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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WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Set in occupied France during the waning days of World War II Inglourious Basterds jumps back and forth between different storylines over the course of several chapters before bringing them together for one intense utterly preposterous climax.
The “Basterds” of the film’s title refers to an elite group of Jewish-American soldiers assembled by Lt. Aldo Raine a no-nonsense descendent of Southern moonshiners whose assignment for his troops is simple: Each of them is tasked with gathering the scalps of 100 dead Nazi soldiers before the war is over. With each shocking act of retribution the Basterds perform word spreads of their savagery and by the time they arrive in occupied France their reputation is known to every enemy soldier.
Meanwhile Shosanna Dreyfus a French Jew who narrowly escaped the Gestapo death squad that murdered her immediate family has relocated to Paris and established a new identity as the owner of a local cinema. As Nazi patrols blanket the city she toils quietly under an assumed name awaiting the day when her own chance at retribution will come.
The destinies of Shosanna and the Basterds converge when Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels decides to hold the premiere of his latest propaganda film Nation’s Pride at Shosanna’s theater. With the aid of Bridget von Hammersmark a German film star secretly working as a double agent the Allies learn that no less than the entire Nazi High Command including Hitler will be in attendance. Confronted with the opportunity to deliver their unique brand of justice to the Fuhrer himself and end the war in one fell swoop the Basterds concoct a bold scheme to infiltrate the premiere rig the theater with dynamite and incinerate its inhabitants with one massive explosion.
WHO’S IN IT?
Always known for his unconventional approach to casting Inglourious Basterds director Quentin Tarantino assembled a characteristically eclectic group of actors for his latest effort mixing veterans with newcomers Americans with Europeans and superstars with virtual unknowns. Sporting a ridiculous mustache and an even more ridiculous Southern accent Brad Pitt leads the pack in the role of Aldo Raine while horror director Eli Roth (Hostel I and II) makes his acting debut as Raine’s sadistic right-hand man Sgt. Donny Donowitz. Other notable Basterds include B.J. Novak (The Office) Samm Levine (Freaks and Geeks) Paul Rust (I Love You Beth Cooper) and Omar Doom (Grindhouse).
It’s the cast’s European players who really distinguish Inglourious Basterds. German-born National Treasure star Diane Kruger makes the perfect 1940s matinee idol as the turncoat von Hammersmark while Irish-bred Michael Fassbender (Jonah Hex) oozes with old-school English haughtiness as her charming British co-conspirator Lt. Archie Hicox. Making an impressive English-language debut in Basterds as the quietly seething Shosanna is the luminous French star Melanie Laurent.
Rising above all of them with a truly Oscar-worthy performance is Austrian actor Christoph Waltz. Waltz is a revelation (to American audiences at least) as Col. Hans Landa the highly eccentric and brutally efficient leader of Nazi security efforts in France. Alternately hilarious and terrifying Waltz’s Landa is easily the most compelling big-screen villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Lest we forget Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his performance. (Waltz for his part already snagged the best-actor prize at Cannes earlier this year.)
Nobody executes dramatic shifts in tone more effectively and powerfully than Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds transitions breathlessly between moments of high tension and high comedy brutal carnage and lighthearted whimsy — all of which are peppered with the director’s distinctive dialogue and trademark wit. The film is easily his best work since 1994's Pulp Fiction.
At over two-and-a-half hours there are moments when the pacing of Inglourious Basterds seriously drags. Tarantino is above all else an actor’s director and there are times that he becomes so enamored with a performance that he’ll allow a scene to extend well beyond the point that its resolution has become a foregone conclusion. How such an obviously ADD-addled guy like Tarantino can exhibit such disdain for brevity is beyond my comprehension.
WHERE ARE THE BASTERDS?
Contrary to the film’s ad campaign the Basterds are actually minor players in the storyline. Only Pitt and Roth are given a substantial amount of dialogue; Novak and the others have only a line or two — if they speak at all.
