Typically, when a film is pushed back and reloaded as many times as "Valkyrie" has been, there's definitely trouble on the horizon. To my surprise, Bryan Singer's "Valkyrie" is not only a watchable film, but a highly entertaining and taut thriller that grips the viewer from beginning to end. Bottom line,"Valkyrie" exceeded every expectation. The first thing I noticed was a complete lack of CGI- or at least it's gotten so good that it fools the eye of an observer such as myself ready to scoff at the first green screen effect. Then I did some research and learned that this was a conscious decision by Singer and producer Cruise to minimize the special effects. What we get instead are real explosions, real tanks and planes, and real extras that fill the screen with natural looking movement. In this day and age of CGI overkill, that's worth the price of admission alone. Yet director Singer carries this old fashioned sense of movie making one step further and creates almost unbearable tension in certain scenes through keen camera placement and sharp editing. Instead of abrasive hand held cinematography, DP Thomas Newton Sigel creates ambiance out of slow lateral pans that gives more weight to the shadows cast off by the actors then anything else. "Valkyrie" is a film that understands the slow-burn pacing that marks the great thrillers, building up the evolving plot to kill Hitler through backroom conversations, hushed tones, and small almost throwaway moments of eye contact or body posture that fit perfectly in the vein of good conspiracy thrillers. A lot of this credit must got to screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie as well. And, even though Cruise hits a false note here or there as the Col Stauffenberg, the leader of the plot, the supporting cast of Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branaugh and the immensely beautiful Carice van Houten (from Verhoeven's "Black Book") will instantly remove any bad taste. In the modern wasteland of bigger, faster and stronger action movies, "Valkyrie" turns back the clock and proves that stylish, patient thrillers can still be made viable in today's market. "Valkyrie" deserves more word of mouth, both personally and virtually.
I suppose the string of Eastwood slam dunks had to come to an end sooner or later. And it does with a loud thud in "Gran Torino". Awkwardly piecing together racist tirades and cringe-worthy humor in the first half, and then shifting gears into a martyr piece in the second half, everything about "Gran Torino" feels strained. Where "Mystic River" twists into an unbearably devastating attack on love and loss, and "Changeling" ends on an ambivalent and challenging note, "Gran Torino" strives for this same type of weepy-eyed catharsis but comes up woefully short. This is the first Eastwood film in a while that feels clunky and unsure of itself. As Eastwood the Grumpy Old Man bonds with his Asian immigrant neighbors, Nick Schenk's script tosses out nuggets of supposed humor (barber shop banter, racial slurs that pass as humorous and 'cute' because Clint's an old man and needs forgiveness) that straddles a very crass line. By the time the grand finale rolled around, I couldn't care less about anyone. Major disappointment.
Nanette Burstein's Sundance crowd pleaser took its time getting to mainstream American audiences. And then, when it did, it was amassed by controversy. Personally, I couldn't care less whether "American Teen" is manufactured docudrama or straight forward fiction. The characters are what matter, and the five kids who give carte blanche permission to film their senior year of high school- full of depressions, fights, text message break-ups and pains of loneliness- more than push "American Teen" head and shoulders above other teen movies. If it's a documentary, then Burstein was gifted with divine intervention to have such involving subjects. If it's fiction, then Burstein is certainly attuned to a generation much younger. But the real stand out in "American Teen", for me, was the intelligent and delicate Hannah Bailey. Teaming with invention and saddled with the ever-increasing longing to leave her small Indiana town and go to California, her story resonates more than the somewhat superficial narratives of the others. Even though there are brilliant little moments such as Megan receiving a letter from Notre Dame or Jake's incessant search for the 'right girl', Hannah is the really developed soul in this wonderful film.
Stephen Daldry's "The Reader" is one of those tough films to classify. It's so middle of the road, it doesn't lend itself to an interesting review process. All the acting is uniformly fine and Daldry cross-cuts every scene like a madman accentuating a grand opera, yet there's a resounding "meh" when one exits the theater. I suppose if heavy, doom-laden Holocaust romance dramas with lots of nude Kate Winslet is your thing, then "The Reader" is perfect fare.