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by Bill Gibron

23 Dec 2008

World War II remains the ultimate cinematic backdrop for elements both within and outside the conflict’s control. On the one hand, there are so many fascinating and intricate parts to the global confrontation that Hollywood can easily extract any number of compelling stories. In addition, the battle lines are so clearly drawn between good (the Allies) and evil (the Axis) that the metaphysical clashes tend to match the actual combats themselves. Perhaps this is why the new Tom Cruise/Bryan Singer effort Valkyrie seems to strange. It offers up an initially interesting story that’s ending is obvious, and then tries to paint a group of high minded Nazis in a sympathetic - nay heroic - light. Fact or fiction, it’s a confusing combination that only works halfway.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg considers himself a good German. He also considers himself a lax Nazi. Hating where the party is going, especially in light of issues both political and person, he wants to help the Fatherland. As a result he is drawn into a plot to kill the current leader, Adolf Hitler, and replace him with an exiled member of the nation’s elite. In order to do so, von Stauffenberg needs a pair of accomplices. General Friedrich Olbricht will help with the bureaucratic ends, and his immediate superior General Friedrich Fromm (himself unhappy about the Reich’s war strategy) is willing to turn a blind military eye. All they need is a plan, and it comes in the form of Project Valkyrie. Under the executive order, should anything happen to the Fuhrer, the army is to step in and maintain order. Von Stauffenberg decides to use this plan as a means of assisting in an all out coup. Now, all they need to do is assassinate Hitler…

For the first 50 minutes or so, Valkyrie feels like your standard above-average espionage thriller. It takes your typical recruited protagonist, puts him into a group of well meaning but disorganized individuals, figures out a way to get everyone on the same page, and then sets the various conspiracy cogs through their clockwork, suspense-filled paces. We watch in patent disbelief as men within Hitler’s own ranks determine the fate of their Fuhrer, and marvel at how easy their planned assassination will be. Indeed, a great deal of the title strategy (built on a policy that allows an elite corps of troops to arrest and detain the SS) is built on orders, communication, assumptions, and a strict sense of loyalty. Such a scheme could not work today. Technology and an innate suspiciousness would keep the people in power long after any bombshell - true or false - had dropped.

Still, when working with this material, Bryan Singer shows some tension building acumen. As Valkyrie moves from moment to moment, creating scenarios destined to come back to haunt our characters later, we feel ourselves slowly shifting toward the edge of our seat. When Cruise finally makes his way to Hitler’s country bunker, his briefcase loaded with some Third Reich erasing TNT, we are truly taken over with anticipation. We want to see how all this plays out, if Cruise will be captured, how the rest of the plan is executed, and oddly enough, what will bring about the attempted coup’s collapse. Since we know Hitler survives (though the movie tries to trick us into questioning such a conclusion), we sense the next big reveal will be how these well considered and best laid plans unravel.

Unfortunately, the last act of Valkyrie is its very weakest link. It’s like watching Seven Days in May meshed with a great deal of supposed historic happenstance. Without giving much away, the success of the overthrow depends on how the Bureau of Communication handles the incoming flood of material from both Cruise’s and Hitler’s camps. If we are to believe the screenplay, it all came down to a gut check by a couple of middle management flunkies. Had they made a different call, everything we know about Nazi Germany may have been vastly different. In the meantime, we are forced to watch actors of highly distinct caliber play phone tag, each one trying to secure a section of the country for their future leader-in-waiting (a dull Terrance Stamp).

Granted, this seems like the way events resolved themselves. Most political power struggles are not gun battles with bullets blazing by the key players, and Singer has a problem matching the intricacies of the film’s first sections with these events. But Valkyrie knew this originally, and it doesn’t seem phased about going out with a whimper. Cruise even tones down his jackboot machismo, allowing small layers of doubt to cloud his otherwise iron cross resolve. The former A-lister is very good here, avoiding any bad German accenting by employing that by now formulaic slow dissolve from native language to English. He’s also good at playing the center of a rising storm, especially when given the floundering favors of Brit bystanders Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Kenneth Branagh.

