Well, of course Valkyrie isn’t historically accurate, these kinds of films rarely ever are. Director, Bryan Singer’s, taken a good story and made it accessible and entertaining for a wide audience and manages to offer an insight into the rarely portrayed Nazi side of the war – he gets across the story, after all it’s not a documentary.
I remember by GCSE History lessons, so I sympathise that it’s difficult to make a thriller when the audience knows the outcome. Which is why Singer does an excellent job with Valkyrie. He keeps the film exciting and engaging and the characters human and not cartoonish. Even the baddies aren’t pantomime villains. Hitler seems wizened and feeble, not monstourous and insane, and the German Captain of the Reserve Army seems apathetic and inpatient for the war to end – not a dedicated idealist of the Fatherland.
It’s unusual to see a mainstream film from the ‘German perspective’ (though I am aware of the many German protests about this film) but to show the ‘Nazi’s’ to have heart, even the ones who aren’t involved in Valkerie. Tom Wilkinson’s Colonel General Friedrich Fromm shows the attitude, I’m sure many Nazi party members had, the struggle for survival. Who is the right side to be on? It’s not about ideology; it’s about self-preservation.
The accent issue is conveniently side stepped with a nice German to American montage at the beginning (according to Cruise on the Jonathan Ross show, he does actually speak German as a result of his dedicated research as part of this film). Yar, vot a neat vay to zide ztep a potentially laughable mistake. Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard and Cruise are excellent and I think it’s because they’re free to concentrate on their performance without the distraction of maintaining an accent.
Interesting how Tom Cruise was filmed. As the ‘big’ star, Singer’s direction has nicely levelled Cruise with his contemporary’s. There are few glory shots (upwards, heroic) and his natural height is not hidden with clever angles, though he did have a conveniently Cruise-sized sidekick, but that’s fair enough.
If anything Valkyrie made me sad my grandparents had lived through such a fearful and terrible period of history and sadder still that they never wanted to talk about it with younger generations.
Best scene: Taking the revised plan of Valkyrie to Hitler’s lair to have it signed, very tense and the fake eye is creepy.
So what other techniques have directors employed to keep the audiences' focus on the narrative and not on the actors? Well, how about cramming as many stars as you can into one film so the audience is overwhelmed with stars? Robert Altman's film Gosford Park (2001) reads as a veritable who's who of British stars: Steven Fry, Maggie Smith, Richard E Grant, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Clive Owen, Emily Watson, Alan Bates etc the list just goes on and on. And don't be fooled to think the bigger stars are "upstairs" as Helen Mirren rules the "downstairs" while Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith) is indebted to her maid, Mary played by Kelly McDonald. And that's part of the joke, neither upstairs or downstairs can survive without each other and the interesting power plays that occur between this hierarchical household.
The opening scene of Gosford Park is brilliant, Constance (Maggie Smith) slips into her Bentley (almost unnoticed by the audience) and on route she encounters another party on their way to the house. Matinee idol Ivor Novello and his friend Hollywood producer Morris Weissman, clearly offended that someone of such low rank should presume to speak to her she cuts short the pleasantries to continue on her way. Her maid Mary (Kelly McDonald) plays the role of the audience, she is oblivious to social rank and in awe of this "star" being in such close proximity.
Finally it’s back to subversive genius Stanley Kubrick and his 1968 masterpiece, 2001 A Space Odyssey. Set in the distant future (eight years ago) a team of astronauts are on spaceship Discovery One bound for Jupiter with the ship’s on-board computer HAL 9000, addressed as "Hal" and voiced by Douglas Rain, who has human-like intelligence and runs most of the ship’s operations. The lead characters are Dr. David Bowman played by Keir Dullea and Dr. Francis Poole played by Gary Lockwood. Lockwood and Dullea? Who? Exactly.
Kubrick knew the power of the “star” that’s why he chose to use actors almost unrecognisable to the audience, that way the force of the narractive, the action, the protagnist could be a faceless computer. Brave move. Kubrick manipulated stars for other films: The Shining built on Jack Nicholson’s already proven reputation for being “crazy” and Eyes Wide Shut seeks to subversivly emasculate the ultimate “lead man” Tom Cruise.
It’s an interesting tactic: either a director can bamboozle an audience with too many film star’s for them to focus on, or they can remove them entirely. I’ve always enjoyed films where I don’t recognise the lead. The best example was when I first saw the Motorcycle Diaries, I had no idea who Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, and Argentine actor Rodrigo de la Serna were so I could easily accept they were Che and Alberto Granado and this in turn meant I could comfortably believe the actions and narrative of the film without thinking, isn’t Bernal convincing as Che? However, with Che Part 1 and 2 released and starring Benicio Del Toro I think I won’t have the same response… isn’t he that lawyer from Fear and Loathing?
This week we talked about films which were actively anti-film star. I'm not talking indie films, world cinema or foreign films, I'm talking about regular block buster movies which deliberately chose to use actors who were unknown. Sam asked us to name films which had taken this status and to honest it was difficult to do. I've seen many quirky independent films which, probably through cost restraints chose to make the "story the star" rather than hire the big names, but I couldn't think of any mainstream cinema hits. Hmmm.
