Skip to main content

How can I help you steal our stolen art?

The Monuments Men
(2014)

How do you end up making a movie with a cast and premise this good so goddamn boring? I had hopes for The Monuments Men, based on both those good solid reasons; it was in my films to see for both 2013 and this year, even though I should have heeded the warning signs when the release date was delayed. After all, it couldn’t be anything but at very least entertaining. Could it? Unfortunately this is George Clooney the director in complete disarray, clueless over to how to string a plot together (with co-writer and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov) and inept at introducing any kind of pace, urgency or drama into his filmmaking. He’s not even that endearing in his familiar anchoring star turn.


He and Heslov previously teamed on Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March, both buoyed somewhat by having a politically invested Clooney  (even if his points are relatively soft and familiar ones). Heslov also directed Gorgeous George in the oft chastised but actually quite enjoyable The Men Who Stare at Goats (the ending stinks, and the attempts to string Jon Ronson’s episodic journalistic tome/TV series into a coherent narrative are patchy at best, but there’s enough offbeat goodness in there to satisfy). You can quite see why they snapped up the rights to The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and The Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M Edsel but even the title of his true tale of the quest to find art treasures looted by the Nazis is more exciting than their “dramatisation”.


Perhaps there was no story to muster? The hunt of the title was merely a misnomer, and the Yanks just fell upon the art as fortuitously as they do in the movie. In which case, Clooney and Heslov should probably have dispensed with any pretence towards fidelity and made something up with the loosest of connections to the historical subject matter. At least the result might have been involving. You’ve got a load of bumbling old duffers inept at any attempts to engage in warfare? Watch some old episodes of Dad’s Army for inspiration, Grant and George; the box set is pretty cheap these days. Stuck for how to make a quest for treasure colourful? How about Kelly’s Heroes or (George’s own) Three Kings


It seems not. Clooney and Heslov are caught in the trap of earnest respectfulness, when what this needed may have been outright irreverence. At every turn (or exceedingly slow sideways movement) they sink into a mire of lumpenly saluting these brave men but forget to make them in any way brave or charismatic. How could you not want to spend time in the company of John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Bill Murray? Bill Murray! Usually Murray’s dryness invites the viewer in on the joke. Here it’s a sign of how disenchanted he is with the whole enterprise. Or maybe, as he has said, he had a ruddy good time. It just doesn’t translate to the viewer.


I don’t think the serious-funny push-pull (depending on how you believe, the delayed release reflects the tonal struggle or incomplete special efects) is nearly as problematic as how inert The Monuments Men is structurally. At no point is any momentum built up. Every single (traditionally successful) plot device falls flat on its face; rounding up the usual suspects, sending the unprepared recruits into a war zone, splitting them up for their individual missions, then the race (read, sedate stroll) against time to get hold of the goodies before the damn Russkies. It could be a charmless affair but still tell an intriguing story, but there’s nothing to fire the mind.


The philosophical points are beaten out with all the subtlety of a claw hammer on the cranium, so much so that, come the final scene, we even get the President directly asking Lieutenant Clooney the very dilemma George has been repeatedly mulling throughout (is art worth a man’s life?) This, without naming names, comes up because a couple of top chaps are dispensed by the terrible Boche. The incidents themselves lack any impact, but we’re asked to mourn these men and believe that the remaining group are terribly affected by their loss. Just so we’re sure of this, the truly rotten score by Alexandre Desplat tries to stir the emotions. For the rest of the time Desplat follows the most hackneyed, militaristic drumroll.


Surely if you’re going to make a movie about the importance of art you need to instil an appreciation of the same? There has to be awe, and wonder, and beauty. You never once believe that any of these guys give a shit about paintings. Murray only wakes up when he finds an immense cache of gold (any hope that his scene at the dentist will find him reliving his cameo in Little Shop of Horrors quickly evaporates, and Stripes is a lifetime away). As does Clooney the director momentarily, which tells you a lot about where the guy who thinks the Elgin Marbles should be returned to the Pantheon (sic) has his priorities. Even Cate Blanchett, in an utterly thankless supporting role as a frumpy secretary with a yen for Matt Damon’s man sandwich, seems more preoccupied with loathing her occupiers (she’s French, but Clooney must not have been interested in employing a genuine croissant enthusiast) than expressing her love of the old masters. Clooney and Heslov set as the great prize Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child but this pursuit is as lifeless as the sculpture itself. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is sometimes quite pretty, but that’s about as artistic as this movie gets.


