The recent DVD release I’m having the most fun going through is one of the Criterion Collection’s most recent, Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé. Painlevé was a surrealist but also a scientist who made films from the early sound period into the 1960s. His short films (23 films on three discs equals five hours) are equal parts fantasy and fact; or rather, as surrealist documentaries, they suggest that there’s no boundary line between fantasy and fact (hence the title of Criterion’s DVD). Formally innovative, highly erotic, often playful and amusing; like Painlevé’s subjects, his films are unique specimens in the world of the nature documentary.
New Releases From the Box
Films based in foreign countries, with American stars and English dialogue, can be irritating. Especially if they do the K:19 The Widowmaker thing and have the cast speak English accented according to the country in which the film is based. Valkyrie, mercifully, lets its actors keep their native accents: Terence Stamp sounds like Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh sounds like Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Cruise sounds like Tom Cruise. It even makes it abundantly clear that they’re all speaking German and we’re just hearing it in English (like the Universal Translators in Star Trek): the film opens with Tom Cruise speaking surprisingly well-accented German in voiceover, which morphs into English by the time he’s done writing in his journal.
What is weird is that exactly one character does have a German accent in the film: Hitler. The good guys have English and American accents; only the most villainous of the villains zounds djerman. I’m not sure what Singer is trying to say here, but I hope it’s an accident.
Valkyrie is not bad, despite current public opinion about star Tom Cruise. It’s an exciting film, but not especially original or smart thriller, directed with efficacy by Bryan Singer, still one of my favorite Hollywood filmmakers (I will defend Superman Returns to my death). Cruise gives a good performance as would-be assassin Claus von Stauffenberg, and is surrounded by a great cast: the aforementioned Stamp and Branagh joining the best small role performer in the business, Tom Wilkinson, the capable Bill Nighy, and the slightly out-of-place Eddie Izzard. We all know the ending: Hitler survives the assassination attempt and the Third Reich lasts another eight months, but the taut script and direction make the journey there as exciting as any recent heist film.
What’s a little irksome to me is that to some extent, the film fetishizes the look of Nazi-ruled Germany: the uniforms, the motions, the ubiquitous flags. These images, which, for anyone alive during the last eighty years, should have a profound emotional impact, are cheapened by the film. The swastika and the iron cross become part of the film’s stylish, crisp look and style, and begin to lose their meaning as symbols of possibly the most terrifying and inhumane thing ever to happen. Tracking shots across rows and rows of Third Reich flags should be much more upsetting and a lot less cool than this movie makes them.
My other criticism is that, though I do love The Dirty Dozen, making such a simplistic thriller about such a serious and complex event in 20th century history is precarious. This film’s valiant efforts at artistry are praiseworthy, but it’s still just a Hollywood thriller, not as real or as convoluted as the actual events must have been. On the other hand, it may not be all that bad, in this day and age, to remember that these things really happened, that the logical end of racism is mass slaughter, that the logical end of a racist is an insane, paranoid old man who badly needs to get exploded.
As Star Wars and Star Trek trade positions — the former a sinking ship felled by increasingly indulgent and irrelevant films and TV series and the latter a hugely successful summer blockbuster — this Star Wars-philic comedy comes at exactly the wrong time. It’s no fault of its own, however; it’s thanks to the Weinstein Company, who will release five (Scary/Disaster/Epic) movie comedies a year but let this sit on the shelf for two. When it was released in theaters, just a couple months ago, it got the type of limited release usually given weighty indie movies. Since Fanboys was filmed, Kristen Bell and Seth Rogan have both established themselves as rising stars, but the Weinsteins didn’t see their roles in this film as strong selling points. They abandoned this movie for some reason, and probably lost a good deal of cash on it. That, and the film’s relatively awesome cast, makes me more sympathetic toward this movie than I would be otherwise.
All told, Fanboys isn’t very good at all. It opens with the scrolling exposition with which all the Star Wars films open, and its pathetic attempts at timely and self-conscious humor (it inanely ends with “this was written with my iPhone” for some reason) are a foreboding sign of the film’s weaker moments. Homophobic humor, not even the kind you laugh at guiltily, runs rampant throughout the movie, inserted at sophomoric random. Example: at one point in their road trip, the main characters stop at a roadside tavern which turns out to be a gay-hispanic-biker bar. They are intimidated by the frightening hispanic homosexuals, who force them to strip to pay their tab. Being Star Wars fanboys, our heroes are not exactly physically fit or desirable — a joke throughout the film. This scene perpetuates that high school locker room paranoia that if a person is gay, he wants to see just any guy naked, that heterosexual men are universally threatened by the emasculating gaze of the homosexual. To boot, the scene is not funny at all, even with your political consciousness turned off.
But every time I thought I was fed up with the film, it would redeem itself with a clever Star Wars reference, a knowing rib at Star Trek fans, a slapsticky joke that actually worked, an oddball cameo. (I don’t want to ruin them, but Shatner’s cameo is in the trailer and quite funny. Several Star Wars alum also make appearances.) Fanboys isn’t great, but it turned out to be better than I thought it would be after the first half hour.
Next Week on From the Box
It’s an off week both for DVD releases and for me, as I am now done with the college thing (at least for now) and am taking a vacation. Powder Blue is out, an indie film whose only buzz comes from Jessica Biel’s role as a stripper. If that sounds more interesting to you than it does to me (I gave up watching two-hour long movies for five seconds of nudity, you know, like, last year), feel free to check it out. Otherwise, I’ll catch you in a couple weeks.