We all know Adolf Hitler did not die as a result of an organized assassination plot against him but this fact does not hinder the enjoyment of watching how that attempt by members of his own Nazi command plays out. Reminiscent of great ‘60s WWII conspiracy thrillers such as 36 Hours and Night of the Generals this film centers on the actions of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) a loyal German officer who nevertheless is horrified by what he sees Hitler doing to his country and is determined to find a way to stop him. In 1942 he tries to persuade senior commanders to overthrow Hitler and later in 1943 while recovering from combat injuries he joins the German Resistance a secretive anti-Hitler group comprised of several men in the highest ranks on the inside. Using Hitler’s own contingency plan labeled Operation Valkyrie to prop up the government should he die this group puts their assassination and take over plan in motion. As the eye patch-wearing SS colonel Tom Cruise is excellent. He comfortably manages to get to the heart of Stauffenberg and portray a man who clearly loves his country and feels it’s a patriotic duty to stop the madness. Wisely Cruise (who produced through his United Artists studio) surrounds himself with actors of the first stripe. Among those supporting the mission are: Kenneth Branagh in a relatively brief turn as an German officer; Bill Nighy as one of von Stauffenberg’s closest allies in the venture; and Eddie Izzard as a communications specialist charged with cutting Hitler’s contact to the rest of Germany. There’s also superb work from Terence Stamp as another high-ranking conspirator and the always great Tom Wilkinson as career officer Fredrick Fromm who seems to be playing all sides despite appearing to be a stern supporter of the Fuhrer. And as Stauffenberg’s loyal wife Carice van Houten (Black Book) looks lovely and hits just the right notes as her husband’s sounding board. Although he has guided big popcorn pictures such as Superman Returns and X-Mens director Bryan Singer has also given us intense thrillers like the Oscar winning Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil. So the command he shows in turning out this nifty thriller should come as no surprise. Clearly Singer knows how to grab hold of an audience and keep them on the edge of their seats -- no easy trick here since the outcome is never in doubt. He keeps this going like a speeding train ratcheting up the suspense at every turn and focusing his camera directly into the eyes and sweat of these courageous conspirators. Valkyrie is a pulse-pounding heart-racing excitement from start to finish.
Brenda (Angela Bassett) is a single mom living in the big city; thus it goes without saying that she is struggling mightily to make ends meet for herself and her three kids--Michael (Lance Gross) Tosha (Chloe Bailey) and Lena (Mariana Tolbert)--each of whom has a different father. Brenda’s problems come to a head when she goes in to work only to learn that her office has been shut down and moved to Mexico. Now it’s not so much her young daughter’s daycare that she can’t afford; it’s electricity and food! With literally nothing else to lose Brenda takes the advice of her friend (Sofia Vergara) and heads down to rural Georgia where Brenda just found out her estranged father is going to be buried. It is there that she also learns about her long-lost gigantic family and her father’s clandestine life. Most importantly though she meets a very persistent charmer (Rick Fox) who may or may not change her life in more than one way. Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett takes a huge step down in giving in to the hit machine that is Tyler Perry. Her bad decision to take on the role of an emotionally and financially battered single mom turns into an equally subpar performance. She is overly made-up both character-wise and physically--Brenda appears better-suited for one of Perry’s stage productions--and Bassett greatly overacts albeit somewhat appropriately for such a melodramatic film. Former Los Angeles Laker/Mr. Vanessa Williams Rick Fox playing a somewhat fictional version of his own life (i.e. retired basketball star) continues to attempt in vain to prove himself as an actor and not just a jock. Unfortunately he again comes off as an athlete trying his hand at acting with an emotional range and vocal monotone that make Shaquille O'Neal seem worthy of another acting gig. The lone bright spot is House of Payne (Perry’s TBS sitcom) star Gross who as a high school basketball star/super-son is thankfully unwilling to indulge in the overacting that surrounds him. In supporting roles the countless Brown family members are good for a few laughs but little else. And Perry himself pops up as the beloved Madea character for what can only be considered a cameo. As sure as a new spoof from the Scary Movie guys an under-the-radar Woody Allen film and a Saw flick Tyler Perry will put out at least one film a year these days. Between his own movie productions acting gigs on the side and hit TBS sitcom House of Payne Perry is clearly the busiest man in showbiz--gotta give him that. What’s not so clear however is how he has such a loyal fervent fan base. Meet the Browns like every other movie he’s written and/or directed (five of them) is very occasionally silly-funny or touching but otherwise verges on absurd and not the good There Will Be Blood kind of absurd. It’s everything that probably makes Perry’s plays--which are the basis for almost all of his work and his subsequent meteoric Hollywood rise--successful: histrionics theatrics melodrama and preaching. None of those elements translates to anything more than an uneven film yet apparently throngs of moviegoers couldn’t disagree more--and hey at least it’s a (welcome) change from almost everything else at the local multiplex.
FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is cold on the trail of Texas' notorious "God's Hand" serial killer until he's paid a mysterious call by solemn Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey). It seems Meiks could bust the case wide open--he declares that "God's Hand"'s handiwork is that of his brother Adam and he's got a long and complicated tale to tell that'll explain it. Doyle's ears perk up and he and Meiks embark on a trip to the rose garden where Meiks claims Adam buried his victims and then killed himself. On the way Meiks reveals his gory story. It involves the boys' kindly father (Bill Paxton) who was a sensitive caring man--until he went insane one day claiming God had chosen him and his family to kill all the "demons" that inhabit Earth disguised as real people like their neighbors. Dad regularly makes a list and checks it twice for all the demon folk he needs to exterminate on any given Sunday but he's not on this holy mission alone--his sons are "God's hands" as well and together they must hunt down the demons and destroy them. In a weird variation on Cain and Abel 12-year-old Fenton rebels against Dad (killing others isn't exactly his idea of a fun after-school activity) while little brother Adam is happy to join in.
Because the movie is told mostly in flashback McConaughey is relegated mostly to voiceover and a few present-day scenes in which he acts frighteningly morose and gives the sense that there's more to his story than first meets the eye. Because most of the story takes place in 1979 the boys are the ones who really make this film work. Fenton the younger (Matthew O'Leary) is a real find--he clearly struggles with his love for his father whom he knows has gone over the edge and his repulsion for the deeds Dad is determined to have the family carry out. Wrestling with his own demons he finally is able to settle on a solution for how to stop the horror. Little Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is quite good as the innocent youngster who adores his dad and hangs on his every word seeking only his approval and refusing to believe he has lost his mind. Paxton effectively bridges the transitions between gentle loving father and insane murderer insisting the boys finish all their veggies and revealing his next victim in one breath. He's like those killers on the news about whom people say "But…he was such a nice quiet guy." The performance almost verges on funny if it weren't so horrific.
Paxton makes an auspicious directing debut with this tight little movie keeping the action going and the plot flowing and letting you completely get to know the characters as they exist in their own eras. He deftly avoids choppy flashbacks and the potentially confusing story is perfectly clear yet no less gripping. The killing scenes are absolutely squirm-in-your-seat nightmarish but thankfully we don't see all the grisly details as with so many slasher flicks. Instead we're shown everything right up to the point of death and we're spared the splattering blood and guts. It's just enough to make you cringe and cover your eyes and ultimately far worse to imagine the outcome than to see it all in special effects and makeup. Frailty is also scarier than the typical slasher flick bloodfest--it's way more frightening to imagine the nice guy next door committing such crimes than a made-up character wearing a hockey mask or razors on his gloves. The movie also comes up with a startling twist that you don't see coming right away. But--without revealing too much--the movie falls apart at the end with some enormous problems. Sometimes directors try to explain too much; we won't so we'll just leave it at that.