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Valkyrie, Bryan Singer's latest film, has been swamped with so much controversy that it can be hard to see the movie for what it is. There were reports the German government tussled with the production over whether or not historic locations could be used, and the movie was moved around the release schedule like a hot potato; add in Tom Cruise's larger than life public persona, and you've got a cloud of buzz that could obscure the merits of any release.
And that's a pity, because underneath all that, Valkyrie is a superbly made, amazingly well-executed suspense thriller. It tells the story of the plot inside the German leadership to kill Adolph Hitler in 1943-44, with Cruise playing one of the conspiracy's heads, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg. It's not exactly a run-and-gun action film; most of Valkyrie is about men in well-appointed rooms having hushed conversations. That said, the rooms look great and the things the men are talking about are topics like treason and murder and the consequences if they're discovered: "When they find you, they'll pull you apart just like warm bread; it'll be a crime to have known you, then."
Singer has always been a great technician -- his long-term collaboration with composer and editor John Ottman makes his movies a pleasure to watch, loaded with action and suspense sequences that not only look great but, more importantly, read well. Unlike his flashier peers Michael Bay or DJ Caruso, you never feel confused or uncertain about the storytelling after a Singer action scene finishes up.
When the plan does go into motion -- and with the fate of Germany teetering on the edge -- the movie's final act is edge-of-your-seat-stuff. The film is packed with great supporting actors like Bill Nighy and Kenneth Branagh, but the best performance comes from Thomas Kretschmann (U-571, Wanted) as Otto Remer, commander of Berlin's civil defense troops, who had to chose between two very different sets of orders in the heat of the moment and had the chance to determine the course of history in his hands. Valkyrie is a nicely oiled piece of movie making machinery, and it'd be a shame if the grinding noise of the pre-release rumor mill drowned out how good it actually is.
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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button manages to be both a sweeping, bravura piece of filmmaking and a nicely dialed-down emotional journey that doesn't get over-emotional. It never sacrifices brains for heart. Pitt's performance is good, especially in the light of all the technical genius that goes into the movie, but Cate Blanchett steals the show as a ordinary woman challenged by an extraordinary love.