Sunshine and Scott Pilgrim, and he was easily the best thing about otherwise bland comic-book flicks like Fantastic Four and The Losers. But, in the past, he’s always skated by on his snark, and I was worried Steve Rogers might be turned into a self-aware, wisecracking Spiderman sort to accommodate that. But, no, Captain America here is noble, earnest, and maybe a tiny bit dull — exactly as he should be.

In this incarnation as in the original comic, Steve Rogers is a puny kid from Brooklyn whose spirit is willing and flesh is weak: Even as his best friend James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stans), and seemingly every other able-bodied American male in the borough, head off to fight Hitler and Japan in the Big W-W-I-I, Rogers is rejected from one recruiting office after another for being a tiny, wimpy asthmatic. That is, until a German emigre named Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears Rogers again trying to serve his country for the umpteenth time. Perhaps, Erskine decides, this brave little man might be the perfect candidate for America’s top-secret Super Soldier program, conveniently headquartered in New York City. (Not to be confused with the Manhattan Project.)

It had better work, since Nazi Germany already has a Super Soldier of its own. That would be Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a.k.a. The Red Skull, head of Hitler’s deep-science division HYDRA. And, while Hitler wastes time “digging around in the desert” (heh), Schmidt has located the all-powerful Cosmic Cube in Eastern Europe, where it had been under guard by Mr Filch/Walder Frey. Now, with his right-hand man Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), Schmidt threatens to use this powerful device to (wait for it, wait for it) take over the entire world. Can anyone stop his dastardly plan? Anyone, anyone? Rogers?

So, ya, pretty standard set-up, of course. Along the hero’s journey, Captain America suffers through boot camp (led by Tommy Lee Jones, who’s phoning it in but who at least isn’t doing his Two-Face schtick.) He gains a costume, a shield, a squad (the Howling Commandoes), and the attentions of a plucky and beautiful British agent, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell of Cassandra’s Dream.) And he learns, more than once, that war isn’t a USO show, and that with great power comes great sacrifice…but let’s save those spoilers for The Avengers.

Speaking of that forthcoming super-team, there’s plenty of chum in the water in The First Avenger for Marvel fans, from Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper here, not Roger Sterling) to the aforementioned Cosmic Cube to a great first shot of Jones’ Zola, which pays homage to his four-color incarnation. When it comes to real, not comic-book, history, however, The First Avenger is obviously a bit fast and loose with the era. Several years before Truman desegregates, the Howling Commandoes are a multiracial brigade, and in fact the entire US Army seems integrated. And while Peggy has to put up with some macho bravado, she still seems unencumbered by the sexism of the period.

Still, given that this is a movie about a guy wrapped in Old Glory who continually punches Hitler in the face, the rose-tinted ahistoricism didn’t bother me all that much. Captain America is a propaganda vehicle by design — arguably the best section in the movie has him being taken on a Flags of our Fathers-style USO tour. And like Superman’s commitment to truth, justice, and the American Way, Cappy has always been more about who we as a nation should be than who we actually are, so I found myself more willing than usual to forgive the film some well-intentioned anachronisms. If anything, I’m glad The First Avenger didn’t choose to make Cap an overly militaristic hero. Instead, he’s a unassuming kid from Brooklyn, given great power, whose patriotism mainly consists of just trying to do the right thing.

Yossarian Begins.


He told one British journalist that ‘conversations with two friends…influenced me. Each of them had been wounded in the war, one of them very seriously The first one told some very funny stories about his war experiences, but the second one was unable to understand how any humour could be associated with the horror of war. They didn’t know each other and I tried to explain the first one’s point of view to the second. He recognized that traditionally there had been lots of graveyard humour, but he could not reconcile it with what he had seen of war. It was after that discussion that the opening of Catch-22 and many incidents in it came to me.‘”

By way of Ed Champion at Reluctant Habits, Joseph Heller biographer Tracy Daugherty recounts the origins of Catch-22 in Vanity Fair. “I’ve got the perfect number. Twenty-two, it’s funnier than eighteen.

What the Words Obscured.


There is nothing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves more than movies about people with physical or mental disabilities (or addictions)…If the afflicted protagonist also happens to be royal — as in The Madness of King George (1994) — so much the better, for a suffering crowned head bestows an extra touch of class on Hollywood’s uplifting formula of brave triumph over cruel adversity.

So, apparently, a stammer was the least of King George VI’s worries. As the Oscar field is announced with The King’s Speech at the head of the pack, Martin Filler muckrakes the rest of the King George story in The New York Review of Books, and Christopher Hitchens piles on over at Slate: “The King’s Speech is an extremely well-made film with a seductive human interest plot, very prettily calculated to appeal to the smarter filmgoer and the latent Anglophile. But it perpetrates a gross falsification of history.

Talking Monarch Blues.

Part monarchical bromance, part speech impediment Rocky, Tom Hooper’s impressive if Oscar Bait-y The King’s Speech — about King George VI of England’s attempts to overcome his debilitating stammer — is, in its own way, as edutaining and well-made a recent royal micro-history as the film concerning his daughter, Stephen Frear’s The Queen. The acting is on point, the writing is keenly-observed, the direction is crisp and well-paced, and if Colin Firth gets a Best Actor Oscar for this to make up for his A Single Man loss (much like Jim Broadbent won for Iris after being overlooked for Moulin Rouge), well, no harm, no foul.

