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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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
I’m sure you’ve seen the trailers for all the big summer movies by now, which means you’ve definitely seen the trailers for the comic book-inspired superhero flicks too and if you’re anything like me, you may be a little confused. What is that metal coffin thing and why does it make that scrawny guy so buff? When did Magneto get so young and become such a babe? What’s the big deal with Thor’s hammer? It just looks like a heavy-duty tool from my dad’s shed. Well, get ready to understand all-err…most of it. We don’t want to spoil the movies for you!
To help on our quest for knowledge, I’ve enlisted the help of our resident comic book nerd/expert/knowledge bank, Daniel Hubschman, so he can answer some of these questions. Then, we can join in the excitement and anticipation for a few movies that seem a wee bit complicated and confusing to the untrained eye.
Thor, May 6
Full Name: Thor Odinson (alias: Dr. Donald Blake)
Place of Origin: Born in Norway, raised in Asgard
Special Power or Weapon: Thor's strength, endurance and resistance to injury are greater than the vast majority of his superhuman race. A superbly skilled warrior, highly proficient in hand-to-hand combat, swordsmanship and, of course hammer throwing. His greatest asset is Mjolnir, a mythic hammer forged from uru metal which can summon the powers of the storm – namely lightening, thunder and rain. He can also use it to fly and travel to other dimensions and times.
Tragedy or hardship faced: The biggest tragedy is Thor’s life was being exiled from his home by his father for disobeying his orders. This relocation changes the Thunder God in many ways, chief amongst giving him human insight thanks to his time on Earth.
What’s so special about this hammer? What’s the big deal?
Well Kelsea, Thor's hammer isn't just any old, around-the-Kingdom tool. Believe it or not, it has a name: Mjolnir. It's actually one of the most powerful weapons in the Marvel multiverse, forged from Asgardian magic and might. In addition to being handy in close-combat, it allows its wielder to harness the power of Thunder which is a major offensive asset. It can also help its handler fly (something that every superhero would like to be able to do) and is a personalized item: ONLY Thor can pick it up, not because of its weight, but because it is quite literally made for the God of Thunder. So yeah, it's kind of a big deal.
Wait, so why was his hammer at the end of Iron Man 2? What does this have to do with Tony Stark?
Ha ha. That's a good question. To be frank, Thor and Iron Man don't have much to do with one another apart from being founding members of the comic book collective known as The Avengers. Though they've crossed paths many times before in the funny pages, my guess is that since Thor was the next Marvel movie in line after Iron Man 2, the producers of these films felt it was necessary to get audiences amped for the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Just another way to whet our appetites for what the studio was cooking up...
Captain America: The First Avenger, July 22
Full Name: Steven (Steve) Rogers
Place of Origin: New York, NY
Special Power or Weapon: Aside from having the maximum amount of strength, speed, endurance and agility that a human can possess, Cap wields an invulnerable shield made from Vibranium, an unbreakable metal that allows it to be thrown like a Frisbee for offensive maneuvers while protecting its user from nearly any attack it deflects.
Tragedy or hardship faced: Aside from losing his parents at a relatively early age (thankfully, not because of a car accident or crime) Rogers was physically unfit to join the Marines when he enlisted at the beginning of the US’s involvement in WWII, which upset him greatly.
What’s going on here? He jumps into a metal sarcophagus and comes out all buff and shiny? What’s going on in there?
I admit that the trailers for the film have been a bit misleading in that sense. That chamber you're talking about isn't some alien healing pod or superhero microwave. It's actually a radiation containment contraption that works in conjunction with the Super Solider Serum, which was developed by Tony Stark's father Howard at the request of the US government. The elixir is actually the catalyst for Steve Rogers' remarkable change. It genetically enhances its user's body, pushing it to its maximum potential, but doesn't work on its own. That's where the chamber comes in, bombarding the subject with highly concentrated "Vita-Rays" that trigger the metamorphosis. I tried ordering one, but S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn't been returning my phone calls these days...
He’s called the “First Avenger,” is that as in the Avengers?
Yes, though calling him the "First Avenger" is a bit misleading, because Captain America was around long before the rest of the team (well, not Thor. He's been around since long before Stan Lee). But it was his success that inspired S.H.I.E.L.D. to help create The Avengers in the first place, so I guess the moniker is fitting, especially since Cap quickly becomes the leader of the team thanks to his military strategy skills and superhuman abilities.
Who is this red-faced Nazi guy? Is he a Nazi or some weird alien? I don’t remember anything like him in my history books.
That's probably because the Red Skull wasn't really fighting the allies in the early '40s. That is his name, by the way, The Red Skull, though he was born Johann Schmidt, son of an abusive father who blamed him for the death of his wife while she gave birth to the boy. Years later he'd join the Nazis and become one of Hilter's most trusted -- and deadly -- soldiers. The Fuhrer even gave him a special uniform unlike any in The Third Reich...and it came with a horrific mask...a Red Skull mask. He is to the Nazis what Cap is to the American military...the embodiment of national morale and a universal symbol of patriotism, making him the arch-enemy of our heroic Captain.
