The holiday season is traditionally a time for movies. With kids out of school and family in town, it is the perfect opportunity for Hollywood to saturate the marketplace, leaving the viewers with many options.

Because of this flood of films, this week I will take a look at two of the higher-profile releases.

My rating: 2 1/2 reels.

‘Valkyrie’

“Valkyrie” stars Tom Cruise as a disgruntled man who plots to overthrow a charismatic, crazed and power-hungry leader. I can only imagine Katie Holmes’ eyes lighting up as Cruise explained the film to her. I like to picture her feverishly scribbling notes in the back of a darkened screening room, careful not to rattle the shackles that keep her from fleeing, hoping that she might finally find her escape.

Based on a true story, Cruise plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a disenfranchised member of Hitler’s army, who is brought in on a plot to assassinate the dictator before he can bring about Germany’s downfall. The last of 15 known attempts on Hitler’s life, this was the one that came closest to succeeding.

An intricate telling of the process of assassination, as well as the execution of the plan and its aftermath, the story of “Valkyrie” is compelling and very entertaining in parts. Given that the end result is general knowledge for anyone who has taken sixth-grade history, it is difficult to maintain a level of suspense, but with an engaging premise and an excellent supporting cast, the movie manages to hold the viewer, once they are able to get past certain distractions.

While the story itself is fascinating, the movie does fail the viewer in a couple of aspects. With something based on a historic event, it is important to keep the audience immersed in the believability of the action. Part of that is understanding the motivation of the characters. While it’s no stretch of the imagination to believe that many in Hitler’s army would want to kill the man, it does help to know what finally pushes them to action. We don’t get that here. It also isn’t explained how Stauffenberg came to be known to and trusted by this group of insurgents who would quickly lose their lives if even a whiff of conspiracy were to get to the wrong people. It seems that director Bryan Singer was intent on keeping his film at a two hour running time, but it would have benefited the movie if he had run a little longer and fleshed out the background of these characters and this event.

Another major problem with the movie once again lies with the director. The decision was made early on to take the film from German language back to English, an understandable choice given the audience for the film. However, as I listened to these Germans, several speaking with regional British accents, some with German accents, and of course Tom Cruise speaking as only he can, I was taken completely out of the film. It’s as though Singer took the American ideal of the melting pot and applied it to Nazi Germany, an idea that I’m sure wouldn’t sit well with Mr. Hitler.

What hurts the film the most, however, is the film’s greatest asset in marketing: Tom Cruise himself. A man who has built a career on charm and charisma and minimal acting talent, Cruise seems unable or unwilling to commit to the role. It seems that he feels wearing an eye patch and obscuring the face that has helped make him a fortune is sacrifice enough, and so he can’t be bothered to fully embrace his role.

Flaws aside, “Valkyrie” is an interesting film, a picture of how one man’s madness will compel others to finally take action. While it will be more interesting to World War II buffs and history junkies than the casual moviegoer, it is strong enough to both enlighten and entertain. Now, if only the same could be said about Cruise.

‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’

While director David Fincher has earned a great deal of respect from the cinematic community with such dark masterpieces as “Seven” and “Fight Club,” this may be the film that finally catches the attention of the Academy.

Taking only the general premise from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, “Button” tells the tale of Benjamin (Brad Pitt), afflicted with a strange disease at birth that causes him to age in reverse. As he grows, the cataract and arthritic body that he is cursed with slowly transforms, becoming more youthful and vital as everyone else is seeing the opposite effect. Narrated by Daisy (Cate Blanchett), a woman on her death bed who recounts to her daughter the story of truest love, the movie lacks a little in subtlety and symbolism, but makes up for it in sheer execution.

Set in New Orleans, “Button” envelops itself in Southern charms and peculiarities. From the tenants of the old-folks home who help to shape young Benjamin to the tugboat captain who helps to make him a man, each character seems to have an eccentricity or whimsy about it that weaves together to create an engrossing world. Daisy and Benjamin meet when both are children, one young and one old, and an affection begins to blossom. As life and circumstance carry the two apart, their love for each other remains the strand that seems destined to pull the them back together, even though both know it can’t be lasting.

The script, only ever-so-slightly tied to its source material, creates a delicate, moving and realistic look at what would be a difficult affliction. As Benjamin regresses and Daisy ages, the two are reunited at the perfect time for their love to fully take hold, but that time passes and they again begin in opposite directions. It takes a deft touch to create something so lovely yet so heartbreaking without relying on the melodrama that makes so many love stories unwatchable, but screenwriter Eric Roth does so seemingly effortlessly.

As much credit must be given to Fincher. A man who has specialized in exploring the darker side of human nature, he would seem an odd choice to direct so redeeming a love story. Yet perhaps it is his past work that fully colors this film; after all, it is just a tragedy wrapped up and presented as a tale of two lovers. Fincher’s lens allows for the story to be told without smacking of sentimentality, instead presenting the situation for what it truly is: A hopeful and optimistic yet undeniably futile pursuit of what can never be held on to. “Sleepless in Seattle” this ain’t.

Steeped in charm and heart, “Benjamin Button” is a fairy tale that doesn’t end the way everyone might want, but ends the way that it must. Love isn’t always tidy. Just like life.

My rating: 3 1/2 reels.

Address correspondence to Benji Tunnell, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802 or benjitunnell@gmail.com.

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