The point being, if in doubt, go see this film. You probably know if this sort of thing — a BBC-ish historical production with a feel-good, sports-movie narrative arc — is your cup of tea, and if it is, have at it, good fellow. Still, chalk it up to haters gonna hate, but I left the theater feeling a little underwhelmed by The King’s Speech. Yes, it is well-made. But it also didn’t do anything that surprised me — wait, so Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist is both wacky AND wise? Irreverent AND endearing? What a delightful combination! — and I ultimately found the stakes to be rather small.

The film opens in October of 1925, as the shy, discomfited Duke of York, Prince Albert (Firth), waits within the bowels of Wembley Stadium with his doting wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). Third in line to the throne behind his father the King (Michael Gambon) and his rapscallion brother David (Guy Pearce), the Duke is about to deliver an address — to be broadcast worldwide — at the closing ceremony of the British Empire Exhibition. This, alas, he bombs painfully: Albert’s pitiful, strangulated attempts to overcome his stammer make the speech a chore for speaker and millions of listeners alike.

Cut to a decade later, and the poor prince is still prisoner to his unruly glottis. And so, with the Duke at the end of his rope, Elizabeth (who we know better as the beloved “Queen Mum.”) seeks out some aid from a commoner who’s ostensibly trained in the arts of speech therapy, one Lionel Logue (Rush). An Australian transplant to the isles, Lionel is a congenial family man far removed from the etiquette and ostentation of the Crown: The closest he’s ever gotten to royalty is his well-reviewed portrayal of Richard III — another “rudely-stamped” Duke of York, as it happens — back in Perth. But is it possible this scampish, egalitarian therapist has the wisdom and the potential to break through to the future king where others have failed? Gee, you think?

I don’t want to make light of Prince Albert’s stammer, because it seems like a cruel fate indeed for a man born into a family business of speechifying to be afflicted with such a curse. (And Firth does a great job of conveying the sheer horror of it all. At any moment, you can see his fear that he might once again be betrayed by his tongue.) Still, perhaps it speaks to a failure of empathy on my part — I usually do well on the Voight-Kampff, I swear — but the question of whether or not an extraordinarily wealthy and catered-for man can manage to overcome his embarrassing speech impediment was not one I found all that engaging in the end. (This is sorta the same problem I have with Sofia Coppola films, and I fear Somewhere will be no exception.)

It seems the writers recognize the problem here, so to square that circle they invoke the encroaching thunder of World War II. Albert (later George, of course) is more and more explicitly contrasted with that eloquent demon on the Continent, Adolf Hitler, who is mustering a frightful army by virtue of his silver tongue. How will England’s monarch be able to stand against the wrath of Nazi Germany, if he too is not possessed of royal gravitas and a kingly p-p-p-p-poker face? Well, ok, that does raise the stakes some, and, yes, from his decision to stay in London during the Blitz to his 1939 Christmas speech (not featured in the film), the dignity and fortitude of King George VI was indeed a rallying point for his people during the Second Great War.

Still, from watching this movie you’d never get the sense that John Bull already has a great orator in his pocket, in Winston Churchill. (Here, Timothy Spall, who sadly comes off like a guy in a Halloween costume.) At the end of the day, it’s Churchill’s speeches — “their finest hour, “blood, toil, tears, ands sweat,” “we shall fight on the beaches” — that stand the test of time, which, for all its good intentions and attention to craft, makes the central tale in The King’s Speech feel like even more of an historical footnote. (And, as Dangerous Meta points out, Churchil himself was a stammerer. That’s mentioned briefly in the movie, but perhaps not given as much due as it could’ve been.)

In the end, though, the question of stakes is less important than the nagging suspicion throughout The King’s Speech that it was basically just a sports movie for the Merchant-Ivory crowd. There may be a Big Speech at the end instead of a Big Game, but we’re still playing in the same old ballpark. We even have a training montage at one point.

Speech is very well put together to be sure, and if this genre speaks to you then do go see it. Still, I left the theater feeling like I’d seen this exact same sort of tale — adversity overcome with determination and the aid of a kooky-but-wise mentor — way too many times before. Adding British accents, and a stammering one at that, doesn’t really change the tried-and-true Rocky/Remember the Titans/Great Debaters equation at work here in the end.

A Long Walk Home.

Another intriguing selection from the trailer bin: Peter Weir, who arguably has never made a bad film, sends Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, and Sairose Ronan on a walk across continents in the trailer for The Way Back. “The book is Rawicz’s account of being captured by the Red Army in 1939 and his journey to freedom with other inmates. The group crossed the Siberian arctic, the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, finally settling in Tibet and India.

The Bill Paid at Last.


The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness should be abhorrent and detestable — abhorrent and detestable, even if it were possible, even if it enriched ourselves, even if it did not sow the decay of the whole civilised life of Europe…[N]ations are not authorised, by religion or by natural morals, to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents or of rulers.” — John Maynard Keynes

Ninety-one years after the terms were first agreed to, Germany makes its last WWI reparations payment this weekend. “Hatred of the settlement agreed at Versailles, France, which crippled Germany as it tried to shape itself into a democracy following defeat in the war, was of significant importance in propelling the Nazis to power.

FDR: The View from the Inside.

Tully took the president’s dictation for his famous Pearl Harbor speech. ‘Miss Tully had been with Roosevelt since his days as governor of New York,” said David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States. ‘And many of his most sensitive letters, instructions, notes and even scribblings passed through her hands.‘”

The National Archives obtains 5,000 pages of new FDR documents, courtesy of the archives of personal secretary Grace Tully. (This video describes the acquisition.) “Archivists hope to have the collection publicly available by November and online by January.