I won’t give anything away but suffice it to say that Inglourious Basterds’ storyline features a decidedly revisionist take on the events of World War II. Obviously historical accuracy wasn’t a priority for Tarantino — and it probably shouldn’t be for the viewer either.
The Producers Guild of America will give out awards tonight, with the teams behind A Beautiful Mind, Moulin Rouge and Shrek among those in contention for its top honor. The producers of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring are also in the running for the Darryl F. Zanuck Producer of the Year Award.
The honor is similar to the motion picture academy's best picture prize, and the winner is considered a near shoo-in for Oscar gold. The 1,500-member Producers Guild has correctly predicted the best picture Oscar winner 10 out
of the last 13 years.
A Beautiful Mind, Lord of the Rings and Moulin Rouge are
nominated for both the PGA award and best picture Oscar. But the guild opted for box office hits Shrek and Harry Potter for its other two slots,
while the Academy chose the indie critic faves In the Bedroom and Gosford Park.
The Producers Guild will also hand out awards in three television categories, with such shows as The West Wing and The Sopranos among those in the running.
The teams behind CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Law & Order, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and The West Wing are nominated for the Norman Felton Producer of the Year Award in episodic television-drama.
Contenders for the Danny Thomas Producer of the Year Award in episodic television-comedy are Frasier, Friends, Malcolm in the Middle, Sex and the City and Will & Grace.
The nominated producers of Frasier include the late David Angell, who was aboard one of the hijacked planes that crashed on Sept. 11.
Among the David L. Wolper Producer of the Year Award in longform television nominees are some well-known names--Billy Crystal for HBO's 61*, and Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg for HBO's Band of Brothers.
Husband-and-wife actors Bradley Whitford of The West Wing and Jane Kaczmarek of Malcolm in the Middle will host the guild's 13th annual ceremony at the Century Plaza Hotel & Spa.
Formed in 1950, the Producers Guild has about 500 active members and 1,000 affiliated members.
Here is the full list of nominees:
Darryl F. Zanuck Theatrical Motion Picture Producer of the Year Award in Motion Pictures
A Beautiful Mind, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, David Heyman
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Barrie M. Osborne, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh
Moulin Rouge, Martin Brown, Baz Luhrmann and Fred Baron
Shrek, Aron Warner, John H. William and Jeffrey Katzenberg
Norman Felton Producer of the Year in Episodic Television-Drama
CSI Crime Scene Investigation, Jerry Bruckheimer, Ann M. Donahue, Carol Mendelsohn, Anthony Zuiker, Jonathan Littman, Sam Strangis, Danny
Cannon, Cynthia Chvatal and William Petersen
Law & Order, Dick Wolf, Barry Schindel, Jeffrey L. Hayes, Lewis H. Gould and Kati Johnston
Six Feet Under, Alan Ball, Robert Greenblatt, David Janollari and Alan Poul
The Sopranos, David Chase, Brad Grey, Mitchell Burgess, Robin Green, Ilene S. Landress and Terence Winter
The West Wing, John Wells, Aaron Sorkin, Thomas Schlamme, Llewellyn Wells, Christopher Misiano, Alex Graves and Michael Hissrich
Danny Thomas Producer of the Year Award in Episodic Television-Comedy
Frasier, David Angell, Peter Casey, Kelsey Grammer, David Lee, Dan O'Shannon, Mark Reisman and Maggie Blanc
Friends, Kevin S Bright, Marta Kauffman, David Crane, Shana Goldberg-Meehan, Scott Silveri, Andrew Reich, Ted Cohen and Todd Stevens
Malcolm in the Middle, Linwood Boomer and James S. Simons
Sex and the City, Michael Patrick King, Cindy Chupack, John P. Melfi and Sarah Jessica Parker
Will & Grace, James Burrows, Jeff Greenstein, Max Mutchnick, David Kohan and Tim Kaiser
David L. Wolper Producer of the Year Award in Longform Television
61*, Billy Crystal and Ross Greenburg
Anne Frank, Hans Proppe and David R. Kappes
Band of Brothers, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Tony To
Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Robert Allan Ackerman and Lorna Luft
Wit, Cary Brokaw