Tag Archives: Bryan Singer

Valkyrie (2008, Bryan Singer)

For Valkyrie to work, Bryan Singer needs to get–give or take–five minutes when the viewer isn’t entirely sure Adolf Hitler wasn’t assassinated. The entire premise of watching a film, a historically-based film, where the conclusion is well-known and suspending disbelief… he needs five minutes. Maybe the trick is casting Tom Cruise as a German. By the time the story gets around to needing the viewer to question whether or not Hitler is dead, he or she has already accepted Cruise. The biggest hurdle is over (who knows what Welles could have gotten away with in Touch of Evil, after everyone is buying Charlton Heston as a Mexican).

Valkyrie arrives following months of internet-fueled derision–from Singer as director to Cruise as German–and it does away with both concerns in the first scene. The language transition from German to English isn’t the best ever, but it’s fine. It acknowledges the situation of having an English language film about a bunch of German speakers. Cruise is solid from the open. As for Singer–he keeps out of the way. Singer’s direction is unobtrusive and perfectly measured–when he needs to emphasize an actor, he emphasizes the actor, same thing when he needs to emphasize a story development. At its core, both story-wise and star-wise, Valkyrie is one of those 1970s pictures with a lot of recognizable, good actors and a lead who maybe has seen better days. Charting Cruise’s career, it’s either a good sign or a bad sign in terms of his bankability, but it shows he’s still capable of doing a fine movie star turn.

The script–from Singer’s Usual Suspects writer McQuarrie and some other guy–does have a lot of twists and turns. It’s kind of like watching a chess game and knowing who’s going to win in advance. At some point, knowing the winner isn’t as interesting as seeing how the game is played. Valkyrie‘s not one of the best World War II films, but it gets a lot of mileage out of emulating them–I half expected an end credits actor showcase like The Great Escape. The only thing I couldn’t figure out about the script was the presence of Carice von Houten as Cruise’s wife. Sure, it’s historically accurate, but Cruise is the protagonist because of his role in the conspiracy, not because he’s necessarily the most interesting character.

It doesn’t hurt the film’s technically superior. Singer’s usual crew, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, editor and composer John Ottman, these guys usually turn in good work.

Similarly, the all-star cast is excellent, particularly Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp. Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Izzard are fine in glorified cameos. Jamie Parker’s good as Cruise’s sidekick. All of the aforementioned anti-Hitler conspirators are played by Brits. The hero’s American. Given a point of Valkyrie is to identify some Germans as different from Hitler following stooges–the reality of a postwar Germany, excellently discussed in Tony Judt’s Postwar for example, reveals a far more depressing truth than a Hollywood movie would ever want to present–it’s kind of strange Singer casts a very German guy as a very big Nazi. You’d think he’d at least go for one major good guy. There’s one good guy played by a German, but he doesn’t come into the movie until real late.

Valkyrie‘s a solid, watchable thriller. Maybe even a little bit better than it should be. Singer has a couple excellent moments as a director, maybe the best stuff he’s done since The Usual Suspects. He actually gets sublime.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Singer; written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by John Ottman; music by Ottman; production designers, Lilly Kilvert, Patrick Lumb and Tom Meyer; produced by Singer, McQuarrie and Gilbert Adler; released by United Artists.

Starring Tom Cruise (Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg), Kenneth Branagh (Major-General Henning von Tresckow), Bill Nighy (General Friedrich Olbricht), Tom Wilkinson (General Friedrich Fromm), Carice van Houten (Nina von Stauffenberg), Thomas Kretschmann (Major Otto Ernst Remer), Terence Stamp (Ludwig Beck), Eddie Izzard (General Erich Fellgiebel), Kevin McNally (Dr. Carl Goerdeler), Christian Berkel (Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim) and Jamie Parker (Lieutenant Werner von Haeften).