Tales of the Homefront.


These images, by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, are some of the only color photographs taken of the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations.” Two recent photo-exhibits of historical interest: The striking image above is from the Denver Post‘s “Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943″ exhibit, which is definitely worth perusing. And the WP points the way to a similar FSA series: “Life During Wartime: Washington DC and World War II.” In both cases, the images come via the LoC.

Undaunted Audacity.

Nonfiction writers who succumb to the temptations of phantom scholarship are a burgeoning breed these days, although most stop short of fabricating interviews with Presidents. But Stephen Ambrose, who, at the time of his death, in 2002, was America’s most famous and popular historian, appears to have done just that.

In less-sanguine history news, and by way of Past Punditry, a new blog by an old Columbia colleague of mine, it appears that the late Stephen Ambrose — already unmasked as a serial plagiarist — also conjured several purported interviews with President Eisenhower out of thin air. “Access to Eisenhower in his retirement years was tightly controlled…These records show that Eisenhower saw Ambrose only three times, for a total of less than five hours. The two men were never alone together.” Hmm…I could’ve saved a lot of time in gradual school if I could just make it up. (Sadly, there’s been a rash of fake presidential quotes going around lately.)

Village of the Damned.


The kids are alright? Not hardly. As the second half of a Saturday double-feature with Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America, I caught the Oscar favorite for Best Foreign Film this year, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Alas, meine freunde, I found it underwhelming.

Put briefly, and while adding a frisson of Funny Games‘ Aryan youths-gone-wild to the mix, The White Ribbon attempts to do for the rise of the Nazis in Germany what Haneke’s Cache did for the French-Algerian conflict. But, at least for me, lightning didn’t strike twice. Perhaps it’s due to either knowing the trick this time ’round or having a greater familiarity with the history at hand, but I thought the allegorical content of Ribbon started out rather didactically, and only got more obvious and belabored at the movie churned along. And, shorn of its historical musings, the story here doesn’t really hold up on its own — It’s mostly just long, meandering takes of (usually) unfortunate things happening to German peasants.

First, the story. The year is 1913, and in the (fictional) village of Eichwald, a German doctor (Rainer Bock) is thrown from his horse and gravely injured, apparently due to a tripwire someone — one of the Black Hand? — placed across his path. And before this event can even be fully processed, another tragedy takes place: A worker for the local Baron (Ulrich Tukur) falls through some rotted boards to her death. Yep, Eichwald is having a frozen run of luck like you read about.

As suspicions and recriminations deepen throughout this hamlet, more troubling events ensue. An aggrieved farmer ruins the harvest festival by slaughtering all the Baron’s cabbages. The Baron’s young son is taken by unknown parties and brutally horsewhipped (for some reason, and as in Doubt, nobody ever thinks to ask the kid who did this to him.) Fires are set, folks disappear (or leave while they still can), birds are mutilated, and, perhaps most frightening, even souls are in peril: For example, the son (Leonard Proxauf) of the local reverend (Burghart Klaubner) puts his eternal salvation in doubt by indulging in a nasty habit of onanism. To be sure, this evil must be beaten out of him, and his siblings, as soon as possible. In other words, we must destroy these children in order to save them.

Narrating this tale throughout (as an old man, years on) is the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who, as a relatively young newcomer to the village, stands between its feuding generations. When not courting the Baron’s young nanny (Leonie Benesch), he watches the events unfolding in town with growing unease, and tries to figure out who is responsible for all the incidents driving the citizens of Eichwald mad. The problem is, he’s already tipped what’s actually going on in the very first scene of the movie, when he says something along the lines of “This is not just the story of a random German village, but the story of my nation.” Ooh, really? Allegory time.

Pretty soon thereafter, we are regaled with a scene where the Reverend’s children are taken to the proverbial woodshed and unduly punished for their transgressions, real and imagined. Given both the time I’ve spent on this subject in recent years and the schoolmaster’s “time to play German History Jeopardy!” warning in the first scene, this set off Versailles Conference bells and alarms right away, and especially so once these children are then forced to wear white ribbons as symbols of purity. Hmm…who else in 20th century German history ran around wearing armbands? Let me think on it.

The rest of the story pans out as you might expect. For various reasons, predominant among them the Sins of the Father(s), these kids go terribly wrong, eventually even going so far as to attack a developmentally disabled boy (i.e. the local minority in their midst.) Also, for some reason, the movie is constructed like a mystery, even tho’ — even if you didn’t pick up on all the hints in the last paragraph — one of the kids basically confesses to the schoolteacher what’s going on in the first reel. Uh, can we speed this along? Bitte?

I’d like to say The White Ribbon remains engaging despite all of its allegorical ambitions. But it doesn’t, really. When you’re not playing spot-the-German-history as it goes along — Is the Baron supposed to be Kaiser Wilhelm? Are we gonna get a Beer Hall Putsch? Hey, look, Pius XII! — Ribbon mostly just offers long, intermittently interesting digressions on agrarian village life, like harvest festivals, courting carriage-rides and the cruelest break-up of the German pre-war period. (Some of this plays a bit like Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven — A period film, told in period (B&W) style, with then-taboo subjects like incest, sexual assault, and the aforementioned onanism now thrown in.)