Green Lantern, June 17
Full Name: Hal Jordan
Place of Origin: Coast City, USA
Special Power or Weapon: The Green Lantern’s power ring allows him to conjure virtually anything; a baseball bat, pair of boxing gloves, bazooka, etc. His only limit is the confines of his own imagination and will.
Tragedy or hardship faced: Hal lost his father Martin at a young age in a freak accident during a test flight of an experimental aircraft. That gave him the devil-may-care attitude that you’ll see Ryan Reynolds sport in the first act of the film.
So wait, he has a green lantern or he is the green lantern? How does that work?
This is going to get a bit confusing, so bear with me here. You're right on both counts: Hal Jordan (Reynolds) is a Green Lantern, one of many intergalactic police officers patrolling the universe. But he also has a green lantern, which is like a battery charger that replenishes the cosmic energy of the power ring which gives him the ability to do virtually anything he can think of. Got it?
But he’s not the only one?
Heavens no. You see, long ago the Guardians of the Universe (who founded the Green Lantern Corps) divided the known universe into about 3600 sectors. Each sector is assigned a Green Lantern to defend it against extraterrestrial or domestic threats. And since the life expectancy of a Green Lantern is unfortunately short, after one expires their ring is given to another worthy candidate who takes up the mantle. Earth is located in Sector 2814 and believe it or not, HJ isn't even the first GL in our world's history. Nor will he be the last...
Why do his eyes turn blue when he’s in the suit?
Well, why does Clark Kent wear those glasses? Chew on that one for a while...
Magneto and Professor X
X-Men: First Class, June 3
Magneto's Full Name: Max Eisenhardt (later changed to Erik Lensherr)
Place of Origin: Unknown
Special Power or Weapon: Magneto can manipulate the magnetic fields that exist naturally or artificially in the world, and control all forms of magnetism. Also, his helmet prevents those with psychic abilities, like Professor X, from getting inside his head.
Tragedy or hardship faced: So much…His parents were brutally murdered by the Nazis before he was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp where he served as a Sonderkommando, one who operated the machinery in the gas chambers and ovens, and fire pits of the camp. Later, his first daughter was killed in a blaze he was unable to rescue her from and, after slaughtering a fearful mob at the scene, his wife left him, only to die giving birth to their mutant twins months later.
Professor X's Full Name: Charles Francis Xavier
Place of Origin: New York, NY
Special Power or Weapon: He’s the world’s most powerful psionic, possessing unquantifiable telepathic and telekinetic abilities.
Tragedy or hardship faced: Like so many superheroes, Charles lost his scientist father in a lab accident while his mother, who remarried an abusive colleague of her late husband, died sometime later. While studying in Oxford, Charles became engaged to Moira Kinross only to have the lady break off the relationship after he returned from the army.
Why is this one set in the 60s?
There are two reasons for First Class going back in time. The main reason is that the film, as the title suggests, focuses on Professor X's earliest group of mutant recruits, whom he assembled as a younger man with his then-friend Erik Lensherr. This film is an origin story; not only for Charles Xavier and Magneto, but for the mutant dream team known as the X-Men as well. The second, slightly more meta justification for the setting is that it's going back to the period in which the X-Men were created, an era in American history marked by cultural upheaval and the civil rights movement. Just as the mutants fight for their right to co-exist with humans in the new millennium, in this tumultuous decade African Americans, homosexuals and other outsiders on the fringe of society fight for their right to live without being berated by the bigots of the world.
I don’t recognize some of these mutants. Why aren’t we seeing people like Cyclops or Wolverine?
Quite simply, because Cyclops would've been a young boy at the time of these events. Remember, if the film is set in the sixties, characters like Rogue, Iceman and Colossus wouldn't even be a twinkle in their parents' eyes yet. As for Wolverine, well, he was probably out there somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam during this time.
I thought Xavier and Magneto were enemies? When were they friends?
Again, right on both counts. In comics lore, Xavier and Erik met while working in a psychiatric hospital in Israel sometime after WWII. They immediately struck up a friendship because they were constantly engaging in debates about what would happen to the world if it were facing a superhero uprising. Later, they revealed to one another their mutant abilities and decided to pool their powers to help forge a better future for all mankind. But Lensherr grew tired of the war mongering ways of Homo sapiens, eventually adopting the mentality that mutants were superior and that they would one day be the dominant species on Earth. This fundamental philosophical disagreement led Lensherr to create the Brotherhood of Mutants to wage his own war, while Xavier, knowing full well the power his old friend possessed, formed the X-Men.