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The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer)

Seeing as how The Usual Suspects popularized the major twist ending–that contrivance having now plagued American cinema for the last dozen years–it’s interesting to see it again. I haven’t seen the film in years (probably ten, at least nine), but I remember the last time I watched it, I thought about what was true and what probably wasn’t. Most twist ending (or late revelation and eureka moment endings)–it’s stunning how Shyamalan stole his standard part and parcel from Singer’s approach here–have clues, easter eggs, whatever. The Usual Suspects has a couple, but given the narrative’s layering, it’s impossible to know what’s true and what isn’t. So The Usual Suspects becomes the crash test dummy for whether a twist ending narrative can survive after countless viewings (well, not countless… I’m almost positive this viewing was my fourth).

And it can. At least, The Usual Suspects can.

There’s that beautiful combination of script and direction here, there’s Kevin Pollak’s jokes and Giancarlo Esposito’s hat. There’s the film’s roaming protagonist (Gabriel Bryne, Chazz Palminteri and Kevin Spacey all wear the hat). Singer’s composition is precise, each shot–in no small part due to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel–has a unpretentious gravitas. The Usual Suspects‘s greatest achievement is Singer’s direction. He makes the film interesting to watch no matter what the content may be, which is where the script becomes so important.

There are “clues” throughout the film as to the twist ending, but the clues are only for to spin the viewer’s wheels (there’s no truth in any of them), making the relationship between the film and the viewer analogous to the relationship between Spacey and Palminteri. Storyteller and listener. Taken on its own, The Usual Suspects would suggest the possibilities for films with twist endings, the freedoms they can have, their advantages over traditional narratives. Unfortunately, even with good films with twist endings, no one’s really had the same success (Singer certainly did not with his subsequent feature, Apt Pupil).

Christopher McQuarrie’s script, which is so lauded for putting in the clues, is far more successful in its successful use of narration on a modern film and dialogue. McQuarrie’s dialogue is at times both stylized and not, with the title softening the informed viewer to it. Actually, the thing about the title in relation to the film is Humphrey Bogart could have, at different points in his career, played every one of the five main characters.

The long-term effect of The Usual Suspects, besides kicking off the big twist ending (and the handling of the revelation) phenomenon, is the actors. While Stephen Baldwin never did anything good again (his fine performance here is nothing but a–willful–imitation of brother Alec) and Suspects is one of Gabriel Byrne’s finest hours in his hit and miss career, it did introduce popular audiences to Kevin Spacey and everyone to Benicio Del Toro. Spacey immediately took off while Del Toro had to make it through a some bad pictures. Spacey’s excellent, not yet even aware he’d someday have a best actor rote; his delivery of McQuarrie’s narration is what makes it work. He has the hardest job, because he has to sell the twist ending’s revelation throughout. He has to make it seem possible. Kevin Pollak turns in the second strongest performance (after Spacey).

The Usual Suspects is about to turn thirteen (a few days before I turn thirty) and, while I can lament how Singer went nowhere artistically (the possessive use of his credit in the titles is strangely spectacular), it’s not a film to be discounted or dismissed as fanboy fodder. There’s just too much cinematic substance.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Singer; written by Christopher McQuarrie; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by John Ottman; music by Ottman; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Michael McDonnell and Singer; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Stephen Baldwin (McManus), Gabriel Byrne (Dean Keaton), Benicio Del Toro (Fenster), Kevin Pollak (Todd Hockney), Kevin Spacey (Verbal Kint), Chazz Palminteri (Dave Kujan, US Customs), Pete Postlethwaite (Kobayashi), Giancarlo Esposito (Jack Baer, FBI), Suzy Amis (Edie Finneran), Dan Hedaya (Sgt. Jeffrey Rabin), Paul Bartel (the smuggler) and Peter Greene (Redfoot).