Simply put, there’s not enough story to sustain interest in this enterprise without the allegorical content that’s driving the movie. And, since this allegory was tipped in the opening half-hour, I pretty much just spent most of The White Ribbon waiting for all the various little Nazi shoes to drop. Without either the ambiguity or the open-endedness of Cache, I found The White Ribbon on the pedantic and stultifying side, and I can’t really recommend it. It’s not terrible or anything, but it is rather long and uninvolving, and I have to think one of the other Foreign Film contenders probably puts on a better show.

Last of the Kon-Tiki. | The Man Twice-Bombed.

Twice he was captured and escaped, once by back-flipping over a snow bank and running off into the woods before his guards could use their weapons. A third time, surrounded by the Gestapo at a maternity hospital in Oslo where he had set up a transmitter in a chimney, he shot his way to freedom with a pistol.” Via a friend, Knut Haugland, WWII resistance fighter and last surviving member of the Kon-Tiki expedition, 1917-2010.

We may “play” Call of Duty nowadays, but this guy lived it. “He particularly objected to the word ‘heroes’ in the title. ‘I never use that word about myself or my friends,’ he told BBC4 Radio in 2003. “We just did a job.” Referring to the glider crashes and the killing of the survivors, he added: ‘Forty-one men were killed, and it could have been avoided. Because of the loss of life, you shouldn’t glorify the story.’Update, and via several Twitterers: Also passing very recently, another unbelievable survivor of WWII: Tsutomu Yamaguchi, 1916-2010. “On August 6, 1945, he was about to leave the city of Hiroshima, where he had been working, when the first bomb exploded, killing 140,000 people. Injured and reeling from the horrors around him, he fled to his home — Nagasaki, 180 miles to the west.

Crazy. He’s like a real-life Pariah for the Atomic Age. “‘I think it is a miracle,’ he told The Times on the 60th anniversary of the bombings in 2005. ‘But having been granted this miracle it is my responsibility to pass on the truth to the people of the world. For the past 60 years survivors have declared the horror of the atomic bomb, but I can see hardly any improvement in the situation.’

FDR’s Preexisting Condition?

“Is it conceivable that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s doctors knew he had widespread cancer in 1944 and still let him run for his fourth term as president? New research makes this astounding argument — and claims that the physician who supposedly told the truth about Roosevelt’s death in 1970 was in fact continuing the deception he had helped create.Slate‘s Barron Lerner evaluates new claims that FDR may have suffered — and died — from cancer.

“How plausible is this research? If Roosevelt indeed had a hemianopsia, it suggests a brain mass, and melanoma would be as likely a cause as any…But all of these symptoms have other possible explanations…Perhaps most important, there is no smoking gun: In all of the documents Lomazow and Fettman unearthed, neither Bruenn nor FDR’s other doctors ever used the word cancer. Still, Lomazow and Fettman’s research is of great importance.”

Shireland Security.

“A GCHQ historian, who would not give his name for security reasons, said: ‘JRR Tolkien is known the world over for his novels, but his involvement with the war effort may take a few people by surprise.’” By way of Ed Rants, it seems J.R.R. Tolkien was briefly trained in the art of code-breaking at the Government Codes and Cypher School (GCCS), and was even approached to partake in the Council of Turing in the fields of Bletchley, where presumably his linguistic skills would help in deciphering the Black Speech of the Enemy.

John, son of Arthur, however, took the hobbit’s route…this time. “While he didn’t sign up as was probably intended, he did complete three days’ training and was ‘keen’ to do more. Why he failed to join remains a mystery. There is no paperwork suggesting a motive, so we can only assume that he wanted to concentrate on his writing career.” Perhaps he feared the seductive power of the Palantir, or perhaps he simply had had enough of war.

Does Anybody Here Remember Vera Lynn?

Vera, Vera, what has become of you? Does anybody else in here feel the way I do? Well, Rog’, apparently they do. (And, to be she fair, she did say we’d meet again.)

An Affirming Flame.

“All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie, the romantic lie in the brain of the sensual man-in-the-street and the lie of Authority, whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State, and no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice to the citizen or the police. We must love one another or die.W.H. Auden‘s “September 1, 1939″ turns 70.

Via BDL, and seen where “ironic points of light flash out wherever the Just exchange their messages,” a.k.a. Twitter.

Swatting at Nazis.

A weekend chock-full of movies on this end, beginning with a Friday night outing to Quentin Tarantino’s striking, rambling Inglourious Basterds. I’ve been down on pretty much everything QT has done over the past decade — Kill Bill, Vol. 1, Kill Bill, Vol. 2, Death Proof — but Basterds at last feels like a movie by the writer-director who gave us Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and the underappreciated Jackie Brown. To be honest, it’s hard to say whether Tarantino has finally reversed his decade-long slide into his own solipsistic, homage-heavy universe (which is the three-dollar way of describing his recent tendency to disappear up his own ass), or — more likely — that QT’s riffing on European film as much as 70′s exploitation flicks here makes this movie feel broader than the last few forays. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, Basterds works, and it is a welcome return-to-form.

Perhaps part of the reason I enjoyed the film was that I went in with egregiously low expectations. Particularly with Hostel director Eli Roth skulking about the premises — he’s Donny Donowitz, a.k.a. the “Bear Jew,” a Boston-born basterd who likes to go yahd on Nazi skulls with his Louisville Slugger — I went in thinking that this movie would basically be two and a half hours of grisly torture porn — or , in other words, the ear scene from Reservoir Dogs over and over again, made “ok” because the victims are Nazis. But Inglourious Basterds is both broader and more subtle than that. Yes, there’s some of that going on — particularly in Chapter 2 — but it’s handled much more expertly than I feared. (Nor are the victims in question just cartoon Nazis out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but multi-dimensional individuals in a huge spot of trouble.)

