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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The first Saturday Night Live of 2014 came with a lot of anticipation. Not only was it the debut of new featured player Sasheer Zamata, who was cast after a highly publicized nation wide search for a black female, it was Drake's first time shouldering both host and musical guest roles, after not acting since he was a handicapped high schooler on Degrassi (unless you count his Anchorman 2 cameo). But both SNL and Drake showed confidence in his abilities, having him appear in the cold open as a delightfully delusional A-Rod ("I'm also suing steroids for being inside of me"). The "Piers Morgan Live" opener was also anchored by Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan killing it as Chris Christie, along with Kate McKinnon doing a better impression of Justin Bieber than any male cast member could muster.
Drake's initial monologue seemed as if the rapper was dabbling in stand up comedy as he transitioned into a sketch about his black/Jewish/Canadian Bar Mitzvah. Using the monologue to do a sketch that could have gone anywhere in the show was an unorthodox move (pun intended) that paid off. It answered questions about whether Drake could deliver as a comedic performer, while giving an exaggerated illustration of his upbringing. It also gave newbie Zamata a chance to be seen earlier on, on the arm of Kenan Thompson, who's recently taken his foot out of his mouth about why SNL had not hired any black females until now.
The best sketch of the night came early, carried by Thompson who played rapper/reporter Sway, hosting "Hip Hop Classics: Before They Were Stars." This concept played off of Drake's transition as a wholesome child star into a hip hop artist, showing other famous rappers with that followed similar paths. Playing off equal parts nostalgia and absurdity, it featured Lil Wayne as Steve Urkel, Rick Ross as a Teletubbie, and Flava Flav as the voice of adult Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years, among others that were funny even without knowing the references. The sketch appeared to be pretaped, aside from Thompson's spot-on live rendition of Sway ("I'm not saying there's a cat on my head, but if there is I have to feed it").
Weaker sketches throughout the show were mostly a result of risks being taken that didn't land. Freshman featured player Noël Wells tried her hand at Nancy Grace, a role comedic juggernaut Amy Poehler has nailed for years. The sketch had funny points, including McKinnon's commentary as a Colorado baker profiting off pot ("I'm Walter White and this is Baking Bad!") but to say Poehler's act is hard to follow would be an understatement. The "Slumber Party" sketch featured a great premise with Aidy Bryant as a girl at a sleepover who's too into her friend's dad. Bryant nails lines like "If you're looking for your dad he's in the palm of my hand." But the innocence that makes her depiction of a creepy gal pal so funny was compromised by taking it in a sexual direction before revealing she's really a disabled 25 year old. An aggressively flirtatious teen girl crushing on a dad would've been funny enough as is.
This highly anticipated episode of SNL was not the best episode, but it was also far from the worst and served a clear purpose. It put Drake on the map as a talented and naturally charismatic actor and entertainer, as he delivered in sketch after sketch with performances comparable to veteran cast members. Holding his own and even carrying several pieces, he merits a Justin Timberlake level of respect for being able to bring it from start to finish on Saturday Night Live. He will likely host again and perhaps rekindle his acting career.
There was an interview recently on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart that did more damage to the GOP party than the entire shutdown. What happened? A Republican precinct chairman in North Carolina was interviewed on the show and said some really dumb, racist things. You could tell they were going to be in that vein when he said, "My best friend is black." Yup, that practically set up a neon sign. After the show aired, he then resigned his position.
Yes, I know it wasn't Ted Cruz doing something like that, but it did wind up being a bloody nose for the GOP, however small it may be. They probably don't even care, given that Congress has approval ratings lower than contracting ebola. Yes, I'm sure that many people would rather bleed from every orifice than trust politicians implicitly.
The thing is, when it comes to media, journalism has been king for many, many years. People would trust what was read in the newspapers and many news anchors were held in such high esteem that they might as well have been nominated for sainthood: Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer...the list goes on. But now the media is being viewed through a prism of mistrust. It seems like more people are listening to Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central than someone like Piers Morgan on CNN or anybody on FOX News.
What helps Stewart and Colbert (well, Stewart more, since Colbert is a persona) is they can take an irreverent view on it that is still surrounded by truth and can expose the hypocrisy of what goes on in the government. Maybe the media got too high up on its pedestal and began thinking it could tell people what it wanted to behind its own agenda, even under the pretense of fair reporting. The Comedy Central duo tend to get under the hood and shine their light on what goes on there. Maybe they could call themselves "America's Auto Mechanics."
So maybe people should hope that Stewart gets many more politicians to appear on his show to show what they really stand for instead of having it sanitized on the news. Maybe in a couple of decades from now, we'll look at Stewart like we looked at the other anchors. And that's no laughing matter.
Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.