Valkyrie (US - BD RA)
Gabe hopes Bryan Singer moves on from his WWII obsession soon...
Following an attack on his panzer division that cost him his right hand, eye, and three fingers on his left hand, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) is approached by Major General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), and asked to join an anti-Hitler alliance. Stauffenberg is quickly placed high on the alliances’ ladder despite holding a lower rank in the German army, and comes up with a plan to instigate Operation Valkyrie, under the false assumption that the SS has assassinated Hitler, and has plans on taking over the country. To succeed the conspirators need to assassinate Hitler themselves, and they must do it without getting caught. Stauffenberg himself volunteers to detonate a small bomb to kill the Nazi leader.
Director Bryan Singer needed Valkyrie to be a hard and heavy masterstroke, not just to impress the studio heads looking at him cock-eyed for spending oodles of cash without delivering audiences on Superman Returns, but to prove to critics that he could deliver on the promises of The Usual Suspects. Following that particular cage rattler Singer adapted two comic books and a Stephen King story. All four of these were strong films ( X-Men 2 is still my favourite super hero picture), but comics and King are popular Hollywood fodder, and have been for a while ( X-Men was arguably a front runner in that tradition I suppose). Singer’s early promise begs a breadth of genres, and a good, old-fashion, grounded drama seemed like a good place to start (even if WWII films aren’t exactly a rarity).
Valkyrie is a perfectly good film, but it doesn’t even approach masterstroke status. Singer does enough right for the film to stand alone, and Valkyrie is comparable to the his other films in a good way, but as a career re-builder it’s a relative disappointment. Once we’re willing to accept that the film doesn’t have Spielbergian aspirations, and that this isn’t an ‘important’ film, but a tight knit thriller, everything begins to look a little better. Singer and his crew have an unmistakably great eye for camera placement, character blocking, and editing, and Valkyrie is every bit the technical achievement every other Bryan Singer film is. As an act in visual storytelling and pop imagery the film is a resounding success.
The cast is almost too on-the-nose for its own good, with the possible exception of the rather ingeniously cast Eddie Izzard, but it’s hard to argue with the results, even if they’re entirely expected. Though Cruise is obviously the picture’s star figure, he fits into the ensemble without overstating his importance through histrionics, and is even consistently overshadowed by the more than capable supporting cast. Most audiences won’t be lulled out of noticing the actors as personalities, but subtlety is the word for everything outside of the frenetic editing and occasionally overbearing musical score.
The film’s downside comes not in the form of an over-saturation of WWII films, the relative predictability of the cast, or the slightly too indulgent runtime. The problem here is also not specifically that we all know how this story is going to end (if you don’t know Hitler wasn’t assassinated during this attempt you’re either under the age of sixteen, grew up in a non-Western country that never heard of WWII, or are an ignoramus), the problem is that Singer and company bury their heads in the sand and pretend that we don’t. Knowing the outcome doesn’t necessarily equal refusal on the audiences’ part to go along with the suspense of a situation. In fact, giving the audience a great deal of spoiler information at the top of a story can actually create more suspense, and palpable expectations. Singer approaches the story as if we didn’t know the larger facts, saving Hitler’s survival for a shock, and dancing victoriously in the early success of the operation. Personally this approach pulled me out of the film, and I understand it had a similar effect on a large cross section of the film’s theatrical and critical audiences. Perhaps something as simple as opening the film with Stauffenberg’s execution would’ve changed the tone for the best?
As stated, Valkyrie is an unmistakably gorgeous work of filmmaking, taking place somewhere between the harsh contrasts of Saving Private Ryan, the cleanliness of the X-Men movies, and a warm reality. It’s interesting that Singer picked the 1.85:1 framing over 2.35:1, which almost every other film in his collection was filmed in, and it’s satisfying to note that he doesn’t touch the shaky-cam style that’s overtaken thrillers as of late. Despite all this realism and stoic camera movement this Blu-ray transfer isn’t as satisfying as I may’ve wanted. Colours are purposefully a little muted, but that Nazi red hits hard and bright when it’s needed, and the most realistic hues are free of compression noise or cross-colouration. The blacks are rich, but not always entirely free of minor colour perversion (which I think is fine and intended). The transfer’s problems are all about sharpness, which may be explained by the lenses Singer is sure to point out on the commentary track. It’s a sort of soft transfer overall, and the edges are a little fuzzy. I personally found the rather prevalent film grain aesthetically pleasing, but some viewers may be rubbed wrong by it.
