Couch Trip

Jan 7, 2009 at 12:00 am

Operation Valkyrie: The Stauffenberg Plot to Kill Hitler
Koch Vision

When Tom Cruise apologizes for something — especially something remotely Scientology-related — you know the man's desperate for good press. And that's exactly what his Valkyrie desperately needs; from crew accidents, budget overruns and a generally befuddled reaction to the idea of Cruise mustering the acting chops to believably portray a morally torn Nazi officer, Valkyrie doesn't appear to have been born under a good sign. Thus we find Cruise on the Today Show, sort of stepping back from the hysterical, anti-psychiatry rant he let forth on the show the last time he was promoting a movie. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, whatever the fate of Cruise's epic new film, the true story behind Operation Valkyrie is a riveting one. It's also one that, due to German reluctance to talk about anything remotely related to the war — especially something that could have a Nazi officer painted in a heroic light — has remained largely untold. This documentary takes a decidedly uncinematic look at Claus von Stauffenberg's ill-fated plot to take Hitler out, and though it may have none of the sweeping drama of Cruise's film, it still makes for a fascinating tale. Using re-enactments and computer reconstructions as well as a lot of academic analysis, Operation Valkyrie initially comes off like a well-funded History Channel piece, but still effectively manages to impart the tension and drama of the affair. A DVD of supplementary material is noteworthy for the inclusion of some of Eva Braun's home movies (creepy!) and a brief documentary on some of the other failed attempts to assassinate Hitler. Turns out the guy wasn't all that well-liked. Who woulda thought? —Jason Ferguson

Opium: Diary of a Madwoman
Koch Lorber

If there could be such a thing as an art-house exploitation film, should you be surprised that it'd be both leadenly pretentious and pointlessly squirm-inducing? With none of the dramatic depth nor any of the visceral intensity that such a combo would promise, Opium: Diary of A Madwoman is a frustratingly incomplete film, full of grandiose emptiness and titter-inducing brutality. From the graphic lobotomy that, uh, opens the film, Hungarian director János Száz is determined to get the viewer's attention, because clearly he has something Very Important To Say With His Film. For all we can gather, though, that message is, basically, if you're a chick in early 20th century Eastern Europe, don't get locked up in an asylum. Because if you do, you're gonna get raped, abused, raped again, tortured, raped again ... and it'll all be part of your therapy! Said inmate is played with appropriate glassiness by Kirsti Stubø, who tries to muddle through the film's swampy mess of sexual violence as if she were starring in some cracked version of The Red Shoe Diaries. It doesn't work; Opium comes off as nothing less than costume-drama torture-porn. The listless direction is overwhelmed by the film's overly mannered set designs (which manage to undercut — rather than emphasize — the darkness of the story) and a script that's utterly lacking in nuance. Despite racking up a number of Eastern European festival awards, there's little to recommend Opium to fans of highbrow or lowbrow cinema. —Jason Ferguson

Rain of Fire

The kind of theater that'd show a movie like Rain of Fire doesn't exist anymore, nor would you expect a cable movie station to air a grotesquerie like this, so Lionsgate's doing the lord's work (or, perhaps, the devil's) in reviving interest in this Omen knockoff in all its Z-movie schlockitude. Kirk Douglas — unable to get decent work on the American screen circa 1977 — stars as a thermonuclear industrialist in this Italian import. As environmentalists protest the development of his latest dangerous desert power plant, a cycle of stigmatic signs in everything from cave drawings to primitive computer malfunctions leads him to think that his actions may bring about the Apocalypse, and that his effete son (named, uh, Angel ... seriously) is the Antichrist. There's so much kooky religious business in here — used for the crassest of ends, like chopping scientists in half and beheading diplomats with propeller blades — that it makes The Da Vinci Code look theologically profound by comparison. Rain of Fire is so hysterically awful that it might be morbidly fascinating for some cinematic masochists. But watching a greedy, world-destructing businessman redeem himself is a lot more interesting in Iron Man, and without the religious pabulum. —John Thomason

The Best of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist

Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist is probably most known today as the show that ushered in the jittery animation technique of co-creator Loren Bouchard (who would bring the same squiggle-vision style of characters constantly on the fritz to the superior Home Movies). That's because the show's clever concept — comedians laying out their problems to Jonathan Katz's deadpan, stereotype-fulfilling therapist — merely sweetened a pedestrian center. Like many Comedy Central shows, Dr. Katz was just a way for comics to repackage their material, this time with a novel setting and animated illustrations of jokes. And, as this best-of compilation shows, the marquee names (David Duchovny, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Denis Leary) were exasperating duds, while the smaller figures on the comedy totem — small for the late '90s anyway — like Louis CK, Brian Regan and Patton Oswalt — brought the squiggly house down. The only supplement is a collection of scenes outside the therapy office, mostly focusing on the doctor's son Ben and his receptionist Laura. Nothing too exceptional here, but click around the bonus features menu for a couple of Easter eggs: one by highlighting Katz's shoe and the other by spotlighting the E's in the word "remembers." —John Thomason

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

If you've grown weary of the action-first, talk-second spy thrillers churned out by contemporary studios, then you might get more than you asked for from this bleak, monochrome espionage drama from 1965. Directed by blacklisted leftie Martin Ritt, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is an adaptation of virtuoso spy novelist John Le Carré's book of the same name, and it can never shake its obvious literary origins. Aside from two exciting sequences that bookend the film, Ritt's spy yarn is all talk and no action, its numerous two-men-and-a-table set-pieces adding up to a dreary procession of protracted tête-à-têtes. On the plus side, whether written by Le Carré or screenwriter Paul Dehn, some memorable lines emerge from the jargon-filled chatter — "She believed in free love; at the time, it was all I could afford," mutters jaded protagonist Richard Burton — and Oswald Morris' black-and-white cinematography is both gritty and luminous, a miraculous visualization almost without compare. Also, Criterion's extras are better than the movie itself. A new interview with Le Carré extrapolates on the contentious relationship between Ritt and Burton, and the novelist's own minor disappointments with the final product. Audio samples from a terrific '80s interview with Ritt reveal the director to be a socially conscious bleeding heart bulldozing his way through the vapid predictability of Reagan-era Hollywood, and an hourlong BBC documentary about Le Carré solidly condenses the world of the enigmatic writer. —John Thomason