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.
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
For nine months prior to World War II in an extraordinary act of mercy the United Kingdom opened its doors to over 10 000 Jewish and other children escaping the clutches of the Third Reich. The organization and transportation of these children from Germany Austria and Czechoslovakia into foster homes and hostels was known as the Kindertransport (child transport). Stills newsreel footage re-creations and present-day interviews with children and parents who experienced this event form the narrative.
Single-camera interviews with Kindertransport survivors are the backbone of this stirring documentary. Interspersed with intensely researched films and salvaged photographs are simple straightforward accounts of practical emotional and often amusing experiences. Weaved sparingly throughout the film narrator Judi Dench gives "Into the Arms of Strangers" the proper authoritative voice bridging the many engrossing stories by tangible real people.
Equally balancing the tragedies of wartime with the precious celebration of life and family director Harris (writer/director of the Academy Award-winning "The Long Way Home " an account of post-war Holocaust survivors) manages to capture the heart and soul of these courageous and often unwitting children past and present. Additional credit must be paid to Gary Rydstrom's ("Toy Story 2 " "Titanic") phenomenal well-crafted sound design which allows the footage and photography to leap from the screen and raise this documentary into an involving three-dimensional tale. Together these two filmmakers make a formidable team.