Valkyrie comes fitted with a perfectly expected and acceptable DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track. There actually isn’t a lot of traditional action in the film, excepting the early Africa scene, which frankly doesn’t need to be in the film at all. The Africa scene is pretty lively with whizzing airplanes and bullets, exploding tanks, and more whizzing airplanes and exploding tanks, so owners can use that scene to impress their friends. Otherwise the channels have a few lively hobnail boot steps, realistic and poppy gunshots, and one really big explosion that will get the LFE going. Though his editing is positively on-the-button, composer/editor John Ottman is a little off his game concerning score. I found the music a little distracting at some points, and not in the truly memorable way his The Usual Suspects and X-Men 2 scores managed. The score is mixed well into the track, but doesn’t feature a lot of surround sound effects.
The disc starts with two commentary tracks. The first track features actor/producer Tom Cruise, director/producer Bryan Singer, and co-writer/producer Christopher McQuarrie. This is a very entertaining and informative track. The participants fill the time with facts, behind the scenes stories, and all kinds of general glee. Once the fellahs are comfortable they really open up. There’s a very cute moment at the end where they all acknowledge that the film was a bit of a flop. The other commentary features writers McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander. This track is a little more down to business, and fills in some of the facts missing from the final film.
The disc’s most impressive extra is a historical documentary entitled ‘The Valkyrie Legacy’ (115:00), directed by none other than Ken Burns. This is exactly the kind of documentary extra that I always want to accompany the DVD and Blu-ray releases of films based on historical events. Presented in high definition (looking sharper than even the film), the doc goes back a little too far in the story to start (it begins with the inception of the National Socialist Party), but fills in all the important facts that the film needed to omit for scope and runtime (like the aftermath), and is well made enough to fully entertain. There’s also information about two other filmed versions of the Valkyrie story, both German productions.
‘The Journey to Valkyrie’ (16:00 HD) starts the featurettes with a look at the early process of crafting the script, bringing together the creative team, and casting. It’s actually pretty fluffy, which is a disappointment considering the effort put in to the Ken Burns doc. It’s actually very eerie how much Tom Cruise looks like Claus von Stauffenberg, but that’s the only thing I really got out of the featurette that I didn’t find in the commentary.
The featurettes continue with ‘The Road to Resistance’ (09:00 HD) is a ‘visual guide’ to the real life places Struffenberg’s travelled, and a deeper look at his life, hosted by his grandson. ‘The African Front Sequence’ (07:00 HD) obviously covers the filming of the movie’s opening action scene. Interestingly missing from this featurette is Bryan Singer, who apparently had little to nothing to do with the filming of the sequence. ‘Taking to the Air’ (06:30 HD) is a companion piece concerning the use of British warplanes during the sequence, along with an aside concerning the Nazi transport plane. ‘Recreating Berlin’ (06:40 HD) concerns the recreations of some of the real sites, though there apparently wasn’t a lot of recreation required. ‘92nd Street YL Reek Pieces with Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer’ (38:57 SD) finishes things up. We’re given no contextualization for the clip, which looks like some kind of shot for public access college show. Cruise and Singer field a bunch of questions and answer them—the end.
It’s important to reiterate that Valkyrie was conceived as a thriller in the vein of The Great Escape, not an event movie in the vein of Titanic, or even an ‘important’ movie in the vein of Schindler’s List. On that level the film is a modest success. It looks great, is cut razor sharp, features great performances, and features a sort of timeless execution (i.e. no shaky-cam or overt digital effects). There are reasons to consider it a failure of real suspense, and to consider it too long for its own good (even at a relatively timely two hours), but none are worth entirely overlooking the film. This Blu-ray presentation doesn’t overwhelm in the A/V department, but features two solid commentary tracks, and a fantastic feature length documentary on the historical subject that is almost worth the price of a purchase on its own.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 19th May 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, Dolby Digital 5.1 French
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese
Extras: Director/Star/Writer Commentary, Writers Commentary, Reel Pieces with Tom Cruise, The Valkyrie Legacy, The Journey to Valkyrie, The Road to Resistance, The African Front Sequence, Taking to the Air, Recreating Berlin, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Brangah, Terrance Stamp, Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard
Genre: Drama, Thriller and War
Length: 120 minutes
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