But the harshest criticism lands at Singer’s doorstep. He’s like a great athlete who has no finishing move. The Usual Suspects is often remembered for its brain-busting twist, not for how said denouement was directed. Singer still fumbles material that should soar (the opening attack of Cruise and his men in Africa), while handling routine scenes in an amazing, unexpected manner. This is especially true of a meeting between Von Stauffenberg and the enigmatic Hitler where Wagner becomes key. They sequence crackles with a series of ominous implications that are hard to shake. But once everything turns to phone calls and map marking, Valykrie looses its ferocity. Instead, it turns typical and unspectacular. And of course, there’s the whole “good Nazi” underpinning to confuse things further.

If you don’t mind the fluctuation in focus, if the tripwire midsection can get your through the labored last act, Valkyrie will be a solid success. It will hit all the right marks while portraying heroism from a unique and somewhat unusual perspective. Historians may argue over the accuracy, and those demanding as much bang for their buck as possible will be underwhelmed at best. Still, there’s enough interest and intrigue here to carry across a substantive mainstream entertainment. Trying to get Americans to buy the enemy as noble is never an easy proposition, and some may say that focusing on Von Stauffenberg and his exploits is a losing cinematic proposition. But Valkyrie manages to just rise above such criticism. It’s passable, if far from perfect.

by Bill Gibron

23 Dec 2008

In cinema, the shelf life for style is apparently three years. Back in 2005, critics were beside themselves praising the monochrome magic of Robert Rodriguez’s astonishing take on Frank Miller’s graphic novel noir, Sin City. From its hardboiled nostalgia to its star studded speaking order, it was seen as the next step in technology tweaking traditional storytelling. Now, a mere 36 months later, messageboard nation is ready to tear Miller’s solo project, an adaptation of his Will Eisner comic strip update of The Spirit, a new arthole. Where once things were fresh and flashy, they’re now called overly familiar. Where the comic book god was once praised as a new fangled visionary, this cheesy, campy creation is about to be crucified - and for no good reason, actually.

Central City is a metropolis awash in crime and corruption. Chief among the felonious perpetrators is scientific genius and murderous madman The Octopus. Along with his right hand henchwoman Silken Floss, he’s manipulated his own DNA to make himself invincible. Now he wants the fabled blood of Heracles to become immortal. The only thing stopping him is a pair of unnecessary advisories. One is Sand Saref, an international thief who is desperate for the fabled Golden Fleece that Jason and the Argonauts sought. The other is The Spirit, a masked crimefighter with a lot of questions about his own strange healing powers and a past as a member of the police force. Not even his doctor gal pal Ellen Dolan can figure him out. Naturally, all of these dispirit characters will come face to face when both the blood, and the fleece, turn up.

Sure, it plays like a forgotten chapter in Miller’s continuing flirtation with old ‘40s cinema. Sure, it’s so over the top and outrageous that it begs to be mocked and ridiculed. Granted, Gabriel Macht is not the kind of marquee name (or recognizable face) in the lead actor realm that one relies on to hold a film together, and choosing him requires a leap of faith on the filmmaker’s part that’s hard for any audience to swallow. And just because you put a bevy of supposedly hot babes in your female-ccentric movie doesn’t mean the results will be sexy, captivating, or alluring. So what, exactly, saves The Spirit? What keeps it from becoming an irredeemable bomb ala Battlefield Earth, The Love Guru, or any other predestined stinker?

Three things, actually, and none have to do with Miller’s middling direction. Copping a millions moves from a half century of Tinsel Town trickery, there are only glimpses of the familiar graphic novel brilliance we’ve come to expect from one of his projects. There’s none of 300‘s slo-mo gore zoning, or City‘s slam bang Mickey Spillane on speed bravado. The color scheme stays squarely in the old school dramatics of black and white, and Miller’s eye tends toward the hero shot more than any meaningful moviemaking sensibility. Indeed, The Spirit could best be described as a series of static “wows” followed up by limited or almost nonexistent narrative needs. This is a movie that assumes a lot of plotline prescience. Miller clearly expects that the audience doesn’t want everything spelled out for them, so he simply tosses away the entire primer and goes bonkers.

