- The Washington Times - Friday, May 15, 2009

Valkyrie (MGM, $17.98 DVD, $22.99 2-disc DVD, $27.99 Blu-ray) — Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer’s retelling of Col. Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life is no less gripping because you know before the first reel rolls that Hitler survives. As the pair (along with writer Christopher McQuarrie) discuss in one of two commentary tracks on the Blu-ray and special edition discs, “Valkyrie” wasn’t conceived as a history lesson but as a thriller, a suspenseful look at the last attempt made by German officers to take out the murderous tyrant.

The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches for Mr. Singer and company: British vets like Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp seamlessly slip into the lives of their German counterparts. To avoid distracting from the action, no one bothers with adopting an accent and it works: There’s nothing worse than an actor stumbling over a foreign inflection to add “authenticity” to a story.

The story itself is taut and inspiring, if ultimately tragic. Col. von Stauffenberg was the leader of a small cadre of German politicians and military men determined to wrest control of Germany from the Nazis, end the war and shut down the concentration camps.

True Blood Season One (HBO, $38.99 DVD, $48.49 Blu-ray) — “True Blood” is absurdly entertaining, with a strong emphasis on the absurd. It’s like “Twilight” on acid, a grown-up version of the human/vampire love story that has a fondness for explicit sex scenes, a preoccupation with psychedelic drugs and a notion that it has something profound to say about discrimination in our modern world.

Anna Paquin stars as Sookie Stackhouse, a young woman with psychic abilities. She can hear what everyone else is thinking — not always pleasant for a pretty young thing like herself. In the “True Blood” universe, vampires have just come “out of the coffin,” revealing themselves to humanity for the first time; Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) plays one such vamp eager to “mainstream” into respectable society.

One of the many, many subplots tackled in the 12-episode first season is the Equal Rights Amendment some vampires are pushing for, the passage of which is being fought by intolerant religious groups. The symbolism is not, shall we say, subtle.

Fortunately, the pretensions to social commentary are largely set aside in order to delve into more ridiculous aspects of human-vampire life. Vampire blood acts as a hallucinogen and Viagra substitute. The dynamics of human-vampire sex and feeding are explored. There’s a killer roaming around the town knocking off women who enjoy the company of the nocturnally-inclined.

If “True Blood’s” first season has a problem, it’s that writer-director Alan Ball (“American Beauty,” “Towelhead”) simply tries to do too much. There are at least seven or eight different story lines running through the season, and almost a dozen characters to keep track of (though, as bodies start piling up, that number quickly drops). A slightly more focused second season (starting June 14) would be welcome.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Sony, $16.99 DVD, $27.99 Blu-ray) — The two mall cop movies released in the first half of 2009 — “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and “Observe and Report” — share the same basic plot. Underappreciated, over-zealous mall guard with delusions of grandeur must save the day and the woman he loves (who doesn’t love him back) by defeating evildoers in his place of business.

But the two pictures couldn’t be more different stylistically. “Paul Blart” is brought to life by the Happy Madison crew, the production house owned by Adam Sandler. The only goal that the portly Kevin James brings to the big screen is to make people laugh through slapstick and traditional comic timing.

“Observe and Report,” meanwhile, is a self-styled subversive film, one that thinks it has something smart to say about the nature of cinema and the effect it has on people’s psyches.

They both work, just in different ways. “Paul Blart” is almost certainly the funnier film, at least as measured in laughs per minute. It’s hard not to enjoy the comedy, despite its lowbrow origins and unoriginality. “Observe and Report” is more satisfying in a broader sense, as a piece of art. Though its pretensions can get annoying — director Jody Hill has far less to say than he thinks he does, and the Martin Scorsese homages that litter the film grow tiresome — it’s an intriguing slice of popular culture.

Taken (Fox, $15.99 DVD, $22.99 two-disc DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray) — Along with “Paul Blart,” “Taken” was probably the biggest surprise of the winter, at least in terms of box office appeal. The modestly budgeted action picture grossed $144 million; the modestly budgeted mall cop movie grossed $145 million. January is the new July, it seems.

“Taken” stars Liam Neeson as Bryan, an ex-CIA agent whose daughter has been kidnapped by human traffickers; if he can’t find her within 96 hours she will be lost forever to a world of forced prostitution and drug addiction. Needless to say, Bryan quickly discards the niceties of international law in order to bring his daughter to safety.

Bryan’s uncompromising nature is surely one of the reasons “Taken” struck such a chord with audiences. In a world of mealy-mouthed politicians making excuses for America’s behavior on the world stage, it was refreshing to see a capable man of action take charge of a situation and get the job done. Audiences are less interested in seeing characters on the big screen fretting over the rights of scum than in getting information from the scum to save the girl.

Brought to life by Luc Besson, the brains behind the “Transporter” series, “Taken” is a propulsive action picture that moves from fight to fight without letting up or allowing the audience a moment’s rest to catch its breath.

Sonny Bunch

The Tortoise and the Hare, Wind in the Willows, The Reluctant Dragon (Disney, $19.99 each) — Watching this batch of newly released 1930s Disney shorts, you can’t help but wonder if today’s animated films will fare as well 80 years from now as these golden oldies do today.

There’s something about the simple frames, warm colors and innocent story lines that not only cracks up 6-year-olds, but also makes their parents feel warm and fuzzy.

And then there’s the ubiquitous life lessons that are vague enough that they may influence without being overbearing: Don’t be arrogant (“Tortoise”); there’s a place to call home for everyone (“Duckling”); and watch those distinctions and obsessions (“Willows”).

But, again, that’s not — thankfully — what children see. They see Toad’s crazy, popping eyes when he’s crashed his beloved car and Max Hare’s exaggerated flirting with fellow bunnies.

Each DVD includes four to six shorts; and the runtime is approximately 62 to 78 minutes.

Gabriella Boston

Galaxy Quest: Deluxe Edition (Paramount, $14.98) — After “Star Trek” beamed into theaters last weekend to the tune of $75 million, there might be increased interest in this “Star Trek” sendup. The film, which is being rereleased on DVD in a special edition for its 10th anniversary, follows the cast of a canceled sci-fi television series who milk their brief fame with appearances at fan conventions, until an alien race who thought the show was nonfiction grab them and ask for their help. The space comedy had a, well, stellar cast who made for an interesting mix — Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell and Justin Long.

Paramount has assembled a nice new collection of extras, which makes the DVD’s $15 price tag a real bargain. There are new interviews with the filmmakers and cast talking about how the film was made, including a conversation with Nicholas Meyer, the writer-director of one of the best “Star Trek” films, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” Also included is a look at the work behind the surprisingly good visual effects, an exploration of how actor Enrico Colantoni created the look and manner of the alien race, and even — wait for it — a featurette with Miss Weaver rapping.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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