The first example we watched was Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), the films producers (in agreement from Spielberg) Zanuck and Brown decided to ignore the pleas from Charlton Heston to play Police Chief Martin Brody and instead pick Roy Scheider (sadly passed away this year if anyone caught the BAFTAs). We watched the "you're going to need a bigger boat scene" and studied the way the actors appear on screen. Schieder doesn't demonstrate any of the stylised movements of typical "stars" of the era - he's positively clumsy and shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) mocks him in the dialogue. The three men (Brody, Quint and Hooper) have a similar presence on screen - even though Quint is the obvious leader (upwards shots of him in the crows nest signify this) he calls Brody "chief" over and over to re-iterate the audience who the lead is. Can you imagine if Charlton Heston had been the lead? How many close ups? How much over stage presence he would have had? Because, let's face it, Jaws is the real star and as much as I would have liked to see him try and attack Charlton Heston, it just seems weird now.
Hathaway is the only “star” in a Hollywood sense and she is brilliant, a far cry from Disney princesses or ‘comedy’ spy associate. The first time since Brokeback Mountain when you can really believe Hathaway is interested in acting and not in fame. She comfortably fits the indie film scene and she was a pleasure to watch.
The relationships and emotions of the characters all revolve around Kim’s (Hathaway) dark past. As the narrative unravels, the family tragedy is not as clear-cut as it seems. The family hang in the balance between blame and forgiveness not knowing what to do to move on. And for Kim, no closure, just continuing limbo both scrutinised and shunned.
The script is genius and very realistic, achieving a good equilibrium between things that need to be said (to move the plot) and things which are not, (because no-one ever would). The audience has to fill in the gaps, just as a real observer of the scene would. It’s not handed to you on a plate, and that’s just fine. Conversations undulate between fraught screaming matches to giggling, sisterly childhood reflections. This dichotomy between blame and forgiveness, between siblings and parents is fascinating, you’re always waiting for everyone to explode –sometimes they do, sometimes the atmosphere is cut dead, left flat, un-resolved.
The pivotal scene in the film is where Kim confronts her distant and artificial mother. Previously an ex-rehab inmate of Kim’s reveals she had been lying about the root of her additions. Confronting her mother, Kim shows the audience the selfish abandonment and irresponsibility of her mother who’s happy for Kim to shoulder all the blame. It’s then we understand Kim doesn’t forgive herself for Ethan’s death, but she doesn’t blame herself either. Maybe her sister and father understand this too, and that’s why they don’t blame her but don’t forgive her either. At the end of the scene you believe she will fulfil her destiny and career off the edge of the cliff, but just like the tense conversations, the scene cut’s short and lies flat, sad and poignant. You almost want her to end it, rather than hang in the balance forever.
Music in the film is very organic; it flows around the characters from within the characters. No score, just the guest musicians jamming and twiddling in the background. It’s a nice trick, and just as the audience might be tiring of their ever audible presence so too do the characters, asking, in one scene, politely but firmly that they shut it.
Best scenes: Kim’s self obsessed attention seeking wedding speech and the wedding when Samuel sings.
Anyway, my thoughts on Revolutionary Road were mixed, I generally felt a bit ‘so-so’. It’s a good melodrama, not over acting, just over emotion I think. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are, of course, excellent as the Wheelers and the tensions between their relationship stretch and snap throughout the narrative with dynamic crackle. It’s a firecracker waiting to go off, simmer down and then go off again.
The most intriguing character in the film is the asylum bound son of busy body neighbour, Kathy Bates. This “madman” is a kind of Greek Chorus, entering the drama at critical intervals to speak the truth of the characters feelings to the audience. It’s a bit clichéd, the crazy guy is the only one who understands them, and that he’s not “crazy” just ahead of his time. But then there are so many films which talk about 1950s American suburban conformity and the inevitable misery it caused, “the problem with no name” has a voice, but not one that any can take seriously.
The “empty hopelessness” of their situation is what I felt about the film. It’s not a tearjerker and it’s not depressing, it’s just flat. It’s an obvious conclusion and one you expect from early on in the film which is why it’s not shocking. My lust for life had been drained by the drama so when Winslet appears blood soaked and tragic I wasn’t that empathetic, I just flatly watched with no sense of horror. Maybe that’s the point?
The main problem for me was I didn’t care they didn’t realise their dream. Maybe that is the point, Winslet’s character talks about living on a hope that DiCaprio shared her dream of escape and bohemian living (bohemian in the sense that it was not the democratic liberalism of 50s suburbia) and maybe the audience are supposed to empathise with her because we too are living on a hope. It’s interesting that DiCaprio’s character is the only one to have gone (apart from their lusty neighbour) and is less motivated. Maybe ‘hope’ is more driving than ‘experience’ in life?
Also, as part of the tragic conclusion DiCaprio opts to leave suburbia to live in the city, living out the exciting life he hoped they could have lived in America. I just don’t know why he didn’t instigate this sooner. Also, did he not go to Paris because of his Dad? Because of social pressure? Because he was a realist? Who knows?
In conclusion, it is a good film; the cinematography, art direction and musical score all reflect Mendes other films (The Road to Perdition especially) and it’s probably one of those films you like more, as you think about it more…