What does work is Samuel L. Jackson’s bad ass kitsch as The Octopus. Sure, his version of the Spirit’s arch-nemesis is about a billion miles away from the character’s origins, but the shape-shifting savagery of his villain is a bad joke joy to behold. Just seeing this bad mofo in Nazi drag is worth the price of admission. So is his disconnected accomplice, Silken Floss. As played by Scarlett Johannsson as a half serious, half sketch comedy creation, this mannered moll is the perfect real world balance to Miller’s overreaching hypereality. Then there’s the dialogue, an amalgamation of every private dick diary entry meshed with tons of treble entendres. The result is like listening to a Depression era radio broadcast born out of a madman’s unproduced memoirs. There are times when you literally laugh with and at the movie for being so audaciously cornball.

And then there’s Gabriel Macht as the title character. Guaranteed to generate as much positive geek buzz as negative, he’s an interesting combination of naiveté and spree killer. It’s clear that The Spirit takes his crusade seriously, and during his pre-Octopus stand-offs, his manner is brusque, cruel, and sometimes rather heartless. He’s also a lug with the ladies, easily winning them over only to screw them in the less corporeal meaning of the term. While more or less an unknown, Macht makes all these divergent personality traits work. We never once doubt the Spirit as a hero, a heal, a protector and a pariah. It’s one of Miller’s main strengths that his leads comes across as flawed if still formidable. Even with his old school sarcasm, there is something noble about this vigilante’s cause.

Yet none of this will matter to a fanbase still reeling from the visual buzz created by filmmakers as imaginative as Zach Synder. Others will lament the return to Sin City‘s comic panel mockery. If you’re already predisposed to hate whatever Miller is making this time, skip The Spirit. You’ll just make yourself angry as everything you suspected about the project pans out as true. But if you’re willing to give this novice a shot at making his own statement, if you’ll let Macht and Jackson and Johannsson and the others gyrate within the material, then you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by the results. The Spirit is not a classic. It may even indicate that Frank Miller is the most flogged of the apparently already dead one trick ponies. Taken on its own terms, however, it’s a beautiful bit of balderdash.

by Rob Horning

23 Dec 2008

My personal Twitter experiment has failed miserably. I created an account and tried to post for a while; I even set it up so that I could post messages with my phone. But I discovered I had nothing to say in that forum. I didn’t want to share what I was doing with the world, and I didn’t have enough witticisms to keep it thriving. It was tiring trying to think aphoristically—it turns out that most would-be aphorisms require a lot of developmental context to be comprehensible.

But Twitter seems to be slowly penetrating the mainstream, and I’ve been seeing more posts like this one, from AdPulp, about Twitter’s usefulness as an advertising medium, as a perpetual personalized classifieds section. In many ways Twitter suits advertising perfectly—the whole brevity thing, for one. It allows no room to develop a logical presentation of an idea, so it must work as a notification service or in marketing’s preferred mode of illogical association (the paradigm that allows 30-second narratives to be built on the premise that drinking beer yields female attention, for instance). Also there’s the way Twitter posts tend to wash over their audience, claiming very little of our attention and concentration but often providing a disproportionate payoff in entertainment. The terms of that wager—the minimal amount of energy it takes to follow a Twitter feed versus the occasional reward—makes it easy to keep Twitter humming in the background of one’s life. At that point, it becomes an ideal advertising conduit, constantly notifying you of things you might have wanted to know but certainly could have lived without.

The harmony between Twitter and advertising seems so natural; it’s surprising it didn’t begin as an ad medium. Twitter billed itself as a crypto-blogging platform, which bathed it in Web 2.0 hype and made it seem as though it were about social interaction. This allowed it to develop the scale that would make it attractive to corporate advertisers.

Though it didn’t start as an explicit marketing tool, Twitter drew on the ubiquity of advertising discourse, offering us a way to participate in it and seem to master it, harness it for our own ends. It seems to have risen to prominence by allowing its users to craft and broadcast up-to-the-minute advertisements for themselves. The posts bear with them no expectation of literary skill or substance, so no barriers of procrastination prevent us from writing them. By broadcasting your doings in real time, in clipped, urgent language, you can feel like a celebrity and live as though someone is always watching you. This provides the useful illusion of social recognition, an illusion that reciprocal following of other feeds serves to enhance.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum is also failing to Twitter. He points out that Twitter rewards only those users who use it constantly, who integrate it completely into their lives—another reason why it’s so perfect for advertising. The key for adoption is to have it be rewarding enough for users to make that total commitment. In my view, whether one will find it rewarding enough first depends on how much one enjoys pretending to be a celebrity, and then it depends if one embraces the state of permanent distraction. I suspect there is a Zen clarity to it—one becomes totally riveted to the present, which is condensed to a stream of 140-character moments.

