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Friday, February 21, 2014

The Monuments Men: A Room With No View Movie Review

The Monuments Men, Directed by George Clooney

As I mentioned in my last post, I would put up a review of the new George Clooney movie, The Monuments Men.  Since I promised to do it, I will fulfill my promise.  However, as much as I loved the book, I was not impressed with the movie.  I try to keep things upbeat and positive on this site, but I plan to take a slight break from that and get a little critical.

Something you know about me is that I do not disparage movies based on books just because I am a book lover.  I know plenty of people who are condescending when it comes to Hollywood presenting their version of a much loved literary classic.  And much of that is well-deserved.  However, I don't mind Hollywood taking a book and tweaking it a little bit to increase the cinematic effect of a story.  After all, it is a movie, not a book, and it should have elements that make it worthwhile to watch in a dark theater.  I don't even mind if they change a few things.  The best example of this I often discuss with movie buffs and book lovers is the way Peter Jackson switched out Glorfindel in the Ford of Bruinen with Arwen.  As a kid, reading the Tolkien story, I was in awe of Glorfindel, holding off the Black Riders with his elf-magic.  However, though at first I squirmed to see Arwen--a girl, no less--saving Frodo instead of Glorfindel, I quickly saw just how great a switch it was.  It is now one of my favorite moments in the entire movie trilogy.


The director, George Clooney, having a drink and some
fun with pal Matt Damon in The Monuments Men
When making a movie based on historical events, I don't like to see major changes just to make things more interesting.  Tighten the anxiety a little in a scene that is historically accurate?  That's fine, I get the need to gig the audience a little.  But when several characters are smashed together to form a completely new character for time savings, or when a character is portrayed almost one hundred per cent accurately but their name is randomly changed...these things bother me.  If the story can't be told in two hours and you feel you have to make amalgamated characters, just don't make the movie.  So right off the bat, George Clooney, the producer, director, screenwriter (with co-writer Grant Heslov), star, and promoter of the film, uses both of these tricks to muddy his historical film.  And that didn't sit well with me at all.

But let's ignore the fact that he chose to change most of the story of the Monuments Men.  After all, you can read Robert M. Edsel's excellent book of the same name as the film if you want the facts.  We'll be generous and suggest that the film is simply meant to be an entertaining look at an odd little historical bit of World War Two.  And maybe we'll give a nod to the noble cause of championing the importance of culture and art in a civilized world and how much of that culture was in danger of being lost.  How, in fact, a few men saved the soul of Western Civilization.

So full of expectations, having waited nearly six months to see what I figured would be the film of the Christmas season, I set out to the theater in February (due to its being delayed from a Christmas release--more on that later) to see a movie set in World War Two about the importance of Western Art.  It seemed too good to be true.


First, let's hit the high points:

Clooney does a flawless job of recreating Paris and greater Europe at the end of the war.  I wasn't there originally, since I wasn't exactly in existence then, but I feel pretty certain he did an above average job of giving us a peek into that time period.

Bill Murray And Bob Balaban in The Monuments Men
As a fan of Bill Murray, I was thrilled to see him working again.  It has been a few years since I've seen him do any serious work.  And here he is mostly used as light (very light) comic relief, with a scene or two that is meant to be poignant.  The same can be said of John Goodman, though his moments of comic relief are much more heavy-handed.  Sadly, his are mostly clownish in nature.  Goodman is a great dramatic actor, and like Murray, can handle the deft skill of presenting a comedic character as both funny and heartbreakingly tragic.  This was a movie that should have used more of Goodman's skills in this area.  Instead, Clooney chose to give Goodman the bright red nose with the balloon animals.  A poor choice, I thought.

I thought the strongest character was the Frenchman Lt. Clermont, played by French actor Jean Dujardin (known most recently for his lead role in The Artist) who brings a natural charm to a role that allowed him to showcase his little known skills to the American public.  He should have been in Hollywood years ago.

As entertainment goes, the film was fun to watch.  Lots of laughs, good guys catch and punish the bad guys, and famous works of art are rescued in a dramatic and timely manner.  We feel great about what the Monuments Men have done,  a little sad at all the destruction, and proud that we spent some time watching a movie that had a tad more culture in it than the latest Superheroes CGI extravaganza.  Roll credits and walk out of the theater with a slightly good feeling.

Now, let's examine why that feeling was only slightly good.