And, in any case, the Basterds are really a small part of the film as a whole. Borrowing liberally from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly at the start, the movie begins in 1941 France with the interrogation of a French farmer (Denis Menochet) who may or may not be harboring his Jewish neighbors. His interlocutor is the courtly SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz, a bit over-the-top but probably a shoo-in for a Supporting Actor nod) who, in a wide-ranging conversation about milk, hawks, pipes, and paperwork, methodically picks apart the poor dairy farmer like a boy pinning down a butterfly. Then, we meet the Basterds, the elite unit of Jewish soldiers — led by “Aldo the Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt, also playing it broad) — who are kicking ass and taking manes all across Europe. Their dastardly exploits have even caught the attention of the German High Command — including the Fuhrer himself (Martin Wuttke), who wants them dead, like, yesterday. (Speaking of which, the early scenes in the FHQ, with Hitler throwing a tantrum over the Basterds, felt a lot like how I’d imagine a WWII-era Captain America film might pan out.)

Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), meanwhile, is more interested in getting his newest propaganda film — A Nation’s Pride, about the Sgt. York-like heroics of one German sniper (Daniel Bruhl) — the grand opening it deserves in Nazi-occupied Paris. To that end, and on the advice of said sniper (who’s a bit smitten with the proprietor), he looks to book the premiere at a theater run by a melancholy French beauty named Emmanuelle Mimieux (Melanie Laurent). But Emmanuelle, it turns out, is in fact named Shoshanna — we met her earlier in the film — and she more than most has a score to settle with these godawful Nazis. And, like Herr Goebbels, she knows a thing or two about using the cinema to make a dramatic statement…

I haven’t even mentioned the German actress/double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), or the dashing British film critic-turned-lieutenant, Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), or Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), the expert Nazi-killer sprung by the Basterds for bad behavior, or military mastermind Gen. Ed Fenech (Mike Myers, distracting but getting to live out his Peter Sellers dream some more), the man with a plan to knock out the German High Command in one fell swoop. Yes, this film is a truly baroque creation. It’s more a collection of loosely-related setpieces, to be honest, and some work better than others (A vignette involving a rendezvous-gone-south in a basement pub is a masterpiece of slowly-ratcheting suspense; the scene where Shoshanna is forced to eat dinner with a gaggle of Nazis feels ten minutes too long.)

Although most of the speaking here is conducted in French, German, or really-bad Italian (it’s all lovely to listen to, by the way — the musicality of QT’s dialogue definitely carries over into other languages), this is a Tarantino movie through and through. We have the long, meandering conversations punctuated by staccato bursts of violence. (See also: Any other Tarantino film.) We have the throwback homage-ridden score (Mostly Morricone, but David Bowie’s “Cat People” shows up in a truly odd spot.) We have the random digressions on “Pop Culture According to QT.” (There’s an extended riff on King Kong here that momentarily took me out of the film.) We have an obvious lapse into foot fetishism (the Cinderella scene, which, imho, doesn’t make much sense given what happens later.) There are, of course, several Mexican standoffs. It’s all very Tarantino, alright.

And we have the powerful ending, which I won’t give away in detail here. [Warning: This rest of this review is spoilerish.] As several characters say in Chapter 5, “the shoe’s on the other foot now.” And it is — After the tension-wracked first chapter, Basterds completely inverts the usual Cat-and-Maus relationship inherent to almost all movies of this genre. The political economy of IB is hardly what you’d call Zen, and if “turn the other cheek” is your moral touchstone, then the ending is deplorable in many ways. (Even Tarantino seems to think so, given that we the audience have basically the same reaction to Basterds as the Nazis do to A Nation’s Pride.) That being said, it’s a weirdly and undeniably intoxicating thing to see the Jewish Basterds being the guys holding the guns for once, and to witness their disembodied, cackling Avenging Angel exult in a vengeance long denied.

After all its Eurocinema-meets-The Dirty Dozen twists-and-turns, Inglourious Basterds ends up being a sort of a Leni Riefenstahl film for the Jews. And, well, propaganda it may be, but you don’t have to be a Tarantino-level foot fetishist to find it at least somewhat refreshing, even exhilarating, to see that boot on the other heel for once.

Secrets and Lies.

In the July 4th weekend trailer bin:

  • Four couples (Vince Vaughn/Malin Ackerman, Jon Favreau/Kristin Davis, Jason Bateman/Kristen Bell, Faison Love/Kali Hawk) work out their issues in paradise in the preview for Peter Billingsley’s Couples Retreat, also with Jean Reno and Ken Jeong. (And, yes, that Peter Billingsley. Anyway, not my cup of tea, really — it looks like a paid vacation for the folks involved.)

  • Quentin Tarantino unleashes another look at what appears to be talky WWII torture porn in the international trailer for Inglorious Basterds, with Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, and Mike Myers with a variable accent. (This honestly looks worse with each trailer. Get it together, QT.)

  • And, most promisingly of the bunch, Matt Damon and a goofy moustache scour up the inside secrets of ADM in our first look at Stephen Soderbergh’s The Informant!, also with Scott Bakula, Tony Hale, Clancy Brown, Joel McHale, and Melanie Lynskey.

