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

Advertisements

The King’s Speech


The King's Speech

It's not always great to be the king.

(2010) Historical Drama (Weinstein) Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Jennifer Ehle, Derek Jacobi, Claire Bloom, Timothy Spall, Eve West, Roger Parrott, Anthony Andrews, Patrick Ryecart. Directed by Tom Hooper

Uneasy lies the head where rests the crown. So said Shakespeare, and so it is in reality. Even those close to the crown may rest uneasy.

It is 1925 at Wembley Stadium and the British Empire is at its zenith. Fully one quarter of the world’s population lives within its borders and King George V (Gambon) rules it serenely. Radio has become a fact of life, and even the monarchy must learn to adjust to it. At the closing ceremonies of the Empire Exhibition, Prince Albert (Firth), second in line to the throne, must give a speech that will be broadcast on the BBC. Unfortunately, Albert is a terrible stammerer and any sort of public speaking is the equivalent for him of undergoing the tender mercies of The Rack. Even though his sensible and supportive wife Elizabeth (Carter) is there for moral support, the speech goes horribly.

Years go by and Elizabeth and Albert try to get some sort of speech therapy, anything to cure his condition. The cures range from marbles in the mouth, Demosthenes-style to excessive smoking which is said to relax the muscles in the throat.

Nothing works. Albert’s father realizes that his younger son is a good man who would make a better king than his older brother David (Pearce) who is “carrying on” with a twice-divorced married American woman named Wallis Simpson (West). He seems a decent enough sort but he has little backbone and with Hitler making all sorts of noise in Europe, a strong King is needed.

But England is going to get something different. King George passes away, leaving David in charge, under the name of Edward VIII. However, he is unwilling to give up on Mrs. Simpson, who now has the King of England pouring her drinks for her.

Realizing that there was a more than decent chance that he may have to give more public speeches than at first was thought, Elizabeth finds an Australian named Lionel Logue (Rush), a failed actor who comes highly recommended. His methods are indeed unorthodox, as they involve getting to know his clients personally. That involves calling the Prince by his nickname Bertie, which is mortifying at first.

Soon, the prince learns little by little to trust his new elocutionist. Grudgingly, slowly, he begins to open up to the Aussie. As he does, his stammer begins to disappear, although not completely. There is some hope that he may yet be able to fulfill his public functions more gracefully.

The Edward and Mrs. Simpson scandal at last comes to a head and Edward abdicates, leaving the throne of England for the now thrice-divorced American. Now Albert is king, George VI and the monarch of the United Kingdom, a country on the brink of war, a war in which he must lead with a voice both authoritative and regal. It will be up to Lionel to provide him with that voice.

First, this is one of the best movies of the year, so let’s get that right out of the way. What makes it so good starts off with the casting. Every role has the right person in it, from Spall as the Bulldog-like Churchill to Bloom as the dowager Queen Mary. Everyone assumes their role perfectly, not performing so much as they are inhabiting.

Before I get to the top-billed players, I wanted to mention a few other performances. Derek Jacobi does a fine job (as always) as the Archbishop of Canterbury, playing him as both manipulative and somewhat stymied by the stammering King whom he underestimates. Jennifer Ehle, as Logue’s long-suffering wife, has some excellent scenes with Helena Bonham Carter; it turns out that she is a fine comic actress as well as a dramatic one, even if her fansite chided me for not listing her in the fall preview. I stand corrected, my friends.

Helena Bonham Carter has been getting some notice for her portrayal of Bellatrix LeStrange in the Harry Potter movies, a deliciously evil role that Carter has sunk her teeth into; however, here she plays a much less flamboyant role and carries it off very nicely. It’s not acting that gets noticed as much as it perhaps should be, but it adds a certain flavor to the overall dish. Guy Pearce is one of those actors who seems incapable of a bad performance, and when he’s in a good movie given a well-defined role, he gives performances that are as good as anyone, and better than most. He may well join Rush in a Best Supporting Actor nomination in February.

The relationship between Bertie and Lionel is the heart of the movie and Hooper did well to cast two of the best actors working in them in Firth and Rush. Rather than vying for their screen time, they complement each other nicely and this works best for the movie overall.

Each performance is different and special. Firth imbues the King with courage and dignity, something that we common folk don’t usually regard the royal class as having. He becomes instantly relatable, overcoming his own personal difficulty and in doing so, becoming greater than the sum of his parts. Firth’s performance captures the frustration the man felt over his impediment, the fear he felt at taking on an enormous responsibility, one that was never intended for him and the genuine caring he felt for his subjects and his family. His interaction with his daughters Elizabeth and Margaret, the former being the present Queen of England, is part of the movie’s basic charm.

This is a movie in which class distinctions become blurred as the King learns to trust his subject and the commoner learns that the King is just a man. They find common ground and become friends, a friendship which apparently lasted for the rest of their lives. Some have criticized it for being too much of a feel-good movie, but what’s wrong with feeling good, especially in these times?  

At the end of the day, we all must find our voice in one fashion or another and watching King George VI find his is fascinating viewing. The marvelous performances of Firth, Rush, Pearce and Carter are certain to be accorded Oscar consideration, as Hooper, writer David Seidler and the motion picture itself will be as well. For my personal awards show, The King’s Speech is hands down this year’s Best Picture and Firth it’s Best Actor. They can thank the Academy of Me later.

REASONS TO GO: One of the best movies of the year. Colin Firth gives another Oscar-worthy performance while nearly his entire supporting cast does the same.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who aren’t big on British period dramas should probably give this a wide berth.