The guys, having fun fighting Nazis.
From the beginning, George Clooney seemed to have one goal in mind for this film: let's get my friends together to make a cool, fun film.  So with Ocean's Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen pal Matt Damon in tow, he goes around and collects some old film stars to help him make a fun movie.  Neat-oh!  And don't think I'm being cruel here, folks.  You can see the gleeful smile on Clooney's face from the moment he is briefing the shadowy figure of FDR to the very end, when he is lecturing the evil Nazi on just how evil he is and how little he means now that he has lost the war.  Heh-heh.  If you need an example of this sort of oops-didn't-mean-to-smile-during-that-scene atmosphere, just watch Ocean's Twelve.  In that movie, Clooney wasn't the only one doing it.  The whole cast did it.  You know that each and every time Clooney yelled "Cut!" the crew let out chuckles, a few giggles, and some good-natured finger-pistol pointing that ended with a wink.

But I exaggerate.  Not in the whole film.  There are many moments when the film turns serious.  Bill Murray gets his ten dramatic minutes during a shower scene, of all things, that should have been the stuff that wins him an Academy Award nomination.  I'm serious.  It is a great scene, lost in the silliness that is this film.  It even has a great Christmas song that covers the scene, and could be added to the traditional Christmas movie favorites list.  I loved it.  Especially if it had opened Christmas day as it was supposed to.  Did I mention that before?  I did.  In fact, I said I'd get back to that.  So let's do that now.

Damon and Clooney with some British guy in between them
with those smiles that filled the picture.  (Actually, that's Hugh
Bonneville in the center, who handled his role quite well.)
The movie was supposed to come out at Christmas, but it was delayed.  Most of the time these delays come from the director tweaking his film, trying to fix something or other.  It turns out Clooney was having trouble getting the mix of drama and comedy right.  (This he admitted to TheWrap, which I only discovered while researching for this post.  But I knew it was the problem as soon as I saw the finished picture.  Honest.  Ask my wife.  Oh never mind.)   Pushing the film back didn't help.  Clooney never did solve the riddle.  Instead, he left the film muddled, and I felt this ambiguity acutely early in the film.

I won't spoil the film for those who haven't seen it, but members of the troupe die along the way.  And as this happens, we should feel a shift from the early, eagerness to join the war, to a sobering reality that all war movies tend to produce.  But Clooney never seems to settle in his mind that he wants to go there.  It is too bad, since all the elements are there to bring this off.  But inexplicably, it just doesn't happen.

Take for instance when the a Nazi who is set up at the beginning as a really bad guy finally gets captured.  It should be a tense scene that ends in the sudden relief that comes when a villain is captured.  A moment of "finally!"  Instead, there were chuckles in the audience.  It was funny that the really bad guy was captured.  What a lark.  Hee hee!  I have no idea what Mr. Clooney was thinking here, but whatever it was, he should have discarded the thought and tried again.

I'm a fan of Bob Balaban, and love the dry, emotionally drained roles he often takes.  Here he gets a great one.  A somewhat shy, slightly grouchy sensitive man who wants to get in the war and do something, despite just being an art expert.  He has some good chemistry with Bill Murray but he gets relegated to the clown role, much like Goodman.  However, Balaban is the sad clown, with the tears painted on his face instead a big red ball on the end of his nose.  Man, that really burned me up.  For what he did to Goodman and Balaban, Clooney deserves this review.

Cate Blanchett, hiding behind a veil of
smoke, hiding her acting skills in a role
that did not ask much of her.
I still wouldn't say the movie is a total wash.  It has some value, especially as a starting point for the discussion of the role and value of art in a world gone mad with war.  It is fun to watch, and there are performances that probably shouldn't be missed.  I've said little about Cate Blanchett's role.  And that's on purpose.  She sleepwalks through this thing, and it is mostly because her character is terribly boring.  Not much more to say about it.  She's prim, determined, secretive, and the fact that she sort of throws herself at Matt Damon was uninteresting to the story and not accurate to the history of the book.  But I'll give Blanchett this much--she can looked worried really well.  I believed her.  She looked worried that Nazis were in her Paris.  Really worried.  Maybe she was channeling her inner artist, who knew that Clooney's screenplay was full of bad dialog.  For someone like her, this had to be something to worry about.  After all, it was bound to make her character boring.  And it did.

The best moments of this film are captured in the trailer, with Shawn Lee's haunting song Kiss the Sky as the backdrop.  For me, I think this trailer sunk the movie.  It made it look like an Oscar contender.  Like a movie that would reach inside me and rip out my heart with the dramatic story of how courageous men stood up to the Nazis and saved the world's most precious non-living treasures.  For that, I'm mad at the man who edited this awesome trailer and that other man, George Clooney, for not making a film that stands up to its trailer.

So watch the trailer only if you want to risk ruining a slightly entertaining movie.

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