  • U.S. History for Dummies.

    As many readers here well know, I’ve spent a good bit of time over the past decade studying US history. (In fact, over the past few years, I’ve occasionally helped my advisor keep a textbook up to date that recently drew the ire of right-wing blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Apparently, those damn pesky facts were somehow mitigating O’Reilly’s ability to spew forth the usual idiotic blather.)

    Anyway, over that period of time, I believe I have in fact learned me a few things. So, as a public service of sorts, and because, after this morning’s revelations, I’ve reached the limit of craven and/or patently stupid falsehoods that I can feasibly ingest over so short a time, some “U.S. History for Dummies.” I expect most everyone who comes by this site with any frequency knows all this, but ya never know. Apologies for the didacticism in advance — if this were this a Coors Light commercial, this would be where i vent. (And thanks to Lia for the timely visual tax lesson, above.)

  • The Tea Party: As you no doubt know, the Boston Tea Party of 1773 was recently appropriated by FOX News and the conservative group Freedomworks to simulate a widespread popular uprising against high taxes. (In other words, it was an “astroturf,” rather than a grass-roots, movement.) And, yes, the inconvenient fact that President Obama and the Democratic Congress actually lowered income taxes for 95% of Americans earlier this year didn’t seem to dissuade them from trying to jury-rig some rather dubious anti-tax ramparts and gin up enough disgruntled FOX-watchers to man them.

    At any rate, as most people remember from high school, the original 1773 Tea Party was not a protest against high taxes or high prices at all. (In fact, legally imported tea — i.e. that of the East India Company, which was both suffering serious setbacks over in India and losing market share to smuggled Dutch tea at the time — was actually cheaper in the colonies after the Tea Act, since it was now exempt from the usual obligations.)

    In small part a reaction of the East India’s commercial rivals to this sweetheart deal, the Boston Tea Party was mainly held to uphold the principle of No taxation without representation. Which I don’t think I need to explain. So, with the minor exception of DC-area conservatives who attended the tea gathering in Washington (without crossing over from Virginia or Maryland), the, uh, “teabaggers” don’t really have a leg to stand on here. This is particularly true after you consider that both ruthless gerrymandering and the vagaries of the Electoral College (I’m looking at you, Wyoming) actually tend to lead to over-representation of conservative Republicans in our halls of governance, even despite heavy losses for the “Grand Old Party” in 2006 and 2008.

  • The “Right” of Secession: Apparently, Rick Perry, the right-wing governor of Texas, really wants to keep his job. As such, he’s scared stiff of the forthcoming primary challenge by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who happens to be much more popular than he is among Texas Republicans. So, to sow up his “activist” (re: freak show) bona fides, this desperate fellow has been doing anything and everything he possibly can to prostrate himself before the paranoid ultra-right, including appearing before the current poobahs of the GOP’s lunatic fringe, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage. As you no doubt know, this recently culminated in Gov. Perry’s upholding Texas’ right to secede before a crowd of rabid teabaggers. Said the Governor: ““We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that…

    Well, in fact, no state in the Union has any legal right to secede. (Not even Texas.) The existence of such a right was posited and debated quite often in the early years of the republic: by Jefferson and Madison in the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions, by the members of the Hartford Convention, by South Carolina’s philosopher-politician John C. Calhoun, and countless others.

    But the illegality of secession was eventually confirmed — in blood — when eleven states attempted to pull out of the Union in 1861, due mainly to differing opinions on the institution of slavery and its expansion into the western territories. As a result of this insurrection by the southern states, a violent conflict broke out, which we call the Civil War. It lasted four years, and it was kind of a big deal.

    Prior to the war, the states of the Confederacy believed secession to be their natural right, while those remaining in the Union believed it to be tantamount to an act of treason. With the Union victory in that conflict, and the subsequent readmittance of southern states in such a manner that reaffirmed that no right of secession exists, the question was settled. So it remains to this day.

  • Waterboarding, Torture, and “Just Following Orders”: In the wake of recent revelations, there’s been a renewed push among certain conservatives to laugh off waterboarding as not being constitutive of torture. (See also Rush Limbaugh’s fratboy defense of Abu Ghraib a few years ago.) But (as even John McCain concedes), in the years after World War II, there was no question among Americans that waterboarding is torture. In fact, Japanese soldiers were tried and convicted of war crimes for waterboarding American GIs and Filipino prisoners. When you think about it, it’s not really a tough call.

    Another argument we’ve heard lately — today Sen. McCain made it with his usual comrades-in-arms, Sens. Lieberman and Graham, while trying to protect Dubya’s lawyers — is that the CIA officials who actually conducted these recent acts of torture should be exempt from prosecution, because they were following the legal dictates of those higher-up in the administration. (To follow the reasoning around the circle, the torturers should be exempt because they were listening to the lawyers, and the lawyers should be exempt because they didn’t do the actual torturing. Cute.)

    Anyway, whatever you think of the merits of this argument, this is usually referred to as the Nuremberg defense, and it is in fact no defense at all. Argues Principle IV of the Nuremberg Principles, devised by the Allies after WWII to determine what constituted a war crime: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” Insert “CIA interrogator” for person in that last sentence and you can pretty much see the problem.

