Mission Briefing:The S.H.I.E.L.D. team is still licking its wounds and laying low in a secret base in the Canadian wilderness run by S.H.I.E.L.D. agent/housekeeper/lanyard obsessive Eric Koenig (Patton Oswalt). After learning from Ward that HYDRA has released several S.H.I.E.L.D. prisoners from the fridge, Coulson splits up the team in order to track down the dangerous and possibly super-powered threats, one of which has some interesting connections to Coulson's past. Meanwhile, Ward continues his secret mission to decrypt the hard drive and eliminate his former team.
The Agents:Coulson, Fitz, Simmons, and Triplett head out to find Marcus Daniels, a super-powered sociopath with the ability to absorb energy. Meanwhile, May, Skye, Keonig, and Ward hang back at Providence.
Mission Fallout:Ward, fresh from raiding the Fridge with Garrett and the rest of HYDRA, reports that the terrorist organization has gotten their hands on a load of top secret S.H.I.E.L.D. weaponry and has freed all of the prisoners being held at the base. Coulson decides to go after a specific prisoner, Marcus Daniels, who can absorb energy and kill with a single touch. May and Koenig protest against leaving the base, but Coulson demands that the team do as much as they can to protect innocent civilians. Agent Koenig agrees to let a splinter team leave the base, but only if they pass an advanced lie detector test (one that even the Black Widow supposedly couldn't outwit). Each member of the team is individually strapped into the machine and asked a volley of non sequiturs ("What's the difference between a egg and an rock") and other, more pertinent questions, and the ones that pass get an official lanyard from Koenig. When it's Ward's turn, the machine spikes when the agent is asked questions about his loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D. Koenig pulls a gun on him, and asks him why he's really there. Ward answer that he's there for Skye, which satisfies the test, and more importantly, Koenig.
Later, Coulson, Simmons, Trip, and a very jealous Fitz leave to find Daniels. Coulson reveals that he was the one that imprisoned Daniels all those years ago, and that the man has an obsession with a cellist in Portland named Audrey (Amy Acker). Triplett and Simmons rescue Audrey from an attack by Daniels and take her to a safe house. The cellist reveals that it was Coulson that originally saved her all those years ago, and that the two were in a romantic relationship before Coulson "died" in the battle of New York. Coulson decides not to tell Audrey that he survived in order to protect her feelings. The team decides to use the cellist as a decoy to lure and capture Daniels. They set up a fake practice session as a trap and blast Daniels with light in order to overload his powers. Coulson manages to kill Daniels, but doesn't reveal himself to Audrey.
Meanwhile, May decides to leave the team after being brushed off one too many times by Coulson. With May gone, Ward moves in on eliminating his former team. He kills Keonig and stashes his body away in a storage room. After doing away with Koenig, Ward tells Skye that he's a bad person and that the two of them are too different to pursue a relationship. Skye reassures Ward that he is a good man and kisses him. Later, Skye finds Koenig's body and deduces that Ward is really a HYDRA agent. Ward, still thinking Skye is oblivious, whisks her away in order to decrypt the hard drive. Coulson returns to Providence with half of his team missing, and the jet gone.
Most Valuable Agent Award:This MVA award this week goes to the dearly departed Agent Koenig. May heaven be filled with awesome Call of Duty sessions and many glorious Lanyards.
Mission Highlights and Other Observations: - "Nothing bad ever happens when you work with something called darkforce..." - Fitz is so lovably flawed. He's pulling far ahead as the best character on the show. - "If I was the grandson of a Howling Commando, I'd have that tattooed on my chest" - Robin Scherbatsky, former agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. is returning next week.
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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
The story of the most dominant racehorse of all time does not easily fit into the standard inspirational sports flick mold. Such films typically require its protagonists to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles be they competitive (Hoosiers) personal (The Natural) societal (Ali) or some combination of all three (Remember the Titans). But by all accounts the greatest challenges to Secretariat capturing of the 1973 Triple Crown were not rival horses — indeed Secretariat had no true rival — but a pair of slow starts and an abscess. And abscesses — apologies to dermatologists — simply aren’t all that effective as dramatic devices.
Lacking most of the vital ingredients of the traditional underdog movie formula Disney’s Secretariat is forced to synthesize them. Its screenplay written by Mike Rich and based rather loosely on the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack adopts a conventional save-the-farm framework: When her parents pass away within months of each other Denver housewife Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is advised to sell off her family’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables a beautiful but unprofitable horse-breeding enterprise in order to pay the onerous inheritance taxes levied by the state. But Penny her deceased father’s hackneyed horse-inspired counsel fresh in her mind (“You’ve got to run your own race ” etc. etc.) is loath to depart with such a cherished heirloom. So she concocts a scheme just idiotic enough to work betting the farm — literally — that her new horse Big Red in whom she has an almost Messianic faith will win the Kentucky Derby Preakness and Belmont races in succession.
Of course Big Red under the stage name Secretariat goes on to do just that but only after the film subjects us to nearly two hours of manufactured melodrama. Lane grasping all-too conspicuously for awards consideration treats every line as if it were the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Her character Penny exhibits a hair-trigger sensitivity to the sounds of skeptics and naysayers bursting forth with a polite rebuke and a stern sermon for anyone who dares doubt her crusade from the trash-talking owner of a rival horse to her annoyingly pragmatic husband (Dylan Walsh).
Lane isn’t alone in her grandiosity. The entire production reeks of it as director Randall Wallace lines the story with fetid chunks of overwrought Oscar bait like so many droppings in an untended stable even using Old Testament quotations and gospel music to endow Penny’s quest with biblical significance. John Malkovich is kind enough to inject some mirth into the heavy-handed proceedings hamming it up as Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin a French-Canadian curmudgeon with an odd sartorial palette. It’s not enough however to alleviate the discomfort of witnessing the film's quasi-Sambo depiction of Secretariat’s famed groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) which reaches its cringeworthy zenith when Sweat runs out to the track on the eve of the Belmont Stakes and exclaims to no one in particular that “Big Red done eat his breakfast this mornin’!!!” Bagger Vance would be proud. Whether or not Ellis’ portrayal of Sweat’s cadence and mannerisms is accurate (and for all I know it may well be) the character is too thinly drawn to register as anything more than an amiable simple-minded servant.
Animal lovers will be happy to know that the horses in Secretariat come off looking far better than their human counterparts and not just because they’re alloted the best dialogue. In the training and racing sequences Wallace effectively conveys the strength and majesty of the fearsome animals drawing us into the action and creating a strong element of suspense even though the final result is a fait accompli. It's too bad the rest of the film never makes it out of the gate.