FAMILY VALUES: The King utters a few naughty words. There is also a good deal of smoking which apparently relaxes the diaphragm.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio appealed its “R” rating which was given it due to the repeated use of the f bomb which the studio contended was used for speech therapy purposes; unfortunately, the MPAA turned down the appeal.

HOME OR THEATER: Although this is essentially set in enclosed places for the most part, I do recommend seeing this as one of the best movies of the year, although it will probably work just as well at home.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Astro Boy

Valkyrie


Valkyrie

Tom Cruise wonders why he didn't get a part in the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

(United Artists) Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann, Eddie Izzard, Terrence Stamp, Christian Berkel, David Bamber. Directed by Bryan Singer

When the state becomes toxic to its people and amoral in its actions, it is the responsibility of good men to rise up and resist. Those actions may take the form of protest or, in extreme instances, of action – deadly action with deadly consequences.

Perhaps no society had ever become more amoral than that of Nazi Germany, and although sometimes we forget, there were plenty of Germans who resisted the Nazis and worked to bring down their diseased regime.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) was one aristocratic Prussian who was becoming more and more concerned over the direction that Hitler was taking. Certainly Hitler was proving himself to be no master tactician; he was needlessly sacrificing men and material that, von Stauffenberg thought, would be needed for the defense of Germany when the Allies invaded. Von Stauffenberg, a handsome aesthetic young man, would be cruelly injured in battle, losing an eye, a hand and two fingers off the other hand.

There were others who thought as von Stauffenberg did as well, including Major General Henning von Tresckow (Branagh), General Friedrich Olbricht (Nighy) and Ludwig Beck (Stamp), a politician. In fact, these men were convinced that in order to save Germany, Hitler had to die. After an aborted attempt to kill Hitler goes wrong, the remaining conspirators decide to bring von Stauffenberg into the fold.

At first he’s reluctant to join the fold. The cabal doesn’t really have an exit plan, nor do they seem well-organized to the well-organized von Stauffenberg. However, von Stauffenberg has an idea. It involves Operation Valkyrie, a plan Hitler has in place to keep the government intact in the event that the Nazi leadership is killed or incapacitated. Von Stauffenberg can use that plan against the Nazis by assassinating Hitler with a bomb at the Wolf’s Den, his heavily armored stronghold where his military staff meets to plan the war, then claiming the SS was responsible for the deed.

It’s a bold move, but it will need a lot of moving parts, not the least of which is getting General Friedrich Fromm (Wilkinson), head of the reserves, on board and Fromm is a political opportunist who doesn’t care about ideology so much as he does about power – his own. If the plan succeeds, it will save hundreds of thousands of lives and change the face of the war forever.

Of course, most people know that Hitler wasn’t assassinated by his own people – he took his own life. Students of history familiar with the plot know that it failed due to a relatively simple factor – the briefcase bomb was moved inadvertently by an adjutant so that he could stretch his legs, putting a thick block of wood between Hitler and the bomb.

However, unless you’ve got a rabid passion for World War II, chances are you aren’t going to know many details about the plot. Director Singer, best known for his X-Men movies, has meticulously recreated wartime Germany, and has at least tried to film at actual locations whenever possible, although his star’s Scientology beliefs made that task difficult as the German government was at first reluctant to grant the crew access to these locations because they consider Scientology a cult. While I don’t necessarily disagree with them, I do think that it was a bit ludicrous of them to kick up such a fuss over the beliefs of a single actor. That’s just me though.

I did like the historical detail to the piece; it’s one of the best aspects of the movie. However, there are some problems here, some of them not the fault of the filmmakers. For one, the real von Stauffenberg was a very cultured, somewhat reserved man who held himself with military bearing. By our standards he was somewhat aloof, and that aspect of his personality seems to be the one Cruise honed in on. There’s a bit of a disconnect between the audience and the character; it makes it difficult to really get into von Stauffenberg’s head. However, Cruise looks uncannily like von Stauffenberg as shown in the comparison photo below:

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (left), Tom Cruise (right)

Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, a long time associate of Singer, takes a more observational tactic to the script. He gives us the events and many of the facts, but little of the character behind the men who were involved. We have to take it for granted that they were more concerned with the potential destruction of Germany than they were about the Final Solution, which they may or may not have known about. We won’t get any insight that way from this movie.

The supporting cast, mainly of veteran British character actors, is sterling. Nighy as the somewhat indecisive Olbricht is particularly outstanding, although it is Wilkinson as the conniving Fromm who delivers the best performance. He is a conniving rat who follows whichever direction the wind is blowing, but even so when Wilkinson’s onscreen you can’t take your eyes off of him.

This isn’t a bad film, it’s a pretty good film as a matter of fact but unfortunately it never got much attention during the glut of releases Christmas 2008 when it hit theaters. That’s a shame, because this is a decent suspense movie with the added attraction that it actually happened, pretty much as seen in the film.

WHY RENT THIS: The historical accuracy is a bit better than is usual for Hollywood films. Singer keeps the tension palpable even though most of us know how the events are going to conclude.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cruise is a little stiff as von Stauffenberg. The script seems more concerned with the events than those who took part in them.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, including some scenes that are sudden and shocking, and a smattering of bad language. Certainly most teens can handle this, as well as mature pre-teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Van Houten, who plays Nina von Stauffenberg, is the longtime companion of Sebastian Koch who played Claus von Stauffenberg in the TV production of “Operation Valkyrie.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A feature called “The Valkyrie Legacy” discusses the actual historical events, with interviews from descendents of the failed plotters as well as surviving co-conspirators. It also covers what happened after the events of the film. The Blu-Ray edition has the grandson of von Stauffenberg taking us on a tour of the actual Valkyrie locations.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: City of Ember