  • Is America a Christian Nation?: At the end of his recent European tour, President Obama told an audience in Turkey the following: “We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.” This statement — well the “not a Christian nation” part of it, at least — prompted no small amount of consternation from the porcine-moralist wing of the GOP — James Dobson, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, and sundry other freaks of the industry — all of whom fell over themselves to proclaim to the Heavens and preach to the FOX News choir that, yes, Virginia, America is a glorious Christian nation.

    America is not a Christian nation. This will be patently obvious to anyone who’s ever heard the phrase “separation of church and state.” Unlike, say, England, America does not have and has never had an official, established church. This is very much by design. For proof of this not-very-radical claim, see the very first clause of the very first amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

    If that doesn’t do it for you, see George Washington’s famous 1790 letter to the Jewish residents of Newport, Rhode Island. “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

    Or consider that Thomas Jefferson skipped his presidency on his tombstone to make room for his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: “Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” (We could also make mention of the Jefferson Bible, but let’s start slow.)

    Is the reasoning here too circuitous for Rove, Gingrich, et al to follow? Ok, then, here’s the cheat sheet: the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, passed by a Congress of our Founders without declaim and signed into law by President John Adams. It begins: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” Did y’all catch it this time? Good, let’s move on.

  • A Smile for Chavez: Our new president also attended the Summit of the Americas recently, at which he was photographed smiling and shaking hands with Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez, a particular bete noire of the right who has said all manner of unpleasant things about America over the past few years.

    After the picture was taken, conservatives went predictably livid, with Matt Drudge headlining the offending photograph with the usual red text, Dick Cheney deeming Obama “a weak president” on FOX News, and Gingrich arguing that it made Obama look “weak like Carter.” “We didn’t rush over, smile and greet Russian dictators,” said Newt, and he wasn’t the only potential 2012′er aghast at Obama’s behavior. Sen. John Ensign of Nevada called the president “irresponsible” and the consistently shameless Mitt Romney painted Obama a “timid advocate for freedom”.

    Um, ok. Well, let’s see here…


    I could go on. With regards to that last one — Reagan yukking it up with Mikhail Gorbachev, then of “the evil Empire” — it didn’t take long before (surprise) Newt was caught in a contradiction. Apparently, Gingrich had previously argued on his website that Ronald Reagan’s good humor with Gorby was a sign of strength, not weakness.

    Speaking of which, as Lawrence O’Donnell noted on MSNBC the other day, saintly old Ronald Reagan didn’t just smile and shake hands with America’s enemies. His administration sold them weapons under the table. So, please, assorted puddin’-heads of the GOP talkocracy, spare me your warmed-over tripe about poor diplomacy and weak leadership. As with everything else above, I’ve swallowed enough of your swill over the past few weeks to last me a lifetime.

  • Basterds and Huns.

    Look alive, privates: The teaser for Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming WWII epic, Inglourious Basterds, is now online, starring (among others) Brad Pitt with a ‘stache and nasty neck scar, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Daniel Bruhl, B. J. Novak, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Cheung, Julie Dreyfus, Mike Myers, and Rod Taylor

    Hmm. So far, I’m not feeling it. Even notwithstanding the aggravatingly misspelled title, both this and the overly-jubilant AICN set review make Basterds sound like WWII torture porn, or at best another installment of Tarantino wallowing in his grindhouse and Z-movie fetishes for two hours. (See also KB1, KB2, Death Proof.) I hope I’m wrong, and that this is a return to the form of the Reservoir Dogs-to-Jackie Brown years. But, as a AICN talkbacker aptly noted, it’s looking more and more as if QT has gone the self-indulgent, self-derivative way of Brian DePalma.

    Mutiny in the Wehrmacht.

    Adolf Hitler, meet Keyser Soze. The true story of the failed July 20 Von Stauffenberg plot by German conservatives, nationalists, and military men to kill the Fuhrer before Germany lost the war, Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie is a moody exercise in historical muckraking, and feels like pretty severe holiday counterprogramming to the likes of Four Christmases and Marley and Me. One part an attempt to help carve a German “usable past” from the Nazi era, two parts sleek suspense thriller, Valkyrie is a well-crafted, decently engaging caper film, as one might expect from Singer (who first made his name with The Usual Suspects, before spending a few years with the X-Men and Superman.) And, yet, for some reason I found it didn’t really resonate much. However riveting the source material, it all ends up feeling a bit like a well-made HBO film or PBS teleplay, such as Conspiracy (which comes to mind for obvious reasons) or Path to War. Now, I’m usually all one for historical-minded edutainment, but for some reason Valkyrie left me cold, and not just because the pall of failure and tragedy hangs over the film like the Ghost of Christmas Past. (Megaspoiler: Hitler wasn’t killed in 1944.) For whatever reason, Valkyrie is a bird one can admire, but it never really takes flight.

    In mid-1944, the shadow of failed artist-turned-meglomaniacal psychopath Adolf Hitler still falls heavy across the continent, and, even as the Allies gather in North Africa, Italy, and the coast of Normandy, the Fuhrer maintains an iron grip over the oppressed peoples of Europe. As most everyone remembers from school days, Hitler was able to retain his power base in Germany, even amid the darkening gloom on both fronts, by ruthlessly organizing and consolidating the nation’s elite cadre of disgruntled character actors. Some of these character actors (Kenneth Cranham, Tom Hollander) rejoice in their servitude, and serve their Nazi master with an obsequious relish. Some of them (Tom Wilkinson, Thomas Kretschmann, Eddie Izzard) just look to keep their head down (for fear of losing it) and basically play go-along-to-get-along. But some character actors resisted. And as the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, and Terrence Stamp see their various attempts to unseat Hitler fail due to bad luck, poor timing, or compromised plotters, it becomes abundantly clear what they need to achieve their goal of regime change: a lead actor.

