The Monuments Men


The Monuments Men amidst the monuments.

The Monuments Men amidst the monuments.

(2014) War Dramedy (Columbia) George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, Justus von Dohnanyi, Holger Handtke, Michael Holland, Zachary Baharov, Michael Brandner, Sam Hazeldine, Miles Jupp, Alexandre Desplat, Diarmaid Murtagh, Grant Heslov, Audrey Marnay. Directed by George Clooney

World War II wasn’t just a fight for freedom; it was also a fight for the soul of Europe. Some of the greatest achievements of mankind were put at risk. There was a small cadre of men who devoted their lives to saving these works of art and architecture near the end of the war – this is their (fictionalized) story.

Frank Stokes (Clooney) is an art historian and the curator of the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. He is aware that the Nazis have stolen art from Jewish collectors and museums throughout the territories they conquered in Europe. Most of it is meant for a museum that Hitler is building in his own honor in Austria, although some is being destroyed outright – Hitler, not a fan of modern art, burned hundreds of Picassos, Dalis and other modern artists as kind of the ultimate art critic.

Given the go-ahead by FDR to protect these artists and significant buildings and also to retrieve them and restore them to their rightful owners, Stokes puts together an eclectic collection of middle-aged men who are far from fit for the most part; Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Murray), art restoration expert James Granger (Damon), sculptor Walter Garfield (Goodman), a British museum director looking for a second chance Donald Jeffries (Bonneville), theatrical impresario Preston Savitz (Balaban), and Jean-Claude Clermont (Dujardin) a former French painting instructor.

They undergo rigorous physical training that really underscores how out-of-shape they are and head off to France shortly after the invasion of Normandy to begin to track down the stolen art. Claire Simone (Blanchett), a curator at the Louvre in occupied Paris, had watched helplessly as SS officer Viktor Stahl (von Dohnanyi) appropriated pieces for Hermann Goering and for the Hitler museum. She is devastated when he takes everything as the Allies close in on Paris and becomes suspicious of Granger, thinking that the Americans are no better than the Nazis, wanting these priceless works of art only for themselves.

In the meantime, one of the Monuments Men gets to the cathedral at Bruges to protect the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo (the only work of his that left Italy during the great artist’s lifetime) only to die in the attempt. As we might say now, poop gets real, cuz.

Eventually they get wind that the Nazis stored most of the works in castles and mine shafts throughout Germany but an order has gone out signed by Hitler himself that should the Fuehrer die or Germany fall, everything is to be destroyed. Not only that but a Russian contingent is out to find the stolen art also but not to return to its rightful owners, but to keep as war reparations. The nearly impossible task just got a timer put on it.

Clooney takes the many hats of producer, director, co-writer and star and it may be one too many hats. The movie, based largely on Robert M. Edsel’s non-fiction book of the same name, has essentially Hollywoodized the story of the Monuments Men, fictionalizing their characters and some of the events (although much of what happens story-wise is what happened reality-wise but not all). I’m one of those guys who prefers watching a true account of what really happened rather than seeing something that is jazzed up, romanticized and a gloss thrown over it. I guess I’m into history more than mythology.

That said, the entertainment quality is pretty high. When he was the wiseacre from SNL doing comedies like Stripes and Meatballs, who’d have thought that Bill Murray would become one of the best dramatic actors in America? He has done just that however, and he damn near steals the movie, his expressive face showing puzzlement, sorrow and pain when informed of the intended fate of the art. He also has a scene where he gets a Christmas message from his wife and granddaughter that Preston plays over the camp’s Public Address system in which you watch his loneliness and pain come bleeding out – without him changing his expression hardly at all. It’s masterful work.

Sadly, most of the rest of the cast gets little in the way of any sort of background and they seem a little cookie-cutter to me, although the impressive cast does their best to breathe life into them. Blanchett is a great actress but perhaps there could have been a great French actress – a Julie Delpy, a Marion Cotillard, a Juliette Binoche or a Ludivine Sagnier – cast instead. At least we wouldn’t have been as distracted by a French accent that seems more Looney Tunes than authentic.

