Saturday, March 6, 2010

Movie Outlaw: PROJECT: VALKYRIE (2004)

(Once again, in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I know the creators of this movie. We’ve been good friends, we’ve worked together, attended each others’ parties, family get-togethers and shared many a meal together. Director Jeff Waltrowski and I even attended the same film school together and he’s co-starred in and shot a number of my own movies. These guys even tortured me mercilessly with Trapped in the Closet...When Project: Valkyrie was first released, I contributed a number of pull quotes to the box, from reviews I’d written. So you may think this review is biased and you’re probably right. If you think this impugns my integrity, please read something else. If not…)

People raised on Hollywood blockbusters don’t often “get” the independent movie. They equate “low budget” with “cheap” or “amateurish”. “Homage” is often misinterpreted as “rip off”. The insults masquerading as criticism often include the words “stupid”, “lame” or “gay”. Which is not to say that there haven’t been independent, no-budget movies made that don’t fit the above. But Project: Valkyrie isn’t one of them.

A classic example of a “kitchen sink” movie, where the filmmakers throw everything they love against the wall to see what sticks, Project: Valkyrie begins in the U.S. around the start of World War II, where the world was black and white. The Feds come to Professor Jack Cranston, who has just completed a flight in a plane powered by a new energy source in sphere form he’d just developed. The government needs him to develop a new weapon to fight the Nazis’ new diabolical creations—metallic supermen. At first resistant, Jack accepts the job for the sake of decency and the American way. “Using science”, he creates Valkyrie, the most noble robot ever to walk the Earth, and thus the Allies win the war.

Flash forward to present day and Jack’s grandson, Jim Cranston, is a down-on-his-luck loser who owes a great deal of money to the mob. They smash his hand with a baseball bat and this encourages him to go through a garageful of his grandfather’s junk to see if there’s anything worth selling and get him out of his predicament. After selling some Nazi paraphernalia to a skinhead named Frank, Jim hits pay dirt, finding all the parts to Valkyrie including the blueprints. Upon bringing Valkyrie back to “life” Jim responds appropriately—zooming around his apartment screaming “I’m gonna be rich!” and singing “Jimmy built a ro-bot!”

Meanwhile, a mysterious fluid inside one of the Swastika-stamped artifacts turns Frank into a metallic-boned Red Skull and he sets about transforming his fellow Aryan assholes into similar monsters. When Frank’s sister Anne, a torch singer at a local club, fears the worst, she seeks out Jim—the last person to see Frank in Frank form—and demands his help. Valkyrie, of course, recognizes the handywork left behind by the neo-neo-Nazis and leaps into its own course of action.

Project: Valkyrie is dripping with both “labor” and “love”. A lot of heart went into creating the film and it shows in every frame. When it works, it excels and when it doesn’t, well the pain doesn’t last too long. As expected with this type of “kitchen sink” movie, a lot of pop culture homages can be found, not only nods to the expected Generation X favorites like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Evil Dead but to Silver Age superhero comic books (Captain America the most obvious), ‘40s serials (references to Commander Cody and Radar Men from the Moon will jump out to hardcore fans), buddy cop movies, and Terminator 2 (during a scene where Jim teaches Valkyrie a playground game that starts off funny, seems to go on too long and then gets funny again once you realize it supposed to go on this long, in a knowing dig at the pacing of lesser low budget movies). Jim’s wanna-be hardboiled one-liners don’t always work but the off-the-wall jokes almost always do. As when Anne dopes out the robot’s name as “Valkyrie” due to the “V” on its chest (and displaying a knowledge of the real-life “Project Valkyrie” that failed to assassinate Hitler, as seen in the Tom Cruise movie and every day on the History Channel), Jim says “That’s why you weren’t responding to ‘Timmy’.” As delivered in the film, it’s my personal favorite laugh-out-loud moment. (But, you know, that could just be me.)

It’s not afraid to be bizarre as well—the team stuck to the axiom of making the movie they wanted to see, so there are several very strange moments. (The first one, during the opening credits, is a love-it-or-hate-it sequence: an extended dolly-shot following one man walking through the streets of Pittsburgh, into an elevator and onto a roof, where he says “Sorry I’m late, Boss,” and then fades into the background, never seen again after this scene.) There are also a few rap songs used on the track that don’t quite fit the montages they’re used for—as well as a music video in the center that’s obviously there to pad out the running time. A key transformation scene involving the Nazis, however, is scored with a perfectly ironic little love song (though as originally screened at festivals, this scene was set to Carly Simon’s “You’re a Child Again” and it worked slightly better. Carly, however, is a bitch with her music rights apparently…).

The best part of the smart script co-written by Jeff Waltrowski (who directed and appears as a perfect Professor Jack) and Steve Foland (who stars as Jim) is that it really is a study in contrasts between the “classic” two-fisted “right is right” hero of Hollywood’s golden age, and the more cynical anti-hero of today. Jim has very little in common with his grandfather on the surface; in fact, he’s only playing hero at first to make sure his robot survives in one piece. By the end, though, he’s found his inner selflessness and fights even though he knows he’s still going to be killed by the mob if he survives! It’s an interesting thematic exploration, one that you don’t usually find in even the big budget comic book movies these days.

As can always be said of any indie, the acting and production values all vary in quality. It’s difficult to tell whether Anne Richardson—who does have a lovely singing voice s evidenced by her rendition of “A Soldier’s Things”—is giving a deliberately wooden performance to mimic the ‘40s serials or just isn’t up to the task. Foland is aces as Jim, but the movie belongs to Jacob Ross / Chris Mauer as Valkyrie. Though played by two different actors, Valkyrie is consistently the heart of the film, endearing and exceedingly heroic. Particular kudos go to Dave Droxler as the villainous Frank, who actually manages to be quite scary beneath the Red Skull mask (courtesy of Steve Tolin). Other familiar problems will strike you—the occasional bad edit, washed out shot, etc., all tragic side-effects of the run-and-gun-out-of-necessity school of low-budget filmmaking.

Of course, it should be pointed out that like so many indie movies, the cast and the crew are the same organism—Ross plays a Nazi and did all the production design and original artwork; producer Nic Pesante plays numerous roles, etc. Just think of what Avatar would have been had Cameron given his grips the freedom to play Na’vi…

Still if you have a genuine love for movies—and if you’ve stuck with this column this long, you obviously do—you’ll dig Project: Valkyrie for all the right reasons. It’s campy, it’s funny and it’s exciting. It’s not even afraid to show a little emotion when it counts. So picking up the Tempe DVD is highly recommended. And if you do dig it, keep an eye out for the prequel in post-production now: It Came from Yesterday.

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