    Enter Tom Cruise, otherwise known as Count Claus von Stauffenberg, a Catholic aristocrat who’s been shipped off to the now-doomed North African front for his free-thinking transgressions. (The Fuhrer’s resident character actor in charge there is Bernard Hill, a.k.a. Theoden king, and he still can’t run a battle without timely lead actor advice.) Horribly wounded in an Allied bombing raid, Cruise/von Stauffenberg loses an eye, a hand, and several fingers, but — for his service (and his very reputable name) — gains access to the Fuhrer himself, after some machinations by the plotters. As such, leadership of the proposed coup eventually falls out of the hands of the character actor conspiracy and upon him. “I am involved in high treason with all means available to me,” he tells one aide at his job interview, “Can I count you in?” In other words, enough monologuing already! What Germany need now is emoting and stunt work.

    If it seems I’m being a bit glib about a story that indirectly involves millions of deaths, untold destruction, and (tho’ it’s only obliquely mentioned at the beginning) systematic genocide, well I apologize. Along with the Titanic-type sensation of continually “waiting for the iceberg” throughout Valkyrie, it’s really hard to sit through the film without recollecting the ubiquitous and consistently funny Bruno Ganz in Downfall meme. (See also the Cowboys, Warcraft, Burning Man, eBay, Wikipedia, Ronaldo, Youtube, etc.) It could be worse, I suppose: For the many citizens out there who see Tom Cruise and now can’t stop thinking “Scientology,” I can safely report that he’s fine in the role — it helps that both he and his character both answer to a higher power (and have a touch of the zealot about them) — and that the accent problem is handled smoothly (a la Hunt for Red October.)

    I should say, before this “review” degenerates any further into pop culture musings, that the real historical facts of this story are fascinating. The plotters of this assassination attempt aren’t really visionary idealists or radical bomb-throwers — Hitler had already rounded up or murdered most of them — but the conservative-leaning remnants of the military and aristocratic hierarchies displaced by the Nazi regime. (The 20 July plot is basically crafted by generals and led by Junkers.) And the engine of their coup attempt is ingenious: The plotters almost succeed in converting Operation Valkyrie, Hitler’s last-ditch plan to stay in power should the roof cave in, into the machinery of his demise. Finally, these German patriots get sooo close to their goal that, had any one of several tiny contingencies played out even slightly differently, the history of the war (and its aftermath) would have been irrevocably transformed. As happens surprisingly often, it seems, the fate of the world is a game of inches.

    All that being said, I found all of this information equally fascinating while watching the History Channel special after the film, so I’m not sure it really recommends the movie itself in the end. Singer’s Valkyrie is a smart, well-meaning two hours of cinema, and I was reasonably edutained by it, but at best I’d say it’s one for the Netflix queue.

    Good Germans | Poor Little Rich Boy | Rusty Fan.

    In the trailer bin of late:

  • Terrence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard and that scientology fella plot to kill Hitler in the latest trailer for Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie. (I think I can guess how the Fuhrer takes the news.)

  • Jamal Malik looks to win 20 million rupees and the girl of his dreams in the trailer for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, with Dev Patel and character actor Irrfan Khan. (Which reminds me, I tried out for Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? once in NYC — I got a perfect score on the pre-test and still didn’t make the cut, meaning I got axed by dint of my sheer, boring personality. Hmm, let’s move on.)

  • And, though it was withering in development hell for so long that it’s now woefully out-of-date, Jay Baruchel, Dan Fogler, and Kristen Bell — in a slave-Leia costume, no less — brave road trip woes, William Shatner, and the varied shocktroops and minions of Lucas the Hutt in the trailer for Kyle Newman’s Fanboys, also featuring Carrie Fisher and Billy Dee Williams paying their respective mortgages. (Yes, this looks terrible, but it seemed somehow GitM-appropriate, and did I mention the irrepressibly cute Kristen Bell dresses up as Leia?)

  • Bastard out of Tennessee.

    “Much of the pic’s dialogue is in French or German, and subtitles will be used, though Pitt will speak English in his role as a Tennessee hillbilly who assembles a team of eight Jewish-American soldiers to take on the Nazis.Brad Pitt officially signs up for QT’s forthcoming WWII epic, Inglorious Bastards. Also in negotiations to join the project at the moment: Nastassja Kinski, Simon Pegg, David Krumholtz, and B.J. Novak.

    Hmm…I dunno. I haven’t read the script, which I heard was floating around, and probably won’t before I see the movie. I’d like to think that this’ll be a return to the form of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown for Tarantino. But the Kill Bills and Death Proof were so loopy, bloated, and self-indulgent that I fear QT has entered George Lucas territory, meaning that he’s surrounded by sycophantic yes-men and has sadly disappeared up his own ass, never to emerge again. And casting his buddy, torture-porn director Eli Roth, first only increases my wariness that this’ll be yet another self-referential bric-a-brac homage to exploitation flicks of the past. Still, hope springs eternal.

    …and Sixty-Four on the Beach.


    “The free men of the world are marching together to victory. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory. Good luck, and let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 6, 1944. And, while remembering fallen heroes, today is also the 64th anniversary of D-Day.

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