The film raises the question as to what the importance of art is to a society and of course the answer is “essential.” Art is the soul of any civilization; should that soul be destroyed, so too is the civilization and that was the evil of Hitler; he didn’t only want to wipe the Jews from the face of the Earth, he wanted to wipe European civilization out as well and substitute his own warped version of it. Not everyone in the film agrees with Frank Stokes’ assessment of the importance of the mission of the Monuments Men (heck you might even disagree) but even if you do, the movie is surprisingly entertaining although in the interest of fair and truthful reporting, I slept through about 15 minutes of it early on.

This is the kind of movie they used to make when the War itself was either in full force or had just ended. While it lacks the snappy moxie that directors like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges imbued in their films, it captures much of the same spirit nonetheless.  It’s kind of refreshing to be able to say in this instance, “they do make ’em like that anymore!”

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Murray is amazing here and Goodman and Dujardin not far behind.

REASONS TO STAY: Can’t decide whether to be a drama or a comedy and misses the mark for both.  

FAMILY VALUES:  Some war violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing an older Frank Stokes after the war visiting an important piece rescued by the Monuments Men is in fact George Clooney’s dad Nick. Producer Grant Heslov and composer Alexandre Desplat also make cameos.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Private Ryan

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Winter’s Tale

5 Days of War


5 Days of War

Another New York City marathon gets underway!

(2011) War (Anchor Bay) Rupert Friend, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Heather Graham, Jonathan Schaech, Andy Garcia, Val Kilmer, Richard Coyle, Rade Serbedzija, Dean Cain, Ken Cranham, Mikko Nousiainen, Mikheil Gomiashvili, Antje Traue. Directed by Renny Harlin

 

There is nothing good or noble about war. Men have waxed poetic about war and its virtues, but the truth of war is that it is savage and horrible, appealing only to the base instincts of men in reality – the need to take by force that which isn’t given freely. There is nothing noble about war.

War correspondent Thomas Anders (Friend) knows that better than most. The girl he loved (Graham) was caught in the crossfire during one of his assignments and left him alone and bitter. Then, a colleague, a cheerfully debauched Dutchman (Kilmer) points Anders in the direction of Georgia – not the state, the Russian republic – which was on the brink of war with Russia. The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakshvili (Garcia) frets and wonders why the West isn’t helping his tiny Republic take on the Russian juggernaut but the West is mostly focusing on the Beijing Olympics. Priorities.

Anders brings along his trusty cameraman Sebastian Ganz (Coyle) and manage to get in the thick of a wedding that winds up being scattered to the four winds when shelling interrupts the ceremony. They wind up hooking up with Tattia (Chriqui) whose sister’s wedding it was. She agrees to serve as their interpreter in exchange for them helping her locate and reunite with her family.

They witness the Russian army committing some atrocities and get it on film. The Russian commander Aleksandr Demidov (Serbedzija) gets wind of this and sends his brutal mercenary commando Danlil (Nousiainen) after them. Anders and Ganz get their footage onto a flash drive and try to escape to a place of safety where they can get their footage to the authorities. The trouble is, the authorities are corrupt and the major networks disinterested. Somehow Anders is going to have to find a way to make the world listen.

Harlin has directed some pretty nifty action films in his day including Speed but has hit a dry patch of late. This isn’t going to help him get back into the game to be honest. I understand that the film was at least partially financed by Georgia and the country allowed some of their military equipment to be used in the film and quite frankly part of the film’s highlights are the very realistically staged battle sequences.

However in a very real way that’s a deal with the devil; the film is certainly from the Georgian point of view with the Russians being loathsome monsters and the Georgians martyrs. The real war – and it was a real war – wasn’t like that. Like most conflicts, there wasn’t one villain and one hero although as with most conflicts both sides saw it that way.

