Friday, February 14, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men was directed by George Clooney, and written by Clooney and Grant Heslov.

The film tells the true story (more or less) of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program, an Allied project created in 1943 to protect valuable works of art and architecture from the ravages of World War II.

The Monuments Men is a throwback to old fashioned war movies, the kind they made in the 1940s and 1950s that make WWII seem like it was a good time. Clooney obviously has a great amount of reverence and respect for the subject matter, which comes through on screen.

I very much wanted to like this film, seeing as it's about WWII (one of my favorite periods) and art (since I'm an artist of sorts). Unfortunately something about the movie seemed off somehow. The film has a choppy quality and a weak, muddled narrative. 

It also suffers from not having a clear-cut villain. Yes, Hitler was responsible for the plundering of much of Europe's art, but not directly. It's not like he dressed in a cat burglar costume and stole paintings off the walls himself. 

Because there's no tangible villain, the film has to invent conflicts to generate suspense. Nowhere is this more evident than the whole, "We've got to find the stolen Madonna and Child statue so our friend didn't die in vain" subplot.

As a result the stakes just aren't very high. Sure, the loss of the world's art treasures would be devastating, but it kind of pales against something like the destruction of the free world.


The Plot:
War is bad for art and other living things. The Monuments Men was formed to save as much of Europe's cultural heritage as possible, before the Nazis either stole it or destroyed it. 

• The film boasts a great cast, including George Clooney, his pal Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett and Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville.

George Clooney has an old fashioned movie star quality to him, and looks like he just stepped out of the 1940s. The same goes for John Goodman. He just has that vintage look about him. Unfortunately Bill Murray does not. They dress him in period clothing, but he's pretty much playing himself, and comes off a bit jarring.

I'm curious as to why Matt Damon is front and center there on the poster. I wouldn't call him the star per se, as he disappears for a good part of the middle of the film. Maybe director and co-writer George Clooney thought it would look too Shaternesque to place himself in the center?

The Monuments Men is rated PG-13 for "some images of war violence and historical smoking." Jesus wept

This is the state of the world we live in today. A world where just the sight of someone smoking a cigarette (in 1943 yet, when everyone and their dog smoked) is considered as threatening and offensive as screen violence.

I'm assuming the ratings board fears that kids are so impressionable that if they so much as glimpse a movie character smoking, they'll immediately take up the habit right there in the theater. To that notion I respectfully reply, "Bullsh*t."

When I was a kid stores sold candy cigarettes and bubble gum cigars. I used to buy both and would walk around pretending to smoke them. Despite this, I turned out just fine. I did not grow up to become a smoker, nor can I stand being around tobacco smoke.

I say to the ratings board that if a kid can be influenced into smoking merely by seeing someone puffing away in a movie, they were most likely going to take up the habit anyway.

• My biggest complaint about the film: it seemed to have trouble settling on a tone. It's full of humorous scenes of the over-the-hill Monuments Men team struggling with Army basic training, closely followed by images of Nazi aggression and soldiers dying in battle. 

Make up your mind, George. Are you making a comedy or a serious war epic?

• Parts of the musical score seemed to be trying to sound like something Aaron Copeland would write. Not that that's a bad thing, mind you.

• The film faces a bit of an uphill battle every time someone raises the question of whether a work of art is worth a man's life. The film firmly believes the answer is yes.

It's a bold and risky statement for a film to make, and while I understand the sentiment, I don't agree with it. Despite the fact that I'm an artist and have a healthy respect for art, I don't think any piece is worth a person's life. For anyone who feels the same way, the central theme's gonna be a hard sell.

• Cate Blanchett plays Claire Simone, a museum curator in Nazi-occupied Paris. She's initially distrustful of Monument Man James Granger (Matt Damon), believing the Americans want to recover the stolen art so they can keep it for themselves.

Then about three quarters of the way through the film Simone has a complete 180ยบ change of heart and cooperates fully with Damon, going so far as to give him her secret journal detailing where the Nazis have hidden much of their art horde. She even throws herself at him romantically!

What the hell happened there? Did we skip a reel? Yes, she does mention that she witnessed the Americans handing art over to its rightful owners, but that doesn't seem like enough to explain her radical change in motivation. Another example of the choppy nature of the film.

• As is the norm with movies based on real life events, many liberties were taken with the truth. 

The biggest change concerns the number of men in the Monuments Men program. The film would have us believe there were a paltry seven middle-aged men who ran around Europe finding and protecting valuable art. In reality there were about 400 servicemen and civilians in the program (!). Now that's a pretty significant change!

Also, Hugh Bonneville plays Donald Jeffries, a British member of the Monuments Men who loses his life trying to protect a priceless Madonna and Child statue from the Nazis.

Curiously there was a real life British soldier named Ronald Balfour who was one of only two men to die in the program. He really did lose his life trying to protect artwork from Hitler's forces. 

So why'd Balfour get snubbed? Did Clooney just not want to deal with the hassle of using actual names? In the film the Donald Jeffries character was an alcoholic who saw the Monuments Men as his last chance to redeem himself and regain his pride. Did Clooney not want to sully the memory of Balfour by saddling his character with such a trait?

• When I saw the film the theater was filled to near capacity, something I've not seen around here in a long time. At the end of the film, a large number of the crowd stood up and applauded. Hey, idiots, the director can't hear you when you clap for his film.

The Monuments Men is a film with good intentions, but with a lack of consistent tone and a meandering narrative. I give it a B-.

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