by Mike Schiller

23 Dec 2008

L.B. Jeffries’ column is on break until Tuesday, January 6, when PopMatters has resumed its regular publishing schedule.  In the meantime, you can check out more of L.B.‘s work at the Banana Pepper Martinis blog.

Alternately, you can check out the most recent edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast, hosted by fellow PopMatters writer Michael Abbott, on which L.B., Michael and I each talk about one of our favorite games of the year (here’s a teaser: three of the four picks on the segment where L.B. and I appear can currently be bought for 15 dollars or less…and the other one’s an expansion).  Oh, and if you haven’t seen it, scope out the rest of Mr. Abbott’s blog while you’re over there—it’s worth a regular visit and then some.

by Rob Horning

23 Dec 2008

Rob Walker linked to this item from Science Digest about research into our susceptibility to “brand personalities.” I’ve tried but failed to understand the upshot of this highlighted finding:

“This research points out an interesting but counterintuitive finding: brand personality can be most useful for forging consumer-brand connections with consumers who tend to enjoy such deep connections in the interpersonal context,” the authors conclude.

The study hinges on “attachment styles,” which seem to have something to do with self-esteem: “Because of a low view of self, anxious individuals”—those with “anxious” attachment styles—“use brands to signal their ideal self-concept to future relationship partners and therefore focus more on the personality of the brand.” But brands don’t objectively have personalities. Consumers are actively involved in conjuring them up and pretending that they exist. One can’t simply select a brand that already has a given personality, because that whole personality, if it exists, is a delicate social construction heavily contingent upon the consumer’s own place in society. The meaning of Abercrombie to me is not “excitement” as the study’s authors suggest; it’s “shallowness.” So when I choose to reject that brand accordingly, that choice derives from my interpretation of the brand, which comes from my social milieu, intermixed with my strictly personal hang-ups and predilections, all of which reconstitutes the brands’ own marketing messages (themselves always being modified) into something peculiar to me. I’m using or not using certain brands to signal certain things that I hope will be understood by a target audience that I am hoping to define and attract with the help of those brands.

Maybe that is what the researchers are saying, and I am one of those “anxious” types. I just can’t see who would be exempt from such considerations, if they have chosen to participate in consumer society at all. Brands are by definition the appeal of a product over and above its practical usefulness—it is always the “personality” of the product as opposed to how well it works or what it is capable of doing. But though brands seem to signal some quality, that doesn’t mean it rises to the level of actually having a personality. It functions more like a word in a language than a living, breathing person. Calling its signifying quality a “personality” is itself a marketing move, seeking to glamorize products and give them a rich complexity.

Is the point that needy people want their brands to seem to love them back? Do such people mistake the fact that they can detect personality in a brand for the brand’s actually making the loving gesture of one person sharing their personality with another person? When I sense that I’m supposed to think American Apparel is “sexy,” do I at the same time, at some level, believe the brand is in fact coming on to me?

When people disclose their personalities to one another, it’s a gift, a gesture of trust and intimacy. When brands persuade us that they have a personality, it’s an affront, an invasion, a corruption of that intimate, human exchange. But if, through anomie and generalized social isolation, we are starved from more of that intimate feeling, we may prefer to accept the brands’ personalities on their own terms and assist in establishing them and their social credibility.

The “anxious” types in the study may be more likely to ascribe personalities to brands, to regard everything as a quasi-personal relationship that needs to be governed by the same rules and expectations, because actually personal relationships have been demonized as “inconvenient.” These seem to be the twin macro-level goals of advertising: (1) to discourage from having too much inconvenient, reciprocal human contact and (2) as a replacement for real companionship, to encourage us to mistake products for friends, to whom we owe such things as loyalty and forgiveness. 

N.B.: I wanted to call this post “Are Friends Electric?” but thought it was too much of a stretch. But you should still watch this.

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