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Superman Returns (2006, Bryan Singer)

My expectations for Superman Returns were incredibly high (especially since everything Bryan Singer’s done since The Usual Suspects with the exception of the “House” pilot has been dreck). Three stars. I don’t bother putting star ratings on The Stop Button, since whenever I see them in reviews, I look at them and then at not the review. Also, the New York Times doesn’t do it. Watching the previews for Superman Returns, I realized Singer wasn’t just making a sequel to the originals, he was structurally remaking the first Superman. That prediction proves true, but it’s not a bad thing. The first Superman film has a fine structure and it isn’t as though Returns was ever going to be as good as the first film. For moments during the film, it seemed like Superman Returns might get up to that three star level. The film runs two and a half hours, so there’s a lot of time for it to make up for early faults. During the first hour and a half, Singer cuts between Superman and company and Lex Luthor and company, which doesn’t work particularly well and there are major dips because of the pacing–and it takes a long time for Superman and Luthor to seem like they’re in the same film. The Luthor scenes have a comical, winking with the audience feel, while the rest doesn’t.

On an episode of “Boston Legal,” there was a line about winning a case in the closing testimony–going on and on and on until you’ve won the jury over. Singer implements that practice in Superman Returns. It doesn’t exactly have multiple endings–in fact, it doesn’t really have one–but he goes on and on until he’s gotten the film to where he can let it go. Singer obviously loves the film he’s made and there’s a lot to love about Superman Returns. While it never achieves the wonderment of the original film, the flying scenes in this film are breathtaking. Green screen special effects and computer compositing have finally gotten to good spot. But that ending trouble, it isn’t something inherent in the film, it’s all because of Singer’s structuring. Superman Returns has some great scenes, but whenever–with one exception I’ll get to–Singer deviates from that appropriated Superman structure, the film gets long.

As for the cast… Brandon Routh is fine. He’s good as Clark Kent and fine as Superman. Here’s the problem. Not enough Superman–and when there is Superman, Singer doesn’t let Routh do much. I wonder if there was a trust factor involved–I’m sure Singer wasn’t willing to let Routh end his career. Kate Bosworth is adequate as Lois Lane, but Superman Returns reconfigures her character so much, she’s not really Lois Lane anymore. She’s been domesticated. Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane never had long hair because she would have thought it too much of a fuss. Bosworth looks like she spends as much time combing hers as Marcia Brady. James Marsden plays Lois Lane’s fiancé, one of Superman Returns’s best innovations, and he’s actually really good. His action scenes are the exception I talked about before, where he shows human heroism, which nicely offsets the guy who can lift continents. I’d only seen Marsden in X-Men and thought he was the pits, but he gives the second best performance in Superman Returns. The first is Parker Posey. She’s great (she’s also been on “Boston Legal,” though not in the episode I was talking about). Kevin Spacey occasionally has fun as Lex Luthor, but he never embraces it like Gene Hackman did. I kept waiting for him to do it and it kept seeming like he would, but it never gets there. The rest of the supporting cast is fine, but not worth name-checking.

While my fiancée has no interest in ever seeing Superman Returns again–as she told me in no uncertain terms–I’m curious how a rewatch might affect the experience. I imagine it would have a positive effect, but I’m not sure how much (no matter how many times I watch it, for example, John Ottman’s score will never get better). For this entire post, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to lambaste Singer’s Ripley into the lava shot, which might have been all right, if the music weren’t so overbearing, but I’m having trouble–but now I think it’s the music’s fault. The music stops working at a certain point in the film. It stops relying on the John Williams score and it starts to sound cheap. Leaving the Williams score behind is a bad idea, given Superman Returns’s agreement with the audience is solely based on the images the score conjures and breaking that agreement is what gets Superman Returns into the most trouble. And the little kid. The little kid gets real annoying.

While the film didn’t earn the three I wanted, it did get two and a half, which isn’t bad–even with all the problems, it’s still Superman.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Singer; written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, based on a story by Singer, Dougherty and Harris, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Elliot Graham and John Ottman; music by Ottman; production designer, Guy Hendrix Dyas; produced by Singer, Jon Peters and Gilbert Adler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Brandon Routh (Clark Kent/Superman), Kate Bosworth (Lois Lane), James Marsden (Richard White), Frank Langella (Perry White), Eva Marie Saint (Martha Kent), Parker Posey (Kitty Kowalski), Sam Huntington (Jimmy Olsen), Kal Penn (Stanford) and Kevin Spacey (Lex Luthor).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | SUPERMAN.