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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Perhaps Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows should have been a trilogy. Splitting the sprawling finale to author J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard saga into three parts — as opposed to its chosen two-part incarnation — might have come across as shameless profiteering (admittedly a not-uncommon practice in this town) but it wouldn’t have been without merit. At 759 pages Rowling’s source novel is said to be a rather dense work plot-wise; surely it could have easily warranted another installment?
I only say this because Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 though certainly a decent film clearly strains from the effort required to fit the book’s proceedings into a two-act structure. While Part 2 slated to open approximately six months from now is alotted the story's meaty parts — namely the spectacular Battle of Hogwarts and its emotional denouement — Part 1 must bear the burden of setting the stage for the grand confrontation between the forces of Light and Dark magic and framing the predicament of its three protagonists teen wizards Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) in suitably dire terms. And it's quite a heavy burden indeed.
As the film opens the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) having assumed control over Hogwarts since the events of the preceding film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has wasted no time in initiating his reign of terror. As far as historical evil-dictator analogues are concerned Voldemort appears partial to the blueprint laid by Stalin as opposed to that of his genocidal pact-pal Hitler. Enemies of the Dark Lord's regime are prosecuted in dramatic show trials presided over by the Grand Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) while muggles (non-magic folk) and half-bloods are denounced as "undesirables" and “mudbloods” in Soviet-style propaganda posters and forced to register with the authorities.
As the only viable threat to Voldemort’s dominion Harry and his allies are hunted vigorously by Bellatrix LeStrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and her goon squad of Death Eaters. The Boy Who Lived now fully grown and in more or less complete command of his powers is still no match England's nasally scourge. Labeled "Undesirable No. 1" by the Gestapo-like Ministry of Magic he's is forced to go on the lam where he labors along with Ron and Hermione to solve the riddle of Voldemort’s immortality.
For those not well-versed in Rowling’s source material the film’s opening act is a frustrating blur: After an all-too-brisk update on the bleak state of affairs in Hogwarts we are hastily introduced (or re-introduced) to a dozen or so characters the majority of whom are never seen again. A few even perish off-screen. Had we gotten a chance to get to know them we might be able to mourn them as our heroes do; instead we’re left racking our brains trying to recall who they were and how they figured in the plot.
Rowling's flaws as a storyteller — the over-reliance on deus ex machina devices (in this case we get both a doe ex machina and a Dobby ex machina) the ponderous downloads of information (not unlike those of that other uber-anticipated and somewhat overrated 2010 tentpole Inception) the annoying ability of characters to simply teleport (or "disapparate") away from danger etc. — are more evident in this film than in previous chapters. And rather than obscure these flaws director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves both franchise veterans arguably amplify them.
What saves the film are Rowling's three greatest achievements: Harry Ron and Hermione who along with the actors who play them have evolved beyond the material. The film's narrative gains its emotional footing during the heroic threesome's exile ostensibly a series of camping trips — with tents and everything — during which they reflect on their journey together the challenge that awaits them and the sacrifices it will require. Though they occasionally verge on tedious these excursions into Gethsemane allow us precious quality time with these characters that we've grown to adore over the course of seven films even if the plaintive air is spoiled a bit by some rather puzzling attempts at product placement. In their rush to flee the Dementors and Death Eaters it seems that they at least took care to pack the latest in fall fashion:
As devout readers of Rowling's novels know all too well the only foolproof shield against Voldemort's minions is the Bananicus Republicum charm.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.