Anyone who’s seen films like The Year of Living Dangerously will recognize most of the clichés about war correspondents in war situations. Whether or not they’re true (and for the most part they’re based in truth but like most Hollywood clichés made extreme) they still ring hollow here; it feels like a movie we’ve seen before only not as well made. Sure it’s not completely without value but it just feels more like propaganda.

When a film quotes “The first casualty in war is the truth” and then goes on to show only an aspect of it, two things happen – first, we are reminded that truth is often a matter of perspective. What one side considers unshakable fact the other usually considers to be an outright lie. Second, the filmmakers lose their credibility amid the further hypocrisy of trotting out Georgian survivors of war atrocities to tell their stories. At no point is any Russian allowed to refute any of this.

I’m not saying that the Russians didn’t do some of the things you see here – I have no doubt that they did. I’m certainly not excusing the behavior; it’s just that I don’t believe one side was made up of saints and the others sinners. The Georgians have their own culpability to bear here and we don’t get to see it, leaving the proceedings uncomfortably one-sided. A little more honesty would have made for a better movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Realistic war action.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One-sided to the point of ridiculousness. Overwrought and cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of war violence and bad language but there are also some scenes of war atrocities that might be a bit too intense for younger and more sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Early on President Saakshvili can be seen chewing on his tie; this was based on an actual incident in which the real President Saakshvili was accidentally caught on-camera when he didn’t think that it was filming munching on his tie. The footage can still be found on the Internet if you Google it.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17,479 on a $12M production budget; even those without math skills know this was a box office dud.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bang Bang Club

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Meet the Parents

The Bang Bang Club


The Bang Bang Club

Ryan Phillippe: late for work again!

(2010) Historical Drama (Tribeca) Ryan Phillippe, Malin Akerman, Taylor Kitsch, Frank Rautenbach, Neels Van Jaarsveld, Patrick Lyster, Russel Savadier. Directed by Steven Silver

It takes a certain kind of person to become a combat photojournalist. You have to have the courage to put yourself in harm’s way to get the perfect shot. You have to be able to distance yourself from the subject, because becoming emotionally attached will compromise your journalistic objectivity. However, when these things begin to blur the line between your career and your humanity, what then?

Greg Marinovich (Philippe) is a young freelance photojournalist trying to make a name for himself in the early 90s in South Africa. Apartheid is dying; Nelson Mandela has been released from prison and his African National Congress is demanding changes in the white-run nation. Meanwhile, minority black tribal workers are fighting with the ANC over wages, believing if they join the strike, they will lose their jobs and their families will starve.

It becomes the kind of war that we have since seen in Rwanda and Darfur – horrific murders and mob mentality. The police, who have no reason to love the ANC, are believed to be complicit. Greg is taken under the wing of Kevin Carter (Kitsch), a hard-living photojournalist who works at the Johannesburg Star along with Brazilian national Joao Silva (Van Jaarsveld) and South African native Ken Oosterbroek (Rautenbach). Carter advises young Marinovich to ditch the telephoto and get up close shots; those are what publishers are buying, and making money is the name of the game.

Greg decides to get waaay close and goes into a Soweto enclave controlled by the Inkatha Freedom Party, mostly composed of the Zulu and Xhosa tribes. Chased through the narrow streets, he is brought before a leader of the IFP and explains he wants to tell their side of things. While with these leaders, he witnesses a brutal murder and captures it on film. His pictures are purchased and Greg is given a job by the comely photo editor of the Star, Robin Comley (Akerman).

The four photojournalists quickly develop a reputation for taking risks and getting incredible shots of the upheaval that is rippling through South Africa. The photographs the group is getting are taking the world by storm, appearing on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Marinovich wins a Pulitzer for witnessing another brutal murder of a suspected Inkatha spy being set ablaze and then killed with a machete blow to the neck. However, he is forced to take an extended vacation when the South African police want to bring in Marinovich for questioning about what he witnessed; he knows if he identifies any of the killers he will have a great big target on his back and his usefulness as a photojournalist in South Africa will be finished.