The attempts to make Damon the butt of jokes (he’s really crap at French) make you long for the days of Ocean’s 11 and, while it’s nice to see Bob Balaban in a high profile role, his pairing with Murray never really sparks. It’s still more amenable than Goodman and Dujardin, between whom there is zero chemistry. Hugh Bonneville is a complete bore, but he’s in Downton Abbey so that puts him on any anglophile’s casting list. Apart from him and Jean, the Allies = the Americans. Which is obviously the case, as anyone who’s seen U-571 and Saving Private Ryan knows. The Germans and Russians are all faceless goons (Dimitri Leonidas’ “good German” aside). A scene where a Nazi officer is discovered posing as a civilian, “fakes” adorning the walls of his house, briefly threatens to become dramatic but quickly resumes the picture’s otherwise listless form.


Somehow The Monuments Men hasn’t completely tanked. Itmay be set to take up residence alongside Leatherheads as stillborn Clooney picture, but it wont stop studios giving him the greenbacks to make more. It says something about the lack of achievement here that you’re left idly contemplating how, if the Nazis had destroyed all that art, at least we wouldn’t have had to sit through this movie.


**

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Just a little whiplash is all.

Duel (1971) (SPOILERS) I don’t know if it’s just me, but Spielberg’s ’70s efforts seem, perversely, much more mature, or “adult” at any rate, than his subsequent phase – from the mid-’80s onwards – of straining tremulously for critical acceptance. Perhaps because there’s less thrall to sentiment on display, or indulgence in character exploration that veered into unswerving melodrama. Duel , famously made for TV but more than good enough to garner a European cinema release the following year after the raves came flooding in, is the starkest, most undiluted example of the director as a purveyor of pure technical expertise, honed as it is to essentials in terms of narrative and plotting. Consequently, that’s both Duel ’s strength and weakness.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Ours is the richest banking house in Europe, and we’re still being kicked.

The House of Rothschild (1934) (SPOILERS) Fox’s Rothschild family propaganda pic does a pretty good job presenting the clan as poor, maligned, oppressed Jews who fought back in the only way available to them: making money, lots of lovely money! Indeed, it occurred to me watching The House of Rothschild , that for all its inclusion of a rotter of a Nazi stand-in (played by Boris Karloff), Hitler must have just loved the movie, as it’s essentially paying the family the compliment of being very very good at doing their very best to make money from everyone left, right and centre. It’s thus unsurprising to learn that a scene was used in the anti-Semitic (you might guess as much from the title) The Eternal Jew .

You are not brought upon this world to get it!

John Carpenter  Ranked For anyone’s formative film viewing experience during the 1980s, certain directors held undeniable, persuasive genre (SF/fantasy/horror genre) cachet. James Cameron. Ridley Scott ( when he was tackling genre). Joe Dante. David Cronenberg. John Carpenter. Thanks to Halloween , Carpenter’s name became synonymous with horror, but he made relatively few undiluted movies in that vein (the aforementioned, The Fog , Christine , Prince of Darkness (although it has an SF/fantasy streak), In the Mouth of Madness , The Ward ). Certainly, the pictures that cemented my appreciation for his work – Dark Star , The Thing – had only a foot or not at all in that mode.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Sleep well, my friend, and forget us. Tomorrow you will wake up a new man.

The Prisoner 13. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling We want information. In an effort to locate Professor Seltzman, a scientist who has perfected a means of transferring one person’s mind to another person’s body, Number Two has Number Six’s mind installed in the body of the Colonel (a loyal servant of the Powers that Be). Six was the last person to have contact with Seltzman and, if he is to stand any chance of being returned to his own body, he must find him (the Village possesses only the means to make the switch, they cannot reverse the process). Awaking in London, Six encounters old acquaintances including his fiancée and her father Sir Charles Portland (Six’s superior and shown in the teaser sequence fretting over how to find Seltzman). Six discovers Seltzman’s hideout by decoding a series of photographs, and sets off to find him in Austria. He achieves this, but both men are captured and returned to the Village. Restoring Six and the Colonel to their respective bodie

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.