Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
There is a certain level of enjoyment you are guaranteed when signing on for a movie that boasts a cast of George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray. And that's the precise level of enjoyment you'll get from The Monuments Men — that bare minimum smirk factor inherent the idea that your favorite stars are getting to play together. In FDR-era army helmets, no less. But what we also get from the film is an aura of smug self-confidence from project captain Clooney, who seems all too ready to take for granted that we're perfectly satisfied peering into his backyard clubhouse.
So assured is the director/co-writer that we're happy to be in on the game that there doesn't seem to be any effort taken to refine the product for the benefit of a viewing audience. An introductory speech from art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) sets up the premise straight away: the Nazis are stealing and destroying all of Europe's paintings and sculptures, and by gum we need to stop them! The concept doesn't complicate from there, save for a batting back and forth of the throughline question about whether the preservation of these pieces is "really worth it." Stokes rallies his own Ocean's Seven on a fine arts rescue mission, instigating an old fashioned go-get-'em-boys montage where we learn everything we need to know about the band mates in question: Damon has a wife, Goodman has gumption, Murray doesn't smile, Bob Balaban is uppity, and Jean Dujardin is French.
The closest thing to a character in The Monuments Men comes in the form of Hugh Bonneville, a recovering alcoholic whose motivation to take on the dangerous mission is planted in a festering desire to absolve himself of a lifetime of f**king up. When we're away from Bonneville, the weight disspears, as does most of the joy. Without identifiable characters, even master funnymen like Goodman, Murray, and Balaban don't have much to offer... especially since the movie's jokes feel like first draft placeholders born on a tired night.
Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
But wait a minute, is this even supposed to be a comedy? After all, it's about World War II. And no matter what Alexandre Desplat's impossibly merry score would have you believe (coupled with The Lego Movie, this opening weekend might be responsible for more musical jubilance than any other since the days of "Make 'Em Laugh!"), warfare, genocide, and desecration of international culture all make for some pretty heavy material. But The Monuments Men's drama is just as fatigued as its humor, clumsily piecing together a collection of mini missions wherein the stakes, somehow, never seem to jump. We're dragged through military bases, battered towns, and salt mines by Clooney and the gang — occasionally jumping over to France to watch Damon work his least effective magic in years on an uptight Cate Blanchett, who holds the key to the scruffy American's mission but doesn't quite trust him... until, for no apparent reason, she suddenly does. We never feel like any of these people matter, not even to each other, so we never really feel like their adventures do.
The Monuments Men doesn't have much of a challenge ahead of it. Its heroes are movie stars, its bad guys are Nazis, and its message is one that nobody's going to refute: art is important — a maxim it pounds home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, through countless scenes of men staring in awe at the works of Michelangelo and Rembrandt. And in this easy endeavor, Clooney decides to coast. How could it possibly go wrong? Just grab hold of the fellas, toss 'em in the trenches, and let the laughs and danger write themselves. "This is what they came to see," Monuments Men insists. "Just us guys havin' a ball." But we never feel in on the game, and it isn't one that looks like that much fun anyhow.
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With sparse emotion and very slowly evolving detail writer/director Philippe Claudel’s mood drama reveals long-held secrets and passions simmering under the radar. It’s a family story sparked by the return of a woman Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) to her small town after spending 15 years in prison for an unspeakable crime that is not clearly identified. The film opens with a close-up on her face the shell of a burnt-out soul clearly still in a prison within herself. She goes to live with her estranged younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) who takes her into the home she shares with her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) his father and their two young girls. Initially there is distrust and distance. particularly from Juliette’s parents who disowned her and brought up Lea as if she had no sister. Slowly Juliette attempts to find her way back and is helped by the curiosity of two men: Faure (Frederic Pierrot) a local cop and Michel (Laurent Grevill) who are intrigued by her seemingly mysterious air. Her innate loneliness and bitterness begins to thaw as revelations about her past and family dynamic float to the surface allowing pieces of this intricate puzzle to come together.
Kristin Scott Thomas’ moving and luminous performance has a raw power that is almost indescribable. This transcends acting; it’s life lived. Allowing the camera to linger on her face no makeup in sight is something few actresses would be comfortable with. Scott Thomas seems to have traveled deep into the soul of this lost woman searching for the humanity and sign of life that is hidden from view and never threatening to surface. Although she’s English the star flawlessly plays the role entirely in French but it’s real power is not in the language but in its austere subtlety. There isn’t a false moment and when the time comes for some key revelations her emotional connection with the audience is palpable earning our sympathy unlike any piece of acting seen on screen in years. Reserve her seat now for the Academy Awards. Almost equaling Scott Thomas is Zylberstein as the younger sister reaching out now to make inroads toward a new beginning with the sibling who was taken away from her. Scenes between the two are utterly convincing for their complete lack of pretense. The physical and mental prison that has separated them quietly opens its doors in measured silences. Other actors have their moments especially Grevill who beautifully lets his own curiosity about Juliette define their emerging relationship. Hazanavicius perfectly represents the aloof attitude of many in the small town and his reluctance to let her babysit the kids is telling. Philippe Claudel is a best selling novelist taking his first turn behind the camera. Appropriately his debut film feels like it flows from the pages of one of his books shot in the melancholy rhythms of a novel rather than cinema. His choice to shoot so much in close up is a blessing letting us peer behind sad sunken eyes into the deflated spirit of this drifting human being. What gives his film such immaculate power and grace though is the deliberate sense of mystery he creates never revealing anything about Juliette’s past transgressions until he has to and keeping us on edge throughout as the story builds suspense and secrets come to light. Above all in this tale of two sisters Claudel is celebrating the strength and perseverance of women and their ability to be reborn. Indeed I've Loved You So Long is a small intimate story of forgiveness rebirth and renewal. It’s demanding but ultimately rewarding.