By now Marinovich is in a romantic relationship with Comley and the four members of what has been termed the Bang Bang Club have become nothing short of rock stars – partying hard, receiving the adulation of women and barflies all over South Africa and kicking ass and taking names.

Particularly living the life of a rock star is Carter, who is constantly broke because of his prodigious drug use. Despite the pleas to keep him on, Comley is forced to fire Carter because he’s become unreliable and dangerous. Returning to the freelance ranks from whence he sprang, Carter wins a Pulitzer for a controversial photo of a vulture stalking a half-starved little girl. Carter is forced to defend his status of an observer, and not making sure the little girl made it to where food, water and medical care was available (the fate of the little girl, who had gotten up and walked away according to the real Kevin Carter, is unknown to this day).

As the end of apartheid nears, the friendship of the four men will be tested and their flair for entering dangerous areas and risking their lives will lead to tragedy. The Bang Bang Club will literally have their own bang bang turn on them, viciously.

This was largely filmed in South Africa and whenever possible in the actual locations that the pictures were taken. Many of the pictures taken by the photographers are recreated here, and you get the sense that like any great piece of art, the genius is as much accidental as it is a product of preparation.

The debate here is at what point does a photographer lose their own humanity in becoming an observer of humanity. Was the shot of the little girl compelling and heartbreaking? Absolutely. Should Carter have intervened? I believe he should have. There comes a point where you have to set aside your objectivity and become a human being. I would imagine there are a great number of hardcore journalists who would disagree, perhaps even vehemently. I’m sure the argument is that a journalist cannot do their job properly without objectivity. I grant you that – but any job that requires you to give up your humanity in order to do it properly is not a job worth doing – period.

Soapbox ranting aside, this is well acted. Phillippe, who has shown flashes of brilliance at times in his career, achieves it here. This is by far the best work of his career. Marinovich is not just a thrill-seeker, but I think if you had asked him at the time Phillippe was playing him why he was doing what he did, he probably couldn’t have articulated it and Phillippe doesn’t attempt to. He simply sinks deeper into the morass of ethical and moral conflict.

Kitsch is also compelling as Carter, a man haunted by demons most of his life. Kitsch takes Carter from a self-confident, balls-to-the-wall combat photojournalist and deconstructs him through drug use and of course the nightmares of the horrible images he’s witnessed – and recorded – into a man lost and broken. It’s truly stellar work.

Now, I know that there is a kernel of truth to the stereotype of the gonzo war correspondent, hanging out in bars and discos, swapping war stories, engaging in stupid macho behavior and drinking themselves into cirrhosis and I think that does the profession a disservice. Sure some of them are that way – type “A” thrillseekers who don’t think they’ve done their job right unless they’ve been shot at. Most combat photojournalists are professionals who don’t behave like frat guys at a kegger; they’re focused and generally, pretty low-key. They aren’t as effective in their work when they’re treated like rock stars; they are far better able to do what they do when they can blend in more.

There are a lot of questions asked here about the lines between observing humanity and being human. Personally, I think this should be required viewing at every journalism school in the country. Not because they should emulate the behavior of the Bang Bang Club – but because they shouldn’t.

REASONS TO GO: A terrific look at not only the final days of Apartheid but also what makes a combat photographer tick. Phillippe gives one of the best performances of his career.

REASONS TO STAY: A little overloaded with journalist testosterone disease – photojournalists as rock stars.

FAMILY VALUES: Although unrated, there were scenes of war violence, torture and drug use. There’s plenty of bad language and some sexual situations as well. .

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bang Bang in the name of the group’s title refers to the automatic weapon fire that accompanied their assignments.

HOME OR THEATER: This is available on Video on Demand until the end of the month; it might be harder to find at your local art house, but if it’s playing at a theater near you, by all means see it there.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans